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Paul Jackson | CERN | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

Back to school

I made a trip ‘home’ a couple of weeks ago for a less than pleasing family related reason (my mother was in hospital for an operation). Although I haven’t lived in the same country I grew up in for well over a decade now, a trip back to England is always exciting to me. I landed in Manchester and after visiting the hospital there for a few days I took advantage of being close to where I grew up, and went back to my old school. Not for any sinister reason like putting a brick through a window or writing graffiti on the walls, quite the contrary in fact. I contacted one of the teacher’s at the school who has recently been pushing teaching particle physics to year 12 and 13 students ( a new terminology for me, but apparently it means they are between 16 and 18 years old) and he was delighted to have me drop by and chat with them a bit.
In fact the school have arranged for some of the students to visit CERN later this month and so my timing, although inadvertent, could not have been better. I met a teacher at the reception (which felt more like ‘security’), signed in and was immediately whisked away into a class of adolescents. I was then plonked in front of them and apparently expected to inspire them to take up a career in physics. During those first few moments a strange feeling came over me: I was nervous. Actually really quite a bit bloody nervous if truth be told. I’m a good public speaker, confident in front of people and have no trouble standing in front of a room and speaking about, well, anything actually. But in front of this room of students, without the comfortable sofa of a well-prepared set of powerpoint slides to fall back onto, I was a bit shaky. In hindsight it was because I really felt that this mattered. Nobody came in and talked to us about opportunities like this when I was at school there. Nobody told me I could get a job in another country, do research into something I thought was interesting, work the hours I choose to and with people who stimulate my thoughts on things. So there I stood, growing back my confidence as I went on about my own career and the work at CERN to the ever eager students. At some point, I shut up, and sort of smiled at them and asked if they had any questions. Occasionally a death knell I was welcomed by the raising of many hands and a few chuckles. So, one-by-one we went through what they did and didn’t understand. If they said that the thought they shouldn’t ask a question because it was stupid I convinced them to ask it. None of the questions were stupid. In fact they were a well informed group of young people who have already been taught some useful concepts in quantum mechanics and particle physics. I took the often asked question of “How much money do you earn?” to be a thinly disguised version of “I’m kind of into this whole working in physics thing, but want to know what I will get paid before I decide whether to do it or not.”

The whole ‘outreach’ thing can comes in many guises but for me, none could be more satisfying than going back to your old school to help them out a bit. Maybe one day a future particle physics will go back and reminisce about the day they were inspired into the field by a former student.

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