The most fundamental area of physics is entering an exciting time. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, is beginning to offer an unparalleled view into the particles and forces that shape the natural world.
This, along with many other international experiments and institutions, seeks to answer some of the great unknown questions of science: can nature’s fundamental forces be unified? What is dark matter? How many dimensions are there? How will the universe end? Is our universe unique? Or is it simply an unremarkable speck in a sea of others? A graduate job in this field would put you at the front line of the search for the answers.
What is modern particle physics like?
The scope of particle physics has expanded considerably in recent decades. Modern particle physicists can be loosely split into experimentalists and theorists. Experimentalists design and construct the multibillion pound experiments used to discover new physics. They then conduct these experiments and monitor and analyse the enormous quantities of resulting data.
Theorists, on the other hand, develop the advanced mathematical quantum theories that are believed to underpin the observed physics. In some cases, these theories will be developed based on experimentalist’s observations to understand the observed data.
Even more excitingly, these theories are then extended conceptually to the point of predicting new phenomena, bringing it back round to the experimentalists, who subsequently design new experiments to test these extended theories.
How do I get into particle physics?
The major prerequisite for following a career in particle physics is a degree in a physics or mathematics-related discipline. Almost all careers within this field will follow academic routes, and hence postgraduate study is the most common access route.
Moving into the professional domain, research positions at experimental laboratories or universities are often natural choices. The truly global scale of these projects gives you the chance to work as part of an international workforce and you may have considerable opportunities to travel.
Positions in experimental particle physics often involve research and development of the cutting-edge technology required for modern experiments, including sensors and detectors, superconducting magnets and cryogenics. This is carried out through a combination of laboratory testing and computer simulation work. Experimentalists will then oversee the overall construction of the facilities and experiments.
Once the experiments are operational, the experimentalists’ focus shifts to the extremely complicated day-to-day operation of the technology, essentially ensuring that scientific goals are met and safety is maintained. They will continue to use computational techniques. These careers involve the continuous interpretation of data to predict the response of the experiments to interesting phenomena. This is done in order to tune the experiments to maximise the results.
Theoreticians will pursue their development of the underlying physical theories by utilising computational and pen-on-paper mathematics, as well as physical insight. Mostly this will require an expert knowledge of quantum field theories and other advanced physics and mathematical concepts. They will then seek to verify these theories using a combination of mathematical proof and experimental data.
So, if a career in an international academic environment, at the frontier of science and technology, interests you, you could do much worse than consider particle physics. Plus, wouldn’t it be awesome to join alumni like Einstein, Schrödinger and Higgs?