Tuesday, 5 April 2016

How to make a particle accelerator in a bowl

For years now I've been using the 'salad bowl accelerator' demonstration and I'm frequently asked for advice on how to build your own. Well, the wait is finally over!

First up let me say my own version was inspired by that of Todd Johnson from Fermilab, which I've blogged about previously. A few years ago I realised I could do the same thing with a Van de Graff generator and a salad bowl, so I did just that. Interest in my little demo spread quickly and before I knew it it had been filmed at the Royal Institution and the accelerator bowl had been included in the 'Explore your Universe' project which distributed equipment to around 20 science centres around the UK. It seems everyone wants a piece of this demo!

Feel free to use the demo and please let me know if you make your own, have any feedback, additions or awesome extensions by leaving a comment or popping me an email.

What is it?

The ‘accelerator bowl’ is a model of a particle accelerator that can be used to explain the workings of real machines like Diamond, ISIS or even the Large Hadron Collider. Although it’s a very simple model, by discussing the similarities and differences between this and a real accelerator we can understand a lot of the science involved in these intriguing machines.

How I present the demo

Filmed at the Royal Institution in London (the accelerator bowl segment is straight up after the intro)


  • Van de graff generator (a Whimshurst generator ought to work also)
  • A bowl
  • Ping pong ball
  • Nickel screening compound spray (or similar metal conducting paint)
  • Aluminium or copper sticky tape
  • Scissors
  • Wires and banana plugs/croc clips

  • Materials and suppliers

    • Aluminium tape, wire & banana plugs - www.maplin.co.uk
    • Nickel screening compound - RS online
    • Ping Pong Balls - your sports shop, or Argos, these are easy
    • Custom blown acrylic dome  - mine came from HLN supplies

    Choice of bowl:

    Whichever bowl (or other shape) you use as the confining mechanism for your 'accelerator', you need to make sure it is insulating. People have made these models with plastic, wooden and even some types of glass bowls. (Glass is not recommended as it's dielectric properties can mean it fails to let the strips hold charge - I learned that one the hard way). A more expensive but reliable option is a custom blown acrylic dome from eg. HLN supplies or Sunlight Plastics.

    Make sure it is smooth and has a shallow curve to the sides of it, allowing the ball to roll around it and up the sides unimpeded. It can also help to have a flat spot in the centre so the bowl sits stably on a surface; if not you'll need a stand or supporting structure. However, make sure there is a smooth transition between the flat spot and the curved sides, any bumps are likely to make the ball lose momentum and affect the demonstration. If you have one custom-blown make sure to ask for it to be a squished shape, not a full hemisphere (think half a Smartie, rather than half a Malteaser)


    1. Coat the ping pong balls with the screening compound. It is best to do this outside in a well-ventilated area. Let them dry according to the paint instructions.
    2. When you’re ready to build the ‘accelerator’, first check the amount of charge that your Van de Graaff (VdG) generator usually builds up. (Calculate the voltage on the dome as 30kV per centimetre of spark in air). You don't need a big VdG to make this work, in fact too much charge will ruin the demo. (The charge that builds up in the bowl is likely to be quite a bit lower than on the dome and depends on the overall surface area of the metal strips.)
    3. Cut and attach the sticky Al foil strips. There is no exact blueprint for how many or the design of the strips, but there are some guiding principles. The minimum distance between strips should leave enough space so charge can’t travel from one strip over the ball and to ground (or the ball will short-circuit the demo and it won’t work). We recommend tapering the ends of the grounded strips and reducing the width of the charged strips toward the centre in order to maximise this distance. Make sure any tapering or cutting is done neatly and with rounded corners, any sharp corners will have a stronger charge density and be more likely to spark. (Note: once ‘stuck on’ the strips are very hard to get off!)
    4. Next join the four grounded strips around the outside of the bowl with a long continuous piece of Al tape.
    5. Attach one wire to the edge of the charged strips (strip 1-2cm of the plastic sheath from the wire and attach using more Al tape or croc clips) and attach another to the grounded strips.
    6. Using banana plugs or croc clips, attach the charged strips to the high voltage terminal of the VdG and the ground plug into the ground connection. (Make sure to keep the grounding wand connected also during operation!)
    7. Place the ball near the centre of the bowl and switch the VdG on. If nothing happens, try giving the bowl a gentle nudge to get some initial movement happening. (If nothing happens still, check your VdG is operating properly!)

