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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

University of Birmingham Masterclass

This fantastic event takes place every year at the university, where local A level students from different schools attend a cram-packed day of particle physics. First, PhD students and staff give talks about the different kinds of particle physics detectors, the physics of the Standard model and what is being searched for by the LHC experiments the group is working on (ATLAS and ALICE), and more about how the LHC itself works. I love this part of the day because it is a fantastic example of physics communication done well – the students are keen to take in whatever can be thrown at them, and the talks are carefully put together and well rehearsed to ensure they are given as much as clearly as possible. My supervisor, Dr David Evans, is particularly good at this, bringing the subject to life, highlighting its immediate apparentness in our world, and aiding the students to visualise some of the extreme large and small scales involved.

The next part of the day involves careful preparation – the students are given the opportunity to try to identify and classify particular events. In the past, this used real data from the LEP (Large Electron Positron collider at CERN) experiments, and involved identifying Z boson decays to charged leptons (the electron and muon having rather different characteristic traits in a particle detector) or quark-antiquark pairs (that become two back-to-back jets in the detector). This gave students an exciting insight into how events are really chosen, and also how the first handful of events were, historically, analysed.

Now simulated events for the ATLAS detector are analysed by the students, thanks to the university’s Mark Stockton, who developed the visualisation software and spent alot of time preparing suitable tasks for this purpose. Here, the students get a closer insight into the challenge of the LHC – proton collisions are much messier than electron-positron collisions! This part of the day gets alot of the department involved, helping to moderate, as students pair up and work through event by event looking for particular decays, and at one stage, searching for the Higgs Boson. They learn brilliant problem solving skills here, surprisingly quickly picking up where to look when they see something unusual like missing transverse energy or a distracting spray of particles from a jet.

Next comes the part of the day I mentioned in my post, Communicating Science: 1. Small groups of students are placed with a member of staff or PhD student and and split up (in this year’s case, around the grass on campus). The students get the opportunity to discuss what they have learned, ask any questions and think process the information of the day. This year, the teachers made up their own small group too. The big questions that come up are then written down, ready for the grand finale of the day.

Once everyone is back in the main lecture theatre, a live video link-up to CERN is made, and questions are put to an expert. This year, the University’s Dave Charlton, Physics co-ordinator of ATLAS, was there to answer questions. However, even for him, some curiously difficult questions popped up. I love hearing all of the different things people want to ask about – everything from personal experience of the job to ethical and political queries, as well as a baracade of unusual physics questions. I always find that the younger you are, the better questions you ask about the world, so A level students are my favourite people to talk to because they have the curiosity to ask you something killer but have the maturity, interest and patience to take a full and detailed answer. Finally, Mick Storr, also connected via video link, usually gives us a tour from down in the tunnels. This year though, he was positioned just beside the ATLAS detector as something very exciting was happening. The students got to watch as the end-cap of the detector was slowly moved back into position after maintenance work. The scale is quite overwhelming – I remember my first visit to CERN in 2001 seeing the world’s largest (at the time, anyway) warm dipole magnet being moved by a crane above my head at ALICE. It takes your breath away.

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