Professor Frank Close – “The finishing line is at infinity”

When I saw that Professor Frank Close, Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Exeter College, was doing an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I knew that I wanted to catch a few minutes with him to discuss his most recent book ‘The Infinity Puzzle,’ and also our shared connection of the University of St Andrews. Frank had a free half hour the day before his event, and we met at Charlotte Square for our chat.
Frank Close
Helen: I saw from your book that your cat Ms Chief came from the same litter as Philip Pullman’s cat. So, with the Oxford and Exeter College connections, do you know each other?

Frank: Philip Pullman? Yes, he was at Exeter, and I met him and his wife many years ago and that’s how I discovered about the cats. It was a small dinner and I was sitting next to his wife and it became clear that we had mutual friends and that their cat had come from the same litter as our cat had come from, which was from these friends. The funny thing was that at the end of that dinner we were going to take the Pullmans home, and we drove to the top of Banbury Road in Oxford where they used to be living, and the spot where we dropped him, I realised was right by the place where the cat went through the hole in the air. So it was very strange.

Helen: Do you think you might have influenced ‘His Dark Materials’ at all?

Frank: No. No this was after that.

Helen: Fair enough! (We laugh.) What made you want to write about the history behind the Higgs Boson and the Large Hadron Collider, and in the case of ‘Neutrino’, about the man behind it, rather than write about the Physics?

Frank: Oh, maybe it’s because I’m getting older! But I’m increasingly interested in.., you go through college, and you’re taught about a Nobel prize in an hour and it was all discovered years ago and you feel it’s ‘in the text books and that’s how things are.’ And then you start doing research, and you see things being discovered, and you’re never quite as confident about them as you are about the things you were taught. But of course future generations of students are being taught them as if they are the same thing as you were being taught way back.
Having been around long enough to see the things – which are now standard stuff – being discovered is a fascinating thing to try and tell the story of. The thing about ‘The Infinity Puzzle’ though was more direct; for a long time I thought that everything was about the Higgs Boson and the LHC, but I hadn’t seen anywhere a proper description of what it is, why it is, and why should we care, and so I decided to try and do that. The other thing was that work by Higgs and other people was dealing with the electromagnetic and weak forces of nature, and I had done my research on the strong force. This was a way of teaching myself in-depth the whole technology of the weak force. I’ve had lectures about it and I’ve followed it, but I’ve never really dirtied my hands with it.

Helen: You never had a full knowledge of it.

Frank: That’s right. I’ve never dirtied my hands with it and this was a way. I like to challenge myself to understand something and then the thrill of understanding it, writing it down so that the reader can do so, too. It’s really a self indulgence in a way.

Helen: That’s the best way, to write for yourself as well as for other people. With all this in mind, is there anything left to discover in Physics?

Frank: Yes.

Ominous silence.

Helen: Any idea what?

Frank: If I knew, I would be out there doing it. (Frank laughs.) Ok, yes… a bit more serious. Let’s take having discovered the Higgs Boson… I mean we probably have, but we first of all need to be absolutely sure that we have, and then more immediately to be able to look at it carefully to see if it is exactly what these guys were talking about, or if it is slightly different. And if it is slightly different, is that a clue in itself?
But there is a big question. It may well be the case that we’ve discovered the way that the fundamental particles get mass, but there’s nothing in this discovery that tells us why they have the particular masses that they do. You might say, well, who cares? If electrons mass was slightly bigger than it is then beta radiation of some forms of nuclear decay would not happen, and if it was lighter than it is they would happen so fast that everything would be different. The fact that we’re here having this conversation is because of a delicate balance between some masses of various fundamental particles among other things, and there is a reason why they have those values presumably, and there’s nothing really in the Higgs search that gives a clear idea of where we’re going to get that answer from. I hope that there’ll be something unexpected that shows that between the experiments, it will give us a clue. So that is one thing.
The other thing is, maybe we have found the answer to where the mass of everything that you and I are made of, but that’s only 4% of everything. There’s 96% of the Universe that’s made up of dark matter of which we know nothing, so hopefully we’ll find the fundamental particles of dark matter.
I would summarise it like this; the energy that the LHC is operating at is only about half way between the heat of a summer’s afternoon to the extreme heat of the big bang where quantum gravity exists. We haven’t a clue about quantum gravity yet, but that first half which was discovered over the last century or so, you’ve got atoms and molecules and living things, and nuclei and protons and quarks and the Higgs Boson.
General riches, and we think that the other half might have more, so I’m sure that there are lots of things to discover and it’s a bit like trying to find the end of the rainbow. The further you go, the rainbow recedes, but you see a lot of interesting things on the way. Research is a bit like that, you’re getting clearer and clearer visions of ‘something.’

Frank CloseHelen: But that fundamental finishing line is always over the next hill.

Frank: Yes. In ‘The Infinity Puzzle’ the finishing line is at infinity. (Frank laughs.)

Helen: What are you working on now?

