The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or CERN as it is more commonly known, is a mecca for particle physicists. Founded in 1954, it was here that Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. University of Warwick PhD student Edward Millard describes what it is like to try and understand what the universe is made of, 100 metres underground!
As almost any physicist will tell you, the Universe is a mysterious place. Despite this uncontroversial fact, in the twentieth century, humans came tantalisingly close to a theory which describes everything around us – from the smallest building blocks of matter to the forces which govern the dynamics of nature itself. This theory is known as the “Standard Model of Particle Physics” and, even by the tremendous achievements of modern science, it is incredibly successful. The theory culminated in 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson which made front page news and catapulted the field into new territory. However, we physicists are not satisfied…we know there is a lot to still be uncovered!
Some of the enduring mysteries in particle physics which currently elude our understanding include questions surrounding the existence of dark matter. Questions about how gravity fits into our theories. And most fundamentally, the puzzle of why we are all here in the first place. The European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) based near Geneva, Switzerland, attempts to address some of these questions by gathering together particle physicists from all over the world to work on various experiments which probe the frontier of human knowledge.
The Large Hadron Collider (or LHC) is one such experiment. The LHC (which lays claim to being the largest machine humans have ever built) is a 27km ring which lies underneath the French-Swiss border and smashes together protons at velocities close to the speed of light. Around the ring lie several different detectors, each an independent physics experiment, which detect the exotic particles which fly out of these high-energy interactions. Physicists, including PhD students such as myself, then analyse the huge amount of data which these experiments record in order to find hints of the existence of physics beyond our current theories.
Daily life for an experimental particle physicist is both varied and exciting. The sheer deluge of data we produce at the LHC requires the invention and deployment of world-leading technologies to analyse and particle physicists are, before anything else, problem solvers. Most of our day-to-day work involves advanced data analysis, using both programming and machine learning in order to separate out the tiny signals we are searching for from experimental backgrounds. Particle physicists also gain literacy in electronics and hardware and there are many opportunities for new students in the field to help build parts of the next generation of detectors.
Of course, physics is not deterred by national borders, and therefore, neither are we. The LHC collaborations are drawn from people all over the world and making friends with people from diverse backgrounds is a key highlight of the physicist experience. In addition, a key staple of scientific life is peer-review and there are many opportunities for a physicist to travel around the world to share their work with their peers. Indeed, new PhD students who join an LHC experiment also have the ability to spend a year at CERN, living and working in a new environment which opens up many new avenues of opportunity.
Scientists are not all numbers and plots of course! As a PhD student based at Warwick, I have had opportunities to pursue public outreach activities including staffing stalls at the national Big Bang Fair at the Birmingham NEC and talking to school children about our work through the LHCb international masterclasses. In one instance I, along with several of my colleagues, recorded an educational podcast which was an activity I intend to revisit!
It should also be remembered that research and teaching share a symbiotic relationship. I have personally found tremendous pleasure in passing on my learning and experience to newer students. Physics postgraduate students at Warwick have the option of teaching undergraduate students, whether it be in problems classes, laboratory demonstrations or programming workshops. All of which can then be officially recognised with higher education teaching qualifications.
If the life of a physicist sounds as exciting to you as it does to me there are many ways you can get involved. Of course, for the full experience a PhD is required, however an undergraduate in physics is not necessarily a prerequisite to this. As mentioned, physicists are problem solvers so degrees in similar subjects such as mathematics or computer science can be transferred and members of particle physics groups around the country are always happy to be approached. The latest developments from the particular experiment I work on can be found on a public webpage and more information about CERN and what we as particle physicists are trying to achieve can be found here