Re-creating the big bang, Professor Peter Watkins, University of Birmingham
Title: Professor Peter Watkins – Re-creating the Big Bang
Duration: 4.06 mins
Speaker Names (if given): S1 Professor Peter Watkins
S1 Our research is very varied. What we’re trying to do is find out about the smallest things that we’re made of and the smallest things all around us; so it’s more like an exploration into the unknown. So to do this you need very special microscopes, much better microscopes than most of us have access to and so we build very huge accelerators – the biggest one in the world is near Geneva at CERN called the Large Hadron Collider and that’s 20 miles around – and that huge accelerator is a way of colliding particles together, which enables you to look in detail at what’s inside them.
I work on the Atlas Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. This is one of the largest and most exciting experiments in the world in our field. We hope, and we know from past experiments, that the work we’re doing now will be in the children's textbooks for science in ten year’s time. But even more exciting, we might find new things, phenomena, that affect all of science. Just to give you one example: gravity is a force that matters to us and it’s incredibly weak. We’ve no idea why it’s so weak compared to the electric force. One idea is that there are extra-dimensions in space that nobody’s ever found before that are very small and can only be seen with a very good microscope. If that’s true, these extra-dimensions exist, it would revolutionise our studies in science. Now we’re standing here at the University of Birmingham, a huge great hall here. The detector we’re using – not the microscope but the detector to study the collisions – is much bigger than the Great Hall. It’s like a six storey building. So our detector that’s been put together by 2,000 people from all over the world has to work. When these collisions occur we have to recognise what’s going on and pick out the most interesting ones. Now they occur, the rate of collisions is incredible. It’s a thousand million collisions every second. When the protons collide together, a thousand million collisions per second, but with the best computers, the best electronics, we can only record a few hundred of those. Now once the event’s been selected and it’s recorded onto computer, we have to analyse what happened and there aren’t enough computers in Geneva or in the UK to do this, but we have a hundred thousand computers all over the world and we’ve been working on a system called ‘The Grid’ to try to make it easier for us to do analysis all over the world. So here in Birmingham we’re one of the teams who are trying to select the collisions that we’re going to record to study in computers all around the world.
I think it’s often underestimated the connection between doing research, live research, and teaching undergraduates and the undergraduate programmes – because, of course, if you’re working at CERN on a frontier experiment you come back to give a lecture, you’re buzzing with activity of what’s going on, your new results; it just makes the whole lecture much more interesting for students. It’s always really exciting to look ahead at new science and what might happen in the future. I must say, lots depends on what we find in the next few years at the start of the Large Hadron Collider. We are expecting to find very many new phenomena. So the thing we’ll want to be building in ten years time will depend on what we find. However, we are colliding protons against protons at the Large Hadron Collider and the protons are quite complicated objects; so when you smash them together it’s quite tricky to work out what’s happened. It’s likely the next collider will use an electron colliding with an anti-electron, a positron, to make a very clear simple collision, which is much easier to analyse. So we expect to follow up the discoveries at the Large Hadron Collider with an electron–positron linear collider to investigate in detail the new things that have been found. That’s one of the things that I think people will be doing in ten year’s time.
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