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James Doherty | Open University | United Kingdom

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Physics + wine = plasma + fun

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Ever fancied making your own particle accelerator? Fermilab posted a great blog entry last month (here) showing how anyone can make a particle detector for viewing cosmic rays. In this post, I will explain how particle accelerators can also be hacked so that you can make your very own cathode ray tube (CRT).

I came across this experiment when attending an accelerator school at the Australian Synchrotron last year. To read more about my adventures down under please see Accelerating Down Under and If you can’t stand the heat, get into the Synchrotron!.

What is a cathode ray tube?

Good question. It consists of a vacuum chamber containing some electrodes between which a high voltage is applied. Electrons are accelerated from the negatively charged cathode to the positively charged anode. But some electrons fly past the anode to hit a glass wall. CRTs were utilised in old television sets to form images on a fluorescent screen.


You will need:

  • – a clear wine bottle
  • – a vacuum pump
  • – a rubber hose
  • – epoxy resin
  • – mini chrome-plated metal doorknob
  • – a piece of steel brake line
  • – a piece of steel wire several centimetres long
Empty wine bottles at the Australian Synchrotron.

Experimental preparation at the Australian Synchrotron: GRAPE 1, 2 & 3. Image credit: Ralph Steinhagen.


A detailed method for this experiment may be found (here) but I summarise the main steps below:

  1. Drink a bottle of wine. Wash out the wine bottle with warm soapy water and remove all labelling from the exterior.
  2. Drill a hole about 1/2 way down the wine bottle which is big enough to fit the metal wire through. This will act as the mount for the anode. If your bottle cracks, throw it away and return to step 1.
  3. Drill a hole through the metal doorknob. Use epoxy to attach the break line to the doorknob’s screw mount. This will act both as the cathode and vacuum port. Apply epoxy to the rim of the mouth of the wine bottle and attach the cathode to form an airtight seal.
  4. Bend the steel wire into a C-shape and thread it through the hole you drilled in the wall of the wine bottle. This is your anode. Orient it so that all points on it are equidistant from your cathode. Secure it with epoxy and ensure it is airtight.
  5. Attach the rubber hose to your anode and the other end to the vacuum pump. Attach the anode and cathode to a high voltage power supply. Turn on the power supply and vacuum pump and enjoy!



The GRAPE 2 experiment: a vacuum pump is connected to the experiment via the rubber tube to the right of the bottle. The anode and cathode, which are connected to a high voltage supply, are seen to glow. Image credit: Ralph Steinhagen.


A word of warning: using high voltages, creating vacuums and drilling holes in glass bottles are all inherently dangerous activities. If you attempt this experiment please observe all safety advice. In particular, wear protective clothing and safety glasses, don’t use cracked bottles for the experiment – you risk implosion – and apply the voltage for a maximum of 30/40 seconds.

And please leave adequate time between consuming the wine and carrying out the experiment to sober up.


The video below shows what happened when the switch was flicked on the GRAPE 2 experiment at the Australian Synchrotron:


Initially there is a clear purple electric discharge between the anode and cathode. This discharge excites the atoms in the gas in the bottle causing a burst of liberated free electrons. The electrons are travelling much faster than the positive ions they leave behind and so diffuse to the cathode and bottle walls. Thus a plasma (or ionised gas) is created.

The plasma stabilises as more ionisation occurs, then begins to glow as electrons and ions recombine and emit photons. This process of ionisation and recombination is continuous. The instabilities or fluctuations observed indicate that different proportions of the remaining gas are being excited as the experiment proceeds. Can you think of why this happens? If so, please comment below.

When a magnet is placed near the bottle the plasma is visibly distorted. This phenomenon is known as magnetic deflection and is described by the Lorentz force law. The plasma’s charged particles experience a force when they travel through the magnetic field which is perpendicular both to the path they follow and to the applied magnetic field, that is the magnet causes the particles to follow a curved path. This effect is used in circular particle accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider, where strong dipole magnets are used to steer the particles around the machine.

A cross section of the LHC showing the dipole magnets which are used to bend the path followed by protons.

A cross section of the LHC showing the dipole magnets which are used to bend the path followed by protons. The magnets may be seen flanking the left-hand beam pipe. Image credit: James Doherty

What are you waiting for?

