A physicist walks onto a stage…

Last August (in 2013) the first LHComedy stand up show was held at CERN. I was in the final months of writing my PhD thesis, so obviously that was a perfect time to place myself at the mercy of a stand-up comedy crowd.

LHComedy: CERN After Dark
LHComedy: CERN After Dark

You might be asking, “why do a science comedy show?”. The word scientist can have so many negative connotations, just look at the autofill for Google if you type in “Scientists are…”, and you can see it’s not great!

Google's predictive text for a sentence starting: "Scientists are..."
Google’s predictive text for a sentence starting: “Scientists are…”

LHComedy was set up to combat some of these stereotypes, and of course, to entertain at the same time! This first event took place in CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation and was hosted by Radio 4’s Helen Keen. There were fantastic performances by all the CERN amateur comedians: Alex Brown, Ben Frisch, Sam Gregson, Hugo Day & Claire Lee. Rob Knoops worked back stage to make sure everything ran smoothly. We also had professionals, Lieven Scheire and Piere Noveli, who were brilliant and not to mention the wonderfully geeky music from Jonny Berliner.

I performed a stand-up routine about particle physics and being a female physicist. I talked about being the only woman at an experiment at DESY during International Women’s Day and how my colleagues thought they could support me. I also recalled what happened when two male PhD physics students tried to show off when I worked as a barmaid (between semesters of my undergraduate physics degree).

We sold out all 300 tickets a week before the event so the globe was packed — an important factor when you do a stand-up gig is actually having an audience to perform to! That they were a lovely audience was an added bonus! The event was also broadcast live online via the CERN webcast and we had approximately ten thousand unique live connections – at the time it was the highest number since the Higgs announcement in July, 2012!

If you’d like to watch the whole thing, the link to the recording is here (if you’d like to jump ahead to me, I’m a little after 50 minutes, but I don’t encourage that! 😉 ): https://cds.cern.ch/record/1597883?ln=en

Me on stage for the LHComedy performance - 30th August 2014.
Me on stage for the LHComedy performance – 30th August 2014.

Since the first event, LHComedy has become Comedy Collider, due to another comedy group already having the original name. The evening was so successful, there had to be a second event, so as soon as after Christmas 2013, we begun the preparations. Recently, I’ve been diligently adding photos from our previous event onto the @ComedyCollider Twitter feed so that everything was up-to-date for the announcement of our second event! In case you missed it, here it is:

And that’s tonight!

It will again take place in the Globe at CERN and all of our tickets sold out a couple of days ago, so we are looking forward to another full audience. Do not worry though, there will be a live webcast of the event here so you can watch online.

Webcast link: http://webcast.web.cern.ch/webcast/play.php?event=318724

The show will be hosted by Chella Quint and we have a whole new ensemble of CERN amateur performers, Nazim Hussain, Aidan Randle-Conde and Cat Demetriades! We will also be joined by Helen Arney from Festival of the Spoken Nerd for some fantastic music, and headlining will be FameLab Spain alumni, Miguel and Eduardo from The Big Van Theory.

Since I am in Romania for meetings this week, I will be watching the webcast too, and also monitoring the social media – why don’t you come over to @ComedyCollider during the show to say hi! Or you can use our hashtag, #noConCERN.

The next LHComedy event, Comedy Collider: No Cause for ConCERN, takes place at CERN tomorrow, Friday the 13th of June, starting at 8pm.

Link to Guardian blog post: http://www.theguardian.com/science/life-and-physics/2014/jun/06/comedy-collider-no-cause-for-concern


MOSI Collider exhibit launch – a virtual view

A little over a week ago, on Thursday 22nd May, the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) launched the Collider exhibit, a recreation of the experience of visiting CERN. I would have loved to have been there to help out, but unfortunately I had meetings at CERN the same week and couldn’t go in person. So I did the next best thing and suggested that we organise an ATLAS Virtual Visit to connect the Collider exhibit to CERN. A virtual visit is a live online connection to the ATLAS control room and is often used by schools to allow students to talk to scientists about the research taking place on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. As an aside, if you are a school teacher, you can organise a virtual visit for your class for free! Go to the following link to find out more: http://atlas-live-virtual-visit.web.cern.ch/atlas-live-virtual-visit/

Being at CERN also allowed me to show an example of just how faithful the exhibit is at recreating the corridors at CERN. In the following photo, Marieke (Manchester Science Festival Director at MOSI) and Andy (University of Manchester) pose in front of the recreation of a CERN office door:

So I went to find the same corridor at CERN and take a similar photo:

I did get a few strange looks from the guy inside the office when I told him his door was part of an exhibit and I needed to shut it to take a photo!