    How does it work?

    The Van de Graaff generator builds up a high voltage by generating static electricity. This means there is a high voltage of over 30,000 V on the metal strips but it is rather safe as even if it sparks, there is only a tiny current flowing. Inside the bowl are two sets of metal conducting strips. One set crosses over in the centre of the bowl, and these are attached to the high voltage terminal of the Van de Graaff generator. The rest of the strips are connected to ground, or 0 V. 

    A ping pong ball coated in a conducting paint is placed in the bowl. When the voltage is switched on, the ball moves around a little because of induced charges on the ball. Soon it comes into contact with a charged strip and picks up that charge – so now it has a like charge to that of the strip. This causes repulsion and gives the ball a push along. When it rolls over a grounded strip, the ball becomes neutralised and loses its charge. But it doesn’t lose its momentum and keeps rolling around the bowl. The next time it comes across a charged strip, it picks up the charge again, gets repelled in the same direction as before and once again gets a little kick along. Every time the ball crosses a charged strip it gets accelerated.

    What happens in a real accelerator?

    In most real particle accelerators this is how subatomic particles such as electrons, protons or ions are given their energy; they see a voltage and get pushed along by it. In circular accelerators the beam of particles is bent around in a circle so voltage gets re-used again and again, with the particles gaining a little bit of energy each time. The difference is that in most modern accelerators the voltage isn’t static like the one from a Van de Graaff generator. You might have noticed that in this demonstration the ‘particle’ is changing it’s charge every time it gets a kick. But real particles have a fixed electric charge, so instead the voltage has to change very quickly from positive to negative and back again. That way, every time the particle goes past it will see an accelerating voltage rather than a decelerating one! To do this, we use radiofrequency cavities. These cavities resonate with electromagnetic waves and play the trick of providing a rapidly varying voltage. If the frequency of the wave is timed correctly, every time the particle goes through it will be accelerated. For more information on this see here.

    The highest energy we’ve reached by accelerating particles this way is at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, where the protons are travelling at 99.999999% of the speed of light. At this speed they whizz around the 27km ring more than 11,000 times per second. 

    But that’s not the only difference between this demonstration and a real accelerator. Real particles are much smaller than a ping-pong ball, it’s hard to define a size of something as tiny as a particle, but the classical radius of a proton is around 200 trillion times smaller. To see the beam we have developed tools called diagnostics, which act like our eyes and ears when it comes to seeing the position of the beam, it’s charge, current and size. 

    The accelerator bowl only uses one ‘particle’, but real accelerators have billions or trillions of them at the same time, all with the same electric charge so they repel against one another. Controlling them at the same time is tricky, but it’s very important that we don’t accidentally lose the beam! Even though in the LHC each proton only has as much energy as a fast-flying mosquito, the whole beam combined has enough energy to melt tonnes of solid metal! 

    Salad bowls…

    Unfortunately we can’t roll particles around in salad bowls either. They travel in a beam pipe, which has all the air taken out so it’s under ultra-high vacuum. If there were any air left in there, the particles would scatter off it and get lost, which we want to avoid. To make the particles bend around a corner we use magnets. Dipole magnets do the bending, while more complicated magnets called quadrupoles, sextupoles and even octupoles do the job of beam focusing and other effects. The higher the energy of the beam, the stronger those magnets have to be. In the case of very high-energy machines like the LHC the magnets are often superconducting. This means that they can create very high magnetic fields, but it also means they have to be cooled down to cryogenic temperatures – in some cases just 1.8 K, that’s -271° C!

    A bendy problem…

    In high-energy accelerators, bending a beam around a corner does something rather strange, it gives off synchrotron radiation. In an electron accelerator like Diamond this is exactly what they want to happen. The intense beams of radiation (mostly X-rays) are used to conduct experiments. They actually add in extra devices called wigglers and undulators in order to make as much synchrotron radiation as they can. But in an accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider this is an unwanted side effect, as it makes the beam lose energy. This energy loss can limit the maximum energy of a circular accelerator – we reach a point where the ‘kick’ from the radiofrequency cavities is just replacing the energy lost by synchrotron radiation. 