Particle physics is not a game that only elite scientists at well-funded institutions can play. With a little effort, determination and ingenuity, it is possible to make your own particle accelerator or detector. So what are you waiting for? Give it a go and let us know how you get on in the chat box below. Good luck!

The GRAPE 2 experiment was carried out by Kaitlin Cook, Paul Bennetto and Tom Lucas under the supervision of Ralph Steinhagen at the 2014 Australian Synchrotron Accelerator School. The above photos and video are courtesy of Ralph Steinhagen.


CERN appoints new Director-General

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

During November CERN’s Council chose Fabiola Gianotti to be the organisation’s 16th Director-General. She will take over from the current incumbent, Rolfe Heuer, on 1 January 2016 and will serve for five years.

A spokesperson for CERN’s Council stated:

“It was Dr Gianotti’s vision for CERN’s future as a world leading accelerator laboratory, coupled with her in-depth knowledge of both CERN and the field of experimental particle physics that led us to this outcome.”

CERN’s current Director General declared that:

“Fabiola Gianotti is an excellent choice to be my successor… [I] am confident that CERN will be in very good hands.”

And Gianotti herself proclaimed:

“It is a great honour and responsibility for me to be selected as the next CERN Director-General following 15 outstanding predecessors… I will fully engage myself to maintain CERN’s excellence in all its attributes, with the help of everybody, including CERN Council, staff and users from all over the world.”

Dr. Gianotti poses with the ATLAS experiment.

Dr. Gianotti poses with the ATLAS experiment. (Image credit: Claudia Marcelloni)

Dr. Gianotti hails from Italy and holds a PhD in experimental particle physics from the University of Milan. She joined CERN in 1987 and worked on various experiments including the UA2 experiment and ALEPH, a detector for the Large Electron-Positron Collider (the LHC’s predecessor). She went on to join the ATLAS experiment, for which she was leader from March 2009 to February 2013. In July 2012 she, along with a spokesperson from the CMS experiment, announced that ATLAS and CMS had observed a ‘Higgs-like particle’. The discovery of the Higgs boson was subsequently confirmed and, as a result, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel prize for physics in December 2013. (See here).

While she is no doubt a talented physicist, Gianotti has other strings to her bow. For example, she is an accomplished pianist who once considered a career in music. She also possesses a hint of mischief: having caused quite a stir for using the comic sans font in her slideshow presentation when announcing ATLAS’s observation of the Higgs (not serious enough apparently), she went on to announce this year that CERN would be adopting comic sans as its official font! – it was April 1st. (See this post from Rob Knoops for more.)

Being CERN’s big cheese is a tough gig but Gianotti seems qualified, experienced, able and passionate enough to be a great Director-General. It is also highly refreshing to see a female appointed to the highest profile physics office in the world.

From the Quantum Diarists, good luck Fabiola!


Coffee and Code (Part Deux)

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Further to my entry on the CERN Summer Student Webfest 2014 posted a few weeks ago (here), there is a short video about the event available to view HERE. Enjoy!



Coffee and code: Innovation at the CERN Webfest

Friday, August 15th, 2014
The Particle Clicker team working late into the night.

The Particle Clicker team working late into the night.

This article was also published here on CERN’s website.

This weekend CERN hosted its third Summer Student Webfest, a three-day caffeine-fuelled coding event at which participants worked in small teams to build innovative projects using open-source web technologies.

There were a host of projects to inspire the public to learn about CERN and particle physics, and others to encourage people to explore web-based solutions to humanitarian disasters with CERN’s partner UNOSAT.

The event opened with a session of three-minute pitches: participants with project ideas tried to recruit team members with particular skills, from software development and design expertise to acumen in physics. Projects crystallised, merged or floundered as 14 pitches resulted in the formation of eight teams. Coffee was brewed and the hacking commenced…

Run Broton Run

Members of the Run Broton Run team help each other out at the CERN Summer Student Webfest 2014 (Image: James Doherty)

The weekend was interspersed with mentor-led workshops introducing participants to web technologies. CERN’s James Devine detailed how Arduino products can be used to build cosmic-ray detectors or monitor LHC operation, while developers from PyBossa provided an introduction to building crowdsourced citizen science projects on crowdcrafting.org. (See a full list of workshops).

