Peter Picks a Pack of Particle Physicists25th January 2018
A Masters in Antimatter Physics at CERN is both hands-on and full-on. Since August I have learnt a huge amount about an experiment that produces atoms of antihydrogen and then studies their response to various lasers. Working with a small(ish) collaboration of around 20 people on-site means that I work on all aspects of the experiment. The collaboration includes about 20 more working from countries around the world, who drop in for a week or so every now and then to keep hands-on. I climb under the experiment to change cables, operate the machinery, interpret the data, and design and build software and hardware that I install myself. It seems the most important line in any job description is truly the final line: "and other duties as assigned". This incredible experience has come at a price in my case; a social life at CERN is something you can’t easily develop. In this series of four blog posts I aim to give an honest impression of my own experience working as a 32-year-old MRes student at CERN.
The ALPHA experiment that I work on at CERN is focused on producing antihydrogen - an atom consisting of an antiproton and a positron - and trying to find if/how it is different to hydrogen. Only by finding any difference experimentally can we get ideas about why there were a billion-and-one matter particles compared to a billion antimatter particles when they were created shortly after the Big Bang. There may be some subtle difference between the spectral lines of hydrogen and antihydrogen, and this is currently being investigated. Future experimentation from ALPHA includes testing how antihydrogen reacts to the gravitational field, i.e. if they fall at the same rate of 9.81… ms^-2.
CERN is a great place for inquisitive minds. University recruitment fairs are often comprised of companies that can afford to foot the bill for setting up a stand and this makes profit a part of their ethos. You will never see CERN at one of these. That simple fact highlights a huge benefit to working at a place like this; it’s all about the science. I applied to Swansea University to study for this year-long Masters in the hope that it would give me insight into working in science and whether it would encourage me to continue on to a PhD. I am now five months in and the time to make a decision has arrived all too quickly.
I am writing this first post from the Physics school of Les Houches in the French Alps, which has run courses throughout the years from 1951 and 44 of the students or lecturers have been awarded either a Nobel Prize or a Fields Medal.
To be sat in the same lecture hall that Feynman, Pauli, and Fermi have lectured in really makes you feel like you’re a part of the very quickly developing world of Physics. The two-week course on Plasma Physics is delivered by experts in the field (pun aside) and designed to help PhD students learn some theory and wisdom from those who have spent years getting to the top.
Lectures start at 8:45am and after a three-hour break in the afternoon to either enjoy the mountains or work through the physics exercises we finish at 9:30pm. The free coffee known as ‘physics food’ helps to keep the eyes open and the brain alert through the fascinating yet intense lectures. Explaining my project during a poster session was very useful as both PhD students and professors probed my methods until they could offer advice and connect me with people doing similar projects, helping the community of plasma physics to get to know each other, something that will, no doubt, be useful for a lifelong career in Physics.
I'm eager to see what tomorrow brings.