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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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No going back: diary of a thesis

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Around 8 months ago, I returned to the UK from CERN with a fresh enthusiasm and readiness to write up, and declared that I was beginning the challenge of the thesis. Of course, nothing is that simple. A PhD is an organic and unusual creature, constantly evolving, and many of us face the danger of not knowing when to stop. We work towards goals that depend on so much coming together, and if things go wrong we have to adapt those goals. I have been very lucky – I have my data. But with data inevitably come cans of worms – nothing is straightforward in the early stages of an experiment this complex. In reality, my focus on writing has been much more recent (somewhat demonstrated by the lull in posts).

My contract ends soon, but many of those one year ahead of me are also just starting to get the thesis completed, having continued with analysis without pay for the last year, to see a little more LHC data, to have a few more plots, to squeeze little more out of the experience. My heart goes out to those who have to finish without data. It must be a tough decision to make.

Now that I am finally in the flow of the writing process, I am finding it to be one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted. Like many others, I underestimated the gravity of the challenge. As a result I have decided to start writing a weekly diary, documenting the things I find motivating, useful, challenging and so on. I hope that others in my position can find it helpful.

As well as writing, I have been applying for jobs. This is a challenge of an entirely different sort – right now in the UK there are so many particle and nuclear physics PhD students writing up, and virtually no post-doc positions waiting for them. Many are choosing to leave. I am choosing to be imaginative and see where life in the UK takes me. We shall see.

So here is my motivational point for the day. It comes inspired by my supervisor, who sent me a text message from atop a mountain in Spain yesterday. He sent me the picture below, and commented:

“Note the aggressive slopes, which gave me a lot of trouble for several hours. I would have given up long before except I had jumped across rocks so much I did not see how to get back, so I carried on and … eventually got to the top! I am sure there is a message for everyone in there somewhere.”


Writing a thesis is more of an endurance trek than a sprint, which is why the difficulty took me by surprise. It will take longer than you think. You will have times when you struggle to keep going. The length will continue to daunt you. The message I took from this story was that, although the road ahead is terrifying, to be at this stage of your PhD means you have already come an incredible distance. Each page you write, each sentence, is another struggled step towards the top. Just keep going.

It has been over a year since my tearful moment in the Tatras, Slovakia, when I turned back, too frightened to embark on an impressive climb. I was afraid because I knew that if I started, after a few rocks I would not be able to turn back. However, I often look back on that day and remember a local young girl with her pet dog taking the climb with ease, and wonder if I could have made it to the top. By pushing to the finish with my PhD, I hope I will make my peace with that.


Adapting to a changing world

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

I contributed to an interesting project yesterday – the3six5 is a diary of 2010 written worldwide by a new person each day who also submits a photo that encompasses the feeling. My day was relatively relaxing after a busy week on Birmingham’s Entrepreneurship and Enterprise summer school. The spirit of what I wrote can be contained in the fact that I did the course in the first place though – I am about to be thrown into the employment pool and I will need to adapt to stand out in the right places. A role-playing game with friends reminded me of the fact. Yet, with Phil by my side it feels less terrifying to be facing it together. The entry went like this:


August is finally here. The wave of summer weddings is dying down. I’ll be 25 in a few weeks. Only two more months of my PhD left. Only two more months before Phil and I really need to be moving out, starting new jobs, beginning the rest of our lives together. No jobs lined up yet but we’ll work something out.

It’s been a lazy day: I went with friends to Owen’s to play a fantasy roleplaying game he’s been pushing for us to try. We armed ourselves as best we could for surviving in a modern but crazed world – my character was my usual mischievous thief, one of us was an ex- veteran, one was a martial-arts monk and one even specialised in biology and was carrying a flesh-eating virus just in case it came in handy. Yet, the game transported us to a new world, leaving us almost entirely helpless. The time came when we had to abandon hope of returning home and instead make our goal to kill off immediate zombie-like dangers and carve out a home in this inhospitable place.

