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starburst Peter Barham

Photo - Peter Barham

Research interests

I have been very lucky in my career as I have been able to combine two of my great passions into my research interests.

So I now not only work with polymers, but also manage to carry out research on penguins and on the new science of Molecular Gastronomy.

Polymer physics


My original research interests were with the crystallization of very long molecules (polymers). Particularly fascinating is how these molecules can rearrange themselves when a molten polymer is solidified; in the liquid state the molecules are quite random (rather like many balls of wool after a lot of kittens have played with them), but on solidification the molecules become highly ordered and form beautiful crystals.

I have worked extensively in the area of polymer fibres and was for many years greatly involved in finding methods to produce polymer fibres of exceptional strength and stiffness.

I retain interests in other areas of polymer science, including physical properties of polymer blends and how these are affected by flow and orientation in the production and processing of environmentally friendly plastics; in particular a range of biodegradable plastics (polyhydroxyalkanoates) produced by bacteria, whose use is completely carbon neutral.

The picture shows crystals of polyethylene seen in an electron microscope.

Penguins: conservation and automated recognition


I have been able to combine my passion for penguins with some of my expertise as a polymer scientist, by helping to design and test novel plastic flipper bands. These bands have been field tested at the African penguin colony on Robben Island, South Africa, where I now carry out most of my penguin related research. I have been invited to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America to talk about and assist in the use of these new bands. The work is leading to a number of other collaborations with biologists to apply various aspects of physics in their own work. However, the most important part of the work has been the development of a system for the automatic and completely non-invasive recognition of individual penguins from the pattern of spots on their chests. This work forms the basis of a project funded by the Leverhulme foundation and employs a PhD student (Richard Sherley) and a Post-doc, Tilo Burghardt. The work we have done so far demonstrates that it is possible to monitor the movements of a complete population on a daily basis. We have also been able to show that the techniques we have developed can be applied to other species with distinctive markings (including such diverse species as zebras, ants and badgers!). You can find full details on our website.

The picture shows three African penguins (Spheniscus demursus) at Stoney Point, South Africa.

Food and the public engagement with science


Molecular Gastronomy is a new emerging science where scientists from all disciplines can collaborate in the attempt to understand what it is that makes food of gastronomic quality really delicious. My collaborations with some of the finest chefs in the world such as Heston Blumenthal, the chef/owner of the Fat Duck, have proved most fruitful in helping to create this new scientific discipline. I recently published a major review of Molecular Gastronomy.

I have recently been appointed as a visiting Professor of Molecular Gastronomy at the University of Copenhagen. The objective of this post is to embed research in Molecular Gastronomy in the university's department of food science and to create new courses to teach the principles of Molecular Gastronomy to students at all levels.

Molecular Gastronomy receives an enormous press interest and my contributions are increasingly in demand from both the media and from several of the UK's top chefs.

book cover

I enjoy promoting public engagement with science and combine most of my interests through public and schools lecture demonstrations, most of which involve some aspect of the science of food and cooking.

Anyone interested in the science of cooking might be interested in my book ‘The Science of Cooking’, published by Springer in 2001 (ISBN: 978-3-540-67466-5).