Collision Space!

Hi everyone!

As promised, here’s part two of Science Centre’s exclusive email interview with Dr Harry Cliff – one of the curators of the Collider exhibition, which blends theatre, video and sound art, drawing people like you to the fascinating world of experimental particle physics!

LEP_Collider_accelerating_cavity
The Collider exhibition at the ArtScience Museum

What got you interested in Physics and inspired to learn particle physics?

Dr Cliff: “I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in physics. There is something deeply thrilling about a subject that attempts to make sense of all the wonderful complexity in nature in terms of a few simple rules – the laws of nature. The idea that you can reduce reality to these laws, and then explain everything that exists, from the Big Bang to the flight of a bird is almost magical.

“As for why I became a particle physicist – well there are two fundamental branches of science – cosmology which is the study of the universe at vast scales, and particle physics which is the study of structure of matter and the forces and particles that create our reality. It had to be one or the other as far as I was concerned. I’m not a details person (biology and chemistry are details, albeit very interesting ones). I was lucky to be a student at the time that the LHC was about to switch on. It was a no-brainer – who wouldn’t want to be a part of the most important and ambitious experiment ever conducted by the human race?”

Gift_of_Mass_art_installation by INFN and Paolo Scoppola
Gift of Mass art installation by INFN and Paolo Scoppola, featured in the Collider exhibition

Up until this venture, it was impossible to test if other universes existed beyond our own. With this largest particle collider, are we getting any closer to answering this unknown?

“We may get a hint that there are multiple universes from the LHC, but only a hint. The laws of physics appear to be fine tuned rather delicately to allow atoms, and therefore wobbly flesh-coloured things made of atoms like us, to exist. If new particles are discovered at the LHC in the next few years that could explain this weird fine tuning. But if we find nothing then it might be a clue that our universe is one of many. In most of the other universes the laws of physics are different and mean that there are no atoms, or stars, or planets, and we live in one of the few universes where the laws of physics are right for life.”

Superconducting dipole magnet
Superconducting dipole magnet in the Collider exhibition

Energy collisions in the universe are common occurrences with different results at times and so how representative are the findings of the experiments especially given the controlled manner of the set up?

“It’s true that there are high energy collisions happening all the time. Particles smash into the Earth’s atmosphere with energies equal to, and in some cases, far higher than we can achieve at the LHC. However, the rate of these collisions is very low, meaning that it’s not practical to study them. At the LHC we can recreate trillions upon trillions of collisions, all in the same place – and specially designed detectors can be used to study them. But there is precisely zero difference between a proton that smashes into the Earth’s atmosphere and the protons we smash into each other at the LHC. Every proton in the universe is identical – in fact this is one of the key features of quantum mechanics.”

How do you think this field could evolve? What would you like future scientists to be working on?

“The next few years will be crucial. The LHC could help us to solve some of the biggest outstanding questions in physics. However, if we find nothing new then we will have to go back to the drawing board and rethink of theories of nature. Hopefully, new particles and forces will be discovered, which will lead to a new era in our understanding of the universe. Scientists are already planning the next generation of particle colliders, which will allow us to study what the LHC discovers in more detail or to explore new regions of the subatomic world.”

Hydrogen gas canister from the Large Hadron Collider
Hydrogen gas canister from the Large Hadron Collider

Do you think less people are choosing Science as a career? If yes, what do you think should be done to change that situation?

“No, I don’t think that’s true at all. More people are working in science and technology than at any other point in history. For instance, there are around 10,000 people working on LHC research around the world. But we should always be trying to enthuse and engage people with science. No country will have a growing, dynamic economy in the future without a strong science and technology base and a scientifically-trained work force.”

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Fascinating stuff isn’t it? Click here to check out Part 1 of our interview with Dr Cliff!
You can check out the Collider exhibition anytime now at the ArtScience Museum where it will run till 14 Feb 2016!

Our heartfelt thanks go out to Sarah Tang and Dawn Wang from the ArtScience Museum who kindly connected us to Dr Harry Cliff.

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