Professor Caroline Terquem

Meet...Caroline Terquem

Astronomy and astrophysics
Exoplanets and planetary physics
Plasma physics
Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics

We work among extraordinary people doing extraordinary things; get to know some of them by reading these quick-fire interviews.

Name: Caroline Terquem
Job title: Professor of Physics

What are you currently working on?
For the last couple of years, I have been working on the physics of tides in binary stars and in planets. Tides occur close to home of course, as well. The energy of the tides raised by the Moon on Earth is dissipated in the oceans, and this loss of orbital energy causes the Moon to recede from the Earth, and the Earth’s rotation to slow down. Similarly, the energy loss from tidal dissipation in stars in close binary systems, or in giant planets which have close moons, drives the orbital evolution of these systems. The effects of this dissipation are well-constrained by observations, especially in the case of Jupiter and Saturn, for which we have data spanning a whole century. However, the theories developed in the last 60 years or so have to date utterly failed to account for the amount of dissipation in stars or planets which also have convection going on in their interiors. I myself have worked on this problem on and off for about 20 years. Just over two years ago, I started to think about this very differently, thanks in large part to having lectured the 3rd year Fluids course! It prompted me to revisit this problem, by going back to basic fundamentals and questioning the assumptions that were underlying the theory. In so doing, I could see that the models we had been using were not being applied correctly. I developed a very new formalism that should apply to the problem of tides in convective bodies, which in fact yields tidal dissipation rates in very good agreement with observations. This problem had previously been very difficult to understand. It has been an exhilarating journey, but frustrating as well: as you might imagine, not everyone is ready to hear that we need to bin quite a lot of the work that has been done in the last 60 years. Fortunately, because my work is predictive, it can be tested by numerical simulations. With some colleagues in France, this is what I am busy with right now. While there is much more work that needs to be done, I am confident that I am on to something!

Describe a typical day
As many of my colleagues have said before me in these pages, there is not really such a thing as a typical day! I am not very good at multi-tasking when I do research, so I try to compartmentalise, and have separate days for research and for teaching or admin tasks. I work a lot on my own, so research days are just me at my desk. For those days, it is certainly very nice to be in the Beecroft and bump into my colleagues for coffee or an informal chat! There is always an interesting and lively discussion going on, and this gives me momentum that lasts throughout the day.
If you had an entire day at your disposal (not at work), what would be your ideal way to spend it?
I love gardening or even just looking at the garden. So, depending on the weather, I would either tend to the roses, or even just sit with a coffee and look at the roses while reading the newspaper. I have to say, the newspapers are quite entertaining these days!

What is your favourite place in Oxford?
Two places: the terrific fishmarket at Osney Mead (the whole family loves seafood) and the cheese shop in the Covered Market!

What discovery would you like to see in your lifetime?
Some combination of dark matter and dark energy explained. I must say that it is amazing that we can now measure the tiny distortions of space time that propagate when black holes merge and radiate their energy, but still there is still such a huge part of the Universe we have no clue about!