It got me thinking: The world feels very scary these days – nearly enough everyone I know has been at least a little bit affected by the economic crisis. New government is clearly not making any exceptions in cuts, and a lot of people are being made redundant all over the place. It’s already fairly unavoidable that to stay in this country my early career in heavy- ion physics will have to change direction. I can’t say I feel so confident about finding my way outside academia right now.

To get through the next few years, we are going to have to adapt quickly. Many of us will have to adapt our dreams too, to fit with what is possible. I got home quite late, feeling a little wired and fed only on snacks and coffee. Phil was waiting, with the table set and a candle lit, risotto and wine at the ready. I love him so much. Despite lack of physical evidence, it feels like we are turning a corner today. The future is coming and I think we can handle it.


Every child deserves high quality education

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

It has been a long time since my last blog. It has been, and will continue to be, a very busy time for me, with thesis progress, job searches and relocation plans. As is often true of summer, there are many weddings and other celebrations going on too. However, in the middle of this busy time we can always find a few minutes if it really matters, and I am writing this blog to urge you to take action.

Phil Chater, my partner, finally graduated with his Chemistry PhD last week, and during the ceremony Simon Singh (something of a role model of mine) was awarded an honorary doctorate. If you haven’t heard of him, he has done great things for the publicity of physics and mathematics in books and documentaries (I recommend “Fermat’s Last Theorem”, “Big Bang” and “Trick or Treatment: Medicine on Trial”) and he co-founded the STEM ambassador scheme that brings undergraduates into schools in outreach projects. In 2008 he began a fight against a lawsuit from the British Chiropractic Association because of an article he wrote in the Guardian questioning what evidence exists to support the effectiveness of certain treatments for children’s diseases. He was not the first to be targeted as a single person for simply speaking out and encouraging others to question and not blindly trust (he did not make any false accusations!). They were unsuccessful in their suit, but the case only recently ended and the effects were still very damaging for him. However, many people were enraged by this case and took action, writing to their MPs in a call for English Libel Reform, and hitting back at misleading chiropractic claims.

At the graduation, he gave an inspiring speech that illustrated that the action of one person can make a difference. Jack of Kent’s blog encouraged so many to sign a petition calling for the reform (sign it here) (read more here) that it is no longer something that can be sidelined or ignored. The blogger should be a role model to all of us – a sign that if you believe in something, you can make a difference if you take action. This was the confidence I needed after rallying so hard to save my experiment’s funding in the UK.

In the spirit of taking action I now write about the Early Day Motion 467, a document I am urging my MP to sign, and if you can relate to the issues I write below then please ask your MP to do the same. The document expresses concern at the current lack of specialist physics teachers (a quarter of all 11–16 schools in England have no specialist physics teacher) and the consequent drastic drop in the number of entrants to physics A-level (a sixth of these schools fail to send any students to study A Level Physics). It is a recognition of the threat that this poses to UK physics and engineering, and therefore to the UK economy. Every child should have access to high quality (and enthusiastic) physics teaching, and if anything can be done to break this cycle of rapidly evaporating physics teachers and physics students in the country, it should be done soon. I hope that in my future I can work to inspire students to undertake Physics A level and even a Physics degree – not only to save the economy and research in this country but because we need more Simon Singhs/Ben Goldacres in this world – those who will look at the world through skeptical, scientific eyes and encourage others to do the same.


Highly contrived crisis: How physicist prisoners escaped the bullet (SPOILER ALERT)

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Good morning. I am back on ALICE night shifts for the last time (*sniff*) and after a mad dash to make it here by midnight it has been a very slow and quiet night. Hopefully it will stay like this all week so I can write some thesis! 🙂

The response to last week’s problem was great, and many QD readers seem to have made light work of it. Well done. It is a sign of a logical mind. You are named and congratulated at the end. I’d be interested to know how many of you feel your interest in/knowledge of science/mathematics played a part in you getting it right. I am willing to bet that all of you do, despite the answer being very simple to compute once you know how (explanation at the bottom for those who want it). When I first started my undergraduate degree I was given problems like the “three children” story and whilst the actual maths involved was basic, I found myself infuriated by the seeming impossibility of it. This is the trick that scientists learn – be determined, defy your instinct and attack the problem logically (you can’t really give up on finding a way to fix your contaminated data sample because it seems like there is no way to do it). By the time I came round to the ALICE PhD “initiation problem” (again, no predetermined sciency/mathematical knowledge required) I was a dab hand – if only for my confidence that I would find a satisfactory answer. I’ll save that problem for another time because the solution – which I got after stopping in the middle of dinner and running to the nearest whiteboard for 4 hours – might be a little tricky to convey!