In the ATLAS control room later that evening, we had physicists Steve Goldfarb, Hugo Day and myself. Hugo’s not technically an ATLAS physicist, but we let him off because he works on accelerators like the LHC, helping to provide us with lots of collision data! We chatted with visitors to the Collider launch as they walked past and answered their questions. I really enjoyed talking to everyone! Jon Butterworth, who was at the event to give a talk about his new popular physics book, Smashing Physics (available at all good book stores, I’m sure 😉 ) asked me where we were at the event. But honestly, I have no idea – all I could see of the room was red ceiling beams, which doesn’t narrow it down! Also, with the camera above us in the control room, and the computer screen below visitors in the exhibit, I did feel a little like they’d shrunk us and put us in the museum! You can see what I mean in the screenshot from the video feeds below.

At the launch of the Collider exhibit at MOSI, visitors talked to CERN scientists in the ATLAS Control Room.
At the launch of the Collider exhibit at MOSI, visitors talked to CERN scientists in the ATLAS Control Room. Screenshot courtesy of L. Aguirre.

I followed the rest of the launch on Twitter, and from what I could see it was a really successful evening! There were many Manchester physicists there to show what a strong contribution to the research at CERN Manchester (and indeed the UK) has. I was very proud when I saw the following tweet from a panel discussion with my PhD thesis examiner, masters supervisor and PhD supervisor respectively.

The launch was even covered by the BBC, with the title “‘Beautiful physics’ at Collider exhibition in Manchester”: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-27523417

If you’re near Manchester and haven’t yet been to the Collider exhibit I thoroughly recommend it! This Friday, 6th June, there’s a late night opening:

Join us for a night at the museum that will entertain, inform and inspire. Mingle with scientists who work on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, get creative with drop-in screen printing workshops or make like an accelerated proton at our Large Hadron Collider roller disco*.

We’ll have another ATLAS Virtual Visit too, but this time with different physicists in the Control Room as I’ll be at the exhibit in person! Hopefully see you there!

If you’ve been to the Collider exhibit, in Manchester or when it was in London, I’d love to know what you thought, you can leave me a comment below!

Science needs women

Walking through CDG airport has been a particular joy for me over the last few months. I’m guessing that’s not something you hear very often, but let me explain. Due to my job and personal circumstances, I fly a lot. Mostly they are short-haul flights to Geneva, or back to the UK, and it’s become such a regular part of my life that I don’t enjoy it anymore (in fact, I often grumble about it). I don’t mean to seem ungrateful! I’m certainly thankful that the option is available to me, but mostly flying is now a bit of a hassle and when something becomes part of your routine it can get boring.

Recently, however, I’ve had something to brighten my mood as I walk ( / run) to the departure gate. The reason for this was a number of very large banners proudly declaring that “Science needs women”, or << La science a besoin des femmes >> if you’re reading the ones in French. Either way, the message was clear, especially since each banner contained a huge photograph of one of the five L’Oreal UNESCO Award winners. You can see some of the banners below – I was so excited, I got my phone out and took a lot of photos! Each woman is a distinguished researcher, with only one scientist receiving the award from each continent.

"Science needs women"! The poster for Professor Laurie Glimcher, Laureate for North America.
“Science needs women”! The poster for Professor Laurie Glimcher, Laureate for North America.

Just seeing these made me proud! And also inspired me that maybe one day I could be on an airport banner. Not because I was selling perfume or make-up, but because I’d pushed the boundaries of human knowledge. Stories of women being held back in research make me sad and angry, and unfortunately they do happen, but here was a case where great female scientists were being proudly shown to thousands of international travellers a day!

> The poster for Doctor Segenet Kelemu, Laureate for Africa and the Arab States.
<< La science a besoin des femmes >> ! The poster for Doctor Segenet Kelemu, Laureate for Africa and the Arab States.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, or so they say, and the banners have now been replaced with ones advertising primary coloured versions of popular brand of smartphone. Personally, I would argue that they don’t really need the exposure and that they should put the Women in Science posters back up! At least it would brighten my trips to the departure gate again. What do you think?

Link: The For Women in Science YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/forwomeninscience

Edit (02 June 2014): The posters have either gone back up or I was wrong which terminal I thought they were in, but on walking through 2E last night I saw them again! 🙂

ATLAS Blog – Notes from Underground: Pixel Prototypes

The ATLAS Blog is currently focusing on the work that takes place when the LHC is not colliding protons for the experiments. The series is called “Notes from Underground”. This week’s post is from me and focuses on the work of developing new pixel detectors for upgrading ATLAS, specifically the IBL. You can read it here:


I obviously recommend checking out the other posts in the series too!

