• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • USLHC
  • USLHC
  • USA

  • James
  • Doherty
  • Open University
  • United Kingdom

Latest Posts

  • Andrea
  • Signori
  • Nikhef
  • Netherlands

Latest Posts

  • CERN
  • Geneva
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • TRIUMF
  • Vancouver, BC
  • Canada

Latest Posts

  • Laura
  • Gladstone
  • MIT
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Steven
  • Goldfarb
  • University of Michigan

Latest Posts

  • Fermilab
  • Batavia, IL
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Nhan
  • Tran
  • Fermilab
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Alex
  • Millar
  • University of Melbourne
  • Australia

Latest Posts

  • Ken
  • Bloom
  • USLHC
  • USA

Latest Posts

Aidan Randle-Conde | Université Libre de Bruxelles | Belgium

View Blog | Read Bio

My geodesic

A geodesic is the path a particle takes through space and time. It’s usually quite an esoteric path, full of twists and unexpected changes of course. At each stage along the way it looks smooth, almost peaceful, but when we look back it’s full of zig-zags and noise. A geodesic describes the complete history of a particle, and the particle has no choice but to follow it into the unknown. This week marks the 10th anniversary of when I started my undergraduate degree, so I thought it would be a good time to look back at my geodesic, and look at the obscure path my life has taken since embarking on physics.

A double rainbow over my hometown of Crewe.  What does it mean?!

A double rainbow over my hometown of Crewe. What does it mean?!

The geodesic starts in Cheshire, in the United Kingdom. I’d just finished my A levels (all in mathematics, physics and chemistry, a good start for any budding physicist) and I eagerly opened my results to find that I had the grades I needed. I was going to Oxford! In was an abrupt start to a new life full of opportunity and aspirations. The A levels I had chosen gave a bit of a head start on the other students, so for the first two terms I had the chance to explore what university life had to offer beyond lectures, labs and tutorials. After all, the first term was just learning the same things all over again.

What really appealed to me was student politics and the provision of services for the well being of students. Like any university, Oxford had its fair share of overwhelmed teenagers and twenty somethings who were struggling to get by. Moving to a new place, perhaps even a new country, all alone for the first time can be very intimidating. As a young gay man, I found myself drawn to the LGBT rights movement, which worked on all levels to try to modernize the institution. It was my first glimpse into being a part of the movement, and a rather gentle introduction to the vast labyrinth of activism that ran through the university. Shortly after signing up I was invited to become a “Peer Supporter” and help my fellow students who are going through rough times. With a university that was several hundred years old, buried in bureaucracy and with peer pressure, prof pressure and high blood pressure, something had to be done, and since I seemed to be coping quite well, I decided I had to help!

The obligatory embarrassing undergrad party photo

The obligatory embarrassing undergrad party photo.

Quite soon, the physics started to catch up with me. With 12 hours of lectures, 3 hours of classes and 8 hours of labs a week that doesn’t leave much time to get all the work done (often 20 pages or more for a single tutorial!) and do all the anything extra curricular things. Then the first big decision came along, is optics more important or astronomy? (It’s a silly decision when you think about it, you can’t be an astronomer without good knowledge of optics!) Since optics was a horrible subject that seemed to baffle me, I chose to study it and master it as best I could. That decision didn’t help much. It was just as baffling and raised more questions after taking the course. Some parts of the course were great fun (quantum mechanics!) but other parts just seemed so dry and dull, after all they were developed by dead men (and Marie Curie) long before most of us were born.

In an attempt to find physics more fun I joined (and became president of) the Space and Astronomy Society. This is a great experience for any young physicist, as you get to meet so many people from different areas and discuss their work over dinner and a bottle of wine. This gave a great insight into how to do well in the field, see the long term plan, and how to find it all fascinating. If you ever need help being enthused, find someone else who is already enthusing! It was with that group I that I first saw the bands of Jupiter, saw the Leonids shower, and heard Roger Penrose talk. (My fondest memory was when I arranged to have a former member come to speak. We offered speakers dinner and drinks almost anywhere, and usually talked about their work. She’d traveled all the way around the world and all she wanted to do was go to a small restaurant she loved as a student, and to talk about our experiences and how we found the society. She was right about the restaurant, it had great elderflower pressé!)