After three days of hard work and two largely sleepless nights, the eight teams were faced with the daunting task of presenting their projects to a panel of experts, with a trip to the Mozilla Festival in London up for grabs for one member of the overall winning team. The teams presented a remarkable range of applications built from scratch in under 48 hours.

Students had the opportunity to with Ben Segal, an inductee of the Internet Hall of Fame.

Students had the opportunity to collaborate with Ben Segal (middle), inductee of the Internet Hall of Fame.

Prizes were awarded as follows:

Best Innovative Project: Terrain Elevation

A mobile phone application that accurately measures elevation. Designed as an economical method of choosing sites with a low risk of flooding for refugee camps.

Find out more.

Best Technology Project: Blindstore

A private query database with real potential for improving online privacy.

Find out more here.

Best Design Project: GeotagX and PyBossa

An easy-to-use crowdsourcing platform for NGOs to use in responding to humanitarian disasters.

Find out more here and here.

Best Educational Project: Run Broton Run

An educational 3D game that uses Kinect technology.

Find out more here.

Overall Winning Project: Particle Clicker

Particle Clicker is an elegantly designed detector-simulation game for web.

Play here.

“It’s been an amazing weekend where we’ve seen many impressive projects from different branches of technology,” says Kevin Dungs, captain of this year’s winning team. “I’m really looking forward to next year’s Webfest.”

Participants of the CERN Summer Student Webfest 2014 in the CERN Auditorium after three busy days' coding.

Participants of the CERN Summer Student Webfest 2014 in the CERN Auditorium after three busy days’ coding.

The CERN Summer Student Webfest was organised by François Grey, Ben Segal and SP Mohanty, and sponsored by the Citizen Cyberlab, Citizen Cyberscience Centre, Mozilla Foundation and The Port. Event mentors were from CERN, PyBossa and UNITAR/UNOSTAT. The judges were Antonella del Rosso (CERN Communications), Bilge Demirkoz (CERN Researcher) and Fons Rademakers (CTO of CERN Openlab).


If you can’t stand the heat, get into the Synchrotron!

Friday, May 16th, 2014

I attended the Australian Accelerator School in January of this year.  Better late than never, I recount some of my experiences below.

It’s Day 1 of the Australian Accelerator School and Melbourne is the hottest city on Earth with temperatures soaring above 40°C – which is a bit much when one has just arrived from a soggy UK winter. Fortunately, the Australian Synchrotron is housed in a beautifully air-conditioned building located in the suburbs of Melbourne, just next door to Monash University.

The Australian Synchrotron, which opened in 2007, is the largest stand-alone piece of scientific infrastructure in the southern hemisphere and provides a source of highly intense light which is used for a wide range of research purposes. It is situated on a modern site with the circular synchrotron at its focus, surrounded by several other buildings.

Beampipe: getting acquainted with the Australian  Synchrotron.

Beampipe: getting acquainted with the Australian Synchrotron.

The School has gathered 23 students, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, and an impressive panel of experts. Phil Burrows of Oxford University is the keynote lecturer and will provide a step-by-step guide on the physics and maths underpinning particle accelerators. Ralph Steinhagen of CERN is armed with over 700 slides on the technical aspects of accelerator operation. Toshi Mitsuhashi of KEK, aka the “Master”, will share his vast experience on the optics of accelerators, while Jeff Corbett of SLAC will lead laboratory exercises. And not forgetting Roger Rassool of Melbourne University, who will be present to add his irrepressible energy and enthusiasm to proceedings.

Mornings are to be spent in lectures and afternoons in the lab. In labs we will have the chance to develop practical skills, such as soldering, using oscilloscopes, programming Arduino chips, and modelling electronic circuits and particle accelerators. There are also various international conferences running through the fortnight, some sessions of which we will be attending. The programme will conclude with a group project, to be presented to the experts on the final day of the school. And there’s the odd social event to attend too.

In true Aussie fashion we are welcomed with a barbecue – although we all feel feel more cooked than sausages after a few minutes outdoors. And we’ll be kept sweating over the next 12 days…

Stay tuned for wine + DIY particle physics…


Day 1 labs: getting familiar with oscilloscopes.


