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Scientists of Wales: Professor Eleri Pryse

(June 01, 2015)


Professor Eleri Pryse

Llun Yr Athro Eleri Pryse

Professor Pryse was born in Dolgellau. She was a pupil in primary schools in Dolgellau, Bangor and Aberystwyth before moving for the whole of her secondary education to Ysgol Penweddig, Aberystwyth. Physics was her specialism for graduating (Honours Class 1) in the university in Aberystwyth. There she did research for her doctorate in a field that has held her attention ever since, namely, the characteristics of the ionosphere and their effects on radio waves which spread between satellites and the Earth.

Since 1986 Eleri has been a member of the staff of the physics department of the university in Aberystwyth, starting as a post-doctoral research assistant and rising to be lecturer, senior lecturer and reader. The pinnacle of her career so far was reached in the Autumn Term of 2014 when she received the honour of a Personal Chair; in addition to achieving excellence in research, her support in leading students in their studies towards a Ph.D. and her duties in teaching undergraduates have been central to her commitment throughout her career.

Aurora Borealis above Bear Lake, Alaska
Aurora Borealis above Bear Lake, Alaska
Image: Senior Airman Joshua Strang, USAF

The Earth is a sphere (more or less for our present purposes) within other spheres; the closest to us is the atmosphere, source of our weather. Another is the ionosphere, the electric atmosphere, which begins at a height of about 60 kilometres and reaches its highest electric density at a height of about 300 kilometres. A distinctive feature of the ionosphere is that it is a region where a proportion of atoms have split into positive and negative particles apart from each other. Usually, atoms of gases are electrically neutral with the same number of positive and negative particles, but in the ionosphere separation happens thus creating populations of positive ions and populations of negative electrons. As a consequence of this the ionosphere is an electrical region which influences radio systems. The influence is beneficial in the sense that it enables radio waves to travel large distances around the Earth. But the ionosphere can have harmful effects on the accuracy of our modern technology, with the radio signals of navigation, such as GPS, being affected by the electric atmosphere as they travel between satellites and the Earth.


Aurora australis panorama
Aurora australis panorama
Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, published under licence GFDL v1.2

In the early years of her research career, Eleri concentrated on developing a new experimental technique to form images of structures in the ionosphere. All is not uniform and unchanging. About a quarter of a century ago a theoretical idea was proposed with regard to researching the structure, namely, ionospheric tomography.This method proposed the use of radio waves to form images (pictures) of the structure of the ionosphere on a grid (slice) relating height to latitude. This new idea was based on computer simulation (a sort of likeness). The linguistic origin of the word tomography suggests ‘cut’ (slice) and ‘graphy’ (picture).

Drawing on her knowledge of the spread of radio waves in space Eleri was prominent in developing and appraising a practical technique that would confirm or reject the computer predictions. Over time tomography was established as a reliable technique to illustrate the structure of the ionosphere. Gradually Eleri extended her research programme with the aim of the work turning towards understanding the influence of solar wind (a flow of particles which are associated with the magnetic field of the Sun) on the weather in space at the polar atmosphere of the Earth and on the auroral region (many will have seen photographs and films indicating the stunning aurora borealis and aurora australis). One outcome of cooperation between Professor Pryse’s team and international scientists, including those in Norway, is an improved understanding of processes in interplanetary space which affect the electric atmosphere at high latitudes.


Red and green auroras over Norway
Red and green auroras over Tromsoe, Norway

Image: Frank Olsen

All praise to Eleri, she has not been content to enjoy life in an ivory tower, despite the richness of her contribution there. For a long time she has been committed to the venture of establishing university courses in the physical sciences through the medium of Welsh. Today, students across Wales have the opportunity to study through the Welsh language via the Coleg Cymraeg Genedlaethol (Welsh National College) network. In addition, she has been notably industrious in promoting the sciences in the Urdd Eisteddfod and the National Eisteddfod. She has the gift of communicating effectively with her fellow scientists and to be helpfully at ease with those who are not specialists in her field. Wales is greatly in her debt.

Neville Evans, March 2015


If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:


     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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