Meet Laurie Winkless, Irish Physicist Turned Kiwi Author

At a very young age, Laurie Winkless demanded to know more about painting, her father often recalls. What is it in the paint that makes the colors different? How does it stick to the wall? Why doesn’t he fall?

So it makes sense that the first chapter of his new book addresses these same questions. It begins in Jawoyn country in the Northern Territory, where a sample of ocher rock art is believed to be 28,000 years old.

“How could a paint – applied to a rock wall 23,000 years before the construction of the oldest pyramid in Egypt – have remained so long?”, she wonders.

This leads to a visit to Resene Paint’s headquarters in the Lower Hutt suburb of Naenae to talk pigments, binders and adhesion – the technical answers to curious little Laurie.

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Readers are soon immersed in post-it notes, superglue, Teflon, and the lotus effect – the “sacred plant’s ability to emerge undefiled from muddy, murky waters.”

Next, we’ll learn how geckos walk on walls and ceilings, and how F1 race cars grip the road as they travel faster than Boeing 737s.

The book is Sticky: the secret science of surfacesand it has just been released in New Zealand.

It’s about “materials and the forces acting on their surfaces,” writes Winkless. It’s about “things-happening-on-surfaces”.


Hadleigh Coffey, engineer at FiberSense, explains how the fiber optic network is transformed into a giant sensor, capable of detecting underground water leaks, earthquakes and air traffic.

Needless to say, it’s technical. The chapter on human touch introduces (for many) “mechanoreceptors,” which are sensors in human skin that gather information about pressure, movement, and strain.

We also learn about Merkel disks, Meissner corpuscles, Ruffini endings and other aspects of touch.

“Every time our fingers touch an object, these tiny biological machines bend and flex, and countless nerve endings fire, sending distinct electrical signals to our brain,” she writes.

Writing about hardcore science for a lay audience creates a tension between the too technical and the too dumb.

She describes her writing as “translating complex subjects into English, without losing detail”.

Sticky is one step away from peer-reviewed academic literature and one step away from a college textbook, but one step away from most scientific journal articles. This article itself explains next to nothing about Merkel, Meissner or Ruffini, but Winkless does touch on them.

It’s brilliantly written, with lots of clever and amusing anecdotes and footnotes. Winkless has fun making fun of herself.

“My love of physics is eternal,” Laurie Winkless from her home office in Petone.


“My love of physics is eternal,” Laurie Winkless from her home office in Petone.

She grew up in Dundalk, Ireland, a town of around 40,000 on the border with Northern Ireland. Her father was an engineer, her mother was involved in theater and founded a dance company for young people. Both encouraged an early enthusiasm for science.

She graduated from Trinity College Dublin, with a bachelor’s degree in physics and astrophysics, and completed an internship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

She moved to London, where she remained for the next 12 years and “absolutely loved it”.

She earned a master’s degree in space science from University College London and landed a job at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Britain’s metrology institute. It’s the official keeper of time and standards for meters, kilograms, amps and all that. But it also does much cooler stuff.

Nearly 1,000 NPL scientists and technicians are working on new antibiotics, cancer treatments, quantum communications, and more.

His thing was thermoelectric energy harvesting – capturing heat from materials and turning it into electricity. It was pure physics and Winkless was happy.

The NPL encouraged its people to get into the community and talk about science, and Winkless came out. It was science communication and she was even happier.

“I fell in love with popular science,” she once said. “My greatest passion is to tell stories.”

While still in a lab at the NPL, she spent a year as a physics reporter for The Naked Scientists​ – a BBC radio show and one of the world’s first podcasts.

She was simultaneously working part-time on her doctorate in physics.

It was too much, finally. “I was pulled in different directions by all these different demands,” she says. Two years into the multi-year degree, Winkless dropped out.

“I thought having a doctorate…would make me a scientist. Or something.”

Shortly after, she also left NPL.

Winkless goes over these events in our interview, but they must have been unsettling. Giving up your academic dream and your lab for uncertainty as a science writer were tough decisions.

She landed a job at the Nobel Foundation as an award outreach officer. She rubbed shoulders with Nobel laureates while writing about their accomplishments in press releases, backgrounders, blogs, and more.

She has also published freelance scientific articles in the news media, on blogs and often on Twitter.

That’s how she was discovered by Jim Martin, editor of Bloomsbury’s Sigma, which publishes popular science books. Another division of Bloomsbury publishes the Harry Potter novels.

Martin was on the lookout for new voices and talented writers, and Winkless’s upbringing, experience, and writing voice appealed.

The result was his first book, Science and the city: the mechanisms of the metropolispublished in October 2016. It’s his ‘scientific love letter to the world’s cities’ – and more specifically a love letter to London.

It’s for those who’ve “wondered how traffic lights work or how birds can safely perch on power lines.” Also think about the Metro, sewers and highways.

Just before its publication, another important change occurred: she moved to Wellington with her now husband, Richard Jackett. He’s a New Zealander, an acoustics scientist, and they had met when they were both working at the NPL.

He’s a “fellow nerd,” Winkless tweeted. “Conversations about physics and engineering are not only acceptable, they are encouraged.” Their wedding photos were taken at Burlington House in central London, home of the Royal Society of Chemistry – of course.

Either way, the NPL was restructuring and Jackett was offered an out. The Brexit vote had taken place. They had previously talked about moving to New Zealand. It seemed like a good time to try the southern hemisphere. Winkless was 33 years old.

She was thinking of writing Sticky would happen quickly, but it took five difficult years. The first year was adjusting to the scale and pace of Petone compared to London, and learning that being a workaholic isn’t as admired here as it is there.

An advantage is that Sticky is stacked with New Zealand content. Resene paints, but also the police HQ in Wellington to learn more about fingerprints and the Measurements Standards Lab (the New Zealand metrology agency), which “feels like home”.

But especially GNS, for the chapter on earthquakes. New Zealand is a star in earthquake circles and of course earthquakes are all about grip, slipperiness and a whole lot of physics. Winkless loves that kind of stuff.

Because popular science books don’t pay a lot of bills, it helps science organizations improve their communications. She gives media training. She has an occasional column with Forbes magazine and other journalism. She is open to physics work.

“Since leaving the lab, I can’t imagine a day when I won’t be involved in science…it’s such an important part of who I am and what drives me.

“My love of physics is eternal,” she says.

Her other loves – her family in and near Dundalk, as well as London – have long been waiting for a visit, but she has been turned away by the pandemic. She’s booked tickets home but in the meantime, with her track record, you can correctly guess she’s following all the Covid-19 rules and cheering on everyone who’s done the same.

Lola R. McClure