Halfway through the degree, time to celebrate exam success!

Halfway through the degree, time to celebrate exam success!

As the course progressed I had a period where the whole thing just seemed too messy. After two years of learning mostly dead subjects I was ready for a career change. It was then that I found the Feynman Lectures in the library and things changed. The summer was spent working for one of the colleges where they gave me free accommodation, free food and afternoons off. (I was not a morning person, so I wasn’t particularly good at my job there, oops!) This showed me a completely different way of looking at physics and I’ve been enthusiastic about it ever since. The more I read the more excited I became. That year, when term started again I learned particle physics and cosmology for the first time and found both fascinating. Since I’d enjoyed particle physics so much I thought it was time to spend a summer working for the physics department, and the following vacation I worked on some beam optics software named Optryck. It was old-school beam optics, but it taught me a great deal about the limits of the science of accelerating beams, and to this day I can still follow most of a conversation about what the LHC is doing when it squeezes its beams, or changes its values of beta-star.

After learning everything applied or cutting edge, from solid state physics to neutrino oscillations and Bose-Einstein condensates it was time to make a decision to pick just two topics. Only one topic really interested me and seemed beautiful and elegant enough to pursue, and of course that was particle physics! What to do with the other half of my time? I chose (perhaps unadvisedly) to study theoretical physics, which was mainly general relativity and Markov chains. The exam result was by a comfortable margin my worst in the whole course. My tutors suggested beforehand that I reconsider and pick something where I was more likely to excel, but why take the easy course? Why care what the tutors think? I want to study what’s interesting! And so I dived head first into general relativity. And didn’t understand any of it. Well that’s not true, after all I passed the exam, but it still was (and is) such an obscure and beautiful theory that does very well at explaining the universe around us.

Graduation time!

Graduation time!

At the same time as studying physics, I was also slowly climbing the ranks of student activism and welfare provision. Without that I probably would have had an easier time and may have obtained a first class degree, but why do just that when there are so many other amazing ways to spend time and make a difference? Education is more than oscilloscopes and photomultiplier tubes! In any case, four years of degree level physics is enough to give anyone an overload, so after my degree I took a sabbatical year and worked full time for the Student Union, assisting with welfare provision and equal opportunities policy. At the time it was my dream job, and still one I look back on fondly. The hours were long and the pay was awful, but it was very rewarding to see things slowly improve and to see my impact on long term policy. In many ways it’s like being a physicist. We spend months, sometimes years gathering data, and that’s after years of preparation designing and building the hardware. The discoveries are few and far between, and they fit into a grand framework that takes decades to unfold. All we can hope to achieve as individuals is to make a steady impact over many years, gently helping things to move along.

It was at the start of the year working for the Student Union that my geodesic hit its first huge diversion. Already it had navigated its way here and there through the hallowed halls of Oxford, getting into trouble, dodging disasters and somehow coming out exhausted but unscathed. The surprise came two weeks after my final exam. My brother had died suddenly, and I found myself almost alone (most of my friends had finished their degrees at the same time and moved away) coping with a huge loss. This made applying for PhD positions very difficult. I’d thrown myself into my work, but after six months I finally sank into a depression and a period of adjustment that didn’t lift for quite a few years. I had to apply to universities for a PhD, and the first interviews to come around were at Oxford. I got the paper work ready, prepared a little bit for the physics and applied. It took most of the day, and it was a fun but exhausting process. They told me that while I was a strong candidate, I didn’t make it. The prospect of traveling around the country and doing that again at any number of different universities seemed too much to handle, so for a while I got back to work and put off the PhD.

Time for a trip to Florence.

Time for a trip to Florence.

