Professor Geoffrey F. Hewitt is an Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London. He is a seminal figure in the world of multiphase flow and heat transfer and his contributions to the field have been recognised by numerous scientific and professional bodies. He was jointly awarded the US $1.3 million Global Energy Prize by Vladimir Putin in 2007 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In this interview, he tells us what motivates him and takes us through his research journey.
"Pure curiosity is still what drives me today, and is the most important component of my work. Without curiosity you cannot get excited about scientific research. It is all about creating the spark and igniting the curiosity in people’s mind to get them involved."
Why should people study sciences and what was the major factor that made you take up chemical engineering?
I knew nothing about Chemical Engineering before I applied to Manchester University. My father was an engineer and motivated me to study Chemical Engineering after school. After graduating with a PhD in 1957, I started working on industrial problems for Harwell, which was one of the EU’s biggest atomic energy research laboratories located at Oxfordshire in the UK. In my 50s, I became part of the academic community at Imperial College London doing research in turbulent multi-phase flow systems. So I had a career in industry before I actually joined the Chemical Engineering Department at Imperial.
I am now approaching 83, and I have tremendously enjoyed my work for industry, as well as in academic research thus far. Chemical Engineering is such a versatile and wide subject, which gives you the opportunity to study the infinite number of things that are yet still unexplored in our world. Looking back, I have never regretted taking up this career path and I suppose, I was lucky to become so deeply involved in my area of research, namely multi-phase flow.
What are you currently working on and how does it benefit humanity?
I work on multi-phase flow. It has an effect on everyone’s life and is all around us: such as in the atmosphere, in the flow in pipelines from oil wells, in boilers, condensers, in all climate control apparatus we use, just to name a few. Multi-phase flow is a very broad research area, which is interesting not only from a scientific viewpoint, but also from an industrial standpoint- especially with regards to the energy sector. Although multi-phase flow is everywhere, it is not yet thoroughly understood and there is still a lot of research to be done.
Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?
Two people really influenced me in the early days and I am truly grateful to have met them.
The first one was my initial PhD supervisor in Manchester, Dr. James A. Storrow, who once told me “Keep yourself intelligently occupied. Something will always happen, if you do this.” I have always remembered his words.
The other person, who shaped me the way I think, was Michael Lacey, a former colleague at Harwell. Michael Lacey was always interested in everything that was going on in science. His curiousity and level of involvement have greatly inspired me. He later joined the University of Exeter as a Professor in Chemical Engineering, and I kept in touch with him until he died.
It is in general very important to have people to talk to. However, it gets obviously more difficult when you get older, as many of your colleagues and friends pass away; such as my close friend George Shires with whom I worked on “Process Heat Transfer” and “International Encyclopaedia of Heat and Mass Transfer”. So at the moment I am at that stage, where I don’t have an equivalent mentor anymore, because they all died. This is part of life and you cannot get away from it. However, it makes you realize how valuable it was to seek advice from your friends and colleagues in the past; so better talk to them early enough.
Do you think research projects should lead to entrepreneurial ventures? Have you pursued business ambitions and what were your learnings?
I have certainly been involved in business during my career. The Heat Transfer and Fluid flow Service (HTFS) of Harwell was developed as a business model and my research always had a strong industrial connection (HTFS is now owned and implemented by ASPENTech, USA). However, my source of inspiration and motivation has never come from any business ambition. Pure curiosity is still what drives me today and is the most important component of my work. Following this curiosity is the privilege of working in an academic environment.
What should be done to improve the understanding, excitement and appreciation for scientific research in our society?
I personally have never been particular driven by the desire to inform the public of my work. I have been engaged with society and industry as part of my role as lecturer and working as an industrial consultant.
In my opinion, the excitement for science is driven by the underlying curiosity for fundamental understanding; the way the world is put together. Curiosity is a must to get involved into scientific research. So it is more about trying to ignite the curiosity in the people’s mind rather than showing them the benefits of scientific projects and their practical applications. I don’t start my research by considering a specific problem like in consulting. I am doing it the other way around. I am interested in my subject, and my subject is important enough to be used to address and overcome many important problems. However, some people in society might not realize how exciting research could be in the first place.
You won many coveted awards, were elected as Fellow for several societies such as the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the US National Academy of Engineering. You also won the Global Energy Prize presented by Vladimir Putin in 2007. How do you personally feel about all these achievements in your career?
Well, on one hand it means you have to work hard, and on the other hand you also have to be lucky to get elected as Fellow and get awarded the prizes. With regard to the Fellowships: It is nice to be surrounded by interesting people.
Any final comment about your life in science that you would like to share with our readers?
Well, I am already well beyond my sell-by date, but I am very happy that Imperial lets me stay here, and I can still enjoy my research each and every day. I would say the biggest learning experience is to realize the importance of curiosity in science. Curiosity is what should drive people in research and keep them going.
More information on Professor Hewitt and his work and his inspiring story can be found here.