Physicist takes silver medal in Parliament

Graham Bruce
Monday 21 September 2020
Graham (middle) was presented his award by Dr Tamara Clelford of the Institute of Physics and Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (Photo copyright John Deehan Photography Ltd)

Graham Bruce, a senior post-doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews, won the Silver prize for excellence for his physics research at a STEM for Britain competition in London, walking away with a £1,250 prize.

STEM for BRITAIN is a poster competition in the House of Commons, which takes place during British Science Week, involving approximately 180 early stage or early career researchers. The competition attracts more than 500 entrants, of whom approximately one third are selected to present their work in Parliament.

Graham presented his research to dozens of politicians and a panel of expert judges at the House of Commons, as part of the poster competition on Monday 9 March. His research involves the development of new techniques and technology to measure the wavelength (or colour) of lasers.

Since their invention 60 years ago, lasers have revolutionised the way we measure the world. For example, they allow us to measure the precise chemical composition of unknown substances and keep track of time to the incredible accuracies needed to allow GPS satellite navigation to work. Importantly, in all these applications we need an accurate way to measure the properties of the laser itself, which is in fact not as simple as it sounds.

In recent work, Graham and his colleagues in the Optical Manipulation Group in the School of Physics and Astronomy have pioneered a new approach to measure laser wavelength with remarkable precision. Their approach starts with a surprising step: to measure a laser beam precisely, they first convert the beam into the biggest mess possible by shining the laser light at a rough surface, which could be something as simple as Sellotape or white paint, to scatter the light. This creates a grainy pattern, through the process of interference of the scattered light, known as speckle. This pattern is most familiar as the white noise which used to be seen on analogue televisions in bad weather and is usually seen as an obstacle to any laser-based application as it seems random and uncontrolled. However, the pattern itself is rich in information.

A speckle pattern which is used in the new wavemeter

The exact speckle pattern produced is sensitive to changes of the properties of the light, such as wavelength. Powerful numerical techniques can then be used to extract the wavelength from an individual speckle pattern. The St Andrews wavemeter can measure the wavelength of individual laser beams to attometer precision. For context, this is equivalent to measuring the distance around the Earth’s equator to an accuracy of the thickness of a human hair. The accuracy is a thousand-fold improvement on state-of-the-art commercial wavelength meters, and can be realised in a robust, compact and low-cost device.

The Optical Manipulation Group also showed that their approach can independently measure the wavelength of multiple lasers simultaneously. These advances promise a step change for the information-carrying capacity of optical fibres, in chemical sensing and in the development of portable quantum technologies.

STEM for BRITAIN aims to help politicians understand more about the UK’s thriving science and engineering base and rewards some of the strongest scientific and engineering research being undertaken in the UK.

Graham was judged against 23 other shortlisted physicists in a competition that also includes categories for researchers who are chemists, biologists, engineers and mathematicians, and is the only one of its kind taking place in Parliament itself.

Graham said: “Our team in St Andrews has been very excited by the developments of this technology. It is great to be able to share the surprising precision that can be achieved by making a mess of the light with other researchers and with policymakers. Of course, I am delighted to have won Silver. The event itself was a great experience, allowing me to network with other researchers across the sciences and visiting politicians.”

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, sponsors of the physics awards said: “The Parliamentary & Scientific Committee is delighted to sponsor the physics awards.  This annual competition is an important date in the parliamentary calendar because it gives MPs an opportunity to speak to a wide range of the country’s best young researchers.

“These early career engineers, mathematicians and scientists are the architects of our future and STEM for BRITAIN is politicians’ best opportunity to meet them and understand their work.”

Jonathan Flint CBE, President of the Institute of Physics, said: “STEM for BRITAIN provides a fantastic opportunity for some of our outstanding young and early career scientists to present aspects of their research in parliament, enabling Members of Parliament to find out first-hand about some of the ground-breaking research taking place here in the UK.

“I warmly congratulate the winning participants, but every single exhibitor should also be very proud of what they themselves have achieved.

“I hope they all enjoyed the experience of sharing the excitement of their research with key politicians and policy-makers and had the opportunity to make some new connections within their peer groups and beyond.”

The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee runs the event in collaboration with the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, Institute of Physics, Physiological Society, Nutrition Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry.


STEM for BRITAIN (formerly SET for Britain) is a poster competition in the House of Commons – involving approximately 180 early stage or early career researchers – judged by professional and academic experts. All presenters are entered into either the engineering, the biological and biomedical sciences, the physical sciences (chemistry), the physical sciences (physics), or the mathematics session, depending on the researcher’s specialism.

Each session results in the reward of Bronze, Silver and Gold certificates. Bronze winners will receive a £750 prize; Silver, £1,250; and Gold, £2,000 and a medal.  There is also an overall winner from the five sessions who will receive the Westminster Wharton Medal.

SET for Britain was established by Dr Eric Wharton in 1997. Following his untimely death in 2007, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, with support from the Institute of Physics, Physiological Society, the Nutrition Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, is working to further his legacy.

The event was made possible this year with financial support from United Kingdom Research and Innovation, Warwick Manufacturing Group, the Clay Mathematics Institute, Dyson Ltd, Biotherapy Services Ltd, the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, the Nutrition Society, the Institute of Biomedical Science, the Comino Foundation, the Biochemical Society, IEEE Communications Society and the Society of Chemical Industry.

The competition is open to early stage or early career researchers, which includes university research students, postgraduates, research assistants, postdocs, research fellows, newly-appointed lecturers, part-time and mature students, returners, those people embarking on a second career, and their equivalent in national, public sector and industrial laboratories, and appropriate final year undergraduate and MSc students, all of whom are engaged in scientific, engineering, technological or medical research.