Now, if you don’t have the answer to the prisoner’s plight yet, I strongly recommend you don’t read on – you will kick yourself. Give your brain a little more thinking time, it will be worth it. If you think you have the answer, or you are ready to give up, here’s the solution:

Arvinder, the friend that gave me the problem, said that there was one word that could give the whole game away. The word he was referring to was “parity”. When I got the solution, I thought his word was “binary”. Some could say simply “operators”. But you don’t even need to know what any of those are to get this right.

Consider first of all, the man at the back, looking at the row of hats. He has to convey to the person in front what their hat colour is, and he can do that by either saying “black” or “white”. But “black” does not need to mean “your hat is black”. They can predefine a new definition for these words.

Now consider the information the second prisoner along receives, and what he does with it. Clearly he will determine his hat colour and be saved, but what then? That needs to be enough to allow prisoner three to save himself. How can this be possible?

So now, finally, consider the most information there is available to anyone – the prisoner at the back can see all hats except his own. Call this the whole system – a string of blacks and whites. The person in front of him sees the same system minus one hat. From there on, every prisoner will know, by the time it is his turn, the colour of all hats except his own. Here comes the binary/parity/charge/whatever you want to use (even symmetry of a wavefunction if you like!) All you need to consider is that what ever black does to the system, white does the opposite. The initial statement from the first prisoner needs to convey what state this whole system is in, in such a way that if only one of these hats was unknown, it would be clear from the state of the system what that one hat must be. If they were 1s and 0s and being multiplied, whether the result was 1 or 0 would determine what the one unknown hat was doing to the system. Similarly if they were -1 and +1, or if you were adding the 1s and 0s for an “odd” or “even” system. Yes, it’s as simple as adding up 1s and 0s.

Thanks so much for the responses. Well done to: Emlyn, Jacques Distler, Cavendish McKay, odd man out, M Kneebone, Sourabh and Nic. Your comments are all approved and you win the “Yes, I am a scientist at heart” prize! (It is not a real prize but it makes you feel nice).


Why physicists would survive a highly contrived crisis

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I want to thank my fellow PhD student Arvinder Palaha for helping to distract me at ALICE Physics week in Paris last week, when I was horrendously ill. He also gave me a fresh reminder of what makes scientists so strong.

It was a very busy week of deadlines and talks and fancy meals, and I was hit with a wave of nausea at the most incredible restaurant during our group dinner. As each course was placed in front of me, all I could think about was the smell. I needed a distraction or I might be sick. Arvinder knew that there are only two surefire ways to distract me. One was chocolate, and that would probably not have the desired effect at this point. The other was a good juicy problem – when I hear one I can’t think about anything else until I have solved it. This one was excellent because despite being deceptively simple, it epitomizes what I love about physics – mathematics and logic help you through when instinct fails completely.

I warn you – if you read on, and if you are anything like me, you won’t be very sociable for a while. Good luck. I will post the answer in a few days. If you think you have the answer, comment. If you get it right or come close then I will temporarily block your comment because of spoilers, but I will credit you later. 🙂

There are 100 prisoners. They are told by a prison guard that in 15 mins time they will be blindfolded, and then each given a cap. Some will be black, some will be white. The amount of each will be arbitrary (in fact there may not be any white caps at all, for example). They will not be allowed to talk or make any contact with each other. They will be lined up, each one behind the next, so that all but the one in front are facing the back of another person’s head. Following so far?

