Physics Unbound’s ‘Physics in the Hills 2015’ event took place in April. Find out what one of our guests had to say about it. Can’t wait for next year’s event? Register your interest here.
“We convened on the Friday evening at Castle Farm, a delightfully rustic country retreat in the astonishing Welsh countryside on the edge of the Black Mountains. Even the iffy weather did little to spoil the dramatic views and the sense of wilderness this place conveyed.
Saturday began with a big breakfast in the cosy dining room followed by a six-mile walk in the hills, expertly guided by Sarah Maliphant, our host at Castle Farm. Spirits were high and progress was good, despite frequent stops to remove or apply layers of clothing. There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. En route, we got to know each other a little – and Ben Still did his impression of a mountain goat. A sandwich lunch was taken in a sheltered spot by a brook. The gentle drizzle inspired several of our number to try out the “tent” that Sarah had brought along. Or was it a giant cagoule? Or a small parachute?
Cake besides the log fire
Back in the warm again, tea and home-made cake appeared, followed pretty quickly by the popping of corks and whatever noise a crown top makes when it’s eased off a beer bottle. Time for physics!
Our master of ceremonies was Rik Moore, stand-up comic and deep thinker. Rik made sure that we all felt welcome, had fun, and behaved ourselves (not sure how successful he was with that part). Despite the intellectual challenges ahead, Rik’s impromptu gags saw to it that no-one, speakers included, took anything too seriously.
Our first talk was from Dr Ben Still of Queen Mary University of London. Ben is a particle physicist and took us on a whirlwind tour of the particle zoo (or alphabet soup) that is known as the “standard model”. From electrons and neutrinos to W’s and Z’s, we learned about forces electromagnetic, weak and strong, and the small miracle by which they all collaborate to produce the elements that our world is made of. He told us about particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, which smash particles together to see what, if anything, is inside. Experimental particle physics has been likened to trying to figure out how a clock works by throwing it against a wall, but remarkably this has led physicists to an extraordinarily detailed understanding of the micro-world. And, yes, Ben also told us about the Higgs boson, and how it gives mass to other particles by impeding their movement, as if they are moving through treacle.
Mysteries of the solar system
Next up was Dr Chris North of Cardiff University. Chris is an astronomer and he took us from Ben’s world of the very small to an entirely different world of the very large. Well, pretty large – Chris actually stayed relatively close to home and outlined the latest understanding of the solar system, how the planets formed and some of the stranger things about them. From the rocky inner planets to the gas giants and beyond to the icy planets of the outer reaches. Recent results from probes launched out into the solar system have brought some surprises. Rather than remain in the orbits around the sun indefinitely, it seems some of them have meandered around in the distant past. The ancient image of the planets as a regular clockwork network is really beginning to fall apart.
Regrettably, the weather was still against us. The telescopes stayed in their cases, and we stayed in the dry. So, after another fine meal from Sarah, we settled in for an evening of conversation, debate, and a more relaxed attempt to grasp the wonders of the universe. Oh yes, and there was some more wine. Despite a late night for some, we all emerged on Sunday morning, ready to stretch our minds once again.
Neutrinos in the morning sun
Ben Still returned in the morning with a talk about neutrinos. These ghostly particles barely interact at all with other forms of matter, meaning they don’t really notice that anything else is there as they travel across the universe. Billions of them pass through each of us every day and neither we nor they are the worse for it. We know they can come from objects in space, but studying these neutrinos is not easy, since they interact so little with matter. Today’s neutrino “telescopes” consist of huge tanks of water, buried deep underground. The idea is that every so often a neutrino will interact with the water and produce a flash of light, which is then measured by an array of sensitive cameras positioned around the tank. And we learned that the three different types of neutrino have an alarming habit of changing from one type to another.
Galaxies and lots of tea
Ben was followed by Jenifer Millard, from Cardiff University. Jeni introduced us to the wonderful world of galaxies. Galaxies – vast collections of stars, billions of them – sit like islands in space. They come in three basic types, ellipticals, spirals and irregulars. Ellipticals just look like elliptical blobs of light, spirals have a distinctive spiral shape, and irregulars are, well, irregular. Then came black holes, dark matter, and dark energy – as if space wasn’t dark enough already. Jeni’s talk showed very clearly that the more we find out about the distant universe, the more we realize how much we don’t know about it.
Jeni had also brought along a solarscope, a specialized telescope designed for safe viewing of the sun. The weather tantalized us with breaks in the cloud just big enough to aim at the sun and we were rewarded with a fine view of a cluster of sunspots.
And so the weekend drew to a close. We left Castle Farm refreshed, informed, maybe a little confused, but certainly the better for it. Physics Unbound’s inaugural Physics in the Hills event was hailed by all involved as a resounding success. The idea of a weekend spent talking and walking, eating and drinking, enjoying good company and, of course, learning some physics, proved very popular and the event was a sell-out. A better advert for next year’s Physics in the Hills event would be hard to imagine.”
By Peter Grimley www.petergrimley.co.uk