Citizen Science – a power for change that’s here to stay

Monday, March 17th, 2014

I previously blogged about how CERN is embracing the power of citizen science to assist with it’s research (see here). LHC@home also allows non-scientists to get involved with particle physics at CERN. To learn a bit more about citizen science, I recently attended the third Citizen Cyberscience Summit in London, and was asked by online publication ‘International Science Grid This Week’ to write an article on the event. The article was published here on 12 March 2014, and I replicate it below.

February saw London host the Third Citizen Cyberscience Summit, a three-day event dedicated to the expanding field of citizen science. More than 300 delegates from around the world assembled to network, share ideas, and get creative. The event provided fascinating insight into how computers, mobile phones, and other devices are helping to mobilize the citizen science community. Attendees were left with the distinct impression that citizen science is no passing fad but a movement on the forefront of a fundamental shift in how we approach science and education.

Citizen Science?

For the uninitiated, citizen science is scientific research conducted in whole or part by amateur or non-professional scientists. There is a spectrum of different kinds of citizen science from ‘crowdsourcing’, in which citizens analyze data, to ‘extreme citizen science’, where scientists collaborate with citizens in problem definition, data collection and analysis.

One of the youngest delegates gets the chance to hack a drone. Image courtesy James Doherty.

One of the youngest delegates gets the chance to hack a drone. Image courtesy James Doherty.

Citizen science stars

On day one of the summit, keynote speeches from the heavyweights of citizen science left delegates with no doubt that citizen science is a big deal. The crown jewel of citizen science remains the Zooniverse, a top-down crowdsourcing platform where citizens analyze large sets of data, such as pictures of galaxies that need to be classified as elliptical or spiral. The Zooniverse has reached the significant milestone of one million contributors and plans to use human input to program computers for data analysis.

Other leaders in the field include Eyewire, an addictive game in which participants help scientists map neural connections in the brain. Erinma Ochu delivered a heart-warming account of her sunflower project, in which participants grow and help to analyze sunflowers, and Daniel Lombraña González reported on how CrowdCrafting has helped interest groups in the US monitor fracking activities.

World Community Grid, which uses spare capacity on computers and mobile devices to power scientific research on health, poverty and sustainability, was also featured at the summit. Sophia Tu and Juan Hindo of IBM, which sponsors and supports World Community Grid, announced a major scientific breakthrough in childhood cancer. Donated computing capacity has enabled researchers of childhood cancer to discover seven drug candidates that are highly effective at destroying tumors without any apparent side effects. This may also have applications for adult cancers, including breast and lung cancer.

The atomic force microscope hacked by Lego2nano students. Image courtesy James Doherty.

The atomic force microscope hacked by Lego2nano students. Image courtesy James Doherty.

Tu and Hindo also talked at the summit about their experience launching an Android mobile app in partnership with BOINC of the University of California, Berkley, US, last July, becoming one of the first volunteer computing initiatives to go mobile. They found that many citizen scientists are more comfortable downloading a mobile app than installing software on their computer: signups jumped ten times the week of launch and the app quickly reached ‘Top 5 Trending’ status in the Google Play store.

Citizen science’s expanding influence was evidenced by a series of talks on policy and engagement. Jacquie McGlade’s video presentation highlighted the importance of inclusiveness and keeping the gates of citizen science open to all. A recurring theme emerged that citizens are enjoying more autonomy in defining the projects to which they contribute. And Kaitlin Thaney of the Mozilla Science lab argued that the wider researcher community should draw inspiration from citizen science and the web’s open-source revolution to itself become more open and collaborative.

Engaging and empowering citizens

On the second day, the summit moved to less formal surroundings in University College London (UCL), UK, for workshops, panel discussions, and short presentations. A panel debate with five female citizen scientists highlighted the commitment of people engaged with citizen science and the empowerment they experience from contributing to projects.

At a series of talks on DIY citizen science, Francois Grey, coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, described how the Lego2nano summer school program mobilized a group of students to construct an atomic force microscope for a fraction of the price of those found in modern labs. Grey argued that because so much can be learned from making and programming technology, young people should be encouraged to become makers, engineers, and programmers.

