Unravelling the universe's mysteries: UC professor reaching beyond the stars

Award-winning theoretical physicist Jenni Adams with a sensor once used in the multi-national...
Award-winning theoretical physicist Jenni Adams with a sensor once used in the multi-national IceCube research project in Antarctica. Photo: Supplied
Jenni Adams has never been to Antarctica but her work, remotely, with a giant detector buried under the ice at the South Pole has enabled the Oxford University graduate to become the first female winner of a New Zealand physics award. The Christchurch-based theoretical physicist puts her career under the microscope with reporter Chris Barclay.

You were at Kaiapoi High School when you decided to reach for the stars, do you still have your first telescope?
I didn’t have a telescope but I did a lot of reading about beyond just the stars we can see, this whole idea of the universe and cosmology. It was good growing up in the country and actually being able to see stars and the Milky Way. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was younger, around the fifth form. It was the exploration, discovering and frontiers (that appealed). I thought about joining the air force, that’s where you go to be an astronaut. Then I realised astronauts didn’t do the actual discovering and they are kind of limited to the solar system. I wanted to go beyond our solar system into galaxies and the universe.

Did you have a teachers that navigated you to this career path?
My father (Jim) was my maths teacher and I had another maths teacher – Graham Moore. They gave me the confidence to do anything mathematical. Physics and chemistry rely on logic and confidence. They built the foundation I needed.

After the old seventh form it was straight to the lecture halls at Canterbury University wasn’t it?
I enrolled in an astronomy degree. I was interested that people were trying to figure out how things worked with the universe. I thought I’d take it as far as I could.

Mission accomplished then. You were made a Professor of Physics last year November. Your students can’t all be experts in astroparticle physics and cosmology, so does mastering this branch of science set you up for success in other spheres?
I was doing a PhD (in theoretical/particle physics) at Oxford and three or four of the students I was with went into investment banking because our modelling skills could be applied to financial markets, derivatives or whatever. They could (make decisions) very quickly on the floor if necessary. Professor Shaun Hendy is the Covid-19 modeller shaping New Zealand’s response, he’s a physicist. Modelling how a virus infects populations is really similar do the sorts of modelling we do.

Magdalen College, Oxford. Photo: Supplied
Magdalen College, Oxford. Photo: Supplied
You were awarded a Rhodes Scholarship which took you to Oxford University from 1992 to the end of 1995. How was life in Magdalen College, where the alumni includes Oscar Wilde, Dudley Moore, and King Edward VIII?
The theoretical physics department was a converted terrace house, we had the lounge room. There were six of us. We were from Russia, Canada, Australia and there were a couple of Brits. To be honest, I think we give more support to our graduate students. Academics there are often very busy, and they kind of expect their students to be good and be able to look after themselves. If you aren’t you really struggle there but I’d always encourage students to try and get to Oxford. You meet the people from other countries and have the access to speakers that come through. We had Nelson Mandela talk there once.

Did you ever investigate how the laws of physics applied to the Boat Race with Cambridge?
I actually rowed for Magdalen. Almost everyone is expected to have a go at rowing. All the colleges have boat sheds that any club here would envy. I knew a bit about rowing, I’d been a coxswain for school and club crews on Kerrs Reach.

So you obviously kept an eye on the rowing in Tokyo, and the Black Sticks?
I play hockey for Hinemoa Kaiapoi, I started when I was seven. I’ve played for a midweek open team for about 10 years. It’s great, it’s the people I went to school with. I also coach my youngest daughter’s school and club team.

You did some post-doc (PhD) research on cosmology at the University of Uppsala, north of Stockholm, which dovetailed with your prime sporting passion, what they call ‘cunning running’.
I love orienteering (running point to point using a map and compass). Once I finished my PhD I went to Sweden (from 1996 to mid-1998). You don’t play hockey in Sweden unless you can skate but it’s mecca for orienteering. There’s beautiful forests there that are very runnable, it’s perfect orienteering terrain.

I’m no astronomy expert, but I’ve heard of the Northern Lights. No doubt you saw them in Sweden?
I have seen Aurora. That’s kind of related to what I study because it’s cosmic rays. They are high energy particles. The sun produces high energy particles and they’re channelled in by the magnetic fields near the (North and South) poles. The glow you see is them interacting in our atmosphere.

During your time in Scandinavia you were offered an opportunity to return home and lecture at what was then the University of Canterbury’s Department of Physics and Astronomy (now the School of Physical Sciences).
I would have liked to have stayed longer in Sweden but academic jobs are hard to get. I wasn’t saying no to it.

What was it like lecturing engineering students – they must do physics – when you started out? Their shenanigans might not rival Otago during orientation week, but that student body does have a reputation.
I was 28 when I started lecturing and many of the students were 19-20 so I wasn’t that much older than them. I taught first-year physics which is basically engineering students. There were predominately male classes of 300-400 . . . if they turned up. They could be a bit slack, or hungover. I was telling someone the other day, they’d do these lecturer evaluations and they’d write: ‘Wear shorter skirts’. But I held my own. It didn’t stop me going out there and lecturing, I didn’t cry about it but I was just like: ‘Those rude %@*#!’ There were a few swear words. Thankfully there are more women in there nowadays.