Their blindfolds will then be taken off. They will still not be allowed to communicate in any way. They will all be able to see every head in front of them (a line of black and white caps in some random order) but they will not be allowed to look back/around. The prison guard will then, starting at the back (with the prisoner who can see the most heads), ask each prisoner in turn what their hat colour is. If they get it wrong, they get shot. They will not be able to say anything other than the words “black” or “white”, and they can’t risk making a code with intonations in their voice or something similar because he might pick up on it, and if anything fishy goes on AT ALL he will shoot them all.

After telling them all this, the prison guard leaves and the timer starts. So, obeying the prison guard’s rules, how can they (in the 15 minutes they have to discuss their predicament before being blindfolded) come up with a plan to save as many of them as possible?

Just to show you why I love this problem so much, I can tell you that they do come up with a plan that guarantees the safety of 99 of the prisoners. The other one has a 50:50 chance of survival.

PLEASE NOTE: There are now spoilers in the comments 🙂


ALICE and other adventures underground – Guest blog for The Times

Friday, June 4th, 2010

You may be interested in this guest blog for The Times Eureka Zone 🙂

With thanks to Mark Henderson for the opportunity!


Reith Lectures and the Scientific Citizen

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

I recommend that if you have a spare 30 minutes today you give this a listen:

The Reith Lectures 2010: Scientific Horizons

Martin Rees gives an excellent lecture here and the debate hits upon my own concern for science communication. As I have described before, I strongly feel that no matter what your background it is healthy practice to develop a scientific way of thinking, to be critical of the information you are bombarded with in the media and question where it comes from. Some of the questions to Rees were touching on the issue of how exactly people might do this. Interestingly, the journalist perspective seemed, in this debate, to be that the public want definite answers, certainties, whereas science “trades in organized doubt”. In reality, you need the doubt in order to get to the certainty, and I think that this way of thinking needs to be admired and embraced if the relationship between science and the public is going to change.

Recently, Physics World have given me the exciting opportunity to write some particle physics stories for them, and I am learning that there is a frustration between the scientific community’s concerns to be factual and clear about measurements, not to mislead anyone, and the (even scientific) public’s apparent need for a clear-cut, well-defined breakthrough in the news. Physics World readers have the advantage that they are able to access the papers behind the stories, but how clear is it, even then, what the pitfalls and potential problems with the measurement are? Only the experts of the field are familiar with them, and if they are ignored or even diminished for the sake of a story, any subsequent criticism from other scientists and measurements that dispute the result make the journalists look foolish, the scientists look untrustworthy and confuse the public even more. The reporter for Physics World, James Dacey, expressed this frustration in his blog recently here.

Hannah Devlin and Mark Henderson’s report (and my appearance) in The Times on Saturday has highlighted the uncertainty scientists like myself are now facing in our career futures. However, I do have a major passion, that is becoming clear now that I have to consider options outside of academia. Whether in employment or not, I want to work to help the public think like scientists. From understanding the significance and credibility of the “study that has shown X” to learning about the conflicts and debates that go on within scientific fields, skepticism is more useful and often more interesting than the punchy unquestioning headline, and I think, if done properly, the public can handle more doubt than they are given credit for.


Your comments please: Does inquisition extinguish wonder or illuminate beauty?

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

I often think about the stone I stole from the beach in Greece as a child that glowed bright orange in the sand. When I arrived back home, excitedly pulling it from the suitcase, it had lost its colour. It now sits in a box, a grey and sullen shadow of its former self. My mother told me it was because it grew sad, longing for its home. Years later, sitting in the sun on the coast of Buzios with fellow heavy-ion physicists, I relayed this story in the hope of a better answer and was asked, “Why would you want to know the truth, with a story like that? Don’t you want to keep the magic?”

If made to think of a magical story in my life, this is one of the few that hasn’t yet had its illusion broken. In truth, I haven’t tried very hard. My boyfriend is a chemist, I know he has access to equipment that would allow him to analyze the stone, tell me what’s in it. One day I will ask him to.

