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Dr Tom Whyntie


Dr Tom Whyntie is the ‘Researcher in Residence’for the CERN@school project across the UK, the aim of which is to get as many schools as possible interested in, and working in, physics.  He completed his PhD at Imperial College as part of the High Energy Physics group working on the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at the LHC.

This is a chance to have their own bit of CERN detector technology

On getting interested in science

So my earliest memory of science was primary school, actually, where our fantastic teacher got us to measure all of the round things in the classroom, across and then around, and we’d divide those numbers by each other and we’d always come up with the same number which was of course pi, depending on how you do it.  But that moment where you realised that you could measure things in the real world by applying a bit of maths and you could start to work out fundamental things about them.  And from that moment on I was hooked, but from then on it’s always been about great teachers; great teachers who will keep on asking you great questions and keep trying to explore the mysteries of the universe.

On PhD experiment

So for my PhD at Imperial College London, I worked on the compact muon solenoid, the CMS detector, and at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider and we were one of the two general experiments that were looking for, amongst other things, the Higgs boson.  Now I wasn’t actually involved in that search directly, my PhD was about dark matter, the missing fifth of the universe that we think is there but we haven’t found any direct evidence for yet, and the result of the PhD was pretty much that.  So it was one of the first papers to come out saying, nope, it ain’t there.  But, you know, it still got me a PhD and my result was still a result and the important thing is that I haven’t had to do any sort of embarrassing corrections or epilogues yet because they still haven’t found it.  Although of course when the LHC starts back up in 2015, it might be a different story.

On the CERN@school Project

So CERN@school is a project funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council – they fund all of the UK’s particle physics and astrophysics and that sort of thing – and the idea is that we bring technology from CERN into the classroom.  So lots of class trips go over to CERN and see the massive detectors there, but this is a chance to have their own bit of CERN detector technology to do actual real research themselves.  It’s not just, you know, you do an experiment, you see what the answer is in a book: you use this stuff from CERN, developed by the Medipix collaboration, to actually make your own discoveries and my role is the scientist that uses my experience from my work at CERN working on the compact muon solenoid experiment to sort of guide them and the tools they need to actually become scientists themselves.

On experiments to do at school

So the science school experiment is based upon the Medipix detector which is a small square, about two centimetre squares, of silicon detector and it can detect different kinds of particles, any kind of ionising radiation actually.  So you can do radioactive sources, if you’ve got those in schools, or you can measure the radiation profiles of different types of foods: bananas, they’re quite radioactive, not dangerously radioactive obviously, but the potassium 40 gives off some nice beta particles that you can see – electrons basically – in the detector, or you can do background radiation measurements, look for cosmic rays, if you hold it in the right way and wait long enough you’ll get a muon streaking across, you know, a particle from outer space.

But the idea is that we coordinate these efforts around the country and they combine all of their data, working like real scientists do, comparing their results, doing the analysis, also doing a bit of coding even, so we use Python to actually analyse this data as well.  But the idea is that rather than doing a load of exams and, you know, going through the scientific education system like that, you actually get to try being a scientist before you go off and find it but, actually, the thing that we find is that the teachers as well get a chance to get back into research if they’ve done physics before, with particle physics, using the detector technology so it’s a great project to be working on.

On getting kids interested in science

Yes, so the CERN@school project is in early pilot stages at the moment, but what we’re finding is that teachers and students that are actually involved in research then go onto university and then generally get into the universities that they want to get into and so we’ve got the – dare I say it – anecdotal evidence like that.  But I can only speak for the schools that we’re involved in, that I’m based at, the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, Kent, but we have I think 1% of all physics undergraduates in the country and 2% of all girls doing physics, so that’s one thing we find, it’s a great sort of leveller in terms of who wants to do physics.  It’s not a case of, you know, what stereotypes you think people do end up doing science, you get to do the science yourself and actually work with a very balanced sort of group like that.  Wait and see, I think,  will be the results on that.

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