    The challenge of being able to do all these things at once means particle accelerators are always on the cutting-edge of technology. We’re constantly seeking to go faster, higher and better than before! 

    Teaching and extension activity ideas

    One of the wonderful things about this demo or activity is how many areas of physics it involves all in one go. The other key thing to note is the deeper physics concepts you can introduce by discussing the difference between this 'accelerator' and one like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Here are a few ideas of what you could explain with the help of this demo or workshop, but feel free to add your own!

    Basic principles...

    • Insulators & conductors
    • Induced charges, transfer of charge
    • How the Van De Graff generator works
    • Static electricity, sparks and electrical breakdown of air
    • The charge of fundamental particles

    Taking it further...

    • How a cyclotron works
    • How a synchrotron works
    • Magnetic fields bending particles
    • Static voltage vs oscillating voltage
    • Coulomb repulsion between particles or "space charge"
    • Special relativity and velocity change with energy (which translates to frequency change with energy)
    • Magnetic focusing - weak focusing and strong alternating gradient focusing
    • How the LHC works


    Thanks to Oxford Physics and JAI for supporting the APPEAL teacher days that this material was prepared for. 

    This demo was originally inspired by Fermilab's Todd Johnson who created a version using a 15kV DC power supply. You can read his advice and see his demo video, which I blogged about earlier

    Thanks to ASTeC/STFC for financial support for original development materials. Thanks also to Alom Shaha and Jonathan Sanderson of sciencedemo.org for the enthusiasm and discussion on the teaching possibilities of this particular demo.

    Thursday, 2 April 2015

    Being a human first and a scientist second

    Being a scientist is a strange occupation. I know that we're viewed as 'not quite the same' as other humans and bizarrely, we seem to strive toward that narrow view of ourselves. Being a scientist, particularly an academic one, is full of the pursuit of higher ideals and striving to advance human knowledge. Isn't it?

    For a long time now I've had a feeling that something is wrong with this. At times in my career I've had the thought that everyone else seemed fine and that it must be me that somehow didn't fit in. It's easy to think that is because I'm a woman in a very male dominated field. But really, it's not the reason. The reason is because I'm a human first and a scientist second.

    Over the years cynical scientists may realise that the upper echelons in this game are filled with egocentric academics who have stuck it out longer than anyone else, many of whom have made many personal sacrifices along the way. Late nights in the lab are de rigeur, as is having only a passing interest in ones children or simply choosing not to have any at all to get ahead. Even as junior researchers we were told we must move around the world if we wanted a good network and any chance of pursuing our 'dream' career. (One might well ask ‘whose dream, anyway?’) 

    Faced with this ultimatum: "you must compromise your life to keep doing the job you love", we almost all decide to make sacrifices. In many cases it is a life affirming and enriching experience. But just because it can be positive doesn't mean we should sacrifice our happiness or career if moving is not right for us. But those who can't, by and large, leave to go do something else. I have seen this play out over and over again with the peers that I studied with.

    In an often unfamiliar place and culture we come into work each day and effectively go into battle. We might be competing for favour with the Professor, competing for grants, or good students, or teaching ratings, or first author on a paper, publicity or book sales but make no mistake we are forced to compete. So rather than genuinely supporting one another we in fact each try to call one another out for being wrong. We justify this animosity by affirming our belief that what's important is doing things 'right'. (In reality this is usually competitiveness masquerading as pedantry). 

    Surely all those years of training should be put to good use and we should act 'like scientists'? That means being or at least trying to be totally objective. It means sucking it up when Professor Big Shot totally slates the work of a research student who was only presenting it because their own supervisor, Professor Big Ego told them to. 

    This process can and often does turn nasty. I can't tell you the number of heated arguments I've personally witnessed which came down to attacks on personal character. I won't relate the multitude of stories I've heard about the horrible way that people have treated each other 'in the name of science'. Those who can't hack it leave to go do something else.

