Séminaire Poincaré

Last Saturday was the Séminaire Poincaré at l’Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris. There was a whole day of talks on ‘Le Boson H’ which translates to ‘the H[iggs] boson’, although for reasons that may soon become apparent, it was only referred to as the H boson in the talks. Unfortunately because of a flight that evening, I could only make the morning session, but the timing wasn’t too bad as the first talk was the one that I really wanted to see. That morning was one where I truly appreciated living in Paris. I woke up at a reasonable time for a Saturday morning and took a short bus to the institute, which is close to the Pantheon and just south of the Notre Dame cathedral.

Seminaire Poincare poster
Seminaire Poincare poster

The lecture theatre was smaller than I expected, but completely packed when I arrived and it was difficult to find a seat. Not surprising since the first talk was given by Professor François Englert, the Belgian theoretical physicist who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2013 for: “… the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”.

Prof. Englert answering questions after his Seminairé Poincaré talk.
Prof. Englert answering questions after his Seminairé Poincaré talk.

The talk was in French, but with the use of the slides and a knowledge of the subject I was able to follow along happily. When the seminar stopped for lunch, I went down to the front to talk to Prof. Englert. I asked if he would sign my copy of the seminar papers, which he was more than happy to do.

Signed copy of the Séminaire Poincaré papers by Prof. Englert.
Signed copy of the Séminaire Poincaré papers by Prof. Englert.

I explained to Prof. Englert that I was a particle physicist working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. He asked if we’d met before and I told him that although we’d not met directly, we had been present in the same room, when the announcement of the new boson discovered at CERN was made in 2012. He apologised to me for not recognising me, to which I replied that it was a busy and exciting day, plus I was all the way at the back of an extremely packed auditorium, while he had been reserved a space at the front. It was a very nice chat and an honour to meet him. Afterwards I asked if we could have a photograph together.

Photo with Prof. Englert
Photo with Prof. Englert.

Edit: If you look closely at the photo you might be able to see that Prof. Englert was wearing a particle physics tie and, the ultimate physics fashion accessory, a Nobel prize gold pin.


CERN Dishwasher

While I was curating the @RealScientists account and generally being a tourist at work around CERN, I snapped a photo of dishwasher that was being used to clean a readout board I needed for my test beam experiment. I put the photo up on Twitter and it got a little bit of attention. The photo was spotted by CERN, and yesterday Rosaria Marraffino wrote a CERN bulletin article about the dishwasher. It seems to be a very popular image as only a day later it’s already amassed over a thousand retweets on Twitter! Here’s the tweet (below) and a link to the article.

Academic nomad

Here is a collection of some of my favourite photos taken on my academic nomadic journeys. Most of them were shot with a phone and they may have been Instagram’ed for the filters. You can expect a mixture of scenic and scientific.

(Note this album will be updated as I take new photos – come back later to see what’s new!)

My office this morning. #academicnomad

A post shared by Clara (@claranellist) on


A post shared by Clara (@claranellist) on

This week I'm in Lund for the LHCP conference.

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Opening concert for #Euro2016 in #Paris. #TourEiffel #NoFilter

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Piazza Castillo, Turin, Italy. #academicnomad

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At the test beam at @CERN.

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Bright rainbow at @cern.

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Beautiful books in the work library. #BeautifulBooks

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Lightening strike in Bucharest in June this year. #tbt #Dracula

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Truly beautiful scenery this morning on the way to #Manchester! #UKFromAbove

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Horseshoe at sunrise.

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Real Scientists

Last week I was the curator of the Real Scientists Twitter account (@RealScientists). It coincided with a trip to CERN for a test beam experiment so I took full advantage of being on site to show as much of CERN as possible. I ended up having a lot of fun being a tourist in my own lab and got to see parts of the site I’d never been to before! It started off a little slow as I found my feet with a new (to me) account and as I prepared for my trip, but everything really took off Tuesday morning when I landed in Geneva.

I wanted to include as many photos as I could, to allow people to feel like they were really visiting the lab. The following was a very popular image (but please excuse the typo, the WWW was invented just *over* 25 years ago).

I also talked about my preparations for the experiment at CERN, including a bit of shoe-shopping!