In the evening, the Citizen Science Cafe also afforded those not attending the conference the opportunity to pop-in after work to mingle with others passionate about citizen science.

What can you do for your community?

By day three of the summit, delegates were chomping at the bit to start doing some citizen science themselves. Saturday’s ‘hackdaychallenge’ provided an opportunity for collaboration on a number of different projects, including: constructing an application that enables citizens to analyze photographs from the International Space Stationmaking the most of solar panels installed in Ghanian schools; and an application developed by child psychologist Caspar Addyman for analyzing baby laughter. The winning project was the Pulse Sensor Textile Challenge, which aims to measure the impact of textiles on emotions.

The closing keynote presentation was delivered by journalist-turned-academic Jeff Howe, who first coined the term ‘crowdsourcing’. In this entertaining and insightful talk, Howe noted that the most successful crowdsourcing projects are often a gift from an individual to the community, and providediStockphoto.com as an illustrative example. He argued that the cardinal rule of crowdsourcing is that one should ask ‘what can you do for your community, not what your community can do for you’. Like Grey, Howe suggested that citizen science has the potential to bring about a fundamental change in how young people are educated.

Hackday team discusses how photographs taken on mobile phones may be used in disaster response. Image courtesy James Doherty.

Hackday team discusses how photographs taken on mobile phones may be used in disaster response. Image courtesy James Doherty.

More than a passing fad

A recent article in Nature hinted at a certain decline in citizen science, but little evidence of this trend was on display at the summit, which was saturated with energy, enthusiasm and love for citizen science. Grey described the event not as a “thin broth with just one intellectual ingredient but a rich stew of ideas with spices from far-away fields”. This is, indeed, reflective of the pervasive nature of citizen science: there is a vibrant community across the globe analyzing data, playing games, growing sunflowers, posting pictures, monitoring pollution, and more.

So, citizen science seems to be much more than a passing fad that is now in decline. Rather, it is a movement that empowers its participants. That demands openness, collaboration and accessibility. That has the potential to bring about change. And most importantly that recognizes, as Howe puts it, that “everyone has something to offer”.


Accelerating Down Under

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Believe it not, there are particle accelerators to be found beyond the outer-Geneva area – even in such far flung locations as Melbourne, Australia. You may recall from a previous blog post that I befriended some Aussie particle physicists at CERN during the summer who kindly invited me to a two-week accelerator school at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. And here I am!

The Australian Synchrotron opened in 2007 and is the largest stand-alone piece of scientific infrastructure in the southern hemisphere. It is a source of highly intense light which is used for a wide range of research purposes.

The Australian Synchrotron.

The Australian Synchrotron.

Synchrotrons are circular machines which accelerate electrons to extremely high energies, producing electron beams which travel at almost the speed of light. As the beam of electrons takes a circular path around the machine, the electrons emit intense radiation known as synchrotron light. This light is really useful for imaging, analysis and in a wide range of scientific experiments.

In some accelerators, operators attempt to minimize the emission of synchrotron radiation so that particles retain maximum energy for high-energy collisions. For example, in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), protons are accelerated as they have a much larger mass than electrons and so suffer less from loss of synchrotron radiation. Also, the larger the circumference of the circular path which the particles take, the weaker the synchrotron radiation emission – that’s why the LHC was built with a huge 27 km circumference. Linear accelerators, such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in the US, avoid the emission of synchrotron radiation altogether as particles travel in a straight line.

So a synchrotron’s key output – synchrotron light – is the very same thing which operators of other accelerators voraciously try to minimize.

The Australian Synchrotron’s accelerator school is an intensive two-week course on particle physics and accelerators. It attracts student physicists from across Australia (and occasionally the UK!), as well as lecturers and tutors from leading institutions from across the world.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks to hear about my adventures at the Australian Synchrotron.


Summer on the Higgs Farm

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The Open University asked me to write an article on my time at CERN over the summer. I replicate the article below which was published by the OU on 5 November 2013 here. The article pulls together my experiences on the CERN Summer Programme and provides links to particular blog entries on this site should you wish to learn more. Enjoy!