    I'm no longer surprised when people call time on this career. A person is quite sane when they call into question whether its the right decision to leave behind family and friends (their key support network) to have a job on the other side of the world, if it later turns into a battleground laced with an undercurrent of fear of inadequacy and being an impostor. Even if the higher ideal of contributing to knowledge is still there, it can be hard to hold onto that single positive straw when the rest of the structure of your life has been broken.

    So scientists, do you value yourself first or your science? All your training, all the stories of the heroes and heroines of science, the career fairytales all force you to make one decision: science comes first. Self comes second. Those who think otherwise, they leave too.

    The main problem I have identified here is that scientists on the whole view each other as scientists first and humans second. Fundamentally, scientific workplaces and scientific training lacks empathy. It has taken me many years to realise that I was effectively forced by the education system to focus on the sciences at the age of around 15 or thereabouts, which is really very early in life. This means I have over the years been robbed of opportunities for emotional and personal growth that I may not have missed had I studied say philosophy or literature instead. 

    By surrounding myself with scientists, even the most lovely and inspiring ones, I reduced my ability to learn to empathise, to be creative, to accept and to tolerate the imperfect because I had it drilled into me to be rigorous, objective, rational, logical and perfection seeking. While the rigorous parts of scientific research demand those things, I realise now that it was this focused training (which I was, unashamedly, very good at) which subsequently set me up to fail with regards to the kind of challenges I'd face after my PhD. It has been a long hard road to make up for that.

    Many years ago I was asked the dreaded job interview question 'what is your greatest weakness?' to which I responded 'fear of failure'. 

    Yet, I am imperfect. When I fail - and it is a when not an if - I want to learn from it, not feel compelled to hide it away in a box called 'unpublished work'. Personally, failure has taught me my strengths and weaknesses as a scientist. I am still learning to accept it, but I am doing a lot better than I used to. 

    I count it as a very good thing that many of my best friends are musicians, humanities graduates and scientists who have much broader interests, they have taught me a lot. It's also a good thing that I've spent so many years ignoring the well-intentioned advice of some of those more senior to me. 

    Over time, I have been developing a list of guidelines that I would ask members of my imaginary future research group to follow. Perhaps you can help me add a few more?
    1. Members of this group will treat each other as human beings first, and scientists second. People are the first priority in this lab (not publications or citations or h-index or anything else...)
    2. Empathy is encouraged.
    3. You are encouraged to dare greatly but to take responsibility for your daring.
    4. Creativity is at the heart of all we do.
    5. Failure is to be embraced, not hidden.
    6. Feedback will be constructive. 
    7. Honesty is required, as is tact.
    I recognise in all of this that I'm one of the lucky ones. I've generally had very positive environments to work in and amazingly supportive colleagues who have, on a number of occasions, had my back when I needed them to. I've also been very lucky to have a number of 'sponsors' or supporters both male and female to offer me advice, mentorship, contacts and other countless small steps up when I needed them. Many people don't have this, but I want to support them and let them know that it can be better. It really can. 

    We should all remember that we are human first and scientist second. No matter how hard we try, this will always be the case. We just need to learn to embrace it.

    Tuesday, 14 October 2014

    Ada Lovelace Day: Identifying my female role models

    In the past I’ve repeatedly said that most of my mentors and role models in science have been men. It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought much about. Being in a male-dominated field I thought it was natural that my role models should be men. A while ago the idea dawned on me that perhaps my own subconscious bias means I just think of the men first. So I thought I’d make an effort to write down my female role models as well.

    As I sat encased in a large metal tube in the sky over the Atlantic ocean while returning from a recent conference, my thoughts first landed on my high school maths teacher back in Australia – Carla Whiting. I did 'specialist’ maths which was widely regarded as the most difficult subject you could do in the whole of your school career in Australia at the time. Mrs. Whiting taught it in such a way that made it not just come alive, but made any grappling with difficult concepts seem worth the effort. She made me want to work hard to really understand things properly. 

    The feature I admired most about her was the way she really used her brain and how she seemed to gain great satisfaction from thinking hard and solving a problem. She made me realise that I have a pretty decent brain and I owe it to myself to use it to the best of my ability.