Successful installation of the ATLAS Insertable B-Layer

On the 8th of May, I had some fantastic news in my inbox: the IBL, or Insertable B-Layer, had been taken 100m underground and installed into the ATLAS experiment at CERN! Unless you’re an ATLAS physicist yourself, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about when I mention the IBL. In short, it’s an extra layer of pixel detectors which has gone into the very centre of the ATLAS detector ready for data taking when we switch back on next year. This extra layer is there to cope with the upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) accelerator to a higher energy by being faster, more accurate (the pixels are smaller) and better able to withstand the more intense radiation background. Working on prototypes of pixel detectors for the IBL, specifically on a new technology called 3D silicon pixel sensors, was the focus of my PhD with the University of Manchester and it’s brilliant that it has been successfully installed!

Installation of the Insertable B-Layer into the ATLAS detector. Photo credit Heinz Pernegger.
Installation of the Insertable B-Layer into the ATLAS detector. Photo credit Heinz Pernegger.


CERN opens doors for 60th celebrations

Last weekend was “Le CERN fête ses 60 ans avec ses voisins“, or public open day for CERN’s neighbours as part of the 60 years celebrations. If I’d known that I would definitely have been at CERN during the open day weekend, I would have volunteered to help, but instead I went along as a visitor myself. I have never been to visit the LHC tunnel before, so I was very excited yesterday when some friends said they were planning to go and that it was still possible to join a tour! It’s so rare to be able to visit the accelerator, because most of the time we are running and so it’s not open for tours – also, when the accelerator is on, it’s extremely radioactive!

Below are some of my photos from the trip underground and some extra explanations. Because my phone was already registered to connect to the CERN network, I had WiFi down there, so most of these were posted live.

The circumference of the LHC tunnel is 27 km, and there are only eight access points from the surface, so for the people working in the tunnel to get around easily there are bikes available.

For the LHC, there are two beams of protons; one goes clockwise and the other anticlockwise. These two beams need to be kept separate until we want to collide them inside one of the experiments around the ring.

We need strong magnets to bend the protons around the LHC, so they have to be cooled down to almost Absolute Zero (the coldest temperature there is at −273.15 degrees Celcius!).

The following is a sign to warn people working in the tunnel that there is gas being used or stored nearby. There are many people, however, who think that the person in the sign just looks a bit sad…

The tunnel that the LHC is based in was originally built for a previous CERN accelerator, called the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP), which ran until 2000. A positron is the antiparticle of the electron. Using electrons and positrons gives a much cleaner signal because they are not composite particles (they do not contain other particles inside them). But because they are very light, we cannot accelerate them up really high energies and so the new particles we are looking for aren’t created. This is why it was decided to build a new particle accelerator after LEP finished but with protons instead of electrons.

The following signs are left over from when LEP was in the tunnel and remind people which way round each beam went.

Earlier we saw the bicycles used to get around the tunnels, but sometimes you need to carry equipment with you too – so you use these vehicles!

I had a great time seeing the LHC and it was a rare treat to be able to go down and visit the accelerator! After the LHC tour, we decided we would check out how busy the open day was at CMS (another experimental detector on the LHC) – for this, see part two!

If you were at CERN for the open day last weekend, leave me a comment to let me know what you thought.

Hello World!

Hello and welcome to my first blog!

As this is the first time I’ve done this, you’ll have to excuse me if I stumble a little as I find my way. I wanted to start this blog as a place to collect all of the activities that fill my time (and my twitter feed!). I should probably introduce myself, as I guess that’s what you do in the first post! I’m Clara, I’m a particle physicist and I have the pleasure to be a part of the biggest experiment on the planet: the ATLAS experiment at CERN. I did my PhD in Manchester, UK with the HEP group, but now I live in Paris, France working at the Laboratoire de l’Accélérateur Linéaire, or LAL for short.

One of the joys of my job is that I get to travel quite a bit, especially to Gevena in Switzerland where CERN is located. Below is a photo taken a couple of months ago when I went 100m underground to visit the ATLAS detector. We can only go when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is shutdown and we aren’t taking data, so you have to take the opportunities to go down when you can!

Me and the ATLAS detector.

I am also a science communicator and enjoy spreading the word about how exciting working in science is. So far, I’ve worked at science festivals, in schools and online to share my enthusiasm! I’ll be posting some more specific details about them in the coming weeks. I’ve also got a few exciting things in the pipeline so they will be announced here too (along with the usual places such as Twitter, Facebook and to anyone who meets me in person!). Speaking of twitter, if you’d like to follow me there you can find me at the very unimaginative handle, @claranellist, or click on the link on the side of the page.

I think that’s it for now. Thanks for reading! If you’d like to let me know a bit about yourself in the comments section, I’d love to know who has stumbled upon this (even if it’s no longer 2014).


Edit: Thanks to Alex for reminding me that this should, in true programming style, have been called “Hello World!”.