Every year a university in the UK hosts the Conference of Physics and Astronomy Students, an Institute of Physics event. In 2017 it will be held at UCL, and by attending you will learn about the exciting cutting edge research undertaken by both distinguished professors from around the country and your fellow physics colleagues alike; all the while you will be able to network and get to know the other attendees through the various planned social events. CAPS has been running for a few years now, and in the past this conference has been held at the Universities of Manchester, Glasgow and Heriot-Watt, to name a few. This year the conference will be held at the UCL main campus between the 27th-30th of June 2017.
During CAPS ’17, you’ll hear about remarkable research from distinguished academics such as Prof. John Pendry and our very own Prof. Bramwell from UCL. You’ll also get a taste of the early-career research students are working on from institutions all over the country, during our student talks and poster sessions. There will even be the chance to go on lab tours at the National Physical Laboratory or the UCL physics laboratories. Discover where your degree could take you at our career and alternative career events. And to cap it all off, celebrate the last evening of the conference in style at our boat party on the Thames.
Registration for CAPS has now closed.
I thought we could start with what you're currently working on, your research topics etc.?
Most of my research at the moment is in looking at the quantum mechanics of macroscopic objects. There are theories around that at some length scale, it's very difficult to see or even produce a superposition, known as collapse theories. They predict that, essentially, there's some noise in nature which means that you can never produce a macroscopic superposition. This gets at the whole idea of the measurement problem – this idea that when you measure something, it collapses the wavefunction. Could that be because the subject is interacting with a macroscopic system which induces collapse? Understanding this is a big motivation for our research, and we do it using levitated nanoparticles. These are levitated in optical fields, in order to isolate them.
A lot of the ideas about the way we do things come from atomic physics, in particular trapped ions. Cooled trapped ions are the most well-established quantum system that can be controlled; you can see superposition, entanglement, non-classicality. Relying on that technology and expertise, we're trying to take that towards these much larger objects, moving from a single atom or ion, to something on the order of 20 or 100 billion atoms. It's a big change, but still small enough that you can apply these techniques. We've now cooled some of these particles down to about a millikelvin, and we're aiming to go down to a tenth or a hundredth of a millikelvin.
A lot of the techniques that were used have actually come from gravitational wave detection, from LIGO, who have developed fantastic mirror coatings. The mirrors that were used are something like 99.99999% reflective. When you get down to this level, you're getting down to all the noise sources. In an experiment you want to get rid of any noise source, unless it's unavoidable – like the radiation pressure noise, due to the discrete nature of photons in our lasers. Noise is interesting, you wouldn't necessarily think it would be, but it's a fundamental thing we need to understand.
What are the applications of this?
Because the systems we're looking at are very isolated, they're sensitive to any small perturbation, so we can use these devices to measure very small forces. Some people are interested in small forces that result from dark matter, other people are interested in using this as part of gravitational wave detection, and others want to use it to measure very short-range forces accurately, such as modifications to standard Newtonian gravity at very short distances; there's a precision measurement aspect to it, as well as the quantum mechanics.
This is a new area which people have been looking at since about 2010, so it's a very new field.
The applications in looking at small forces seems very interesting. It sounds like it could be an important experimental method in the future.
People have already used it. For example, regarding how the charge on the electron is viewed as a discrete charge, there are also theories suggesting the existence of “millicharges”. People have made measurements to put limits on these theories- can a millicharge exist? With these techniques you can measure the force very easily, and you can control the electric field to see if that perturbs the system.
There are also some real-world applications. For example, an accelerometer is being developed based on this technology. You need such great sensitivity to do these experiments, and it turns out other people are interested in what we're doing.
Why did you choose to work in this field, other than the obvious reason that it's very new and exciting?
I was doing things with cold atoms and molecules. I went to a conference in the US, and I was giving a talk on the work that we were doing. At the conference, I was looking around, and I saw an optical mechanics session. People were trying to trap atoms using a cantilever and mirrors, and I thought that they should levitate the system instead, so that it's quite well isolated, and that led me into it. Other people were starting to think about the same things at the time. Actually, back in the early 70s, people had done some of these things, so we knew they were possible, but it hadn't been done since. It was just the right time.
