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Ian Wittaker

Ian Whittaker

Senior Lecturer

School of Science & Technology

Staff Group(s)
Physics and Mathematics


Dr Whittaker is a lecturer in physics and teaches on modules directly related to the Physics with Astrophysics degree stream for first and second year undergraduate study. He also works in second year laboratories, and supervises a number of undergraduate projects. As part of his role he also acts as a first year tutor.

He teaches on:

  • PHYS12314: Concepts of Astronomy and Cosmology
  • PHYS22323: Stars and Galaxies

Career overview

Dr Whittaker graduated from the University of Leicester with a Masters in Physics with Space Science and Technology, while his doctoral research was performed at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Since the completion of his PhD thesis, Dr Whittaker has held six postdoctoral research contracts around the UK and New Zealand. This research has spanned both space and medical physics, including some meteorology. He has also had the amazing experience of working in the Antarctic at Scott Base.

Research areas

Dr Whittaker’s main research interest lies in the connection between the Sun and the Earth.

In his previous research roles, Dr Whittaker has used satellite images of the Sun from the Solar Data Observatory to track coronal loop oscillations during solar storms. His PhD research looked at the interaction of the solar wind with the upper atmosphere of Venus, using in-situ data from Venus Express to determine atmospheric boundary locations. He has been part of an EU project called PLASMON which investigated the effect of particles accelerated by the Earth’s radiation belts into the polar atmosphere.

His current research focus is looking at a novel method of imaging the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and the solar wind using X-rays generated from charge exchange. In his most recent research role he proved this method works by comparing MHD modelling to observations made by the astronomical telescope XMM-Newton. He is also a member of the SMILE team, a joint European and Chinese mission to observe this X-ray emission at the magnetopause boundary. His research has been used to simulate what the satellite should see based on a range of orbits and look directions.

Other research performed by Dr Whittaker includes tracking tropical cyclones and predicting their top wind speed based on the lightning distribution inside them as a predictive tool to limit the destruction of natural disasters. He has also worked for the Institute of Cancer Research writing software to automatically analyse MRI scans of breast tissue, identifying the fat and water content as well as highlighting possible tumours.

Dr Whittaker also has a secondary research interest in animal magnetosense and how it is affected by changes in the Earth’s geomagnetic field (which can be strongly affected by space weather).

External activity

Over his research career Dr Whittaker has worked hard to bring space science to the public and school students. He has demonstrated experiments at science fairs, astronomy societies, businesses, and a range of schools from inner city to private schools. He has worked on promoting the wide range of space science careers, in projects such as ‘Making Space for Me’ aimed at primary school students to encourage physics education at a young age.

Dr Whittaker encourages students to enhance their science communication and accompanies them on their own outreach activities. His outreach work has included assisting with science equipment demonstrations on programs such as QI, and Wonders of Nature. He has also written popular science articles on solar physics.

In his spare time Dr Whittaker has also worked with researchers at local hospitals in New Zealand, co-authoring a publication, and assisting with academic posters - on the racial disparity of the treatment of Otitis Media. He is looking at writing children’s books on physics, and also plays the guitar… badly.

Sponsors and collaborators

Dr Whittaker has previously collaborated with:

  • The ASPERA team (Venus and Mars Express)
  • British Antarctic Survey
  • The EU FP7 PLASMON team
  • The SMILE team

And he has previously been funded by:

  • Cancer Research UK
  • STFC
  • EU FP7
  • The Marsden Fund
  • US Air Force Office of Scientific Research
  • UK Space Agency


Whittaker I and Sembay S. Solar Wind Charge Exchange Efficiency: empirical and experimental O7, O8 and O/H values. GRL doi:10.1002/2016GL069914 2016

Van de Kamp M, Seppala A, Clilverd M, Rodger C, Verronen P and Whittaker I. A model providing long-term data sets of energetic electron precipitation during geomagnetic storms. JGR doi:10.1002/2015JD024212 2016

Whittaker I et. al. Modeling magnetospheric X-ray emission from solar wind charge exchange with verification from XMM-Newton observations. JGR doi:10.1002/2015JA022292 2016

Whittaker I, Douma E, Rodger C and Marshall T. An examination of lightning flash rate as a predictor of tropical cyclone winds. JGR doi:10.1002/2014JD022868 2015

McCallum J, Craig L, Whittaker I and Baxter J. Ethnic differences in Otitis Media and Grommet insertion among New Zealand children aged 0-14 years. N.Z. Med. J. Vol:128 No.1416 2015

Whittake I, Clilverd M and Rodger C. Characteristics of precipitating energetic electron fluxes relative to the plasmapause.  JGR doi:10.1002/2014JA020446 2014

Whittaker I, Rodger C, Clilverd M and Sauvaud JA. The effects and correction of the geometric factor for the POES/MEPED electron flux instrument using a multi-satellite comparison.  JGR doi:10.1002/2014JA020021 2014

See all of Ian Whittaker's publications...

Press expertise

  • Solar terrestrial relations
  • How the Sun affects the Earth
  • Earth's radiation belts
  • Solar flares and coronal mass ejections
  • Venus
  • Kristin Birkeland and the aurorae
  • Changes in the Earth's magnetic field due to space weather and it's effects on the surface
  • Physics outreach, communication and education
  • Conspiracy theories (particularly Flat Earth and the Moon landings)