    At the end of the second year of my undergraduate degree I spent a summer working with Mahananda Dasgupta at the Australian National University. Nanda showed me what it was like to spend my days as a physicist. She was fantastic and knowledgeable both theoretically and experimentally. Over time I’ve come to realise she is also great at identifying questions in her field that need answering, and I recently learned she has been elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences, which has raised headlines for its lack of female Fellows in the past. 

    She taught me that it is important to keep asking questions, to question accepted results, including your own. This is a key part of doing science and I am privileged to have learned this lesson at such an early stage in my career.

    My next role model was a lecturer at my university, Rachel Webster. Rachel is a prominent astrophysicist who taught me several undergraduate courses. She particularly inspired me toward the end of my degree when I learned that she'd gone to Cambridge for her PhD. Speaking to her about this, it became clear to me that she had a dream of what she wanted for her career and she pursued it, never giving up. Of course, she made a (great!) success of it. Her ambition made it clear to me that as a woman in science it's OK to show ambition. 

    Sure, not everyone will like you for it but its OK to put your heart and soul into what you do. Also, you have to come to terms with the idea that not everyone will like you. As women we seem to be socially conditioned to draw back in fear at the thought of someone disliking us. Sometimes we can be disliked simply for being successful. Odd, isn't it?

    After that I ended up following my own dream to study for my PhD at Oxford and lo and behold things have so far worked out alright for me too. Without someone like Rachel to prove to me that it could be done, I'm not at all sure I would have even applied. 

    During my PhD at Oxford I was pleasantly surprised that there were a number of women in my cohort. But I remember distinctly the first external meeting that I attended, where about 30 people were threshing out some of the details of designing ‘EMMA’, a world first in the field of particle accelerators. Not including myself there were roughly 30 people there but just one other woman.

    I remember her distinctly, an American lady named Carol Johnstone who was heavily involved in the discussions. I soon discovered that Carol was the one who had actually suggested the whole idea of this type of accelerator. She invented it! Over time I’ve been privileged to get to know Carol and have realised what an absolute powerhouse of new and innovative ideas she is. She gets so excited in the design stages of accelerators and has so many new ideas that sometimes its hard to keep up! 

    She taught me how valuable it is to have different types of people working together. You need the working bees as much as you need the innovators. You need the quiet ones as much as you need the vocal ones. 

    I’m going to add this one to the mix too: you need the women as much as you need the men.

    Toward the end of my PhD I also got to meet and chat to someone who is pretty high up many people's lists of female role models in physics: Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. She probably doesn't realise it but she left a big impression on me (thanks Jocelyn, if you happen to read this!) She taught me the importance of humility and perspective. She instilled in me (whether intentionally or not!) the idea that while the topics we work on as scientists may be lofty, in order to be successful we need to stay well and truly grounded. We need to focus on what is important and (to an extent) ignore the rest.

    She re-instilled in me something that I feel has been slipping away from me over the years. Sometimes the system is wrong or you want to do something that you truly believe in but people stand in your way; just go ahead and do it anyway. No-one ever remembers a woman who spends her life toeing the line, after all.

    When I think as a whole about the reasons why these women inspired me it is because they are all incredibly intelligent, groundbreaking in their own way and passionate about what they do. Yes, they are hardworking and often trail-blazing. But the absolute best thing for me is that knowing them personally I also know that as well as being brilliant scientists they are all real women, with all the quirks and imperfections that entails. They aren't superhuman. Most importantly what they have achieved is attainable. 

    I’m proud to have identified my female role models, mentors and influencers and the lessons they have taught me. If like me your default answer about your role models is “they are all men” I implore you to stop and think today on Ada Lovelace Day and see if you can rewrite your own mental history book.

    Friday, 16 May 2014

    How to use a negative experience of harassment to make a positive change

    Over the years I have experienced my fair share of harassment, particularly at conferences. I wrote about this some time ago when I was thinking about conference anti-harassment policies and discovered a bunch of great resources online.

    This process gave me the chance to think about how these experiences have affected me and other women I know in my field, in terms of how we think about our careers, how we approach networking and our levels of interaction at conferences. I heard stories of women avoiding conferences altogether, or having their careers damaged thanks to improper handling of cases of harassment.

