Mina Green phoned up Victoria Martin to discuss her role as Professor of Collider Physics at University of Edinburgh, her involvement in the discovery of the higgs boson particle, and what's next for the Atlas experiment.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your current role at University of Edinburgh?
I’m an academic at the University of Edinburgh where I’ve recently been promoted to Professor of Collider Physics. My job has two main components, firstly I teach courses in Physics for Undergraduates, Master’s and PhD students and the second is particle physics research. My research involves collaborations with many other physicists. I’m in two collaborations: one with over 5,000 people all over the world, called the Atlas experiment – and a smaller one called CLICdp. The Atlas experiment itself is at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and the team from the University of Edinburgh is about twenty people. There are also teams from University of Glasgow, the rest of the UK, Europe and all the continents, except Antarctica!
What exactly does the Atlas experiment involve?
This is a long, twenty-five to thirty year, project; the people working on ATLAS will evolve with time, so it’s not always the same set of people, though the Universities and Institutes generally stay the same. At CERN, we have the world’s largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, and ATLAS is one of the experiments on the LHC . The LHC accelerates protons - one of the particles that make up an atom - to almost the speed of light. We speed up the protons, one going clockwise, and one anti-clockwise and we smash them together. At that point, because they’re really small and really fast, you need quantum physics to explain what happens. Quantum physics says you don’t always get the same results: it’s not black and white, instead the is a multi-coloured spectrum of many different possible outcomes. Five years ago, we discovered that the Higgs boson can be created in these collisions. But physicists want to know more, since the Higgs boson is only one of the colours in the multi-coloured spectrum of possible outcomes. One of the other biggest questions in physics right now is ‘what is dark matter?’ Dark matter is something that cosmologists see when they look into the universe. So, with the LHC, there’s a good chance we should be able to make dark matter in the collisions and find out what it is actually is made of.
Was discovering the Higgs boson one of the highlights of your career?
Definitely. It was quite surreal, the theory of the Higgs boson is over fifty years old, so you feel you’ve achieved something really special. When you think back to all those who’ve done work before you, there’s thousands of people that have been searching for it for such a long time, so I felt really happy and proud for my collaborators, and the whole particle physics research community, who have been involved with this search over so many years.
What sparked your interest in physics, was this something you were interested in as a child?
I think it was my teachers at school. I had really good physics teachers that held my interest. I always really interested in what stuff was made of; I was curious about that. I went to do a degree in physics at University of Edinburgh, and I stayed on to do a PhD, and then they sent me to CERN for an experiment and it was there I learned what it was like to work with a multi-disciplinary group of people. I really enjoy working in that type of collaborative environment. That, and my continued curiosity to understand what the Universe is made of, is why I’ve stayed in particle physics since then.
How do you see the future of research for the Atlas experiment developing?
As a project, it goes through different stages. When you first build the experiment you use the best technology available, but by the time you’ve made the all components – which are made all over the world - and they are shipped, assembled and commissioned at CERN, it’s ten years out of date, because that’s how long it takes to make them and get them to work together. So, at the moment, we’re thinking about how to improve the detector by taking out the older and damaged pieces and putting in the latest technology. We’re thinking about that actively now to do in the next couple of years.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in a similar role?
Firstly, you’ve got to be passionate about the science you want to do. It’s always the science that will keep you motivated. It’s not all glamour and glitz and Nobel prizes - there’s a lot of really hard and laborious work, and working more hours in the week than the European time directive would allow. You also have to at least a Master’s degree for this kind of research. See what projects are upcoming, and look overseas. Follow your passion for the science, but also be open minded about opportunities.
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