Photo:

Matthew Malek

Had an excellent two weeks in the Light Zone! Thanks to everyone involved -- the mods for organising, all the scientists for interesting discussion, and of course the students for their great questions and enthusiasm! Special thanks to the Wellcome Trust and IoP for making the Light Zone happen! :-)

Favourite Thing: I love to travel to new countries in distant parts of the globe to work on exciting experiments in exotic locations. (And then go sightseeing afterward!)

My CV

Education:

(0) School: Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School [Brooklyn, NY, USA]; (1) University: Hampshire College [Amherst, MA, USA]; (2) Post-graduate: Stony Brook University [Stony Brook, NY, USA]

Qualifications:

BA in Physics, MA in Physics & Astronomy, PhD in Astroparticle Physics

Work History:

(1) Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, (2) Oxford University

Current Job:

I do particle and astroparticle physics, simultaneously probing the Universe at its largest and smallest scales.

Employer:

Imperial College London (High Energy Physics group)

Me and my work

I hunt subatomic ghosts. These ghosts hold the answers to some of the biggest questions in the universe. So they’re awfully hard to catch… but it’s worth the chase!

The “ghosts” that I hunt are subatomic particles called “neutrinos”.  They come from many places, like exploding stars, or the heart of the Sun.  We can also make them here on Earth, in nuclear reactors or with powerful particle accelerators.

That last part — particle accelerators — is what I work on these days. I work at a lab in eastern Japan (called J-PARC).  We start by colliding a proton beam with a graphite target. Lots of subatomic junk comes out. We use magnetic horns to focus the bits that we want into a beam; when those bits decay, they emit neutrinos.  And thus, our neutrino beam is born!

Once we have created the beam, we measure it. After all, you have to understand what you’ve made to know what you’re starting with. Then we send the beam down into the Earth’s crust. Nearly two hundred miles later, it comes out again in western Japan, at a 50,000 tonne tank of water called Super-Kamiokande. There, we measure the neutrino beam again. By comparing the “BEFORE” and “AFTER”, we are hoping to explain why you and I are here.  Or, to be more general, we are trying to understand why there is any matter in the universe at all, rather than a universe filled with nothing but energy.  (Pretty cool, huh?)

My Typical Day

What’s typical?!?

There really is no such thing as a “typical day” for me.  Sometimes, I sit in front of the computer writing and running analysis software.  Other times, I’ve got wall-to-wall meetings.  The fun days, though, are when I get to play with lab equipment.  Check it out:

When I was studying cosmic rays, I built a solar-powered laser calibration facility in the Argentine desert (called “pampas”).

When I was studying neutrinos from the heart of the sun, I fired an electron gun into a tank of the world’s purest water — all located beneath a kilometer of solid rock!

And when I was hunting for dark matter, I regularly made temperatures that were far colder than the universe itself, using something called a “helium dilution refrigerator”!

So there’s nothing really “typical” about my days… and that’s just the way I like them!

What I'd do with the money

Produce an interactive online film about the history of the universe

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

adventurous, optimistic, inquisitive

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I love love LOVE musical theatre! Especially “Les Miz”, “Sweeney Todd”, and “Avenue Q”!

What's your favourite food?

Chocolate!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

How to choose only one?! Maybe SCUBA diving in a particle physics detector? Climbing Mount Fuji bottom-to-top? Walking along an Alaskan glacier?

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to do an interdisciplinary blend of philosophy and cognitive psychology. (Whoops! Somehow got distracted…)

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Was I ever what?? When was I ever NOT in trouble at school?!?

What was your favourite subject at school?

Philosophy

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Set constraints on exploding stars by searching for subatomic particles given off when stars die

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Professor Herbert Bernstein, my undergraduate advisor inspired me to become a scientist

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Older

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

In order of increasing incredulity: (1) Winning a Nobel Physics Prize, (2) being the first person to set foot on Mars, (3) building my very own suit of [functional] Iron Man armor

Tell us a joke.

A neutron walked into a bar and asked, “How much for a drink?” The bartender replied, “For you, no charge.”

Other stuff

Work photos:

Thursday 20th March 2014: Stonehenge sunrise! Some of you have asked about the possibility of time travel. Well, this moring, I woke up VERY early to travel back in time for some Stone Age science. Today is the equinox, which literally means “equal night” — the light are dark are now about equal! To celebrate, I watched the light of the dawn from inside of the world’s most famous pre-historic solar observatory: Stonehenge!

Check out this picture, taken just after the dawn:

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(Many thanks to the tech support team for rotating this picture properly!)

Besides sciencey people like myself, there were Druids and Pagans holding a ceremony. That’s where the flowers and the candle and the robes come from. In their ancient religions, today is one of the holy days (or “sabbats”) of the year! Have to say, they had much more colourful outfits than me — I was just bundled up trying to keep warm!

Friday 14th March 2014: Light Zone lunch! Met Sabina Hatch for an “I’m a Scientist” meal at the yummy “Food For Thought” restaurant in Covent Garden. Good food and good conversation on a day with great weather — who could ask for more?

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(Now back to my regular profile)

Let’s start this tour in Japan:

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This is me, inside of the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector. The golden globes on the wall are sensitive light detectors called phototubes.  These are the largest ones in the world; each is twenty inches across. Did I mention that all of this sits underneath a mountain! When running, this tank is full of water. 50,000 tonnes of water!

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Here I am, working underneath the area shown above. I’m making a waterproof cable connection for a phototube. Essential when there will be 40 meters of water on top of where I’m working.

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This is just me and some colleagues sitting at the entrance to the tank after a hard day’s work. We’re just kicking back, really, whilst we wait for the land cruiser to come pick us up.

Now we leave the Japanese Alps and move to Oxford University:

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Here I am unwrapping a shiny new heat exchanger. One of the best “Christmas presents” I ever received! This is a critical element of a helium dilution refrigerator, which makes temperatures far colder than the universe. The universe is filled with the cosmic microwave background, which has a temperature of 2.7 Kelvin. That’s a blazing inferno compared to what I had to work with! With this new heat exchanger, I was regularly running experiments at 0.005 Kelvin!

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And here’s the helium dilution refrigerator itself. (Can you spot the newly installed heat exchanger?)

Right. Final stop on this tour takes us to Argentina:

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This is me, on the roof of the Central Laser Facility (CLF) for the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory. I built the CLF with another scientist from Utah. It’s solar powered, so basically light comes in and then light goes out. I’ve just been installing the steering mechanism for the laser, which you can see in front of me. The CLF is used to calibrate the telescopes at the observatory.  Also, it is fully automated, so we can run it from anywhere in the world.

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In this picture, you can see what’s called a LIDAR. That’s kinda like the light version of RADAR.

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Finally, when night falls, our work isn’t done. This was a jury-rigged nitrogen laser calibration system that we mounted on the back of a truck. We drove it around to do precision checks of the telescopes, firing them off in the night whilst the telescopes were running. Did I mention that it gets COLD in May in Argentina??