Frank: Now now? This last month, since the Higgs discovery, I’ve been working very hard on writing articles about it left, right and centre, but more immediately the paperback edition of ‘The Infinity Puzzle’ will be coming out some time next year, and I’ve been going through the hardback, changing things like “will be” to “has” and “might be” to “is”…
And also writing 5000 words at the end to bring up to date what has happened. The book was about the story that motivated this search, and now we’ve got to the next step, so I’m calling the new final chapter ‘The Bonfire of the Infinities.’

Helen: Nice title.

Frank: Like ‘The Bonfire of Vanities.’ (He laughs.) So that’s what I’m doing immediately, but what I’ve been researching for the last year or two, is the life of Bruno Pontecorvo who… You mentioned ‘Neutrino’; I wrote this little book called ‘Neutrino’ five years ago. That was the story of Ray Davis who was the first person to look into the heart of the Sun by detecting neutrinos, and in the course of writing his story I gradually realised that behind the scenes was this man, Bruno Pontecorvo, who had stimulated Davis’s ideas, and in many ways was the father of the standard model.
An interesting thing was that he defected to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and there’s always been questions as to whether he was a spy or not, and why did he do it? I don’t know, yet, and I may never know, but it struck me that his life was in two distinct halves. Halfway through his life he defected and as a result he missed out on two Nobel prizes. One, because the facilities in the Soviet Union were so poor that he couldn’t do any experiments, and he published the article in Russian in a Russian journal, and by the time it had been translated into English others had done it, and got the Nobel prize for it.
I discovered in researching this book that he had the idea of how to discover the neutrino by using a nuclear reactor, which was the way it was discovered, and they wouldn’t allow him into the nuclear rector. It’s a tragic story and I think I now know why he went and it’s very intriguing, and I’m not going to say a word about it. (Frank laughs.)

Helen: I’ll have to read the book.

Frank: I genuinely do not know what the book will end up like. I don’t know if it’s going to be a spy story, a scientific story, or what.

Helen: In ‘The Infinity Puzzle,’ everyone seems so intelligent. Do you have to be a genius to make anything of yourself in the science community?

Frank: Why did you say that everyone seems to be so intelligent?

Helen: Well, everyone’s winning Nobel prizes, and attending Oxford at 16. Things like that.

Frank: I see. I suppose because those who it’s easy to tell stories about, are those who do things. And those who do things are at the top of the pyramid. Contrast that with what I’m going to be saying in the new chapter following the discovery of the Higgs Boson; the experiments were done by teams of 3000, and the idea of a particularly smart individual amongst 3000 is another thing.
I did want to bring out the fact that the big moves are not always made by singular individuals, they are ideas which are out there waiting to be discovered, in some sense, and often more than one person sees the thing. By chance somebody ends up getting a huge amount of credit and someone else gets lost. There was John Ward who was the collaborator with Abdus Salam, and I think he got a pretty short draw.

Helen: Yeah, I felt he deserved some form of recognition, but he ended up getting nothing at all.

Frank: He deserved recognition for something, but I don’t think he actually deserved recognition for Glashow Salam Weinberg. But I’m not sure Salam did either. Glashow and Weinberg, that was clear cut. What they had done was clear. What Salam did was never really clear, he just added some extra stuff to the stuff he was doing with Ward. And I think the people I wrote about were interesting, and so ‘intelligent’ is an unusual thing, it depends on what one means by intelligent. Because it’s an ability to keep grinding out equations and keep hitting your head against a wall, but sometimes… but there’s also street smarts, and a lot of these people have street smarts. A person with street smarts can’t hit their head against a wall.

Helen: I’ve read that Stephen Hawking felt he wasn’t a very good student when he was at university. How do you feel you were at St Andrews? Did you ever struggle with a particular area of Physics, or was it easy all the way?

Frank: I certainly struggled at high school. When I got to St Andrews, I made a very clear vision of what I wanted to achieve. The people I was competing with, we were all starting at the same level and we were all getting the same quality of education. So I think I struggled at school in part because maybe the teachers didn’t actually understand Physics the way that university lecturers did. At St Andrews there were subjects that I liked more than others. I certainly discovered that I couldn’t do experiments.

Helen: I know the feeling well.

(Frank laughs.) He tells the story of trying to do the Millikan’s Oil Drop experiment, and how a mishap with the ‘plastic spray thing’ meant he needed to work out a new way to save the day, and the experiment. In short, Frank did what any real scientist should do. But he doesn’t want to be quoted on this.

Frank: I’ve always been better at theory, and that has perhaps been true most of my life. I’ve had this frustrating feeling that I can’t make things work. I used to hate museums and their demonstrations; I would press the button and they wouldn’t work, or they’d break. Years later I realised these things just weren’t kept up well, but I used to think it was me. I was always more interested in why things are, than exploring a demonstration in how they are.

Helen: Ah, that makes me feel better… I’m not the only one who hates having to do experiments.

