Secrets of the Universe?…Keep them under your hat(s)

Dr Alex Murphy, guest blogger

Dr Alex Murphy, guest blogger

Each year the British Science Association honours five outstanding young communicators with the opportunity to present a prestigious Award Lecture at the British Science Festival. The winner of this year’s Lord Kelvin Award Lecture is Dr Alex Murphy.  Alex is a physicist and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.  He is this week’s guest blogger.

A busy week! Ok, to be honest, a busy few years… but several things really seem to be coming together, with preparation for the Festival just one of them.

Down at the mine the main thing we at Edinburgh have been in charge of recently is finally taking shape. It’s the veto for the ZEPLIN-III dark matter detector.

Dr Chamkaur Ghag

Dr Chamkaur Ghag

In the picture taken here you can see Chamkaur, my Postdoc, proudly standing next to the first of many parts. In my talk I’ll get to explain a little about what it is and how it works, but trust me, a lot of work went into that. Right now, 1100 m under the ground near Whitby, a PhD student by the name of Anthony is scrubbing them  as clean as he can… and so he should, for together with the main instrument it will become the most sensitive device the world has ever known! What’s more, with it we might be able to at last detect dark matter… that mysterious stuff that we know must be there, that has been there for all 13.5 billion years, that has shaped the evolution from the Universe from day-1 and without which the Universe would not be suitable for us… etc etc. Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.

Back to earth and more mundane matters. Another thing we did today was work out how we’re going to reduce the radon levels near the detector. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that, as its name suggests, is a source of radiation. When you have a sensitive instrument, background radiation is a pain because it can hide the very weak signal you are looking for. So what we’re going to do is build a big plastic tent around the detectors, seal it with hot tongs (exactly like you get with plastic bags at the deli counter), and over-pressure it with nitrogen from a bank of 16 gas bottles. So today I’m an engineer, working out how to forklift multi-tonne mechanical racks of gas bottles. And never forget that safety hat we all have to wear – mines are intrinsically dangerous places, so heavy high pressure gas bottles require risk assessments.

Of course, doing this research is not cheap. In the present times, I think more than ever we recognise the investment the government is making. And by the government we of course actually mean the taxpayers. Times are tough, and publicly funded science is feeling this too. 

This kind of thing is funded through the STFC, not Swindon town’s football club, but the Science and Technology Facilities Council .  I’m lucky enough to be on a couple of the Council’s management panels, and on Tuesday there was a meeting at UCL for us to discuss the present situation. It’s all a bit grim really, with a need to cut costs. The UK exchange rate has not been doing so well recently, and that hurts because our subscriptions to CERN  and to ESA, the European Space Agency paid in Euros. So for this meeting I’m a politician and a financier. 😦

Wednesday, and another hat again. It’s the eLearing@Ed conference. Edinburgh is a University with a very proud and long tradition (established by royal charter of James the VI in 1582 dontchaknow). But the teaching is nothing of the sort. Today we saw how we’re using web2 applications, facebook, secondlife, skype, moodle etc, to help with teaching. I was part of the team that first used hand-held personal response systems for ‘ask the audience’ type interaction during lectures. I’ll be bringing those to the Festival lecture actually. Time for some MCQs to test your knowledge of Newton’s Laws I think! And it’s not just gizmos for gizmos sake… there’s a whole pedagogy that goes with this, trying to understand what works, and why, and how we can improve the learning environment, making the student experience better and more effective.

Thursday, and I went down to the workshops here. There’s a few things I’m having built at the moment. Firstly, the power supply for some of the bits we use underground is being retro-fitted with a USB port. We’ll be able to turn it on and off from the surface, meaning we have to be underground less, saving money and freeing up time. I need to remember my electrical engineering then. And then I’m having a lifting jig built for the veto. The roof by itself weighs more that anyone could carry, and there will be delicate equipment all around. Getting it down the mine shaft, along the underground tunnels, into the lab, and in to position, all has to be considered beforehand. More engineering. Then finally I’m having a brand new lecture demonstration built, especially for the Festival lecture. I shouldn’t say too much about it or it would spoil the surprise, but sufficient to say it spins and is likely not to work. At last! I’m a physicist!.

You can catch Alex giving his Award Lecture Exploring the dark side of the Universe at the Festival on Thursday 10th September at 12.15

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