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!
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!
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.
Today is the Higgs boson’s second birthday! It was on this day, the fourth of July, in 2012 that the Higgs was unveiled to the world with the now immortal words of CERN Director General, Rolf Heuer, “I think we have it”.
Before the announcement was made, the atmosphere at CERN was like a rock concert. I, along with many PhD and summer students, spent the previous night waiting outside the auditorium where the talks from two of the LHC experiments, CMS and ATLAS, were to take place. This was to guarantee ourselves a seat to watch history being made.
It’s a shame that the room wasn’t larger as I know that many people were disappointed not to get a seat, especially if they had worked on the result, but I also think it’s fantastic that so many young people were able to be a part of it, as they will be the ones making the discoveries of the future. It was simultaneously streamed to other auditoriums in CERN, the ICHEP conference in Australia and online for the public to watch.
JoeIncandela from the CMS experiment went first to explain their results. He was followed by ATLAS spokesperson, Fabiola Gianotti. Despite the importance of the results, many people on the internet didn’t like Fabiola’s choice of colours or font for her presentation and “comic sans” even started trending on twitter! It has now become a running joke at CERN, and there was even a video this April that CERN would be switching to the font.
The presentations concluded with a a standing ovation!
After the announcement, the audience poured out to join the crowds of people outside. My group headed the short distance to R1, CERN’s premiere restaurant. We sat outside and toasted the discovery with champagne and Pimms provided by Steve Bieniek from Heathrow airport. After a while excitement turned to exhaustion and I lay my head on my arms to nap. I woke when a reporter from the Times came over: “I could tell you were British” he told us, “as I could see the bottle of Pimms from the other side of the courtyard”. He asked us questions about the announcement and what we thought it meant. It seemed that I was coherent enough, even though I had just woken up, to make it into the article! Although, unfortunately the article is behind a paywall.
The next day the Higgs result was everywhere. It even made it onto the front page of the New York Times! The photograph included about four pixels of my head and I asked my American friends if someone could get a copy for me. It was brilliant how excited the world was about our discovery!
On the day, I had seen Professor Higgs, along with the other major theorists, from a distance. A little over a year later I was able to meet him in person. In 2013, Prof. Higgs was given an honorary degree at the University of Manchester only days after the Nobel prize for physics had been announced. I had just submitted my thesis and so was more than happy to spend the day preparing for his arrival by building a LEGO version of the ATLAS detector.
Prof. Higgs was modest and fascinating to listen to as he told us the history of the theory. I was very fortunate to be able to get my copy of the New York Times front page article of the boson discovery signed by him!
If you’re celebrating Higgs-dependance day (as it was dubbed two years ago), you can re-live the excitement of the announcement by watching the recording on the CERN Document Server (CDS): http://cds.cern.ch/record/1459565
If you want to hear more about the Higgs boson (& beyond!), and are near London this week, the Royal Society has a Summer Science Exhibition including a Higgs boson stall. Since Tuesday, scientists from universities all over the UK have been talking to the public about the Higgs boson, it’s discovery two years ago and what we still want to learn. You can follow the Twitter account for the exhibit @HiggsBosonRS14 to see photos and find out more information. If you visit on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I’ll be on the stall, so please come over and say hello!
Where were you when the Higgs boson discovery was announced? Did you watch online? Let me know in the comments below.
Taking pictures of particles and other stories from a high energy physicist