Category Archives: Particle Physics

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012: Frank Close & Peter Higgs

Frank Close & Peter Higgs The Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival himself introduced Frank Close and Peter Higgs, and admitted that he was surprised that an event about Particle Physics had a full house! He said that tickets had been selling steadily until July 4th, when they started selling big time. I wonder why…

Peter Higgs was a late addition to the programme, but he had asked if he could chair this brilliant event (which he did well, by the way) so as the Director said, how could he refuse.

Then they walked in. And the clapping started and it felt like it was never going to stop. Ever. It did eventually, but I will admit, I was one of the last ones to stop.

Frank Close started by giving a quick tour of the fundamental forces and the infinity issues, just to brush up people’s Physics. And then a swing around the current Nobel Prize situation surrounding the (technically still to be confirmed 100%) discovery of the Higgs Boson, involving the Gang of Six, six Physicists who all produced more or less the same theory at more or less the same time.

From there, Frank and Peter talked together (and with the audience) about the discovery and how it has affected Peter and the world in general. Frank began with mentioning how he found it annoying that whenever an athlete won a gold medal in the Olympics, they were asked “how did it feel?”. He turns to Peter and asks “How did it feel?”.

After that they talk about Peter’s drinking buddies in Sicily, travel insurance and jokily insult the Scottish. Frank also recounts what had happened earlier, when he and Peter had gone for a photocall with the photographers (including me) and how with Peter the photographers flocked around him, so Frank took a picture, “looking for the Higgs”.

Closing off before questions, Frank briefly explains the statistics of the Higgs Boson discovery, and actually points out how “likely” 5 sigma is.

The first question asked was a simple one, “what’s next?”. Frank and Peter were also asked about technological limitations, the answer including a discussion of cosmic rays and the particles they collapse into which were streaming through us that very second (prompting a woman near me to look at her hand). Not to mention the possibility of a ‘Higgs Factory,’ where lots of Higgs Bosons could in theory be produced, which I really hope will be called that because I think the name is just pure brilliance.

One good question that had come from someone via the internet was about how this discovery affected the man in the street. They had a very simple answer to that, it doesn’t solve the economic crisis. Though they did also point out that the cost of the LHC is only a fraction of what was spent bailing the banks out.

Before finishing, Frank had a closing comment for Peter, that after 48 years of patience, he was “just so pleased that’s you’re actually here to see it”.

And with that, we all ran to the signing tent to have our books not only signed by Frank Close, but by Peter Higgs as well!!!

Afterwards, I asked Bookwitch how much she had been able to follow. But she said she had understood most of it, so I think the only soul in the tent that had been bored was the guide dog. Maybe dogs don’t like Particle Physics….


‘The Infinity Puzzle’ – Frank Close

“Old men forget… But he’ll remember with advantages, what feats he did that day” Shakespeare, Henry V.

First impressions: this book is a lot bigger than it looked in the picture. But I think in this case it’s the exception to the rule that good things come in small packages. It’s a good 400 pages worth of fascinating insights into the world of Physics, both scientifically and professionally.

Starting with the title, Frank Close spends time explaining what the “infinity puzzle” actually is. And from there we jump back to the 1940s, and explore the events, the discoveries, papers, collaborations, disagreements that led to what practically everyone has heard of, the Large Hadron Collider.

What struck me was the mix throughout the book of social niceties and the “backstabbings”. So much credit was given where it was due, with everyone actively talking to each other comparing notes and ideas. But on the other side was secrecy, with a lot of people trying to jump on a discovery’s bandwagon because they suffered from Nobelitis, distraction by possibility of a Nobel Prize.

Another surprise was the amount of new ideas and concepts that came from people who were just finishing university or starting their PhD, complex ideas that led to recognition and even for some, the highly sought Nobel Prize for Physics.

Dispersed through the tale of how Particle Physics was revolutionised are simple, concise and extremely clear explanations of most of the Physics involved. This isn’t exactly a textbook for someone wanting to understand Particle Physics, but it assists in understanding the significance of what has happened throughout the years.

The last couple of chapters are based on CERN and the building of the LHC, again telling the story of competition across the Atlantic, wrangling funding from Margaret Thatcher and scaremongers convincing everyone that the world would end when the LHC was turned on.

The topic of this book is an interesting one. It’s not like a popular science book written by the physicists we see on TV, or a coffee table book to skim through. It brings the history and the politics of the Physics world to you and adds to your knowledge. I would never have known half of what I’ve just learned if Frank Close hadn’t written this book. And I also suspect that I wouldn’t necessarily have picked it up at all if it wasn’t his book. I feel you have to be an incredibly skilled writer to be able to not only describe what happened, but to keep the reader reading until the very last page.

Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture 2012: A Scientist in the Media

When my dad asked if I wanted to go to the 2012 Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture which was being given by Professor Brian Cox, I’m not sure what I was more gobsmacked by; the opportunity to hear Brian Cox’s lecture or the fact that my dad had to even ask!

Brian Cox The lecture was introduced by Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Manchester, and the topic of Professor Brian Cox’s lecture was ‘A Scientist in the Media’. Though personally I think he could have called it ‘Why Physics is Important’ and it would have had the same result.

Starting with Carl Sagan, we moved through different scientists who have proved to be inspirational, both for Brian and others. And their effects on the communication of physics to the wider community.

During the rest of the lecture Brian covered everything from the insane mass hysteria of the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider to the Government’s spending on scientific research (which is basically nothing, by the way). He talked about his appearance on ‘Newsnight’ alongside Sir David King, and the advice he was given by a friend of how to deal with someone being difficult (aka wrong) on TV. And then about how Harry Hill mocked him on the ‘Horizon’ episode where he was telling the time.

From there he moved onto telling us about his new series, ‘Wonders of Life’, for which he had to learn Biology but takes a look at the topic from the view of a Physicist, so it sounds like it won’t just be a David Attenborough style show. Oh, and it has a seriously sweet 8 week old lion cub in it who kept scratching Brian and running away.

Brian then finished by going back to the communication of science. Why Carl Sagan was just so good at it and examples of cultural effects, including the famous image ‘The Pale Blue Dot’ which Carl describes with one of his most famous quotes.

Brian Cox

Then it was time for the questions, including one from a small girl who was very shy, but asked the best question I think I have ever heard, “What happens if we find the Higgs particle?”. A very good question, and she got a long round of applause and a full explanation by Brian about what would happen, mentioning that if she wanted to do particle physics research when she is older, that she shouldn’t worry and that the Higgs research would not be over by then. Another person told him “Hi, by the way, I love you!” before asking their question. And I think Brian found that kind of funny, certainly he grinned when the guy said that!

So all in all, an incredible lecture. Completely entertaining and fascinating. Wonder if he’d consider being a visiting lecturer at the University of St Andrews…

“It Is Just BEAUTIFUL Physics”

The last time I laughed that hard, I was watching a Marx Brothers movie.

“A Night With The Stars” (BBC 2) truly meant a night with the stars. But the celebrity kind, rather than the celestial. Professor Brian Cox invited members of the celebrity world to watch, and even participate in, a lecture at The Royal Institute, London. Oh, and it was going to be about Quantum Physics. The deeper meaning of Quantum Physics.

With volunteers like Sarah Millican, James May, Jim Al Khalili, Simon Pegg and others, you could already tell that this was going to be a night of pure entertainment, with a hint of scientific knowledge. From the Double Slit Experiment to the Pauli Exclusion. Task ranging from sand pouring to some, less than complex mathematics. Poor Jonathan Ross… trying to divide numbers with powers of 10. Luckily Jim Al Khalili was on hand to give him some helpful advice, seeing as Brian thought it would be funny to abandon the poor man!

But the most definitive achievement of the night, was the waving up and down of a very long spring by Simon Pegg and Jim Al Khalili. They got as far as 6 nodes on a standing wave, and that’s tough.
Then again, James May having all his hair blown back and with a sooty face may have been an exciting result of his experiment. Sadly, Mr May did not turn into a mad scientist.

Being a Physicist myself (though technically, me being an Astrophysicist is even better) made this all the more entertaining. Not because I enjoyed watching someone squirm with maths I did in my head in seconds, but because the victims, no sorry…. volunteers know how to
be funny. Their way of turning their utter confusion into comedy made it entertaining not only for me, but for the live audience and the audience sitting at home. And I bet that it made the physics behind it be absorbed into the minds of the viewers. Who knows, someday Sarah Millican might achieve a PhD in Quantum Physics.

And I don’t think I have ever heard it said better than Professor Brian Cox’s last line, “It is just beautiful Physics”.

[All Photos Copyright of the BBC]

Edinburgh Science Festival – Frank Close

I caught Frank Close’s event ‘Neutrino’ – based on his book – at the Manchester Science Festival last October. So having arrived at the Informatics Forum far too early on Sunday, I decided to try and chat to him after his event.

Frank Close
I took lots of photos as he did his book signing, and that got his attention. Luckily there were more fans wanting his autograph! I did get an opportunity to talk to him about Physics, including getting a recommendation for a book to help explain Particle Physics. His… And a quick chat about why I didn’t get into Oxford (his own Exeter College) this year, and that he went to St Andrews (who have given me an offer) for his undergraduate studies.

Frank even asked for copies of some of the photos!!

Frank Close