This is a new field, so I imagine you wouldn't have started your career in it. What other stuff had you been doing before?
No, I did my PhD in a physics department working in engineering, using lasers to measure properties of hypersonic flow. Then I worked at Princeton university in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department, in the applied physics group, doing similar sorts of things, and I became interested in these trapping forces. I then went to a position at Herriot-Watt doing combined research, before coming to UCL about 10 years ago.
What sort of advice would you give to a student who was interested in pursuing a career in your field?
If you're interested in something, it's useful to do a project in that area. This is why, for people doing Msci degrees at UCL and other universities, the 4th year is very important – choosing a project you're interested in, to see if you are interested in it. But you can change directions, for some people even after they do a PhD; you have many opportunities, and the trick is to try to go out and get as much experience as you can. I've had undergraduates come and do projects over the summer, to get a taste of what research is like, because it's quite different from undergraduate studies. I think a 4th year project is the best thing, a very good sample of what research is like.
How much of you research is split between your own actual work in the lab, and organising and administering, for example, PhD or postdoc researchers?
The way it works is that, quite often, we'll get a grant. Then you have to hire postdocs and students, and set things up initially. You set people off, and then later, some people will be coming to you every day – especially if we've been working on a paper, and we're close to finishing it. Other times I might only see them twice a week. Whilst people in my group are working on things all the time, I'm more closely focused on the big picture. I go down to the lab most days, just to see what people are doing. Sometimes I'll spend a good part of the day down there, if I think I'm needed. It's a bit frustrating, because it would be nice to spend more time in the lab. It takes a while to get used to that, but the nice thing is that you can be involved in lots of projects, which is quite exciting. I quite like seeing people develop, from when they start off as a PhD student to someone who, by the end, is leading the programme more than you are!
Posted 11 March 2017
Before my Skype interview with Publicity team leader Gavin for my position on the committee, I sketched out some simple designs for the logo. My first track was to focus on and showcase the conference’s location, taking inspiration from two icons of London: the red and blue underground logo and Big Ben. Some other initial ideas were based around incorporating UCL’s iconic Portico into the design, and one of these was used as a placeholder logo for some time. Around the same time, Fiona began sketching out some ideas including various aspects of physics, astronomy and UCL research. None of them caught on though (she’s not master designer after all).
Cut forward to the first full committee meeting, when the forever attentive Gavin and Fiona started playing with replacing the torus in a previous idea with a schematic representation of positronium, a substance around which a lot of pioneering research at UCL is focussed. The idea was ultimately shot down however, when it was decided not to focus on just one area of research at UCL.
By this stage, we really needed a logo, as the website design was nearly complete and our social media accounts had long been up and running. With most committee members preferring a simple design involving UCL’s portico, it was left to Publicity Group to decide upon and finalise our “brand” (among the colour schemes discussed was one we fondly dubbed “London Smog”: a washed out blue transitioning into a smoky yellow, as seen on the “Sponsors” page of this website). After we couldn’t get a small portico in the “P” of CAPS to work, I tried fitting it under the “A”, which, it turns out, works perfectly, with the negative space between the pillars lining up to form the A’s crossbar. And so, out of neutrality for research and inclusivity of the institute at which the conference is being held, our logo was born. (For the typeface geeks amongst you: the font used is called Gotham.)
Could you tell us a bit about what you're doing currently?
