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”

http://www.furthermaths.org.uk/podcasts

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!

Hunting the Higgs

Cropped version of the Higgs Hunting Conference Poster.
Cropped version of the Higgs Hunting Conference Poster. 

This week I’ve been at the Higgs Hunting workshop in Orsay near Paris, France. This also happens to be my home institute, so there was no travel involved. The conference is three days long and brings together theorists and experimentalists from around the world to discuss current Higgs results, and also to explore what we can expect (or even hope) to find in the future.

The Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012 after a very long search (it was proposed in 1964!) and is the particle produced when the Higgs field interacts with itself. The Higgs field is the process that gives mass to fundamental particles. Most of the studies at CMS and ATLAS of this new boson are moving from discovery (simply finding if there is a particle there) to precision measurements (understanding how it interacts with other particles and measuring various properties). So far what we’ve found out about the Higgs is exactly what we expect from our theory: the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This is very boring for particle physicists as we love to find out that our theories are wrong! It is very important to make these studies to have a more complete picture of how our universe works, plus there are questions, such as what is dark matter, that could be explained by studying the Higgs in greater detail.

The first day of the workshop concluded with Sir Tom Kibble giving a talk on the ‘Prehistory of the Higgs’. Sir Tom is one of six theorists who, in three independent papers in the 1960’s, came up with the theory for the mechanism that gives mass to particles.

The final day of the workshop took place at the Institut des Cordeliers in central Paris with a beautiful courtyard leading to the auditorium (see below). The morning session focused on constraints on the Higgs boson, with the afternoon dedicated to discussions on future colliders.

Courtyard from the final day of the Higgs Hunting Conference
Courtyard from the final day of the Higgs Hunting Conference

It was a really interesting conference and, since I’m based at LAL, I’m already looking forward to going next year!

Comedy Collider: No Cause for ConCERN

On Friday the 13th of June the Comedy Collider team hosted our second show at CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation. The seats were once-again completely sold-out before the day of the event, and the waiting list was only growing, so we we looked forward to a good crowd. We’d enlisted a entirely brand new set of amateur and professional comedians to entertain for the evening, including Spain’s The Big Van Theory and The Spoken Nerd’s Helen Arney providing musical meekness! Our host for the evening was Chella Quint. The CERN amateurs taking to the Comedy Collider stage were Nazim Hussain, Cat Demetriades and Aidan Randle-Conde and they were all brilliant!

Unfortunately we had competitors for the online audience that night: Spain vs The Netherlands in the 2014 Mens Football World Cup. We can’t really blame people for wanting to watch the game, so we’re sharing the link to the show, available to watch online now, or any time you like – just click below. Enjoy!

https://cds.cern.ch/record/1728261

You can also view a storify of the event, here.

Zombies at CERN

Not everyone who knows me, knows that I like horror films, but I do! In fact, I’m a particular fan of zombie films. I’m such a fan, I even made a feature length one with fellow zombie-loving physicists a few years ago at CERN! Our film is called Decay, and it’s named because decay is a word that is appropriate for both the zombie world and the particle physics one (when heavier particles change into lighter ones we say that they decay). It also conjures up images of nuclear decay and a lot of zombie films used radiation as their undead trigger. We were the first ones (as far as we know) to suggest that the dead could rise because of Higgs bosons created at the LHC at CERN! To learn a little more, I’ve added the trailer below.

 

We have to be clear that the film has never been endorsed by CERN, since it does have some questionable senior characters. But, they also didn’t shut us down, which was great! Since being released for free online less than two years ago, we’ve had almost four million views on youtube! It just goes to show how much people love (a) zombie films and (b) CERN, especially when it’s the two together!

So where’s the science in all of this you might ask? Well, there isn’t any. At least, we made it all up! We wanted to make fun of all those films with pseudo-science in them so we filled ours to the brim with bio-entanglement physics!

Clara in Decay
Screenshot of me in Decay, filmed at CERN in 2012.

I’ve added some screenshots from my moments of stardom in the film (two), although I was actually on-screen a lot more often than you might think, or at least on the set making something happen. As well as pensive physicist and later rampaging zombie, known affectionately as ‘Bitey‘, I also played a computer and a spray of blood.

When I wasn’t in front of the camera, I was on set doing something else. We were all amateurs on the film, so there was a lot to do and learn. One of my many hats on set was assistant director and one scene I was able to have a lot of control over was the ‘horde scene’ near the end of the film (which incidentally was my favourite one!). It was this scene where I had to ask roughly 50 physicists, all of whom had volunteered as zombie extras for us for the day, if any of them knew if they had a latex allergy!

Screenshots of me in our feature-length independent zombie movie filmed at CERN in 2012.
Screenshot of me in Decay, filmed at CERN in 2012.

The film got a lot of fantastic media coverage from all over the world! My favourite article title was: “Why a Zombie Movie Made by Physicists is the Best Kind of Science PR” in Slate. Occasionally someone will tell me about the film (unaware that I was involved) and it makes me really happy that people enjoyed it and are still talking about it!

I had a fantastic time making the film (in between the 13 hours sitting in a dark damp tunnel covered in red-coloured maple syrup that is!). I also think it’s awesome that I have an IMDb page and that we worked out we each have a defined Erdős–Bacon number of approximately 11!

A screenshot from my IMDb page.
A screenshot from my IMDb page.

If you want to watch the whole film, I’ve embedded it below! You can also leave me a comment to let me know what you think! (with a kind reminder that it’s a low budget horror movie made by amateurs! 😉 )

Oh, to prove that we actually had a lot of fun making the film here are some out-takes:

And the edited version of our Q&A session at the International and UK premiere of Decay in Manchester.

Graduation Day!

It’s been roughly nine months since I successfully defended my PhD thesis, and since then I’ve moved on to a new job, so I didn’t expect graduation day to be a big deal. I would put on the colourful robes, walk onto the stage to shake someone’s hand and collect my certificate – job done – but the day turned out to be a wonderful celebration of four great years of physics research with Manchester!

The year I started my PhD in the Particle Physics group in Manchester was a bumper year for graduate students. If I remember correctly, including the accelerator students, there were 13 of us starting at the same time. Adding in the students from the year below who have managed to complete things a little earlier and it meant that Wednesday was also a bumper day for graduations. At Manchester, there are ceremonies throughout two weeks which are generally split into subjects (especially if the subjects are large enough to fill the hall), so our graduation ceremony was only for the physics department. During this part of the ceremony I was reminded of how much outreach work was still required in my subject area; the students graduating at the ceremony were predominantly male and white. But, at least the post-grads are not a bad bunch!

PhD graduates in Physics, University of Manchester, 2014. Photo credit E.H.Maclean.
PhD graduates in Physics, University of Manchester, 2014. Photo credit E.H.Maclean.

The whole week was a time for celebration for my family as only the day before my older sister graduated from the University of Warwick with a PhD in Plant Sciences! Having the same first initial, we’d spent all of our lives getting confused by post addressed to Miss C. Nellist, but with us both becoming Dr Nellist, nothing changes – at least we’re in different fields!

Taking pictures of particles and other stories from a high energy physicist