Most of the mysteries I came up against as a child instantly became challenges – understanding them was the primary goal. Just like magic tricks, once you have seen how they are done, you see them differently, but often the truth makes the phenomena in question all the more beautiful. I noticed last night during an advertisement for “Genius of Britain” on Channel 4 (starting this Sunday), Sir David Attenborough echoed this idea:

“The world is full of wonders, but they become more wonderful (not less) when science looks at them.” (See the full clip here)

Of the genuinely wondrous elements of nature this is surely true. However, we have all been disenchanted by the truth. I was very proud to have fathomed that my parents were responsible for the festive man in red, but that didn’t stop it hurting. That magic is gone forever.

I want to know your views. I know many of you don’t comment on here but please make an exception and let me know what you think:

Are answers snuffers or blowers of wonder?


D0 and the latest hints about the matter-antimatter asymmetry

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

I felt like a giddy child when I found out about these results! See below for the article I wrote for Physics World (unedited version).

Muons could explain missing antimatter in the universe

Particle physicists at Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator in the US have found an exciting new result that could explain one of the big mysteries of cosmology – why there is matter in our universe.

Guennadi Borissov of Lancaster University in the UK led an international team of researchers in the analysis of proton-antiproton collisions at the DO experiment. In these collisions, they were searching for B_d and B_s mesons decaying to muons.

New Physics

CP violation is a fundamental difference between the behaviour of a particle and its antiparticle. Without it, matter would not have survived in the universe after the Big Bang, because matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts and should have annihilated completely.

To date, precision B-factory experiments BELLE, Japan and BABAR, US have accurately measured CP violation manifesting in the decay of kaons and B_d mesons, and the results have been consistent with predictions from the Standard Model of particle physics. However, this is not nearly enough to explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe, so scientists are thrilled to finally see signs of CP violation beyond the theory’s expectations. B-physicist Tim Gershon of Warwick University, who has worked on these experiments, explains:

“Measurements from the B factories have placed stringent limits on many of the possible deviations from the Standard Model. The B_s system has long been thought a good place to look for the extra CP violation that we know exists in nature.  Results from both CDF and D0 have hinted at new physics effects before, causing great excitement in the community.”

Now, D0 has shown that B_s decays may indeed hold the key to understanding our existence. The recent measurement suggests a comparatively large asymmetry that could overthrow Standard Model predictions and help to explain the universe’s matter dominance. This, Borissov says, is “the most important implication of our result.”

Measuring asymmetry

Neutral B mesons can oscillate between their particle and antiparticle, which means that spotting which one is which to measure any asymmetry can be tricky. One way to do this is to look for semileptonic decays, such as to muons. In this case, a W boson carries the charge of the flavour-changing bottom quark to the muon. The meson can then be identified as B0 or anti-B0 by the muon’s charge.

In this measurement, D0 looked for two muons of the same sign coming from the same B anti-B pair, meaning that one oscillated to its antiparticle before decaying. “Each one could decay into a muon, a neutrino and, say, a charm-flavour meson”, Borissov explains. Asymmetry between the B and anti-B is then measured as an overall preferred charge for the measured muon-pairs.

However, he is keen to point out that it isn’t as easy as it sounds, warning that many muons in the proton anti-proton collisions come from kaon decays. This background is serious because kaons have an artificial preference over anti-kaons for decaying in the D0 detector, so that if they were mistaken for B mesons a fake asymmetry would be seen. To get around this problem, the asymmetry in control samples of kaon decays was measured and removed.

Considering the challenges, the result is remarkable and has exciting implications. The final measured asymmetry deviates from the Standard Model prediction by 3.2 s. “This means that the probability of the result being simply a statistical fluctuation is around 1 in 1000”, says Prof Terry Wyatt of University of Manchester, former spokesperson of D0. Clearly the measurement is striking, but more work needs to be done before scientists can be certain the deviation is real.

