Since 1968, when he came to Queen's as a student, Ciaran Lewis has been at the forefront of research in laser physics. "The laser wasn't invented until 1960 so, by the time I arrived here, it was still a hot topic," he says.
Ciaran gained his PhD at Queen's and later carried out postdoctoral work in England and California. He was appointed to a lectureship in 1980. He is now Head of the Plasma and Laser Interaction Research Group.
By 1968 the Department of Physics had set up a strong group under the pioneering Dan Bradley, who died in 2010. "He left in 1973," Ciaran explains, "and took most of his group with him. I stayed here. We kept things going in the area of laser-plasma physics and the result is that we have a very strong group again with an international reputation."
Since 2000, Ciaran and his colleagues have attracted more than £10m worth of funding, mainly from EPSRC. "The sort of funding provided by EPSRC is the lifeblood of a university group trying to do research, whether it's blue sky thinking or it's applied to particular aims and objectives. The best thing is to keep a mix of the two and we've managed to do that over the years."
He adds, "I've spent the last 10 years trying to get to the stage where we have a laser facility that we can claim is one of the biggest university lasers anywhere. You have to go to nationally-funded government facilities to get anything comparable. It's a very powerful laser and it's like a lot of things in science, if you've got a big enough sledgehammer you can crack a lot of nuts. It gives you an edge, being able to achieve things that other groups can't. We named the laser TARANIS, the European-wide Celtic god of thunder and lightning."
He highlights one area of work. "The energy crisis that's been talked about for so long, and which will eventually come (one solution is through nuclear fusion, in effect making nuclear bombs in a controlled way) and using lasers is one approach. To build up to that, it has to be understood how to do it efficiently and safely and a lot of the interactions that we do with lasers now are very much related to that type of study."
But the work being done by Ciaran and his fellow physicists has other benefits which are sometimes overlooked. "Over the years I've supervised more than 30 PhD students and if I were to plot where they've all ended up it would be quite a scatter diagram. Some are in government laboratories, some are in academia, some have entered into the financial world, some are in big research laboratories in the US and some are in industry, in many cases here, in the local economy.
"We've had quite a few project students funded by EPSRC. All of this means we're training skilled manpower that permeates out into the system."
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