Accelerate! How to build a particle accelerator from scratch
Dr. Suzie Sheehy (Royal Society University Research Fellow, Oxford Physics) and Lucy Martin (3rd Year DPhil student in the Particle Physics sub-department, Oxford Physics) talk about taking particle accelerator physics to a large audience at Curiosity Carnival by using an interactive science show.
What is your research area?
Suzie and Lucy: We both work in particle accelerator research. We work in a centre for excellence called the John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science, embedded in Oxford Physics, where Suzie’s group works to develop new particle accelerators for future applications in areas such as medicine and energy, alongside investigating the fundamental limitations of these machines. When you talk about ‘particle accelerators’ most people think of the Large Hadron Collider and the fundamental research done there, but in fact particle accelerators have many other important applications in everyday life.
Why did you decide to take part in Curiosity Carnival?
Suzie: We had a ready-made show called Accelerate! which is all about particle accelerator science. We’ve been running this for over ten years now, and we know it works, so it seemed an obvious thing to offer for Curiosity Carnival.
The way that we do science in a university is not really accessible to most people.
So public engagement events like Curiosity Carnival are about bridging that gap between
what we do and what people would like to know about science. I think we also need to consider how people can contribute to and feel involved in the research that we do, and feel they have some say over where their taxpayer money goes. They may not have the expertise to decide where grants get directed, but at the very least I think we have a responsibility to be out there, talking to people about what we do, and listening to the replies. When we do the show we get overwhelmingly positive feedback about what we do, which kind of ties in with why, as researchers, we ought to do it.
For me public engagement is quite a grounding activity, and one that reminds me of why I do what I do. Scientists have a reputation for not being able to take a step back and explain their research to someone on a level without jargon. You can get so bogged down in detail in your day to day research that looking at the big picture is sometimes hard. And I think public engagement helps train researchers to do that, which is an important skill. That’s why I encourage my students, including Lucy, to take part in events like Curiosity Carnival!
Lucy: I’d helped to deliver Accelerate! before at different venues. By coincidence, these have been to quite large audiences (e.g. 250 fourteen-year olds), which is terrifying but enjoyable. I took part in Curiosity Carnival because I wanted to push myself to be better at public engagement. Accelerate! is a great opportunity to play with experiments that are relevant to the field of particle accelerator research. The first time I did the show I had to really think about how some of them worked, and why they were relevant. Every time I’m at home talking with my family about what I do, I realise how much of a bubble I’m in, being in a research environment all the time. When I go home I have to step back and think about the most basic things, like what’s inside an atom, why accelerating particles is important, and what you can do with it. Having this fundamental picture in your head of how your research works is useful when you’re trying to write things down and explain it more generally.
What was the activity you organised?
Lucy: I presented Accelerate! with Sophie Bashforth from Royal Holloway, to an audience of about 300 at the Natural History Museum. The show is like a recipe in five parts for creating a particle accelerator (Particles, Acceleration, Control, Collision and Detection), based on what happens at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). We present from the front, and then get members of the audience up to help out.
The show contains a lot of impressive and dramatic demonstrations, but it also does really explain how particle accelerators work. For example we start by exploding two hydrogen balloons on stage. Partly we do it to get the audience’s attention, but the real point is to talk about where we get the hydrogen particles that we need to accelerate. When we explain about the LHC using a wave to accelerate the particles, we simulate this by getting the audience to move beach balls across the room using an audience wave. The audience at Curiosity Carnival were so enthusiastic & engaged they were shockingly good at this! Later we use the beach balls again to show how hard it is to collide beams of particles, and that it’s much easier to hit a fixed target than it is to collide two beams head-on.
The aim is to get as many members of the audience involved as possible and to leave them with the idea that accelerators aren't only used for particle physics.
What did you get out of the experience? Were there any challenges, and would you change anything next time?
Suzie: There were things on the night that were a bit of a challenge. Taking highly-explosive hydrogen balloons and liquid nitrogen and a pile of beach balls through a museum that was full of people, for example…
Lucy: I think because we had so much stuff, we had to plan quite a lot in advance, and that took a lot of the stress out of it. Had we not done that, the logistics would have been really difficult, with the scale of what we were doing.
The biggest issue really was that we weren’t sure what the demographic of the audience would look like; the show is written for secondary school kids, so one concern was how to keep the attention of the adults in the audience. But actually when I ran through it with my family in mind I realised it wasn’t patronising to adults, and in the end it didn’t need that much adapting. Even though we did the show at 9pm, we had some really enthusiastic kids at the front. Having the kids was great, because you can get them to drag their parents into it!
Are there any practical tips or suggestions you would give to researchers who are new to public engagement?
Suzie: As someone who’s now done a lot of different types of things, I would say start small. Not everyone is comfortable doing a big show like Accelerate! It’s a very specific public engagement skillset, but there are so many other things that you could do, so I would start there to gain confidence with the kind of language that you need to use, and the kinds of questions you get asked.
Then if you want to start putting on your own events or doing your own offering, whether that’s a podcast or whatever – seek out training, because there’s so much good training in Oxford, and it makes such a difference to the quality.
And then I’d also really, really encourage people to treat public engagement as a professional skill, and seek feedback on it from people who know what they’re doing. Doing good evaluation is probably as much work again as doing the event, but it’s so important. It will improve what you’re doing so much faster than if you just do it and everyone says ‘oh, that was wonderful!’ and you give yourself a big pat on the back and go back to your research. We’ve all done that, because we’re all busy.
And don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. We learn by failing! Try things! Get it wrong, confuse an audience, and see how they react, and then try and figure it out. It’s easy to go and give a public talk to a self-selecting interested scientific audience and to go away thinking ‘that’s my public engagement done for the year’. When you analyse that situation – have you actually made a difference? Did those people already know everything you told them? Probably. So I’d really encourage people not to see public engagement as a tick box exercise, but to figure out what they can get out of it.