Collider scope for scientific high flyers

14th October 2011 at 01:00
University-led workshops for budding scientists are giving them an early taste of top-flight particle physics.

The young lad with the T-shirt, tattoos, lip piercings and black beanie hat looks incongruous in the physics lab at Glasgow University. This is a masterclass for secondary pupils, after all, not a pop concert. Surely his teacher should have asked him to dress appropriately?

"Actually, I'm one of the tutors today," says Brian Colquhoun. "I'm doing a PhD here in lattice quantum chromodynamics. When you're talking to school pupils about physics, it helps that they hear it from people not much older than them. It means you've a common understanding."

Using young people isn't the whole story in switching schoolkids on to science, says Rebecca Crawford, development manager of the outreach group Science Connects, which is based in the physics department. "But it does help. I remember a girly undergraduate, dressed in pink, who we had helping at one event. The schoolgirls loved her.

"It helps to dispel the image of scientists as distant and different. They see them talking the same language and interested in similar things. They like that. It's human nature."

The workshops supervised by Brian and his colleagues are part of a whole day of masterclass activities, hosted by the university's particle physics group and organised by lecturer Dr Aidan Robson. "You'll be meeting a lot of us particle physicists today," he had introduced himself to pupils packed along the raked rows of the first-year lecture theatre.

"You'll be working in the labs with university equipment. We have lots to get through. First, I'd like to know which elementary particles you're familiar with."

He runs through the electron, photon, proton, neutron, neutrino and quark, all of which get the thumbs-up from the pupils, before entering unfamiliar territory with the muon and Z-boson. "What about the Higgs?" he asks. "Have you heard of that?"

They have. "Well, our job as particle physicists is to make sense of all these particles and a few more," he says. "Today you'll learn how they all fit together."

A recurring refrain in Dr Robson's whistlestop tour of the particle world is that concepts are coming at them thick and fast. "Don't worry about it," he reassures his young audience. "The point of today is to immerse you in these new ideas. By the end of it you'll have a much better understanding."

It's a sentiment endorsed by teachers and pupils as the day progresses and they get to analyse real data from a particle collider, perform experiments with high-voltage electron guns and simulate how the Higgs might be discovered.

Much of this is new to physics teacher David Smith's pupils, from St Columba's High, Dunfermline: "Particle physics is in the Advanced Higher but not Higher. But I've brought fifth and sixth-year pupils. The search for the Higgs is news and my guys are really interested in it.

"I could tell them about it, but we don't have the same equipment in school, and Aidan is at the forefront of the research. The particle physics that goes on at CERN is real sexy science."

It's science that some of today's participants will soon experience up close and personal. For most of them this masterclass is the main event, but for a select few it's the curtain-raiser to a trip to CERN - the European laboratory for particle physics - where Dr Robson and his colleagues do much of their research.

"To get picked you had to write an essay saying why you wanted to go," says Craig Clayton (S6) from Calderglen High, East Kilbride. "I decided to make a video too, for more impact. I told them what I'd been doing to help people understand science - like making videos in the playground with a camera our physics teacher gave us."

That teacher was Colin Stewart. He, too, was selected by Science Connects to go to CERN and help supervise the students on their three-day educational trip. So besides bringing senior pupils to the masterclass today, he is also moving around and introducing himself to the chosen 10.

"It should be a wonderful experience for them," he says. "The Large Hadron Collider is like the Holy Grail for anyone interested in physics. The educational programmes that CERN organises are excellent, I've been told. So this three-day visit is an exciting prospect for pupils - and for me too, I have to say."

The CERN trip for 10 pupils from Scotland's schools, chosen by Science Connects, was funded this year by educational charity The Ogden Trust, says Rebecca Crawford. "I'm hopeful we can make it an annual event and send even more pupils out next year, to see cutting-edge particle physics in action."

Aidan Robson and the Particle Physics Masterclass.

On the hunt for the Higgs

Experiments show that the building blocks of the physical universe are 12 fundamental particles and four forces. A theory called the Standard Model explains how all these, with the exception of gravitational force, fit together.

A wealth of evidence from experiments at CERN and elsewhere supports the Standard Model. But that edifice of understanding contains, close to its foundations, a little brick that has never been seen - the Higgs boson.

If scientists find the Higgs in experiments with the Large Hadron Collider, the Standard Model stands. If they don't find it, then modern physics will need to be re-thought.

For many physicists that is the more exciting prospect.

CERN: http:

Simulated Higgs boson data analysis and discovery. http:hep.lancs. ac.ukinternalpackagehiggs

10 - Number of senior students chosen to visit CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva.


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