I got lucky – very lucky. For I spent this summer at CERN in Switzerland at the world’s greatest laboratory and the birthplace of the Nobel-winning Higgs boson. I am studying physical sciences with the OU and in this article I recount an incredible, challenging and unforgettable summer. I also include links to my blog which you can click to learn more about life at CERN.

What is CERN?

CERN, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is an international organisation which operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. At CERN scientists use complex scientific instruments to probe the fundamental structure of the universe and basic constituents of matter – fundamental particles.

CERN is the home of the world’s largest machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC): a 27km circular particle accelerator that collides particles which are travelling at close to the speed of light. The LHC was used to observe the Higgs boson, a particle which is the by-product of a mechanism by which other fundamental particles acquire mass. This observation led to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert being announced as winners of a Nobel Prize for Physics in October 2013.

Learn more about the Higgs Nobel here, here and here.

The Student Summer Programme

Each year CERN invites around 300 physics, engineering and computer science students from across the globe to participate in its Summer Student Programme. The programme affords students the opportunity to attend a six week lecture series on particle physics and related topics, and also to carry out a research project.

Learn more about the CERN Summer Student Programme here.


This year’s crop of summer students pose outside CERN’s showcase visitor’s centre, Globe.

First impressions

CERN is plonked in the midst of beautiful agricultural estates which nestle between the Alps and Jura mountain ranges, with several sites on either side of the Swiss-French border. Smaller experiments are based on the main Meyrin site on the outskirts of Geneva, while larger accelerators, such as the LHC, extend into France.

On arrival one is rather taken aback by how plain, industrial and, dare I say, ugly CERN is. Buildings are haphazardly distributed and typical of 1960 university campus architecture. But there is more to CERN than first meets the eye.

More first impressions here.

CERN's Meyrin site.

CERN’s Meyrin site.

What are the people like?

There are approximately 10,000 people on the CERN site each day who hail from all corners of the Earth. One need only walk into the main restaurant at lunchtime to sense the excitement in the air at CERN. People know they’re involved with something special and they want to be there. The diverse, multicultural and enthusiastic workforce creates a fantastic atmosphere.

The lectures

The lecture series was intense, technical and extremely interesting. Topics ranged from theoretical and mathematical subjects, such as the Standard Model and Supersymmetry (theoretical models which explain how fundamental particles interact), to more applied and technical topics, such as the operation of particle accelerators and detectors. Lectures were delivered by leaders in the field and daily Q&A sessions provided an excellent opportunity to interrogate them.

More on the lecture series here.

My research

I worked in the Beam Instrumentation Group to develop a new type of beam position monitor (BPM) for the LHC. This is a gizmo which measures the position of the beams of particles which circulate around the LHC so that they can be kept on target. The project was very hands-on and involved playing with lasers and crystals. This new type of BPM might someday be installed in the LHC so it was exciting to be involved with its development.

Find our more about my research here and here.


My laboratory set-up incorporating lasers and birefringent crystals,

The social life

Bringing together 300 students inevitably leads to an active social scene. There was lots going on including parties on site, trekking in the mountains, trips to nearby Swiss towns, dance classes, and music festivals. Geneva also provided enough entertainment, cheese and wine to keep most amused, satiated and merry. My favourite activity was having a swim in Lake Geneva.

More on the social scene at CERN here and here.

What did I learn?

I learned a lot at CERN. One of the most striking features of modern physics is that we are still largely in the dark – literally. The matter which everything we can see, including ourselves, is composed of makes up a mere 4% of the universe. The rest is dark matter and dark energy. Supersymmetry holds some promise for a deeper understanding of dark matter but as far as dark energy – which accounts for 73% of the universe – is concerned, we haven’t got the foggiest. It is this kind of mystery which I think makes science so alluring.

I also learned that there are exciting times ahead for physics. CERN is mostly closed for business at the moment as its accelerators are being upgraded but when the LHC is switched back on in 2015, it is going to reach incredible collision energies approaching 7 TeV. Higher energies means different kinds of stuff might fly out of the particle collisions. So the observation of the Higgs boson may be just the tip of the iceberg of a whole new generation of fundamental particles and physics.

The gargantuan detector, CMS.

