Adam Davison is a Research Associate with the High Energy Physics Group working at University College London, analysing data from the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN. Adam’s work is on the ATLAS experiment, searching for the Higgs Boson.
We’ve discovered a new particle and that’s fine. People can kind of see discovering something new is interesting.
On getting interested in science
Originally, when I was very young I was interested in the, sort of just the maths, the pure mathematics. I think when I was really young, even as young as five or so when I first started learning about maths, I think I was really drawn into the idea that there’s this kind of, you know, it’s like an abstract universe almost, I mean it’s, maths is like this whole separate thing that’s completely abstract and it’s completely separate from everything else and you sort of control everything in maths and you can play around with it and try out what you like. I think that was the first thing that interested me in the sort of scientific side of things. Exactly where I started to get into physics, I’m not sure really. I think the physics, or going into physics rather than something else, was almost accidental in a lot of ways.
On the purpose of the LHC
So the purpose of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is to collide particles together at higher energies than has ever been possible before and, because it’s never been done before, we don’t know exactly how physics works at those energies. So, by colliding particles at those energies and observing what happens we can start to understand what happens at very high energies and, analogously, looking at what happens at these very high energies also tells us something about what happens at very small scales in the universe; how the universe works fundamentally at very small distances. So, they represent the way everything around you is operating at a very, very, very tiny scale, much smaller than atoms or nucleus of atoms or anything like that, at a much, much smaller scale these particles, which are very short lived, represent how the universe is really operating at that scale. And basically, what we’re doing at the LHC is by going to very, very high energies we can sort of study them directly whereas in every day life you observe indirectly their effects, you know, the fact that radioactive materials decay for example, things like that, but at the LHC, because we’re at very high energies, we can almost sort of, like, prise open that tiny scale and sort of see it directly exposed. That’s essentially how those particles relate to everyday life I think.
So in the very early periods of the universe, you know, the first fractions of a second it was so small and dense and hot that all particles had a lot of energy so there’s so much energy and it’s so hot that even things like atoms can’t form, they break down basically. And the LHC, by recreating those energies in a lab, in many ways, we’re sort of reproducing the conditions of the universe as they were back at that time, albeit on a much smaller scale, with only a tiny amount of matter, not a universe’s worth but, on some level, as well as helping us understand how the universe works on a very small scale it can also help tell us something about what the universe might have been at the very, very beginning, before all the stuff that’s around today, you know, stars, or even atoms and things like that, formed.
On science on Wikipedia
Although it is a bit disappointing sometimes when you see that, ah, you look up something scientific, which is a little bit obscure, and you see that, you know, like, there’s half a page and it says that this could do with some improvement and then you compare it to, like, some contestant from the third series of Big Brother who has, like, a thirty page spread, you know, but, yeah, in general the quality is not bad for science stuff.
On the difficulties of communicating physics
I think science and science communication and communicating those ideas of physics is a big challenge and it’s something that I think physicists have really woken up to in the last ten years or so of how to do it really well or to ally focus on it and spend a lot of time on it. And I think necessarily, because often what physicists are doing is often very detailed, you know, it’s very technical and very in depth and that makes it sort of inherently quite inaccessible at face value to anyone who’s not an expert. But I think scientists are improving, a lot, how well they’re able to communicate those ideas. I think the real challenge in science communication is you can either, it’s very easy to communicate something totally trivial which has no connection to what you’ve really done and is just so high level that it doesn’t really impart any information. And it’s also pretty trivial to just read out your research which is so low level that it doesn’t really impart any information. And I think the real challenge, or the part that I think is interesting anyway, is to try and bridge that gap and to try to communicate something really real about what you’ve done to someone who doesn’t necessarily have that technical background. And I think science as a whole has got a lot better at that, even in the last five or so years that I’ve been involved in physics.
The classic example is the discovery of the Higgs Boson, right. So it’s very easy to say we’ve discovered a new particle and that’s fine, and people can kind of see discovering something new is interesting, but to really understand, you know, they don’t really learn anything about why it’s important from that, right, because it’s so abstract. And you could also say, well, we have all these equations and this fills in this part over here which is really what people are actually working on. Or for people like me who are doing the experiment you can say, well, we’ve got this lump in our data, we’ve got this plot and that’s a bump there or a deviation or something. And again that’s still really abstract, you know, and for example you see a a lot of people spending a lot of time trying to explain things like the fact the Higgs Boson comes from the Higgs Mechanism which is why things have mass basically, or it’s one of the things that gives objects, every day objects, mass, and explaining that kind of connection is one aspect of it but I also think it’s important to try and communicate some of the technical stuff of how we go about doing something like discovering the Higgs. People have this superficial high level idea, you know, you’ve got this big machine, and you need a big machine because it’s difficult or something but when you start to explain to people that actually we have this detector and it produces a huge amount of information coming out of millions of collisions of particles every second and we have hundreds of thousands of computers round the world which are processing this data and then we’re making these plots and if there was nothing there you’d expect it to be smooth but actually we see this little bump and that’s an indication that we have this signal and that relates to the overview of the physics and everything, I think that’s the kind of thing where you try and find a middle ground where they actually get some sense of what you’re really doing. You know, ‘oh, you guys have built this machine and then you’re taking the data out of it and you’re analysing it and that’s led you to this discovery’, rather than just this kind of black box approach to science that maybe people have had that guys in white coats go into a room, lock the door for twelve hours then come out and tell you the answer sort of thing and that’s it, and you’re not allowed to know what goes on inside.
On the joy of science
For me it’s always been, the part I’ve always really enjoyed about it, is the problem solving. The idea that the best days are the ones where you sit down at your desk and you’ve got something really difficult, you know, I’ve got to get something done and I really have no idea how this is going to work. You have a good idea, a clever idea, and you get to play around with that and sort of develop that into something and that period where you’ve got a good idea, or maybe even two ideas that go together, that’s even better, and then you get to spend some time playing with and trying things out. That’s the most exciting phase. Obviously then you have to turn that into something finally and that often is more work and less enjoyment than the initial stages but that’s the part that I think is most exciting.