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ERC speakers take TEDx Brussels by storm!

Five ERC-funded researchers took to the stage at TEDx Brussels last week, inspiring the 2000-strong crowd with their fascinating research projects.
ERC speakers take TEDx Brussels by storm!
Since 2009, TEDx Brussels has brought 158 leading thinkers, artists, scientists and innovators to the capital of Europe to entertain and inform. This year, the European Research Council (ERC) joined forces with the TEDx Brussels and brought five top EU-funded researchers to the stage.

The umbrella theme for the day was ‘The territory and the map’. From the economics of unemployment and cutting edge material science to deep-sea exploration, the science of invisibility and simulating tsunamis, ERC speakers certainly had a lot to offer on the front! Each brought their own unique perspective through a snapshot of their research efforts.

The future of employment in Europe

Nobel-prize winning economist Prof. Christopher Pissarides was the first ERC speaker to grace the stage, providing the audience with sneak peek of his ERC-funded research project, Employment in Europe (EUROEMP).

Prof. Pissarides’ research counters the popular perception that Europe is certainly facing into a new era of high unemployment and low growth. As he explained to the TEDx audience, the services sector, in particular health, education and community services, will be the new hub for job creation in Europe. We will see a growth in the service sector as the consumption of services rises among those who have grown prosperous through innovation.

Highly convinced of the value of communicating research projects to the general public, Prof. Pissarides was an enthusiastic supporter of the TEDx –ERC partnership: ‘If we want people outside of academia to listen to us then we should know how to address them and there’s no better forum than something like this. The ERC is funding so much research and this is a great way to bring it out into the open.’

Uncloaking the science of invisibility

Prof. Ulf Leonhardt echoed these sentiments: ‘ERC research is interesting and should be communicated. That’s why we are involved in TEDx. We need to convey the message to the public that science is worth doing and worth supporting.’ Prof. Leonhardt went onto enthusiastically communicate his research on investigating the possibility of invisibility with optics and building model black holes of light pulses in the lab to the curious TEDx crowd.

The Professor’s ERC-funded TRANSFORM OPTICS project should enlarge our understanding of the world at both the small and the cosmological scale: ‘We try to learn something from the physics of light on a laboratory scale and then we wildly extrapolate it to the beginning of the universe. We assume that it’s going to be the same and calculate what the consequences are and whether those consequences make astrophysical sense.’

It may sound rather abstract but, as the Professor explained, it will have impact on surprising areas of physics: ‘Invisibility cloaking can be put into work in other areas of physics like acoustics and earthquake engineering, so an idea that started in optics can be generalised to other fields. This is something I didn’t expect at the beginning.’

Hidden reefs of the deep sea

Dr Laura Robinson, a leading ocean chemist, also met with some surprises along the course her ERC-funded CACH research project. As she explained from the TEDx stage, during a seven week voyage across the equatorial Atlantic in search of deep sea coral, her team encountered sea mountains as big as Everest, corals aged up to 4 000 years old and potentially new deep sea species.

By examining the fossilised remains of deep-water corals, Dr Robinson has found that coral populations have been going from east to west in the Atlantic for the last 50 000 years, and that they migrated from south to north during transition from glacial to the inter-glacial period.

Since last year’s voyage, she and her team have dated around 800 corals, some of which featured in vivid underwater footage during her talk. The team will use this data to find out how the circulation and carbon content of the equatorial Atlantic has changed on a high temporal resolution with the ultimate aim of understanding how the Atlantic has been important in the changing climate tens of thousands of years ago.

According to Dr Robinson, the ERC funding has been ‘career changing’: ‘It allowed me really go out and do the science that I want to do and that I think is really important, and bring together a big team of people who could specialise. It enabled us to really bring the project forward.’

Exploring the effects of tsunamis

In a nod to the theme of the day, Professor Tiziana Rossetto opened her talk with a map showing which areas historical tsunamis have affected. Prof. Rossetto went on to explain her groundbreaking research into the effects of tsunamis on coastal infrastructure, conducted with the help of a huge tsunami generator creating the longest trough-led waves of any facility world-wide.

Now, she explained, the ERC-funding for her URBAN WAVES project is allowing her team to go ‘bigger and better’ by developing an even more powerful tsunami generator with a flume that is 70 metres long and 4 metres wide. This will make for more reliable and a greater volume of data for the entire scientific community, and help Prof. Rossetto to build on her work exploring the effects of tsunamis on coastal defences and coming up with engineering guidance and guidance for planners. Prof. Rossetto noted, ‘We’re aiming to save lives and come up with tools that governments and local governments can use to plan for more resilient communities.’

Although the project is only in its preliminary stages, speaking about it at forums like TEDx is has an effect, Prof. Rossetto notes: ‘It’s important to start speaking about out it now, especially in my field. The time for developing the tools and methods that we are working on, for example the building codes, is 20 years, so if we don’t start speaking about it now then we are delaying the impact that our research can have.’

The magic of nano – turning the ordinary into the extraordinary

Prof. Jonathan Coleman who took to the stage to describe his ERC-funded SEMANTICS project on graphene and two-dimensional nanostructures also shared this enthusiasm for TEDx–ERC partnership and its potential for communicating research results: ‘The ERC is a fantastic organisation doing really great work helping to keep scientists in Europe doing top-level research. However we have to be constantly vigilant that that message gets out the general public, to the people who provide the money.’

Prof. Coleman got the TEDx audience on board with a demonstration of ‘the magic of nano’ – showing how one of the most exciting nanomaterials, graphene, can be made in a kitchen blender using simply a pencil and some washing up liquid and water. Prof. Coleman also detailed how this homemade liquid graphene could be printed onto paper using an ordinary ink-jet printer and combined with molybdenum disulphide to create a printed light detector, the same as is found in digital cameras the world over!

Exciting as these do-it-yourself experiments are, Prof. Coleman was keen to emphasise that you have to understand the physics and the chemistry behind what’s going on. ‘Once you understand the processes that are required, then you can do lots of stuff. This is where the ERC is critically important because they fund largely basic research which allows us to develop that understanding and when we’ve developed it you can use it to do useful things.’ And Prof Coleman’s award-winning research is not described as a ‘gateway technology’ for no reason – its potential take-up and impact for industry is enormous.

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