Particle Physics Masterclass 2019

5 March 2019

The International Masterclasses in Particle Physics is a program which brings school students into research institutes to learn about particle physics from researchers working at CERN, and to spend a day analysing real data from the experiments to search for signs of new particles. Oxford Physics participated in this on two days in March, allowing over 40 students to experience a day working as a particle physicist.

Many school students are excited about what is going on at the Large Hadron Collider, although this research – analysing the collisions of high energy proton beams to search for new phenomena – can seem distant from the physics taught in the classroom. The masterclass programme allows us to bridge the gap and show students how an understanding of basic statistics, electromagnetism, and particle physics, allows us to conduct experiments to probe the deeper mysteries of the universe.
Each day began with an introductory lecture by an Oxford physicist. This was done by Professor Amanda Cooper-Sarkar, who works on Deep Inelastic Scattering experiments to probe the dynamics of quarks inside protons and other particles; and Dr Lydia Beresford, who is a member of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN. Professor Tony Weidberg then explained the instruments we need to study particles and demonstrated a simple silicon detector – a small scale version of those at the heart of the ATLAS detector.

After a short tea break we moved on to the main activity. Oxford research students Aidan Reynolds and Beojan Stanislaus explained how to use the ATLAS event display software. We then moved to the computing laboratory where the group used this to examine data, analysing the tracks of charged particles through the detector, and searching for a signature of short-lived particles such as the Z-boson.

Over lunch the students could chat with researchers and graduate students about work at Oxford and hot research topics like Dark Matter and the Higgs Boson. Once all students had analysed their data and identified different types of events, they came together in larger groups to combine their results and discuss this with researchers. In the final part of the day we joined a video conference with researchers at CERN and other groups from research institutes across Europe. By looking at the combined analysis done by all students groups we could see signs of particles in the data which were not clear for an individual group – highlighting a reality of particle physics – that it is only with very large data sets that we can see conclusive evidence for new phenomena. The video link also allowed the students to ask questions about physics at the LHC and working at CERN. This exciting conclusion to the day gave another view of the working life of a particle physicist. We work in huge international collaborations and such meetings are routine. The ATLAS collaboration includes over 3000 scientists from all around the world.

One aim of the day is to inspire the next generation of particle physicists, and we hope some of the students who came might choose to study physics at university and maybe pursue a career in fundamental research. We plan to run the event again in 2020.