A Level Physics day for teachers

Research carried out at King’s College London

Different scales in the Universe: Two different scales at once

From the very small to the very big



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The Structural Biology Section of Kings focuses on determining protein structures by X-ray crystallography and NMR, supported by other biophysical techniques and computer-aided molecular modelling. Current research interests include: antibody-receptor interactions in allergy; antibiotic resistance enzyme structure and mechanism; protein-RNA and protein-DNA interactions; anti-viral drug design; muscle protein structure; proteins involved in neurodegenerative disease; structural bioinformatics and molecular dynamics simulation.

The Section is equipped for X-ray structure determination, including a robotic crystallisation facility, an X-ray scanner to test crystals in situ during crystallisation, and three X-ray data collection systems. NMR facilities include 400, 500 and 700 MHz spectrometers in the King’s Centre for Biomolecular Spectroscopy. Research is funded by the MRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, The Wellcome Trust, The European Union Framework Programme, medical charities and industrial collaborations.


The Cell Imaging Section Biological Nano-imaging group at Kings aims to unravel the biological processes at work when molecules interact in living cells by developing and applying advanced optical imaging techniques. They use bioactive molecules in live/fixed cells, cellular organelles, tissues and whole organisms. With methods such as structured illumination (linear and non-linear) and 4Pi microscopy they aim to improve resolution, fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy and single molecule imaging. The bio-molecular specificity possible with optical methods has been particularly valuable in microscopy and live cell protein studies. Visualising these biological processes in the context of diseased states they hope to develop new ways of monitoring and manipulating them and help to predict drug target effects and their translation to organ and organism level physiology.

Research is funded by the MRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, The Wellcome Trust, The European Union Framework Programme, medical charities (Dimbleby Cancer Care, Cancer Research UK, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, British Heart Foundation) and industrial collaborations.

Fluorescent Green star Coral – Fluorescent photo of the cyan/green colour morph of the great star coral (Montastrea cavernosa)




Experimental Biophysics & Nanotechnology

The research in this group at Kings involves the development and applications of advanced optical and scanning-probe imaging techniques and of novel nanomaterials to address modern challenges in biological and material sciences and photonics. The Group adopts an interdisciplinary approach to provide leading-edge research in optical, mechanical and structural properties of nanostructures, underpinning their applications in nanophotonics, cell and protein imaging, sensing and soft-matter technologies.

The research is centred around three overarching themes:

• Functional nanoparticles

• Nano- and bio-imaging

• Nanophotonics and plasmonics

They combine expertise in nanofabrication, advanced imaging techniques and numerical modelling. The Group makes use of the nanofabrication facilities of the London Centre for Nanotechnology and has extensive optical characterisation facilities. Strong collaborations exist with the Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics and the Imaging Sciences Division at King’s as well as other UK and international universities.

Major projects include

•Centre for Biophotonics

•UK EPSRC Research Programme on Active Plasmonics

•EC FP7 PLAISIR: Plasmonic Innovative Sensing in the IR


Theory & Simulation of Condensed Matter

Imaging Intercellular Communication



Immune synapse formation is a strategy of a body to fight disease. Immune synapse formation involves rearrangement of proteins at intercellular level when there is contact between the natural killer cell and the target cell. Processes occur very quickly and are small so reflect very few photons.

Immunofluorescence is a technique which uses the highly specific binding of an antibody to its antigen in order to label specific proteins or other molecules within the cell. A sample is treated with a primary antibody specific for the molecule of interest. A fluorophore can be directly conjugated to the primary antibody. Alternatively a secondary antibody, conjugated to a fluorophore, which binds specifically to the first antibody can be used. For example a primary antibody raised in a mouse which recognises tubulin combined with a secondary anti-mouse antibody derivatised with a fluorophore could be used to label microtubules in a cell.


Make every photon count!

Microchannel plate (MCP) image intensifier – night vision device

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Acquisition speed limited by frame rate of camera


An image intensifier tube is a vacuum tube device for increasing the intensity of available light in an optical system to allow use under low light conditions such as at night, to facilitate visual imaging of low-light processes such as fluorescence of materials to X-rays or gamma rays, or for conversion of non-visible light sources such as near-infrared or short wave infrared to visible.

Development of image intensifier tubes began during the 20th century and has led to continuous development since inception.

Generation 2 – the micro-channel plate

Second generation image intensifiers use the same multi-alkali photocathode that the first generation tubes used, however by using thicker layers of the same materials, the S25 photocathode was developed, which provides extended red response and reduced blue response, making it more suitable for military applications. It has a typical sensitivity of around 230 µA/lm and a higher quantum efficiency than S20 photocathode material. Oxidation of the caesium to caesium oxide in later versions improved the sensitivity in a similar way to third generation photocathodes. The same technology that produced the fibre optic bundles that allowed the creation of cascade tubes, with a slight change in manufacturing, allowed the production of micro-channel plates, or MCPs. The micro-channel plate is a thin glass wafer with a Nichrome electrode on either side across which a large potential difference of up to 1000 volts is applied.

