Remember physics at school? Static electricity, magnets, voltages, waves… the list goes on. It’s possible that apart from making your hair stand on end you never used it again, consigning it to the `vaguely curious but not useful’ pile. In fact, some of the most impressive machines ever built are based on exactly these principles.
Particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider need to be designed before they can be turned into magnets, big pieces of metal, huge long wires and world-record amounts of cryogenic liquids. Someone needs to tell them where to put all the magnets, how strong they need to be and how it will all work – and that’s where someone like me comes in, an accelerator physicist.
OK, I admit that I didn’t design the LHC as I was in nappies at the time – the world’s largest machine wasn’t made overnight. But I design other, smaller accelerators. For my PhD I’ve been designing one for cancer treatment using charged particles. On the list of cool jobs I never thought I’d have, this one has got to be pretty high up the list.
Next week, I hope to be submitting my PhD thesis. This week, while it’s going through a final edit, I’ve taken some time out to come to the British Science Festival in Birmingham with a group of young scientists from the University of Oxford. We’re here presenting a science show for schools called `Accelerate!’ – let me explain how it works.
The whole experience is interactive, thanks to audience volunteers who help us through our ‘recipe’ to make a particle accelerator. The recipe has just five ingredients: particles, energy, control, collision and detection. The show really gets going with the first explosion, accompanied by a few screams from unsuspecting pupils as we light a balloon filled with hydrogen gas. Of course, scientists use a high voltage to rip apart Hydrogen gas – leaving protons to use in particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider. It’s not just for show.
Some concepts aren’t easy to get across with a demonstration, like the concept of accelerating particles using an electromagnetic wave. For this idea we created the undisputed favourite demo of the show, involving the entire audience. It’s called the “beach ball wave”. Our beach balls are scale model protons 1.5 m in diameter, about a thousand million million times larger than a real proton. The audience is transformed into an electromagnetic wave, which accelerates the particles across the room. After this we’re into the realms of particle collisions, Einstein’s famous equation and giant digital camera-like detectors taking forty million pictures a second. Still following me?
If you don’t know your Large Hadron Collider from your large cappuccino, don’t worry – there’s still a chance to find out on Saturday, when I’ll be presenting the 2010 Lord Kelvin Physical Sciences Award Lecture, called the “Big Bang Dilemma”. After exploring a bit about how accelerators work and what they are used for, the event will culminate in the audience attempting to solve the Big Bang Dilemma, by voting for the research that they think deserves to be funded.
For more information look here http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/forms/festival/events/showevent2.asp?EventID=141
Hope to you see you on Saturday.
The ‘Accelerate!’ program is supported by a Small Award for Public Engagement from the Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC.
Suzie Sheehy is currently completing her DPhil in the John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science at the Univeristy of Oxford. After finishing her DPhil she will be taking up a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship for three years as the Commission’s 2010 Brunel Fellow, which will be hosted at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.