A few weeks later I got an E-mail from Brunel University offering me a position. One of my old tutors had passed my name around and recommended me to other places! Brunel was located at the mid point between Oxford and Central London, so I’d have a chance to explore both while I was there. The program used data from the BaBar experiment, which was already running at the time (unlike the LHC) and perhaps best of all, I’d get to move to the USA for a year! And so it was that I went for an interview, and took the position. I spent a year living in West London before heading off to SLAC. In the meantime I continued to pursue my interest in beam optics by working with the EMMA Collaboration in Cheshire. The EMMA machine is a proof of principle machine that could lead to new breakthroughs in hadron therapy. It’s nice to know that a tangent geodesic could have lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

Shortly after starting at Brunel I was sent out to SLAC for a week in December to take part in the BaBar Collaboration Meeting, and it that was my first time in an aeroplane. It made me feel very important! The first person I met when I arrived at SLAC who wasn’t a security guard was my current boss, Steve Sekula. I felt very welcomed by him and we got on very well. Over the next few years, whenever we’d meet up we’d talk about all sorts of physics problems and I’d solve more problems after talking to him for half an hour than I would working at my desk for a week, a pattern that continues today.

Arrival at Stanford

Arrival at Stanford.

Living in California was a wonderful change of pace. Once again I was in a new environment, with new people, ready to make a new start. At first I was a bit shy, as I was still coming to terms with loss, but in time I perked up and really started to enjoy being in the USA. The people were very welcoming and proud of their state (and they loved my accent!) I got to work full time on physics for the first time and the BaBar experiment was beautiful. The data were much “cleaner” than what we see today at the LHC, and more importantly BaBar had data. While at SLAC I made a number of great friends, many of whom are now working at CERN, and this makes the field of physics feel both too small and very friendly at the same time. Be nice to your colleagues! Your geodesics will intersect many times over the course of your career!

While I was out at SLAC there were serious funding cuts to the particle physics programs on both sides of the Atlantic. The BaBar experiment was going to end 6 months early, and with it, my PhD analysis would be lost (I was supposed to update an existing measurement with a new technique and new dataset) and my service task was lost (I was supposed to be an online expert.) With that, I had to scramble to find a new analysis, a new service task, and find funding for extra time to be out at SLAC. Fortunately, while the UK would not be sending any more students to California, there was still some money left to keep existing students out there. So I ended up staying for two years, while I was funded by the UK. By that time my PhD was still nowhere near ready, so I appealed to SLAC for some funding. They very generously provided 5 months of funding and I could stay long enough to finish things off, giving them four measurements for the price of one!

Discovering hidden gems in San Francisco

Discovering hidden gems in San Francisco.

Since the job market looked so bad in the UK, I was applying for anything I could find. I spent a few days putting together an application for a Fellowship with the University of Liverpool, only to find out at that all Fellowships had been withdrawn that year, and on December 21st. Merry Christmas! Well that was the second time consuming application I’d made that year, only to have the positions yanked away at the final hour. Every time these positions were withdrawn the pool of jobs got smaller and the competition got tougher. Universities started to go with the safer choices (ie their own students) and being based in the UK was definitely an advantage for getting good advice on jobs and getting recommendations written at shorter notice. Rather than go through all that a few more times I thought it was time to look into US universities. After all, SLAC had been a wonderful place to work and the American institutes tended to be more generous and supportive than British institutes. So when Steve got a position at SMU and told me he was looking for a Postdoc to work for him at CERN I thought I’d better take advantage of the opportunity while I still could. With my visa expired and a one month grace period before the Feds would chase me out of the country, I took a week to interview with Steve and got the position.

Now all I had to do was unblind my analysis, write up my thesis, defend and move to CERN! I had four months. It would be tough, but possible. So I moved back to London (Central London this time, on the South Bank of the Thames) and locked myself away for 12 hours a day while I wrote. And wrote. I got a chance to catch up with my family and a lot of my friends I’d missed. If you ever have a chance to live in London I would definitely recommend it. It’s one of the most exciting places you’ll ever see, and while it’s busy, cramped and some of the people can be quite blunt during rush hour, it more than makes up for it in all the history, culture and the dozens of museums.