The gargantuan detector, CMS. This 12,500 tonne beast is located 80 metres underground at a point where particles collide in the LHC. It may be instrumental in discovering new physics.

Will I go back?

I had a fantastic time at CERN and would love to return one day… if they’ll have me.


The Humble Scientist

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013
Peter Higgs at a press conference at Edinburgh University on 11 October 2013.

Peter Higgs at a press conference at Edinburgh University on 11 October 2013.

As the dust settles following the announcement of the winners of the 2013 Nobel prize for physics, it is worth pausing for a moment to contemplate the man who – reluctantly – gave his name to a boson.

On 8 October 2013, at around 10am GMT, the Nobel committee concluded its deliberations, identified this year’s laureates, and made a few phone calls. In an apartment in Edinburgh a telephone rang, and rang…

Peter Higgs was in a little pub in Leith, a beautiful area to the north of Edinburgh, enjoying a nice bowl of soup, some fish and a pint. It was only when he returned to Edinburgh that an old neighbour congratulated him on the ‘good news’. He replied, “oh, what news?”. On being informed that he had been awarded science’s highest honour, the 84 year-old Emeritus professor resignedly trudged back to his apartment – and its ringing telephone.

Higgs was born in Newcastle in 1925, the son of an Englishman and Scotswoman. He was home-schooled in his early years then, when his family relocated to Bristol, he attended Cotham Grammar School where he was a prize-winning pupil – but not in physics. It was only when he read the works of Paul Dirac, an old boy of his school, that physics really captured his imagination. Higgs went on to be awarded first class honours in undergraduate physics at Kings College London before completing a Masters and PhD in molecular physics. In 1960 he took up a permanent lecture post in Edinburgh.

The Highland air clearly agreed with Higgs, for it was during his walks in Scotland’s rugged mountain ranges that he is said to have conceived a theory of how certain fundamental particles acquire mass. In October 1964 he submitted two papers to the journal Physics Letters, the second of which related to this theory and what is now known as the Higgs field. The first paper was published but the second was rejected and stated to have “no obvious relevance to physics”. On reviewing the paper, Yoichiro Nambu, a respected physicist of the time, suggested Higgs may like to explain the physical implications of his theory. So Higgs inserted a paragraph explaining that the excitation of the Higgs field would yield a particle, which would come to be known as the Higgs boson. Higgs resubmitted the amended paper to rival journal Physical Review Letters, which published it later in 1964.

Around the same time other theorists were working on similar ideas. Belgium’s Robert Brout and Francois Englert published a paper prior to Higgs in 1964 and, although their paper didn’t explicitly refer to the boson, it was the first to propose the mechanism now known as the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism.  Another trio of scientists, Kibble, Guralnik and Hagen, also helped to refine the theory behind this mechanism, which is now a keystone of the Standard Model.

Higgs went on to enjoy a successful career in physics, be appointed to various distinguished posts, and win many awards. It was however his work on the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism which remains his most notable contribution to the field.

On attending a conference in Sicily in early July 2012, Higgs was tipped off by CERN veteran John Ellis that the observation of the Higgs boson may be announced at a seminar planned for the 4th July at CERN, Geneva. Once he and his travel companion, Alan Walker, were satisfied they had sufficient clean underpants between them to extend their trip, they changed their flights. The observation of the Higgs boson was indeed announced and both Higgs and Englert, who had never previously met, were present. Higgs shed a tear of joy following the announcement and on being asked why he was so moved, he stated that it was people’s reaction to the news and how much it meant to them that so profoundly affected him. On the plane back to Edinburgh he celebrated with a bottle of London pride – a working-man’s ale.

Back to 2013, and Higgs must endure the media storm which inevitably follows a Nobel laureate to be. He will patiently give interviews and press conferences but one strongly suspects that he would prefer to be back in Leith having a pint. What I so admire about Higgs, other than his obvious scientific brilliance, is what an understated and humble man he is. Where some seem to ravenously crave a Nobel, one suspects Higgs would prefer not to have to bother with the accompanying kerfuffle. Indeed Higgs rejected a knighthood as he did not want “that sort of title”. He has been at pains to emphasise the contributions of the five other original authors of the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, and the thousands of other scientists at CERN and beyond involved with the observation of the Higgs boson. He belittles his contribution to science as compared to the likes of Einstein as it only took “two or three weeks in 1964” to concoct. And to top it all he is just about the only person who refers to the Higgs boson as the ‘scalar boson’. In today’s highly competitive, often cut-throat, social media driven society, his dignified, gentle and modest character is wonderfully refreshing.