Continue reading Real Scientists

Maths at CERN

A few months ago I took part in a recording of a podcast about some of the different mathematical techniques used at CERN. Specifically, the podcast was looking at A-Level maths used by people in different careers and the aim was to inspire school students to study the subject in the UK.

The first example that came to my mind when I thought about where we use maths often was sigma, which is written with the Greek letter σ. This is the value you will often hear particle physicists use to describe how confident we are with the result and was mentioned a lot during the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. One sigma (or 1σ) is the standard deviation of a distribution of numbers and roughly 66% of the numbers should fall within it. For the announcement of a new particle, we use the criteria of 5σ, which tells us that there is a 1 in 3.5 million chance that, if the Higgs didn’t exist, we would still get this result.

I also talked about how the theory of antimatter came about. In short, when Paul Dirac was attempting to combine quantum mechanics (the world of the very small) with special relativity (the world of the very fast) into a single equation. His equation had a squared number in it, specifically for the energy term, and to solve it he needed to take the square root. From maths we know that the square-root of a number can either be positive or negative. But can you have negative energy? Dirac thought not, and the only other way to solve the equation was to introduce an entirely new set of particles with the same properties as those we already have, but with the opposite charge. This is what we now know as antimatter. Only a few years later, Carl Anderson made the discovery of the first antimatter particle with his famous bubble chamber experiment!

Positron Discovery

Yesterday the episode of the podcast with my interview was released and you can check it out at the following link, look for “Episode 5: CERN and standard deviation”


At the end of each podcast, they give a puzzle. The one for this episode is:

Puzzle: The heights of a group of people are measured, and the resulting data has mean 1.35m, and standard deviation 0.13m. Someone in the group is 180.5cm tall. How many standard deviations away from the mean are they?

Can you work it out? Leave me a comment with the answer below! I’ve been mean and not given the solution, so if you want to compare your answer with theirs, you’ll have to head to the link above.

Conference Travel

One of the perks of being a particle physicist, is the travel. Actually, I should rephrase that: one of the perks of being a particle physicist with a (limited) travel budget is that you get to travel. But you have to earn it.

As I write this I am sat in the departure lounge of Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport waiting for a flight to Toronto. I’m headed to the PIXEL2014 conference at Niagara Falls to present the results from my lab. I’ve barely slept in the last week as I try to condense all of our research into a 25 minute PDF. I’ve amused myself by finding tenuous reasons to include photos of the #67P comet that the ESA ROSETTA mission is studying (because it’s cool right now), and also the cover art of the 1989 SimCity computer game (because it’s always been cool), not to mention almost compulsory photos of the beautiful conference location, the falls themselves.

The horseshoe waterfall take just after sunrise.
The horseshoe waterfall taken just after sunrise.

This is one of the major conferences this year for researchers working on pixel detectors (it’s aptly named, unlike the BEACH conference that was in Birmingham, UK this year) and I’m really looking forward to the talks and the discussions. Also, as a young researcher, it’s important for me to begin to mix with other researchers in my area; to learn from them, share my experiences and just to be known!

Oh, they’ve just called my gate! Got to run…

Note: Edited to include said beautiful photos of the conference location.

Women in Science and the Media

Last week I was at a workshop unlike the usual meetings I attend.  This one was called “Communication & Impact for Female Early Career Researchers”.

Firstly I should apologise to one of the course instructors, Claire Ainsworth, as I’ve already broken one of the first rules we learnt during the course, that is that a story should be timely.  All I can say is that since returning back to the office at the beginning of this week, I’ve been swamped and I didn’t get a chance to sit and write until now (let’s not even talk about the two-week old, half-written post about a Higgs conference I went to that is still sitting in my draft folder!).

I was really excited when I was accepted onto this programme, as it covered many topics on how to communicate my research, both academically and to the public. It was also set at the beautiful Cumberland Lodge in the south of the UK, which didn’t hurt. The course was specifically for female postdocs, with a wide range of scientific research areas represented, and I was able to learn from the experiences of my course mates as well as the instructors.

Cumberland Lodge, the beautiful setting for the course.
Cumberland Lodge, the beautiful setting for the course.