You were the first female winner of the Dan Walls Medal last month. It’s a New Zealand Institute of Physics accolade honouring the influential New Zealand physicist who died of cancer in 1999. It was introduced in 2008 when you were president of the NZIP, so have you figuratively broken the glass ceiling?
When I accepted the award people asked me about being a woman in physics. I have really supportive colleagues. One of the guys wrote the nomination for me. He knew I wasn’t going to make the time to do it. When I’d bring my little daughter in and be breastfeeding in my office there was no ‘tut tutting’. I never thought I’d ever get it (the medal). The idea was to celebrate physics down in New Zealand because there is this sort of ‘overseas expert’ mentality. We’ll ask the overseas expert whereas we’re doing equally good work as the overseas expert.

The IceCube observatory at the South Pole with the Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights) in the...
The IceCube observatory at the South Pole with the Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights) in the background. PHOTO: MARTIN WOLF ICECUBE / NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
What are you teaching now, in the aptly named Ernest Rutherford Building?
Right now I’m doing the Special Relativity course. It’s a great subject to teach because they really want to get their head around time and distance being relative, so they do ask a lot of questions.

Perusing your resume, you obviously have a particular interest in Astroparticle physics. Which is?
It involves research at the interface of astronomy and particle physics. It is a synergy which operates in both directions – particle physics is applied to better understand astrophysical objects as well as using the universe as a laboratory for high-energy physics.

You’ve spent decades studying Astroparticle physics, the cosmos, black holes. Where has that work been put to good use in our mundane, everyday lives?
You can’t have any kinds of music playing without lasers, there’s lasers in medical physics ... lasers scan groceries at your supermarket checkout. They’re everywhere and they were a quantum phenomena that someone (United States physicist Charles H Townes) was trying to understand. If you limit yourself you never make those huge jumps. The understandings Einstein brought meant we can have GPS. You shouldn’t be limited to the phenomenon you understand.

You meet someone for the first time in a social setting. What’s the reaction when you say: ‘Oh, I’m a professor specialising in Astroparticle physics?'
They’d usually say: ‘Oh, I wasn’t very good at maths’ and that was the end of it. So I used to say I was a teacher, then after a while I thought I’d just bite the bullet. If you say astronomy people are usually more interested.

Apparently you can drop ‘neutrinos’ into casual conversation and eyes don’t necessarily glaze over?
You hear about how Americans are ignorant so travelling there you’d think they have no idea if I say: ‘I’ve been studying neutrinos’. But sometimes they’ll say: ‘Yeah, I’ve read about them, the solar neutrino problem’. These are people you meet in a hostel, they’re not physicists. In New Zealand that just won’t happen.

So, neutrinos, bring us up to speed then.
A neutrino is a particle, it’s one of the so-called fundamental particles. Neutrinos are members of the most famous fundamental particle, the electron. They’re the most abundant massive particle in the universe, there are about 15 million neutrinos from the Big Bang in the average room. They could be the reason that matter exists in the universe. They were discovered in 1956 and tricky to study.

Let’s imagine we’re back in third form and someone has their hand up: ‘Miss, why do I need to know about neutrinos?’
You can live your life perfectly well without knowing about neutrinos. Why I want to know about neutrinos is so I can study the high energy objects in the universe. By studying those maybe we’ll learn some new physics that might well mean your life is completely different than it was. We’re not researching so we’ll make something that’ll grow your hair back or whatever - it hasn’t got a use like that, or a medical use, but it is going to improve our understanding of some phenomena out in the universe.

The IceCube observatory in Antarctica is the focal point of a decade-long project to unearth the...
The IceCube observatory in Antarctica is the focal point of a decade-long project to unearth the mysteries of the universe. PHOTO: MARTIN WOLF ICECUBE / NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Neutrinos are the focus of a US-led project based at the $US279 million ‘IceCube’ at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. For most of it’s the stage name of rapper O’Shea Jackson Sr. What is actually going down in Antarctica?
IceCube is an observatory dedicated to finding neutrinos with a 1km telescope under the ice. The neutrinos we collect are like fingerprints that help us understand the objects and phenomena where the neutrinos are produced. IceCube gives us new ways to study the mysteries of our universe, it is likely to uncover or lead to the discovery of things we could have anticipated.

Your work on IceCube, alongside experts among 53 institutions from 12 countries, formed the bedrock of your award didn’t it?
It was quite nice to be acknowledged because sometimes people in collaborations don’t get acknowledged as individuals.

When you close your eyes do you see stars? How do you switch off?
I run most nights because it helps me sleep better. We live near the hills (in Beckenham) so I run up the Bowenvale Valley track.

Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons. Photo: Getty Images
Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons. Photo: Getty Images
Serious question - Star Wars or Star Trek?
Probably Star Trek, it was more exploration-based. I didn’t like the fighting stuff in Star Wars.

Has The Big Bang Theory sitcom boosted the image of your average theoretical physicist?
I think it’s funny, I think Sheldon makes physics a little bit cool, doesn’t he? It makes it cool to be geeky.

Thanks for bringing up the ‘nerdy’ stereotype. It is an occupational hazard for the scientific community isn’t it?
Definitely they’re known as geeky but I feel it’s a bit more accepted these days. I always say to my (eldest) daughter Kaia: ‘Celebrate your geekiness'. By the time you get to university it’s much easier. The kids walking around here are much less into that ‘popular kids’ mode you get at school where they’ve got their hair right and all that. They look much freer and able to be themselves here.