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22 June 2022

Suzie Sheehy’s Q&A: “Australia’s regressive stance on climate is embarrassing”

The physicist on why Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an inspiration and the importance of investing in your own happiness.

By New Statesman

Suzie Sheehy was born in Mildura, Australia, in 1984. She is a physicist at the universities of Oxford and Melbourne, where she develops new particle accelerators for use in areas such as medicine and energy.

What’s your earliest memory?

A red hibiscus flower outside the art deco hospital in Mildura, near the edge of the desert. I choked on a coin and had been rushed into hospital to have it removed. I must have been three.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, MacGyver. He could fix just about any situation by using ingenuity usually based on physics. Never mind the implausibility, or the mullet! Perhaps he spurred my love for simple but clever experiments. As an adult my hero changes regularly, but [the astrophysicist] Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an inspiration.

What book last changed your thinking?

The book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. I found it at a time when I was pulled into research that needed more of my generalist skills rather than subject expertise and it gave me confidence. I like to say I’m a “T-shaped” scientist: sure, I have deep specialisation, but I also have breadth, and that is a powerful thing. I’ve recommended this book twice in the past week to friends wondering about future careers.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand: an authentic leader with such strength and compassion. She also gave birth while in office: unbelievably, only one elected head of government – Benazir Bhutto – had done this before.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Particle accelerators and their medical applications.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The Swinging Sixties in London.

What TV show could you not live without?

Selling Sunset. It’s everything that’s wrong with humanity and yet is so addictive. I’m currently binge-watching the new season.

[See also: Nedum Onuoha’s Q&A: “Never did I think I’d meet Nelson Mandela”]

Who would paint your portrait?

If I had a say, it would be a figurative modern artist: Francis Bacon, perhaps.

What’s your theme tune?

It depends on my mood and what I’m after. Wistful, classical, hopeful: “August” by Luke Howard. Pumped up, rock, power song: “Supernova” by Magic Dirt. Folksy, fun, roadtrip: “Second Child, Restless Child” by the Oh Hellos.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The artist Ian Strange offered me this: find your tribe. Sometimes your tribe will have to change as you grow, and that’s OK. I have followed it.

What’s currently bugging you?

Australia’s regressive stance on climate change. It’s embarrassing.

[See also: Australia’s election campaign has failed its Great Barrier Reef]

What single thing would make your life better?

Today: a neck massage.

When were you happiest?

Now. As I’ve matured I’ve learned to invest time in my own happiness. It’s paying off.

[See also: Sheila Hancock Q&A: “I met Clement Attlee when I was working at the circus”]

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I wouldn’t wish for a “job” as such (perhaps I wouldn’t have to earn money in another life!) but I’d wish for meaningful work, community, and a strong sense of purpose.

Are we all doomed?

It depends: is the finitude of our existence a bad thing?

“The Matter of Everything: Twelve Experiments that Changed Our World” by Suzie Sheehy is published by Bloomsbury

[See also: How union boss Mick Lynch won the media war over rail strikes]

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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working