The wafer itself is manufactured from many thousands of individual hollow glass fibres, aligned at a “bias” angle to the axis of the tube. The micro-channel plate fits between the photocathode and screen and electrons that strike the side of the “micro-channel” as they pass through it elicit secondary electrons, which in turn elicit additional electrons as they too strike the walls, amplifying the signal. By using the MCP with a proximity focused tube, amplifications of up to 30,000 times with a single MCP layer were possible. By increasing the number of layers of MCP, additional amplification to well over 1,000,000 times could be achieved.

Inversion of Generation 2 devices was achieved through one of two different ways. The Inverter tube uses electrostatic inversion, in the same manner as the first generation tubes did, with a MCP included. Proximity focused second generation tubes could also be inverted by using a fibre bundle with a 180 degree twist in it.


Next step

•Put detector on microscope and look at fluorescent cell samples to help biologist understand how diseases work.

•Examples: cancer, asthma, epilepsy


A fluorescence microscope is an optical microscope that uses fluorescence and phosphorescence instead of, or in addition to, reflection and absorption to study properties of organic or inorganic substances. The “fluorescence microscope” refers to any microscope that uses fluorescence to generate an image, whether it is a more simple set up like an epifluorescence microscope, or a more complicated design such as a confocal microscope, which uses optical sectioning to get better resolution of the fluorescent image.

Many fluorescent stains have been designed for a range of biological molecules. Some of these are small molecules which are intrinsically fluorescent and bind a biological molecule of interest. Major examples of these are nucleic acid stains like DAPI and Hoechst which bind the minor groove of DNA, thus labelling the nuclei of cells. Others are drugs or toxins which bind specific cellular structures and have been derivatised with a fluorescent reporter. A major example of this class of fluorescent stain is fluorescently labelled-phalloidin which is used to stain actin fibres in mammalian cells.

There are many fluorescent reported molecules, called fluorophores or fluorochromes such as fluorescein, Alexa Fluors or DyLight 488, which can be chemically linked to a different molecule which binds the target of interest within the sample.

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Let’s go smaller…


Atomic and Molecular Modelling

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Theory & Simulation of Condensed Matter

TSCM presently has research interests in both theory and numerical simulation of condensed matter that span a wide range of topics in condensed matter physics, biophysics, and materials science. Topical interests at present include: electronic structure; mechanical, optical and magnetic properties; electronic and thermal transport; theory of ultra-cold atomic gases; strongly correlated systems; materials for energy; biophysics and nanotechnology; non-equilibrium processes.

The group is a partner, with related activities at Imperial College and University College London, in the Thomas Young Centre for Theory and Simulation of Materials. Its research is supported by a number of computer clusters housed in a dedicated server room including a 480-processor HPC cluster.

Bioactivity of bone implants

Bioactivity: Capacity of a material to promote the spontaneous deposition of bone material on its surface in the body environment (osteointegration)




Coating of hip prostheses heads with a TiN layer



Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) analysis of TiN-coated explants

Analysis of several samples explanted after 5 to 10 years

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In most cases a compact deposit is present on the TiN-coated explant surface




DNA & modelling

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The picture above left shows the famous X-ray diffraction picture (experimental data) taken by Rosalind Franklin which enabled Watson and Crick to finally model the structure of DNA.






Adaptive optics (AO) is a technology used to improve the performance of optical systems by reducing the effect of wavefront distortions. It is used in astronomical telescopes and laser communication systems to remove the effects of atmospheric distortion, in microscopy, optical fabrication and in retinal imaging systems to reduce optical aberrations. Adaptive optics works by measuring the distortions in a wavefront and compensating for them with a device that corrects those errors such as a deformable mirror or a liquid crystal array.



The above picture shows DNA damage in a mammalian cell induced by focused X-rays. The bright area, which is less than 1 micrometre in size, shows the damaged area. [Work done in conjunction with the Gray Cancer Institute]


History of King’s Physics


King’s College London was founded in 1828-9 by a group of eminent politicians, churchmen and others. They wanted a Church of England alternative to what later became University College London (UCL, founded in 1826), known as ‘the godless college in Gower Street’. King’s was granted a royal charter by King George IV on 14 August 1829.

The University of London was established in 1836 with King’s and UCL its two founding colleges.



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The above left hand picture shows Wheatstone English concertina and the above right shows a traditional harmonium being played.

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Wheatstone telegraph system and a telegram



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The above left picture show the relationship between electricity and magnetism proposed by Maxwell that all A level students come to know and the above picture on the right shows Maxwell’s equations which all physics degree students come to know and “love”.


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Clerk Maxwell Professor of Theoretical Physics

John Ellis’ primary research is particle physics beyond the Standard Model, but he also strays into related areas of high-energy astrophysics and cosmology. Within particle physics, he is particularly interested in predictions for collider experiments and the interpretation of their results, and his interests in astrophysics and cosmology include dark matter and strategies to detect it, as well as dark energy and cosmological inflation.

