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).
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
In the afternoon we watched / listened to all of the recorded pieces, and then it was off to BBC Broadcasting House!
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!
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!
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!
In my last post, I wrote about the second year anniversary of the Higgs boson discovery, so it was very timely that the weekend directly afterwards I spent at the Royal Society‘s Summer Science Exhibition, talking to the public about the Higgs boson and where it could lead.
The exhibit was a partnership of many UK universities and they all sent researchers to take shifts on the stall during the event. I went on behalf of the University of Manchester. Here is a lovely video about the Higgs discovery, which was made for the exhibit:
High-energy physics aims to understand how nature works at a fundamental level described by elementary particles. Our current theory, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, is remarkably successful. Find out what the Higgs boson can tell us about new physics beyond the Standard Model.
Since I was working the weekend shifts, the exhibit was very busy both days and I was able to chat with many different people, from very young children to senior citizens, all wanting to know: “what is the Higgs boson?”. There were a lot of activities for them to take part in, such as working out the mass of the Higgs on a tablet computer, to manipulating a beam of electrons in magnetic field and also a competition to find rare Higgs events (and win prizes!). We also had an actual piece of the ATLAS detector (left over from when it was built) and knitted particles to help explain the theory of supersymmetry (or SUSY for short).
It was also fantastic that so many female scientists were available to work on the exhibit – just being visible, especially when there were so many young children visiting the stall, makes a huge difference!
Unfortunately the Royal Society Summer Science event is over for this year, but I highly recommend that you take a look at the booklet (via the website) that was produced for the exhibit. It’s very beautiful and it elegantly explains the whole process of creating a Higgs boson and how we study it, including some very difficult concepts!
Also, if you’d like the Higgs Boson and Beyond stall for a future science festival event, get in contact with them either on Twitter, or through their website: http://the-higgs-boson-and-beyond.org . Alternatively, you can leave a comment below and I will pass the message on.
In March of this year (2014) I took part in an online x-factor style science communication competition called, I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! I’d heard of the event before, and knew other people who had been involved, but for some reason I’d never looked into taking part myself. However, since moving to Paris, I’d been looking for more ways to keep my involvement in UK outreach going, so a two-week online event with school students seemed perfect. And it was!
I signed up on the website and gave my one-line summary of my work. I was told it was vital to put some thought into my summary, as the schools use this to help them decide who they would like to talk to. The line I gave was the following:
I design and test pixel detectors (like those in your digital camera) for the ATLAS detector at CERN and I also study what happens when a Higgs boson turns into taus (heavier versions of electrons).
From the descriptions, the scientists are then assigned to a zone, where they will be competing against four other scientist for the all-important student votes. The students get to vote four times through out the competition. Once up until the Monday of the second week and then once-per-day after that. After each vote a scientist is evicted, until there is only one left. The winner in each zone is given £500 for an outreach project of their choice.
I was assigned to the Nuclear Zone and after a bit of a discussion with Project Wrangler Josh about the definition of nuclear they were using (to make sure I was definitely eligible) I agreed to take part. It’s quite a commitment if you want to do the event properly so I made sure I had set aside sufficient time to make the most of it. Here is the definition IAS uses for this zone:
“Nuclear” isn’t all about power and electricity. Nuclear physicists study the nucleus of an atom; the protons and neutrons. And look at how these control the characters of an element. Where the nucleus emits radiation, we find radioactive materials. There materials can be used for a great many purposes in research, including power generation, medical treatments, archaeology, and detecting other molecules.
I was eligible because protons are the particles we accelerate and collide in the LHC to do our research. Also, when I test new pixel modules, I use radioactive materials (mainly strontium) to study how they respond. Hence I became an honorary nuclear physicist!
The next task for me was to fill out my profile. I wrote about “me and my work”, “my typical day” and possibly most importantly, “what I’d do with the money” (in my zone this was sponsored by the STFC). It took me a long time to chose what to do with the money because I felt it there were many excellent uses for it. In the end, I decided I wanted to keep it close to particle physics and would use the money, if I won, to take the International Masterclass to schools not currently able to take part.
There were four excellent scientists with me in the Nuclear Zone: Thomas, Simon, Daniel and Becky! I had a fantastic time learning about what they do and it was a pleasure to talk to them over the two weeks. Even though it was supposed to feel like a competition, it didn’t as we chatted while waiting to talk to the students and hung out in the staffroom during the day. It was also great to get to know the scientists from other zones and the IAS moderators who had the unenviable task of keeping everything working properly.
The event itself is split into two sections: ASK and CHAT. The ASK section is where the students send in their questions to the site and select which scientists they want to answer them. I had many fantastic questions from a wide range of topics; from antimatter to aliens! I was often asked about my research at CERN working on pixel detectors and the Higgs boson, which showed that the students were really interested to know more about the work happening there.
The second section was where we went for the live text CHATS. Each class signed up to take part in our zone had a half an hour time-slot to talk to the scientists in real time. At first I thought that thirty minutes might be quite a long time, but boy was it not! I’m sure some sort of time dilation was going on as except for the fact that my fingers hurt from typing so much, I wouldn’t have known that we’d been there for that long! The speed and variety of the questions meant that I barely had time to pause after answering one before I had to move onto another, I’m so glad I can touch type! But it was also a lot of fun and the live aspect is brilliant because the students have the opportunity to ask for the scientists to explain in more detail. Below is a screenshot from one of the live chats. The window where our answers were was to the right of this one (in case you thought I hadn’t been keeping up!).
As the days of week two went on and I didn’t get evicted, I started to hope that I might make it all the way to the end. I made sure that I answered every question that came to me, even if one of the other scientists had already given an answer (in that case, I would write a related interesting fact about the topic of the question). On the final Thursday at 3pm, it was announced that the head-to-head would be between me and Thomas. I was a former Manchester physicist and he was currently doing a postdoc there. We were both working on experiments at CERN.
I had no idea what the difference in the votes between us was (since we’re not told) but from looking through the profiles of the students and seeing who they were voting for, it looked very close to me! At 3pm on the Friday of the second week I was very nervous – I’d put a lot of myself into the last two weeks and I realised I really wanted to win! The announcements were made live in the staffroom and I was thrilled to see my name next to the Nuclear Zone! A little while later the photos at the top of the page updated with the banner over mine which made it real.
I was honoured that the students had chosen to vote for me. But whichever way it had gone, it was an enjoyable two weeks of sharing my research and love of science with enthusiastic young people. I was very glad I took part! You can lookout for a future post about how I spent the money.
A few weeks after the event finished, the check and my certificate came through the post. And along with them was my exclusive I’m a Scientist mug!
If anyone is considering signing up for a future event, I would definitely recommend it! The June 2014 event has already started, but there will be another this year, and interested scientists should apply! You can also follow the I’m a Scientist twitter feed @imascientist for up-to-date info about the event.