Higgs plans to retire from his busy lecture schedule when he hits the ripe age of 85. He leaves behind a world of science full of uncertainty. The Higgs boson looks awfully like the Standard Model Higgs boson but is it a supersymmetrical Higgs boson? Are there other types of Higgs boson waiting to be discovered when the Large Hadron Collider is switched back on in 2015? And what about dark matter and dark energy – what on Earth are they all about?

One thing is certain however – they don’t make ’em like Peter Higgs anymore.


The Patient Laureates

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
Professors Englert (right) and Higgs - 2013 Physics Nobel Laureates.

Professors Englert (left) and Higgs – 2013 Physics Nobel Laureates.

This morning Professors Peter Higgs and Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their predictions, made in 1964, of a mechanism which explains how certain fundamental particles such as quarks and electrons acquire mass. The mechanism is a key constituent of the Standard Model, our best model for explaining the interaction of fundamental particles. The award crowns a pair of remarkable careers and concludes a gloriously romantic story.

Francois Englert spoke directly to the press following the announcement and declared that he was “extraordinarily happy to have the recognition of this extraordinary award”. He intends to congratulate Peter Higgs on the “very important and excellent work” which he completed during the 1960s.

Here are some of the key milestones on the long and remarkable journey of these two Nobel laureates.

A fortunate rejection

In August 1964, Robert Brout and Francois Englert of the Free University of Brussels published a landmark paper which detailed the mechanism by which elementary particles such as quarks and electrons acquire mass. At around the same time, Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University submitted two papers on what is now known as the Higgs field to the journal Physics Letters. The second of those papers was rejected – and a good thing it was too. Respected physicist, Yoichiro Nambu, who reviewed Higgs’ paper suggested that he may wish to elaborate on his theory’s physical implications. In response, Higgs added a paragraph which said that an excitation of the Higgs field would yield a new particle. This particle came to be known as the Higgs boson.

Higgs resubmitted the paper to an opposition journal, Physical Review Letters, which published it later in October 1964.

A rather youthful Peter Higgs in 1954.

A rather youthful Peter Higgs in 1954.

Accurate predictions but no cigar

In the mid 1990’s the Higgs was back in the public eye. Although it had not yet been observed, it had enabled the Standard Model to make a number of successful predictions, including the discovery of the top quark at 176 GeV made by Fermilab’s Tevatron.

Experiments at Fermilab’s Tevatron and CERN’s Large Electron Positron (LEP) Collider had concluded that the Higgs must exist above 117 GeV, but neither was sensitive enough to probe at these energy levels. Enter the mammoth Large Hadron Collider (LHC) into the fray in 2008.  This beastly circular accelerator, with a circumference of 27 km and phenomenally powerful electromagnets, promised collision energies approaching 14 TeV. So the observation of the Higgs boson was considered, surely, imminent – until the LHC blew up after nine days of operation and was closed down for more than a year of repairs.

Patience Professors, patience…

Hello Higgsy

On 4 July 2012 science’s worst kept secret was publicly announced at CERN, Geneva. Spokespersons of the ATLAS and CMS detectors announced that they had observed a ‘Higgs-like particle’ at 126 GeV and CERN’s Director General, Rolfe-Dieter Heur, declared – “I think we have it”. Peter Higgs sat in the room and shed a tear of joy. He also met a chap called Francois Englert for the first time that day.

And the winner is…



So it took almost 50 years, a $10 billion machine and the input of thousands upon thousands of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, but technology caught up with theory and proved Francois Englert and Peter Higgs right. There may be some grumblings that the observation of the Higgs boson also deserved the recognition of the Nobel Committee, but I think no one would begrudge these two extraordinary men science’s ultimate accolade. It has certainly been a long time coming.

Well done chaps – you thoroughly deserve it!