Specific research topics include the Higgs boson (or whatever replaces it), searches for it at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and its possible connections with matter-antimatter asymmetry and the generation of matter in the Universe. Much of his research concerns supersymmetry, which he considers to be one of the most promising possible extensions of the Standard Model, and he is working actively on searches for supersymmetric particles at the LHC and as astrophysical dark matter.

He is also interested in models of quantum gravity, particularly those derived from string theory, and is in quest of possible experimental probes of such models, either in accelerator experiments or in high-energy astrophysics and cosmology.


Theoretical Particle Physics & Cosmology research focuses on:

• Particle physics beyond the Standard Model

• Dark matter, cosmic rays and astro-particle physics

• LHC physics

• Supersymmetry breaking in particle physics and in low-dimensional gauge theories with applications to exotic quantum phases in condensed matter

• Dark energy

• Inflation and cosmic defects

• Brane-world cosmological models, with an emphasis on their phenomenological predictions

• Quantum Gravity and its consequences for particle propagation in terrestrial and astrophysical experiments

• World-sheet logarithmic conformal field theories and their applications in string theory and condensed matter physics

• Loop Quantum Cosmology

• Phenomenology of Non-Commutative Geometry

• Non-perturbative aspects in Field Theory

• Applications of field theory to biophysical problems including speech

They receive support from the European Research Council Advanced Investigator Grant 267352 to John Ellis, with Nick Mavromatos as co-investigator. We also receive support from the STFC.

Articles for 2010

Articles for 2011

Articles for 2012

Picture below left is Professor CG Barkla FRS


1917 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery that x-rays emitted by different elements have characteristic energies.


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The picture above right is Sir Owen Richardson FRS (1914–1944)

1928 Nobel Prize winner for 1928 for work on thermionic emission; the invention of the thermionic valve revolutionised telecommunications and allowed the development of radio and television.



The above picture is of Sir Edward Appleton FRS (1924–1936)

Nobel Prize for his work on the Physics of the upper atmosphere, and in particular for his discovery of the layer of ionised upper atmosphere that is still referred to as the Appleton Layer.


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Above left picture is of Professor Maurice Wilkins FRS (1916-2004) who, shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology with James Watson and Francis Crick for determining (by x-ray diffraction) the structure of DNA.

Above right picture is of Dr Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), whose X-ray diffraction photograph helped determine the structure of DNA.

Famous Ex-Undergraduates:-

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Above left http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_C._Clarke

Above right http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Higgs

How physics is taught

•Lectures (about 9 hours/week)

•Supported by tutorials (1 hour/week)

•Tutor sessions (as and when needed)

•Lab sessions (1 day/week)

•Personal study (as needed)

The undergraduate physics degree

What is done in the first year

•Fields, waves and matter

•Maths and mechanics

•Thermal physics

•Lab and Computing

•Physics, Skills and Culture

What is done in the second year


•Modern Physics (Nuclear Physics and Quantum Mechanics)

•Mathematical methods in physics

•Labs (practical and computational)

•Choice of Astrophysics/Medical Engineering/Symmetries (Group theory)

What is done in the third year

•Statistical Mechanics

•Quantum Mechanics


•Solid State Physics

•Third year project

•Literature review

•Choice of many: General Relativity, Particle Physics, Medical Imaging, University Ambassador scheme, Physics of Life at a small scale, Maths III

The MSci fourth year

•All colleges (KCL, QMUL, RHUL, UCL) combine teaching.

•Wide range of courses available, taught in KCL, QMUL, and UCL.

•Project is 25% of the year – carried out in home College.

What does KCL Physics have to offer its students

•Significant recent expansion -> 30 staff

•Normal first year entry is around 90 Full time students (about 110 total, half joint honours)

•This is a favourable staff-student ratio

•World class research means world class teaching

•We strive to ensure that students are more than “just a number”

The Maxwell Society

The Maxwell Society is run by the students and staff. Lots of events (serious and otherwise) including the Maxwell Lecture series and the Cumberland Lodge weekend. http://www.kclmaxsoc.org.uk/



What do King’s physicists do when they graduate?

•Material Scientist – Pharmaceutical company

•Medical Technical Officer

•Innovation Officer – Institute of Physics

•Quant (finance)


•IT Consultant – IBM

•Production Co-ordinator – TV Production Company

•Science and technology advisor – Dept. Transport

•Defense industry

•Further study

Latest Stats, 2011 graduating Year 6 months after graduation


100% of the full time work people are in graduate level jobs. Median Salary £26,500

Study Destinations

MSc Physics

MSc Physics and Engineering in Medicine

Particle Physics

PGCE Science

PGCE Secondary School


Practical Teaching

Radiation Physics

Risk Management and Financial Engineering


MRes in Photonics Systems Development

MSc Computer Science

MSc Environmental Technology

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