My “day job” is a fairly large international collaboration, which is called superNEMO. The aim of this project is to understand the fundamental nature of the neutrino. Neutrinos are special in the standard model because they are the only particles of matter that are electrically neutral, and by this virtue they can be their own antiparticle. It turns out that this helps us to address why we live in a universe dominated by matter. We look for a very rare nuclear process, and if this is observed then we know that the neutrino is identical to its own antiparticle. This process is called neutrinoless double beta decay. Unfortunately this is easier said than done, because this process is so rare; the effect is proportional to the neutrino mass, and since the mass of the neutrino is so tiny, the effect is also very small. It's a classic needle-in-a-haystack problem. First of all, this means that we need to carry out our experiments underground, to filter out cosmic rays. Our particular experiment will take place in the Fréjus tunnel, between France and Italy, underneath the Alps. We also need to ensure that our detector is made from materials which are extremely clean in terms of radiopurity, with minimal traces of radioactive isotopes, which is difficult. So that's the idea – make some very fundamental conclusions about the nature of the matter-antimatter symmetry and the evolution of the universe as a result – it's a very fundamental question that we're trying to address. If you asked a theorist “What are the most important questions in particle physics?”, they would name this as one of them.
Why did you choose to go into neutrino research?
That's an interesting question. I'll give you an honest answer. For me one downside of how modern particle physics is done, is that it requires huge facilities and huge collaborations. I personally wanted to be in a group of people where I could make a very visible difference very early, and at that time neutrino physics was the area in which experiments did not require such large collaborations.
People that are coming to CAPS will be undergraduates, or graduates and PhD students, and I'm sure that many would be looking for research fields to go into. Do you recommend that students, early in their careers, go into small groups, so they have more of a feel for every aspect of their project?
It's difficult. I would recommend that students go into groups where they feel–and there is a gut feeling here–that they can make a difference. I would suggest to take risks, and think big. It's important not to be afraid to make a mistake, that people know you've made a mistake. A bold approach is important.
What's the other project that you're working on?
My other work is with proton therapy, which funnily enough is kind of a spin-off from superNEMO – they are intimately connected. We were going through the [research and development stage] for superNEMO, and one of the challenges we were facing was in designing the calorimeter, to measure the ionising radiation, with a better ability to distinguish different energy lines–a better energy resolution. We ended up with a very good calorimeter, actually world-record breaking for a calorimeter of this type. It turned out that people who were doing proton therapy for cancer treatment needed to know the energies of the protons very accurately, because the energy of the protons is directly linked to the penetration of the proton beam. What is important is the way protons interact with matter, where, in contrast to photons, they lose very little energy over their trajectory, before stopping at a particular location and dumping everything. This is ideal, because you can match the energy of the protons in such a way that they will go inside the patient's body, losing very little energy, before reaching the tumour, dumping everything there, and going no further. Proton therapy is thus potentially very useful, however, you need to know the energy very well, because missing the target is very dangerous – all of the radiation is then dumped in the wrong place, potentially killing the person. We did some “back of the envelope” calculations, and it looked like our calorimeter was suited to the role.
So is this going to contribute to the proton beam therapy centres currently being constructed at UCH and Manchester?
We're still in the middle of the development of this – If we're successful though, our equipment will be part of the quality assurance hardware for the treatment, rather than the beam itself. We're now developing something which will be practical, medically certified, and a good example of how fundamental science can give rise to very tangible benefits for society. There are many examples, but if this is successful it will have one of the fastest turnarounds – usually there is a wait of tens of years.
Posted 17 Feb 2017
So we all made it into 2017, congrats everybody! The CAPS team had quite a full on December, but we’re by no means taking it easy now that the conference is inching ever closer. . .
Near the end of term, we all settled down to a cozy evening of secret santa gift-giving, mulled wine, mince pies (for those who like them, shame on everyone else) and eventually, after much nagging by the core-committee, a full committee meeting. And there was much to discuss. . .
By far the highlight of December was our festive diva lip-sync video featuring the best sports of UCL’s physics department (watch the video here, it’s a real spirit lifter!). We’d like to think that we lightened the mood considerably at a time when a lot of students were feeling bogged down by end of term assessments and general december stress. A huge thank-you to everyone who took part, it was so much fun to see how much people got into it once the music started!
