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GRADUATION: Honorary degree for the physicist who sheds light on the past
Although Professor Ann Wintle studied physics at the University of Sussex in the 1960s, it was her love of archaeology that led to a major scientific breakthrough in her career.
In 1979 she discovered that thermoluminescence, which involves observing how radiation produces a measurable number of electrons in minerals such as quartz and feldspar, could not only date man-made artefacts, but could also provide timelines for the formation of ancient sand dunes and the sedimentation of ocean beds from the past one million years .
Her pioneering research, for which she was awarded the Appleton Medal and Prize by the Institute of Physics in 2008 and the Liu Tungsheng Medal of INQUA in 2015, is today helping archaeologists and geologists to piece together both human history and that of the planet.
“I had loved history as a child, but I realised I was no good at remembering dates,” she explains. “That ruled out studying archaeology for me. With physics, however, I liked the logic, and the experimentation and the gathering of data.”
Her journey towards this discovery began in her undergraduate years when, as part of the cross-discipline approach, Sussex science students were encouraged to take an arts course (and vice versa).
Ann recalls: “My arts tutor suggested that I visit the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art in Oxford in order to provide a source of material for my arts course dissertation on the application of physics to archaeology. I did so, and was offered a research studentship to be taken up after graduating from Sussex.”
She also volunteered for a local archaeological society, and later, for her physics dissertation project, she tried to build a magnetometer similar to the one she had seen used on a dig of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery near Newhaven. “My instrument never got out of the laboratory,” she says, “but it gave me another reason to visit the research laboratory at Oxford.”
After her DPhil research at Oxford, Ann established luminescence dating laboratories in Cambridge and London Universities, and then at Aberystwyth University, where she continues to be an emeritus professor.
Her career has involved collaborations with researchers and labs across the globe, including co-authoring papers with more than 150 scientists.
And her advice for young scientists graduating today is: “If physics is what catches your interest, take it up and follow any unexpected avenues that may present themselves to you.”
* Professor Ann Wintle will be conferred an Honorary Doctor of Science on Monday 22 July 2019 at a ceremony beginning at 1.30pm.