Outlook for new physics

The largest uncertainty limiting D0s measurement is from low statistics, so they are continuing to gather data. Wyatt continues, “We hope to increase the collected data set by about a factor of 2. In addition, we can hope for improvements in the analysis techniques that could reduce the uncertainty further.” An agreement from D0’s sister experiment, CDF, would also be a promising test of the measurement.

Possibly the most excited by this result are those at the LHCb experiment at the LHC. Gershon, who is now working on the experiment, remarks, “The LHCb’s data samples will soon become the envy of the global B physics community.”  Guy Wilkinson, LHCb’s physics coordinator, explains why.

“LHCb can record up to 2000 of the interesting decays every second, and our instrumentation is optimised for reconstructing these decays. These two factors mean that for many studies LHCb expects to surpass the sensitivity of the Tevatron experiments rather early in this, the first LHC run, of 2010-11.”

Measurements of muon asymmetry are already underway to compare with D0s result. The potential changes to the Standard Model also have exciting implications for another potential CP-violation measurement, which LHCb are calling their “golden channel”. LHCb B-physicist and CERN fellow Rob Lambert gushes, “The release of that paper was like Christmas come early for me. I stayed up into the small hours getting overly excited by the great things we can do at LHCb”.

You can find the published version here.


Einstein’s tongue and Frank Skinner’s ball-drop

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Some attempted comedy by Frank Skinner in the Times last week got me thinking. Read this article and you will see why.

To summarise it, he expressed disgust in the outreach of science, claiming it to be one big lie, because at some point during the popular science book, television series or lesson he would get completely lost (and therefore bored). He also described scientists and “normal people” as entirely different entities, denying the possibility that a non-science background person could be fascinated by, investigate and understand any science (or the possibility that a scientist might also be interested in other things).

I started to wonder how many people see the grey areas between “scientist” and “non-scientist”. At one end of the spectrum, of course, you have the scientists by occupation, the famous ones who discover and predict new things about our world. They have the mathematical prowess to derive new equations, the dexterous skill to precisely measure something unseen, the somewhat intuitive nature to unravel and fathom out an unsolved problem. At the other end of the spectrum, clearly, we have Frank Skinner (and anyone else who has given up on science as “too boring” or “difficult”)… but is it really as simple as that?

Of course, Frank implies that “scientist” is a character trait more than a career. It is unlikely that I will always be working in research, but I do believe that within the grey area there are “scientists by nature”, and I consider myself one of them. So what really constitutes a scientist, in this sense?

Was I a scientist when I was 6 and became curious about the way the Sun and Moon followed me in my Dad’s car whilst the buildings nearby flew by me, or when I noticed that closing one eye then the other made close objects move while far ones remained still? I knew this didn’t make sense and I wanted to understand it, and I believe that many people saw similar phenomena when they were children as magical mysteries to be unveiled. This fundamental questioning is part of human nature, we have (I think) all done it to a certain extent and it is halfway to being a scientist. It is this that makes me cross when people say, “science is boring”, because I know that they don’t find all of the strange and curious things in our world dull (the diversity of life, the extreme geography of the landscape, the behaviour of chemicals, I could go on all day).

Did I, then, become a scientist years later when I learned about parallax properly? Or when I found out about refraction of light in water to explain the bending of my spoon in a glass of water? What about when I asked my chemistry teacher about the positive centre of a nucleus, and upon not getting a satisfactory answer, began reading about the fundamental forces of the universe? Or when I started emailing physicists to find out more about the death of stars? Was it when I got my A levels, or my degree perhaps? Does the distinction come when you successfully find the answer to your questions, or when your questions begin to sound scary and complicated?

You may think, “What’s the point in being a scientist by nature if you aren’t going to solve problems no-one else has ever solved?” The point is that it is a personal challenge, and that makes it every bit as important as an unresolved mystery. Feynman comforted me with a comment I read in his computation lectures;

You develop a sort of confidence that you can discover things; but if they’ve already been discovered, you shouldn’t let that bother you at all. The fact that some other fool beat you to it shouldn’t disturb you: you should get a kick out of having discovered something.

