Selecting the best candidates for an oversubscribed course is not easy. Here’s how we do it for Oxford physics.
Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease is something I have lived with all my life. To mark CMT Awareness Month, here is a particle physicist’s description of the condition. I tell my story of the distracting problems I have had with my hands and feet while I was working on the search for dark matter and building instruments to explore the interactions of fundamental particles.
We are now approaching the time of year when thousands of teenagers are fretting about university admissions, dreaming about an exciting future, and perhaps already drafting personal statements to put on application forms. Many will list the books they have read that have inspired them to opt for physics, chemistry, archaeology and anthropology, or whatever. But what books will most impress an admissions tutor? This is a simple question, but as I will try to explain, a full answer is not as simple as a list of titles.
My immediate response on viewing my first total solar eclipse is just to sit back and admire the beauty of the spectacle: the shimmering white light of the solar corona silhouetted by the perfect black disk of the moon, shaped by the magnetic field of the sun. Of course I have seen hundreds of photographs of the image, but the experience of the real thing is enhanced by the setting.
A deep underground laboratory is not the obvious place to view an eclipse. Yet it is an ideal place to monitor the dancing magnetic field generated by the currents in the ionosphere above us. During a solar eclipse, as the shadow of the moon moves over the upper atmosphere, this dance is disrupted, and we can study how this cool spot impacts the space weather.
The apparent coincidence that our moon so perfectly covers our sun is what makes solar eclipses so spectacular. Coincidence? Maybe. Yet Oxford astrophysicist Steve Balbus has a speculative theory that, 400 million years ago, this may have provided the impetus to encourage our aquatic ancestors to investigate life on land.
The Boulby Mine, on the North Yorkshire coast, is home to a deep underground laboratory hosting experiments studying research topics including dark matter, climate science, carbon-capture, and the search for alien life. In 2012, I was invited to visit by the Director Sean Paling to investigate its potential for planned experiments.
The story of how I set out with a small animation production company on a project to make a series of short 3D films, where our CGI characters would visit astroparticle physics experiments around the world: exploring gamma-ray astronomy in the Namib desert, dark matter searches in a deep underground laboratory, and balloon-borne neutrino detectors flown over the Antarctic ice. This promised to be an epic SciComm adventure, but we didn’t get funded.