Frank: That’s why I went to St Andrews. Perhaps I should explain. I went to Queen’s College, Dundee, and when I was a student, Queen’s College Dundee and St Andrews were part of the same university and I started at Queen’s. And the first two years I was doing Applied Maths and Physics and at the end of the first two years we decided which Honours course we wanted to go into.
I was having to choose whether I wanted to do Maths or Applied Maths, or if I wanted to do Physics. Well, I didn’t want to do Physics because I knew that would mean experiments. And I didn’t want to give up Maths or the Applied Maths but I didn’t want to do them on their own. Then I discovered at St Andrews you could do Theoretical Physics and I made the best decision ever, which was to contact the professor there, have the interview and go across to St Andrews to do Theoretical Physics.

Helen: I’m going through that process now, going into Honours.

Frank CloseFrank: Do you still have that range of choices?

Helen: Yes, you’ve still got all the options, Theoretical Physics, Physics & Maths, Astrophysics, but I’ve always wanted to do Astrophysics, so I’m going ahead with what I know I enjoy. Do you feel the student experience at university has changed since your own student days?

Frank: Interesting question. My sense is that the level of knowledge of Mathematics, in particular, that students have now – I’m talking about coming to Oxford – is not the same as it was way back. Frighteningly so, in that I was shown some of the scholarship entrance papers that were set back in the 1950s. The mechanics questions for example that students were being expected to answer, to prove that they could enter Oxford, were more difficult than our first year undergraduates would be set now. Of course things were different then, you targeted into small narrow goals very quickly. Times have changed. In those days one still very much looked up to one’s seniors as authority figures. My impression is that students don’t do that now. (Frank laughs.)
I at least didn’t have the worry about fee paying. Student debt is probably one that is different now. I don’t think anything dramatic has changed. It’s still the case that students ask interesting questions, and occasionally as a lecturer you get asked a question which is out of the box. In 40 years’ time you’ll have seen the same problems so often that you’ve forgotten there might be another way of doing it. That’s the fun, that students haven’t yet been put into that straightjacket. And you probably dress better.

Helen: Have people like Brian Cox had an effect on the sciences? Have they made them more appealing?

Frank: Oh, I’m certain Brian Cox has made kids interested in science because they see it on the TV. I know that 20 years ago when I was trying to get Physics on the TV it was impossible because the gate keepers were very much Arts graduates. That has changed. I think it changed during the Labour government in ’97, and Brian Cox has been part of that. I think that there’s much more excitement about doing science, and where science is going, at the moment. Science has become a thing that ‘people’ do, it’s not a nerd’s thing.

Helen: It’s become popular again.

Frank: Yes.

Helen: One of my set questions for academics is regarding advice for university applications in their field. Do you have any advice for students wanting to study Physics at university?

Frank: Which university to go to?

Helen: Which universities, or how to write their personal statements, anything.

Frank: Students who say that they want to go to university because ‘I want to do Particle Physics’ for example, I say fine, but when you’re at university you’ll be exposed to a whole range of things you didn’t know were there before.
What I suggest to people who ask me, whichever university you go to, in the first and second years you’re going to do the same thing. Everyone around the planet is doing Classical Mechanics, everyone’s doing Schrödinger’s equations. The difference will be in the final years when you make choices for what courses you want to do and that will vary from one university to another. Universities focus on different things and if you really want to do Particle Physics, then make sure you go to a university whose website tells you that they do it. But other than that, I’d say ‘are you a person who wants to live in a big town or a small town or doesn’t matter?’ I couldn’t have imagined myself being at a London university.

Helen: And how about for someone applying for Oxford?

Frank: Do you mean advice for how to beat interviews and such like?

Helen: No, just how to prepare yourself for the process, the dos and don’ts.

Frank: I would say there’s a lot of false ideas about Oxford and Cambridge interviews. Vast numbers of students are now getting A*s. In my time getting three Bs was university entrance, and B and two Cs could well be too. But now Bs are ‘failures’ so grade inflation’s happened, and it has become exceedingly difficult to distinguish.
We’ve got 400 applications for 100 places and they’ve all got A*s. So we have to interview them, and we’re not trying to find out what they know, because all that tells us is how they’ve been taught. Setting up a sort of mock tutorial, setting a problem which they won’t be able to solve, but we’re going to give them hints, and see how teachable they are.

Frank CloseHelen: That seems like sound advice. Do you have a typical day in the office?

Frank: Nope. (Frank laughs.) Well, a typical day… the sort of things I might do, but not on any particular day. I might be giving lectures, but not now because I don’t have time for that. I might be doing tutorials with students. I might be reading recent research papers. I’m much more likely to be researching things I might want to write about. I might be going to a scientific meeting but less of that now. I might be travelling to give talks or interviews. In fact, I think my life now is moving more into the writing about the subject, the history of the subject. To try to give a feeling of why it’s exciting to me, in the hope that that it might excite you. So that’s becoming more of my typical day, of reading and writing, but not much arithmetic.

Helen: And have you ever suffered from Nobelitis?

Frank: No. Unfortunately I’ve never had anything that’d come near enough to win anything like that. But I do know people who have. Yes, I have suffered from Nobelitis but not for the Nobel. For other things.

And on that note, Frank quickly nipped off to the Authors’ Yurt, before meeting someone for dinner. That someone being Peter Higgs. Naturally.

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