I think that the other part of being a scientist is more to do with determination than intelligence, qualifications or mathematical ability. This is clear if you look at the people at the top end of our spectrum – Einstein, contrary to Frank Skinner’s assumption, struggled with mathematics, and he had great mathematicians around to help him. Of course, the mathematics was necessary for allowing his vision to become a theory that would change the landscape of physics completely. That doesn’t mean it was fun or easy for him.

As surprising as that is, Frank Skinner might also be enlightened to know of the many non science-background adults are actively pursuing an understanding of the world. Working closely with the LHC I am more than usually acquainted with the worried mothers asking about radiation levels, the curious teachers trying to tackle the standard model, the sceptical plumber wanting to know how we can see something too small for microscopes, the enthusiastic taxi drivers who bounce their current understanding of the Higgs off you to try to hammer out a more accurate view. It does make me sound cool, but I have been known to hold my LHC status back and just get a slightly tipsy dinner party arguing about pressure and torque using desktop props. Close friends and family have phoned me to ask about Brian Cox, only to delve into discussions about motion and gravity in space. People have the curiosity, and provided they are not intimidated they also have the perseverance to understand.

I recently wrote about my concerns for science journalists without a scientific background, but there are many in that position that have, despite lack of formal training, gone in search of the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs better, and become brilliant journalists for it. Equally, there are those who have had the training who are still prone to error (we are all human). I recently wrote an article for Physics World on a recent development in tetraquarks (and couldn’t help but gush about it!) The story was covered well by New Scientist, but picked up by Physics Today as a news-pick in embarrassing error (The data taken was at BELLE, in Japan, but because the author of the recent paper was part of the DESY group the scientists at AIP mistook it as DESY’s data.)

Indeed, we are all human. There are times in the life of every scientist when they hit a wall of difficulty. This is not the same as reaching their limit in ability. They just “drop the ball” for a moment, whether that means making a subtle mistake in a calculation, being confronted with a new and abstract concept, losing concentration for a brief moment in a lecture, or getting to page 50 of “Brief history of time” and seeing maths and having a brain-freeze. For me, once you have dropped the ball, there truly is nothing worse. I can sympathize with Frank’s viewpoint at this stage because there is nothing more tedious in the world than science when you are confused. I liken it to trying to read a book backwards, or being talked at in a language you have never heard before. I have been there, and getting out of that is tough. Sometimes you don’t succeed. I failed one module as an undergraduate because I lost track early on and couldn’t get back. However, what makes a real scientist is what you do in the ball-dropped moments. Can you look back to what you were trying to understand in the first place, and realize that curiosity again? Can you let that motivate you to push through the challenge? Those that have will know that there is nothing more rewarding. Of course, we do all have limits, but the limit isn’t when the ball drops, it’s the moment you no longer have the will to reach to pick it back up.

I am now watching the election. Only a week ago our university had the media and security descending upon our university for the leaders to debate for the third and final time. As undergraduates were crossing campus bemused and pointing at the cameramen/snipers(?), my group and I were frantically pushing to meet an important deadline for the ALICE collaboration. Not too far from us, much as it pains me to quote him, David Cameron was saying;

We’ve been losing manufacturing industry faster than the 1980s. It’s been a complete tragedy. We’ve got to rebuild. How do we do that? Let’s start with investing in our science base and making sure great universities like this are producing the scientists and entrepreneurs of the future.

A much more grounding quote comes just now from Brian Cox on the Alternative Election Night:

Less than 0.25% of our GDP is spent on studying nature…Stupidity will kill us.

Whatever the result in the next few hours, I hope that investment in education and training continues, and that the UK has jobs for the skilled workforce that is building up. I also hope that the future of fundamental science is not as dead as it is starting to seem. Tomorrow at 8am I will be joining my UK colleagues in connecting to CERN to discuss our progress in leading a vital task force for ALICE. Perhaps in this way we are the nerdy stereotypes Frank Skinner has us down as. However, I am the girl in the skinny jeans with the purple hair and I love baking cupcakes and Wind in the Willows. I just happen to also love physics.