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Tackling Abstract Physics


So ideas like the Higgs Boson, dark matter, they’re very kind of abstract concepts.

So ideas like the Higgs Boson, dark matter, they’re very kind of abstract concepts; we can’t see a Higgs boson…well, we don’t even know if dark matter exists, right? Well, we’re pretty sure, but I haven’t seen it.  But in many ways, yeah, how do you get a hook into abstract concepts?  I think what you have to come down to, or come back to, is the idea of, you know, keep probing what things are, how things work on the smallest level and it’s kind of been a real journey of how we’ve actually got through from the atomic theory that everything is made up of individual atoms to well, actually, things do get smaller, we can break further and so we’ve got this beautiful model of how we think everything works – the Standard Model of particle physics – and, actually, even just the story itself of how we made all those different discoveries, the things that we all had to go through to actually put that picture together, even that in itself is quite an interesting journey to follow.  Rather than just naming the quarks, it’s actually, well, how was the bottom quark discovered, how was the top quark discovered, and you can kind of get at the human interest story like that because, I mean, at the end of the day thousands of people these days are involved in…  I mean, the Higgs boson, for example, two teams of three or four thousand scientists all working together to try and find this one sort of particle, I mean, that’s an incredible effort and a testament to what humanity can achieve when it puts its mind together.

The big one that I find quite useful is when you look at the scientific papers that come out of these discoveries.  So, the author lists are huge, I think they even actually have a whole paper devoted to the author list sometimes.  But when you look through those author lists, sometimes  there’s a little dagger next to a name and you scroll down and you read what it means and it’s deceased.  So, I mean, these experiments…I mean, CMS has been going for twenty-odd years from when it was actually first designed and people have died, people have never seen the results of that experiment but because they believed in the project, believed in the science they were trying to find, they kept going at it and sadly didn’t get to see the results but instead you get a whole new generation of students come in and it becomes a very different way of doing science, but a very exciting way. 

The other one is, you know, where you take the applications of particle physics: you can do the hadron therapy where protons will hit the skin and only go a certain distance because they lose energy as they go far and when they stop eventually, they release a lot of energy which is great for destroying tumours, the things in cancers.  So if you’ve got the eye, for example, you’ve got to have absolute precision when you’re hitting that tumour and so you just stick them in a particle accelerator.  So that will appeal to another set of people who think, well, OK, yes, Higgs boson, fine, fine, fine, but, you know, when you think about the technology, the super conducting magnets, all of this stuff that was developed to do that and you just go, well we’ve done it now, stick it in a hospital and off you go.  That’s another way of getting in, but we do try and make sure that every aspect of science is explored because not everyone is going to be really interested in the curiosity driven stuff, for better or worse, but for me that’s what it’s all about, you know, how it all works at the fundamental level.