By day I wrote my thesis.  By night I took photos.

By day I wrote my thesis. By night I took photos.

The big day came. The results were unblinded, the calculations made, and the thesis printed off. There were no unpleasant surprises, and in fact I had a few world record result! (CLEO-c came along and beat them a year later, but still… with the help of some physicists at SLAC me and my team at BaBar had performed an analysis which many thought was impossible, and did so with record breaking precision.) After submitting my draft, I grabbed a coffee, got on the London Underground, and helped my friend put flyers through people’s doors for one of the local political candidates (it was election time, after all.) The next month was spent enjoying London, moving house very temporarily (I moved in with a lovely Jamaican lady for a month who would make tea with ginger and lemon), finding somewhere to live in France and seeing what CERN was really like. Things then got a little tricky, as I had to start my job before my defence happened (we call it a viva in the UK.) So I was flown to Dallas for two weeks, where I got to stay with Steve and his wife, to fill out paperwork, and then back to CERN. Almost immediately I sat the viva and passed with minor corrections, breathed a sigh of relief and started to settle into life at CERN.

That summer I was still working for SLAC to get the publication of my result out. So by day I worked with Steve and our graduate student, Tingting, and by night worked for SLAC. It was an exhausting summer and it took my six weeks to get internet at home (unheard of for a geek like me!) The transition from BaBar to ATLAS was somewhat painful, because hadron machines are so much more complicated than electron positron machines. Everything about the hardware takes longer to understand and for every analysis it takes longer to implement the basic tools. To make matters worse, everyone else seemed to have been doing this for years before I arrived. Slowly, over time, I found a niche and got settled in, looking for the Charged Higgs boson (something we’d looked for indirectly at SLAC and failed to see.)

A quick trip to Beijing for a conference...

A quick trip to Beijing for a conference...

Since being at CERN I’ve made the effort to try to change things a little for the better, no matter how small. So while I’ve been here I’ve set up the LGBT group at CERN (you can see the website with its cool spectrum-like logo.) It’s been a fun project, and one for which there seems to be too little time to really make it as successful as other similar groups. Everyone here is busy, and an evening spent exploring the scene is an evening that can’t be spent preparing for the next conference, or simply staying at home and relaxing. So I’ve also made an effort to maintain a blog about life as a physicist at CERN. If this blog helps young people to study physics, or encourages general members of the public to find out more about what we do here at CERN then that’s mission accomplished! After all, we need new young physicists to come and replace us, and we need support from the public if we are to have any kind of future. There are plenty of people who want to know more details than the general media provide, and this is a good medium for that.

Right now I’m embarking on a new analysis. Before time runs out, I’m going to look for the Higgs boson decaying to two photons. There is a huge effort to search in this channel, and it’s going to take a while to pin down, but it’ll be worth when we get the final result. Looking further ahead, I’m not sure where to go next. Perhaps a CERN Fellowship and a move to another experiment.

Finally landed at CERN!

Finally landed at CERN!

So that’s my geodesic. Via Oxford, London, SLAC and CERN it’s negotiated all kinds of obstacles, veered off course into new exciting regions of space every now and then and ended up here at CERN. Along the way it’s taken me to Washington DC, Elba, Paris and Beijing, with side trips to the Grand Canyon, Tuscany and the trans-Siberian railway to name just a few destinations. I’ve partied in the desert for Burning Man, seen the LHC turn on from 8,000 miles away, glimpsed at distant worlds and fulfilled a childhood dream of visiting Russia (not to mention being a scientist!) Would I have preferred a different geodesic? Possibly. There were definitely some rough patches and terrible decisions, but looking back I’m glad it took the course it did. It was full of surprises and it’s still unfolding. Who knows where it will go next, and what lies over the (event) horizon?

But enough of my geodesic. It’s only one of billions. Tell the world about your geodesic and the path you’ve taken through your career.

Share