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Trying to understand the wonders of the universe, or why attend an evening lecture at RHUL

Posted on 09/03/2017
ATLAS model 2

By Alex Mallard, Sixth Form student and Physics enthusiast

I have been fascinated by Physics since I was very young. It is a vast subject stretching from the unbelievably small quantum interactions right up to the largest galactic collisions. Despite this I find our ability to quantify the world around us to such a degree of accuracy astounding. But I also find fascinating that the more we learn, the more we realise how much we don’t know.

So why I am I writing this post?

Well back in 2015 my parents took me to the Royal Holloway Science Festival. I am not sure how much they actually enjoyed me dragging them around, but I had a great time. In the maths department I used an actual enigma machine, then got to control lego robots in the computer department. But of course, most of my time was spent exploring the Physics department. It was great to see all the different experiments and interesting demonstrations. But the best thing was the chance to chat with some of the undergraduates and research students. They were all very kind and patient with me, particularly Darsh who put up with me quizzing him on the standard model for over half an hour. Fortunately he was very enthusiastic, which helped spark my interest in the weird and wonderful world of particle physics.

Perhaps to avoid any further questions, I was then fortunate enough to be introduced to Dr. Dave Farmer, the SEPnet Outreach Officer at the time. He chatted to me about my interest in Physics, and then kindly invited me along to the March evening lecture which was on ‘The Practical Applications of Quantum Theory" (Professor Meeson).

I must admit to being a bit nervous when I arrived with my Dad, as I was by far the youngest person attending. But everyone was really nice, and they even had free biscuits.  More importantly I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture, which featured a live demonstration of the famous double slit experiment (proving the wave-particle duality of the photon). Since then I have not missed a lecture.

The range of topics covered has been great; from quantum phenomena at near absolute zero, the hunt for ghost particles and dark matter, to the design of particle accelerators and the future of the LHC. All have been fascinating.

It has also been good to see how popular the lectures have become. Back in early 2015 attendance was typically 50-100 people, including a fair proportion of undergraduates and staff. But since then numbers have grown significantly with more schools attending, with over 300 people at the last Christmas lecture. The only downside for me, has been the increased competition for the biscuits.

Due to my regular attendance at the lectures, the Department was kind enough to allow me to spend a week during the summer of 2015 helping in the teaching labs, as part of my school ‘Work Experience’. Many thanks to Ian Murray, for finding time to take me under his wing. Towards the end of my week, as a side project, I also started constructing a 10,000 piece model of the CERN Atlas detector which I had discovered in a box. It had been sat there for a while, as it had not come with any instructions. But after a couple of extra days, and some very sore thumbs, I managed to figure out how to put it all together and finished it. The department seemed pleased to have the model finally built, and it was even used in the 2015 Christmas lecture - ‘A tunnel to the beginning of time: Experimental physics at the LHC’. The lecture was given by Dr. Veronique Boisvert, a CERN scientist, who gave a fascinating update on some of the recent discoveries made by the ATLAS Detector, and the work going on at the LHC.

Prior to the lecture it was quite nerve-racking waiting for the model to be transported up from the Physics Department. But fortunately it arrived in almost one piece, and so didn’t take me too long to fix up. After the lecture I was surprised at the amount of interest in the model, and the reaction of people when they realised that a Year 10 student had put it together.

Personally I have found the Physics evening lectures fascinating, and a great way to broaden my interest and knowledge of Physics. They have also been a good opportunity to talk to staff, researchers and undergraduates who share a similar passion for the subject. As well as to see some experiments demonstrated live, that I had previously only read about in textbooks.

I am now in Year 12 studying for A-levels, and hope to go on to take Physics at University.  In the meantime I look forward to attending future evening lectures at RHUL, with the next one on the 16th March - ‘Astronomy: a journey from amateur to (more) professional’  (Prof. Boogert).

Finally I would like to thank the RHUL Physics Department for its help and encouragement, and also Anna Christodoulou (the new SEPnet Physics Outreach Officer) for inviting me to write this piece.


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