Particle Physics Play at the Oxfordshire Science Festival 2017

I first volunteered to help at the Oxfordshire Science Festival in 2010.  Back in those days there was not so much planning.  We just arrived on Bonn Square on Saturday morning with a pile of science toys and tried to get passing shoppers to let us talk to them about physics. Through a bit of trial and error we hit on a winning strategy—just leave a pile of Lego bricks on the table and the stall becomes a magnet for young children. It was particularly satisfying watching them ignore the prestigious stalls, by the likes of Google and Siemen’s, once they caught sight of ours.

The festival has now grown and the organisation is now much more meticulous.  I have coordinated the Particle Physics stall for the last two years, which now involves proposal writing, training, preparing risk assessments, and sorting out insurance, before I even get to set up the stall.  In 2016 we took two particle detectors and a pile of toys to a gazebo on Broad Street and enthused about fundamental physics to any passers-by. Despite some torrential rain, it proved popular with tourists and locals alike.

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Photos from the 2016 Particle Physics stall on Broad Street.

New Posters for 2017

The grinning faces of younger visitors were enough to assure me we were doing something right, but I received more critical feedback from the departmental committee, who commented that it didn’t look quite professional enough. The bare table-top with ATLAS detector poster taped to the front was not good enough. So for this year, we designed a set of custom roll-up banners:

These were set up behind our stall in the Town Hall. The banners showed how the universe was made of elementary building blocks, how the earth is bombarded by particles from space and how these are detected.  As well as details of particle accelerators, and of the experiments with Oxford University involvement, such as the ATLAS detector at CERN.


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Meanwhile the kit on the table included:

The Build Your Own Universe Lego. As I explained in another post, this kit produced by QMUL is always a hit. We used it to explain how everything in the Universe is made of elementary building blocks, how the up and down quarks produced after the big bang form protons and neutrons, which in turn stick together to form deuterium and helium, which are fused together in stars to form heavier elements.

The Micro LHC Lego Model. This was a new thing for us this year. Ours was supplied by the ATLAS collaboration, but full instructions on how to build your own, and a complete parts list, are available online.

The Particle Zoo soft toys, imported from California, were also popular. These let us illustrate the diversity of fundamental characters across the Standard Model of Particle Physics. One young visitor developed a particularly strong attraction to the cuddly gluon, while others enjoyed tossing two protons in the air with the aim of achieving a mid-air collision.

The Cloud Chamber is usually a great demonstration piece, which lets people see the tracks of cosmic rays as a line of droplets in a cooled vapour layer. Unfortunately this year, after setting up an ice bucket we found the electric pump required to circulate the cooling water was broken. You can’t win them all.

The Silicon Detector, is a more reliable modern particle detector. This version was lent to us by the CERN@school programme, who provide these Medipix detectors for schools. It is, in effect, a digital camera for particles.

Visitors of All Ages

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In the evening the festival organizers tried a new idea: an adult-only session, where our grown-up visitors could ask questions without being intimidated by kids. Our new posters seemed to encourage them to ask questions and we chatted at length about the experiments we were working on. When asked about what benefit particle physics brought to society, I could explain that while the primary purpose of our work was fundamental science, we had seen many technological spin-offs (we invented the World Wide Web you know).  One of the reasons for our stall was to let taxpayers know how we are spending their money.  There were other questions on the Higgs Boson and neutrinos.

Nearly all visitors at these events have been happy to talk to us.  There have been a few odd characters, such as the visitor who listened to my enthusiastic explanation of the big bang and the early evolution of the universe, before giving me a very cold stare and sternly saying “I’ll pray for you” before walking away.

The day finished with pizza, beer, and music provided by a Theremin soloist. Altogether it was a great event. But the morning after I was completely shattered.

Thanks to Todd Huffman, Alan Barr, Aidan Reynolds, Kathryn Boast, Chris Hays and Ryan Bodenstein for running the stall; and to Cigdem Issever and Sian Tedaldi, and everyone else who helped behind the scenes.


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