Before the course started we were split into four groups to begin preparation on a radio programme that we would record at the BBC on the last day of the course.  I found myself a minority in my group, most of whom had a link to biomedical research in someway, and the topic for our radio show quickly became ‘medical drugs’, something I’m certainly not an expert in!  I was apprehensive at first and worried that I wouldn’t be able to contribute to the show, but my group were fantastic and we found a way to get everyone involved.  Indeed, since I ended up being a presenter for the show, it was more realistic that I wasn’t a specialist in the subject.

We all arrived on the Wednesday evening and immediately got stuck in with a talk from the Royal Society of Chemistry publishing group about the process of publishing in a journal. This was very useful information, since it is only after the repeated process of submitting scientific articles (and getting them rejected) that you really begin to understand some of what happens behind the scenes when a paper is publish.

After a visit to the bar to get to know everyone better (although sticking to tea since I was recovering from food-poisioning the day before), I went to my room to find out who I would be sharing with. I naively expected everyone on the course to be from a UK institute, so I was surprised to hear that my roommate, Chinyere, had travelled all the way from Nigeria to take part. Indeed, this was her first international trip! It was interesting to hear about her experiences setting up science communication events in Nigeria and we discussed ways that we could do something related to particle physics / CERN. Already the networking aspect of the course was working!

The next day, my half of the group was with Claire Ainsworth learning about written media, including how to communicate research to a non-specialised audience (with some examples of how not to do it, including this: “Strange quark contribution to proton structure yields surprising result”).  As part of the course, we became editors from different newspapers / journals and selected four stories for our paper from a wider range of scientific press-releases.  The differences between stories chosen for a tabloid paper, compared to New Scientist, whilst not hugely surprising, did give us a great insight into how the same set of 12 press-releases can be used to cherry-pick stories and push a particular view point.  Claire also discussed how women are portrayed in the media, showing us the obituary of rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill:


She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

Late in the afternoon, the two halves of the course switched and we went to work with Gareth Mitchell (a BBC radio presenter for the popular show, Click) and Robert Sternberg to learn about broadcast media.  After an introduction to the topic, we were given scientific news items and sent out to record something for tv and radio.  Our topic was a pancreatic cancer trial, given to us because it fit well with the expertise of most of the group (while I looked enviously at the Mars mission the other group were given, not even knowing that antimatter was the topic for a group in the morning session!).  My task was to be director / camera operator for the television segment and I was able to draw on my experiences with Decay here.  At the end of the day, before dinner and just before we lost the sunshine, we took a group photo!

Students and instructors from the 2014 course.
Students and instructors from the 2014 course.

The morning of day two was spent editing our radio and TV items with Gareth and Robert. We learnt a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks, including how to make people sound eloquent on the radio by taking all of the ums and ahs out (in fact, with a little practice with the software, you can pretty much make people say whatever you like!).  We were missing a shot of our reporter summarising the story to end our television segment with, so we had to quickly run out and grab that footage.

Grabbing a last minute piece-to-camera for the end of our television segment on pancreatic cancer.
Grabbing a last minute piece-to-camera for the end of our television segment on pancreatic cancer.

In the afternoon we watched / listened to all of the recorded pieces, and then it was off to BBC Broadcasting House!

Ready to go into the BBC to record our radio shows!
Ready to go into the BBC to record our radio shows!

I didn’t realise how excited I would be to visit the BBC, but it was a lot of fun, and that’s even before we got into the studio!  We watched Fiona Bruce present the evening news and had a look around some of the different areas.  Recording our show was brilliant and we tried to stick closely to the 20 minutes allotted time.  Presenting is hard, especially when our producer, Connie, told us we still had a minute and a half to fill at the end.  We finished at 19 minutes 50 seconds, which Gareth said was pretty good!

Presenter Clara Nellist with expert guest, Esther Robinson, ready to record our radio show at the BBC!
Presenter Clara Nellist with expert guest, Esther Robinson, ready to record our radio show at the BBC!

To sum up, the course was fantastic and I want to thank Prof. Alison Rogers for organising it and Claire, Gareth and Bob for teaching us!  I should also thank EPSRC and the IOP for funding the grant that allowed me to go – it’s wonderful that women in science wanting to communicate their research to a wider audience (or even just being better at communicating it to the academic audience they already work with) are being supported and encouraged!