    I wanted to use my own negative experiences to affect real, positive change.

    The issue of how to implement such a policy is to an extent a 'solved problem' so I wanted to implement the solution in my own field, in order to prevent others in my field experiencing the levels of harassment that I have. I also wanted this to happen so that they know what action to take if they do experience harassment, and what they can expect the outcome to be for the perpetrator.

    Today I discovered that the major conference in my field, whose chair I contacted about this issue, subsequently took action. I did chase it up a little over the last six months, but I more-or-less left it in their hands to discuss and see if they agreed that a policy was a good idea.

    In discussions with other colleagues I realised that for some people the prevalence of harassment would simply not be believed unless I shared some of my experiences. Some people will be surprised by this, but simply telling a person who has never experienced harassment that it "happens all the time" will not change their view about it one iota. So after seeking out the support and encouragement of my twitter network of amazing women in science, I did share some of my experiences in order to get my point across. As hard as it was to speak up about this, I believed it was important in order to make change happen.

    I'll never know how the discussion evolved, but there was a positive outcome. I'm very pleased to say that there is now a public anti-harassment policy on the conference website.

    This is a small step in the right direction, but I think it is a significant one. Going onto the GeekFeminism Wiki about anti-harassment and being able to add the name of this conference to the list of those which have adopted a policy felt fantastic.

    Making the field of research a better, more welcoming and happier place for all the people working in it is hugely important to me. This is my small success story. By documenting it here on this blog I hope it will serve as a positive example to others.

    In the words of one (male) supporter who has been involved in this "let's keep this going!"

    Thursday, 8 May 2014

    Women in scientific careers - the Government response

    This is a guest post by Dr. Jo Barstow
    You can continue the conversation on twitter (@drjovian)

    The Science and Technology Select Committee published a report back in February, detailing the problems of retaining women in scientific careers. A disproportionate number of women who embark on a career in science choose to leave, and the Select Committee report provides a good summary of possible causes. The committee also came up with a series of sound recommendations for how this problem might be tackled, and yesterday the government published their response.

    It’s clear that the findings of the report have been considered and taken seriously, but I struggled to find many instances of planned action on the government’s part beyond measures that are already in place. Without wishing to detract from those (extremely positive) measures, such as investment in Athena SWAN, there seemed to be a lack of willingness to take things further outside existing frameworks. This was especially noticeable in the response to Recommendation 16 from the select committee, which reads:
    “Balancing the benefits of short term contracts with the needs of Post-Doctoral Researchers was examined by our predecessor committee in 2002. We are disappointed at the lack of progress in the last decade. The system of short term employment contracts for post-docs results in job insecurity and discontinuity of employment rights that is difficult for any researcher, but disproportionally deters women from continuing with science careers. It also has implications for workforce productivity.”
    Disappointingly, whilst the government accepts that short term contracts are “challenging to individuals”, they claim that the burden of changing this rests entirely with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Because HEIs are autonomous employers, the government argues, they set the length of a contract and provided they conform to legislation the government’s hands are tied. This view misses out a crucial fact: many postdocs are government funded, either through a personal fellowship or through research council money won by their HEI, and the duration of that fellowship or grant is set by the research council.

    HEIs are often unable to extend individual short-term contracts beyond the term of the funding, so in effect the length of a postdoc contract is dictated by the research council’s funding structure. This is something that the government needs to recognize, and RCUK has to take responsibility for.

    My second concern is with the statistics provided in Appendix A, showing a steady decrease in the percentage of full-time research-only staff on fixed-term contracts between 2004 and 2013. One thing that really stands out is the focus on research-only staff. The majority of early career staff are research-only, whereas most senior staff also have teaching commitments; therefore, one would expect scientists to move out of the research-only category as part of their natural career progression. It is therefore difficult to tell whether this statistic really reflects an increase in permanent jobs for academic staff, or whether it instead reflects a shift away from combined research/teaching to more research-only tenured posts.

