Professor Peter McOwan

Department of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, Queen Mary, University of London


What is it like being a scientist?
Busy, creative, fun and rewarding! I’ve always enjoyed working out how things happen, and I’ve also always enjoyed making things. As a scientist I get to do both.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
My parents and grandparents, science books I read from my local library (we didn’t have the web then) and TV shows like Dr Who and Star Trek. I also had some brilliant teachers at school who made me realise that to get to the amazing stuff you often need to slog through the less interesting bits.

What is the best thing about being a scientist/ your job?
The freedom to ask ‘what if’ and have the way to get an answer and I love turning my ideas into useful stuff. Oh, and getting some of the more technical jokes on The Big Bang Theory TV show!

If you could go back in time which scientist would you like to meet and what would you ask them?
Tough one. If I had to choose it would be Leonardo da Vinci or Nicola Tesla; two brilliant scientists whose lives are a little bit mysterious. I’d ask them both if they could go back in time to meet any scientist what would they ask them. A nice bit of temporal recursion – the Doctor would be proud.

What do you do in your free time?
Watch movies, surf the web, read books and practice my magic (I’m also an amateur magician). I also enjoy a good sleep. Scientists say it refreshes the mind, and who am I to debate their profound wisdom?

What is the first science you remember doing?
My dad was an industrial chemist. I remember when he brought some lumps of solid carbon dioxide back home. You might have heard it called dry ice, but I called the lumps ‘Doctor Who Stones’ as they bubbled and smoked in water. The idea that a solid could turn into a gas and then hover over the kitchen linoleum fascinated me and didn’t upset my mum. Magical! Later in my childhood, I experimented on the effect of a magnet on our new colour TV screen. I still hear about the big, unpleasant and permanent blob that left on the TV, even now I’m a Professor. Sigh.

What advice would you give a school child who is interested in science?
I’m lucky to work in an area of science looking at how brains work, playing with optical illusions and robots. That means I can talk enthusiastically about something everyone can relate to and do little mini experiments to show how amazing and complex our brain and perceptions are. Inspiration is all about making science significant on a personal level.

What’s the funniest/strangest/most surprising experience you have had in your career?
I discovered a new optical illusion. (I love optical illusions – they’re nature’s magic tricks.) At the time I thought it was a bug in my computer program. It was only when I finally decided to look with my own eyes at the moving pattern I was using that I realised that my computer program was right and there was an optical illusion going on!

What discovery or invention could you really not live without?
The world wide web and my new iPhone. I never thought I’d type that, but my phone and me, well we have something special going on now. We’re never apart for long, I even got Angry Birds.

What do you think is the most important thing yet to be discovered/invented?
How do all those electrochemical signals swilling around inside our skulls give rise to intelligence, personality, love, hate and consciousness?