This month small particles have been making a big splash with pupils in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset schools. Over 3000 students and teachers have heard CERN & Bristol University physicist Dr Helen Heath talking about what is probably the largest physics experiment in the world – the Large Hadron Collider. Dr Heath was touring South West schools with an interactive talk entitled ‘Small Particles, Big Experiments’. Organised by the Institute of Physics’ SW Regional Officer (Alison Rivett) and sponsored by the IOP SW Branch the tour aimed to give students an insight into the very latest physics research.
Fresh from a research stint at CERN (and notwithstanding her mammoth overland journey back from Geneva due to the volcanic ash cloud) Dr Heath enthusiastically took the various audiences from the everyday world to the minute world of atoms, protons and quarks in 3 easy steps. At every show there were keen volunteers ready to wear some silly hats and act out the roles of the two Up Quarks, the Down Quark and the simple Electron which make up a Hydrogen Atom.
With the help of a beach ball, a ping-pong ball, a baking tray and a muffin tin, she demonstrated how light is too big to see very small things. This is why physicists use tiny electrons and protons to investigate the sub-atomic level. However the detectors which ‘see’ such small particles have to be gigantic. The engineering feats involved in building the particle-smashing equipment amazed many. Her own experiment - the Compact Muon Solenoid - is several storeys high and weighs around the same as 30 jumbo jets, in order to contain the massive energies produced when protons travelling close to the speed of light collide.
She was also able to show some hot off the press (or in this case, the particle detector) results from the highest ever energy collisions currently taking place in the 27 km long tunnel of the LHC. She pointed out that with the experiment set to run for at least the next 20 years, it is entirely possible that some of the students who were watching the talks could go on to work on the project in the future.
Over the two-week tour there were many different discussions and questions raised. For example, might the experiments really make a black hole which could destroy the earth (no, it’s just media exaggeration); why particles with mass can never reach the speed of light (ask Einstein); who pays for massive projects like these (over 50 different countries); and what exactly it is the Large Hadron Collider is hoping to find (the mysterious Higgs boson, extra dimensions, dark matter particles or perhaps something entirely unexpected).
Between April 19th and 29th the tour visited Camborne Science & Community College, Newquay Tretherras School, Launceston College in Cornwall; The Five Islands School, Isles of Scilly; Great Torrington Community Sport College, North Devon;
St Boniface’s RC College & Notre Dame RC School in Plymouth; King Edward VI Community College, Totnes and Bruton School for Girls in Somerset. Audiences included all ages of students, from Year 7 through to 6th formers and a number of students from neighbouring schools.
Associated ‘Meet The Scientist’ sessions which took place at Launceston College, St Boniface’s RC College and Bruton School for Girls allowed pupils to find out more about careers in science and talk informally with scientists and engineers.
It wasn’t just secondary students who experienced the talk however. A number of evening community lectures also took place, including at Penwith Cafe Sci. On the Isles of Scilly Helen even gave a special talk for the Year 5 & 6 primary pupils at Five Islands School on St Mary’s.
Despite pressures of impending exams and ash-related problems with staff stuck abroad, the friendly welcome and enthusiasm shown by all the host venues emphasised how valuable events like this are. The rural nature and and remote location of many schools in the South West means it is often difficult to travel to lectures or for speakers to visit.
“Thanks again for an inspiring speaker, the kids have said they really enjoyed the talk.” and “it was really good for the students to see applications of science in the real research world” were just some of the comments afterwards from teachers. Hopefully those young people that saw the talk will have been intrigued, amazed and perhaps inspired by the amazing possibilities science opens up.