    Despite problems with some of the government’s responses, I still think the committee report has had really positive outcomes for women in science, and it’s reassuring to see it being taken seriously at the highest levels in the UK. Whilst there are many changes that we still want to see, it’s worth acknowledging the encouraging signs that are already there: the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships and Daphne Jackson Trust fellowships, designed to help those who require flexible working or who are returning from a career break; the fact that “family constraints” are an acceptable reason to apply to a particular host institution for the STFC Ernest Rutherford fellowship; the large number of HEIs who have signed up to Athena SWAN and Project Juno. I hope the recommendations from the report will be attended to carefully over the next few years.

    - Dr. Jo Barstow

    Thursday, 3 April 2014

    London Marathon for ScienceGrrl

    I just wanted to point you to this post on the ScienceGrrl blog. They have kindly featured me as the 'ScienceGrrl of the month' for April, so I've written a post about aspirations, my job as an accelerator physicist and the fact that in 10 days time I'll be running the London Marathon. Oh, and a mention of high heels gets chucked in there too for good measure.
    If you want a quick link to pop over to my fundraising site for the marathon, click this link to my ZEQUS page.

    Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    Getting excited for a BIG "Big Bang Fair"

    The blog has been a bit quiet lately because my schedule has been stuffed full of some rather exciting things! Since all that hard work is hopefully about to start paying off, here's a quick update.

    In January I was invited to co-present one of the headline shows at this years Big Bang Fair. A fantastic opportunity to reach a great (very large!) audience. At first glance the Big Bang seemed to overlap with some exciting experiments for my research in Japan, when I'd be out of the country. Cue disappointment and sobbing.

    But thankfully within a few days the pieces fell miraculously into place, my experiments needed to be a week later than originally planned and I managed to move heaven and Earth to fit this gig in my schedule.

    Of course, now my schedule is even more crammed than usual! (Did I mention I'm training for the London Marathon at the same time? Well at least running is a stress release...)

    So it happened that over the past two months I've been spending a fair bit of time thinking about how to squeeze the topics of particle physics and food together. Thankfully I've had some expert help with this mammoth task from the main show presenter and food writer Stefan Gates (@stefangates), and his assistant Chris Clarke (@CrcClarke).

    The show is called Gastronaut Extreme, but you'll have to wait for my next update about the Big Bang itself to see how we combined the two topics (I'm not giving all our tricks away!).

    Tonight I head to Birmingham to the NEC to start bumping in. I haven't used the term 'bump in' since I did amateur musical theatre many years ago in Australia! It's very exciting to be part of such a big show and it has been a fantastic learning experience for me so far.

    In no particular order, here are some of the things I've learned along the way:

    • No matter how long you've been doing science presenting and demonstrations, there are always new ideas out there and new ways of presenting them.
    • Scaling demonstrations up to very large (1000+) audiences is a challenge in itself and many demonstrations simply can't scale up to this size, even if they are nice demos for a 50-100 person audience. Also, the number of pages of your risk assessment will scale up too!
    • Having a good network of fellow science communicators who really know their stuff is invaluable. I couldn't have pulled all my new demos together for this show in such a short time without their advice, supplier lists, safety advice, staging advice etc. 
    • It seems that having experience presenting demonstrations to large audiences isn't a particularly common skill among scientists. I think I'm slowly starting to appreciate that I may have a fairly unique skill set for a research scientist... and that I should continue to develop that skill set and see where it leads me.
    • BUT my main job is being a scientist so I shouldn't expect to be able to spend the same time or have the same level of training or experience as someone who does this stuff professionally. I still feel like an amateur at this sometimes despite having a decade of experience. I have to accept that I can only do as much as I can fit in my schedule. As it happens that's a pretty full schedule already.
    • There are some awesome, clever, lovely, friendly, kind people who work in science communication. I really enjoy working with them and I consider it a real privilege whenever a chance like this comes my way. It helps balance out the days when I'm bashing my head against the wall trying to compile code or get my head around a badly defined equation. 
    • Doing science communication and outreach constantly reminds me that science is an awe inspiring, world-changing, exciting, dynamic and amazing field to work in. It makes me happy to be a scientist.
    What could I be planning with this safety gear??
    Hope to see some of you at the Big Bang Fair! Follow me on @suziesheehy or @BigBangFair to get all the news.