Four Royal Society Research Fellows told us about the pursuit of Extremes in science in bizarre and unknown places at an event at the Royal Society on Monday 1 June 2015. From volcanoes and deep oceans to polar ice caps and alien planets, this Inside Science blog post guest features Dr Hugh Tuffen, Dr Judith Hillier, Dr Leigh Fletcher and Dr Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo, with Dr Lewis Dartnell.

Hugh Tuffen

Volcanic eruptions are extreme events that abruptly unleash extraordinary flows of heat, energy and molten rock onto the Earth’s surface. But most volcanoes lie dormant, slowly secreting huge underground reserves of magma. Volcanologists carry out fieldwork in remote, post-apocalyptic landscapes searching for why volcanoes erupt and how long eruptions last. Clues can be as subtle as hairline cracks cutting lava or tiny submicron particles clinging to volcanic bombs.

I’m a Royal Society University Research Fellow and volcanologist at Lancaster University investigating the processes that control hazardous volcanic activity. In my talk, I outline the danger that volcanoes pose for millions of people worldwide, the increasingly extreme experimental techniques to push the boundaries of what we know about volcanoes, and about plans to drill magma inside an Icelandic volcano to generate the world’s most powerful geothermal energy. I’m also interested in the sheer scale of volcanic eruptions, which provide a useful perspective on human activities today.


Basaltic lava and a sulphur-rich gas plume are violently emitted during a large eruption at Holuhraun, Iceland, in September 2014. A key challenge for volcanologists is forecasting the timing and environmental impact of volcanic activity. Photograph by Hugh Tuffen.


Judith Hillier

Bringing science into the classroom can engage, enthuse and inspire pupils to see how the curriculum relates to what scientists actually do. Extreme science can be particularly good for this.

My talk illustrates how teachers bring ‘new’ science into the classroom by drawing on current research and recent findings. My work looks at how teachers develop classroom explanations to make sure pupils really understand the concepts being taught.

I’m a Royal Society Education Research Fellow at the University of Oxford with a PhD in condensed matter physics. I moved into teaching physics at secondary school and now I research physics education and work with student science teachers. I use methods developed at Oxford to illustrate innovative teaching methods in science, if you’re interested take a look here.


Judith Hillier explaining physics to the WI, photography by Elizabeth Stevens.


Leigh Fletcher

Giant planets are perfect laboratories for exploring climate physics and meteorology in extreme environments. Each gaseous world can be thought of as a time capsule revealing how solar systems formed and as models for the growing number of exoplanets discovered around other stars. The environments of the giant planets provide many extremes from the freezing temperatures of Neptune’s clouds to the intense heat of extrasolar Jupiters, and from the icy crusts of satellites like Europa and Ganymede to their strongly irradiated and sterile surfaces. I’m a Royal Society University Research Fellow currently moving from Oxford University to Leicester University. I work with a variety of interplanetary spacecraft and giant ground-based observatories to study the origins and climate of giant planets in our solar system and beyond. My research aims to understand the physical processes that maintain our fragile climate in the much broader context of planetary atmospheres throughout our solar system. If you’d like to find out more about my research, find me on Twitter at @LeighFletcher.


Saturn backlit by the sun and scattering sunlight on the rings, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Look carefully to see Earth captured as a tiny speck through Saturn’s rings – the whole world in a single pixel as seen by a nuclear-powered, robotic explorer a billion kilometres from home. Credit: NASA/JPL


Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo

Cyanobacteria first evolved in freshwater and terrestrial landscapes at round 2,700 million years ago (or 2.7 billion years ago) before moving into marine environments. The open ocean was colonised by planktonic cyanobacteria some 5–800 million years ago, which coincided with some of the most extreme glaciation events, the full oxygenation of the oceans, and the origin of animals. In short, cyanobacteria oxygenated the Earth and made possible the evolution of complex life on our planet.

I’m an evolutionary biologist and a Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow at Bristol University. My work involves studying cyanobacteria (commonly known as blue-green algae) with the aim of understanding how they have contributed to carbon and nitrogen through geological time. I want to understand how cyanobacteria co-evolved with the Earth’s biosphere and my research links evolution, genomics and geochemistry for an interpretation of my results.

For my five-minute talk, I explain how studying phytoplankton (cyanobacteria) from extreme environments, such as the open ocean and polar regions, can reveal how complex life got started on our planet.

Bacterial bloom south of Fiji on October 18, 2010. Though it’s impossible to identify the species from space, it’s likely that the yellow-green filaments are miles-long colonies of Trichodesmium, a form of cyanobacteria often found in tropical waters. Credit: NASA with text via Creative Commons.


Lewis Dartnell

‘Extremophiles’ are the hardiest forms of life which live in the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Finding out what signs reveal ‘extremophiles’ in terrestrial sites on our planet could, in turn, help us to detect microorganisms on the surface of Mars. This fieldwork will contribute to the ExoMars rover mission due to be launched by the European Space Agency in 2018. I’m a UK Space Agency Research Fellow at the University of Leicester, researching in the field of astrobiology and the possibility for life beyond Earth. I do field work in places like the Atacama desert, Chile, which is the driest place on the planet you can get to being on Mars. I sample extremophiles which colonise inside rocks to protect themselves against the harsh environment. And yes, I have inevitably got sunburnt…

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest place on Earth, and so one of the most Mars-like regions we have to study. Photograph © Lewis Dartnell.


Now join us to delve into a world of extremes with Hugh, Patricia, Judith, Leigh and Lewis by tuning into the video ‘Extremes in science’ available to watch on our YouTube.