Project group is, as ever, grappling with the logistics of organising a dinner and boat party for 200 people, constantly tweaking the budget and negotiating with UCL for slots for careers fairs and the like. Things are definitely coming together, it’s looking to be a very exciting conference!
We’ve also been having fun announcing all the cool things that are going to happen at the conference, such as tours of the National Physics Laboratory, and speakers Prof Gaetana Laricchia and Sir John Pendry!
The National Physics Laboratory (NPL) is located in Teddington, Greater London, and is the UK’s measurements standards laboratory, largest applied Physics organisation and an internationally respected research centre in materials and measurement science. They have agreed for CAPS’17 attendees to be taken on an exclusive tour of the laboratory to see all manner of exciting things. . .
As for the speakers, well, who better to serenade your late June days with tales of positronium scattering and metamaterials than Professor Gaetana Laricchia and Professor Sir John Pendry?
Prof. Laricchia is one of UCL’s own, head of our Atomic, Molecular, Optical and Positron Physics group with a huge range of research interests featuring all things positronium (handy, with UCL’s own positronium beam at her disposal!).
Sir John Pendry is based not far away across Hyde Park at Imperial College London. He has led an astounding career and has collected an impressive assortment of awards along the way. Sir Pendry started out with research into the electronic properties of surfaces and his (semi-serious) proposal of the idea of an “invisibility cloak” has been pursued by experimentalists with surprising enthusiasm (and success!).
January looks to be a busy time for sponsorship and publicity group especially, so look forward to more updates in the coming weeks! For now, enjoy these snaps of the committee enjoying some pre-christmas jollity.
Well into term 1, and after several individual group meetings, the whole committee came together again near the end of October to discuss progress and new ideas. After the usual struggle to get everyone to fit around one table in everyone’s favourite study room, the groups set about describing the progress they had made, the exciting and the mundane.
In the visionary world of Project Group, the details of our initially sketchy schedule are shaping out. Some of the group have been grappling with the logistics of organising boat parties, formal dinners, tours and a host of other events for the 200 CAPS attendees, while others have been tasked with the less glamorous but oh-so-important accommodation and travel arrangements (all heavily subsidised, by the way!). Excitingly, NPL (The National Physics Laboratory) have agreed to give CAPS a tour of the facility, so that’s already something major to look forward to! Project group also introduced the idea of “Pre-CAPS” for the first time, an idea for a collection of events open to London/local students prior to the official CAPS dates. More on that soon…
Within Sponsorship Group things have been business as usual, with everyone boasting a good boost to their networking and email skills. Judging by their newly devised “Sponsorship relationship management” (in other words an optimised prompting strategy), they appear to be taking a more systematic approach to contacting sponsors. They also hope to use personal connections and UCL’s alumni network to get in touch with companies interested in and known for employing Physics graduates.
Here in publicity group we had much to report. After what felt like hundreds of designs and variations we finally settled on the magnificent logo at the top of this page, after deeming the decision too crucial to be entrusted to a general full committee vote. After all, those put in charge of publicity are surely best placed to make such decisions... The website design was also more or less finalised, we’re awaiting only a few tweaks before its magical transformation into real-life website-producing code. Once that’s up and running, we’ll be busy keeping this blog updated with regular features and announcements and reaching out through our social media accounts.
For those of you interested in the drawn-out process behind our logo design, we have a special blog post coming up about exactly that; an epic tale of GIMP vs Photoshop disputes, plenty of scrapped ideas and artistically wounded designers!
I’ll leave you with this behind-the-scenes snap from our committee photoshoot, featuring Kyaw (who took the rest of the photos by the way) having his portrait taken by a shameless amateur.
The conference may be months and months away, but for the committee it may as well be just around the corner. In our first of many full committee meetings to come, many of us met for the first time, plans were shared and discussed and slowly the initial, isolated progress of the individual groups was put into context. (By the way, be sure to head to the “Contact” page of this website to meet all the committee members yourself!)
By far the busiest group in these early stages are the sponsorship group - or did you think we would be funding this project out of our own pockets!? They have their work cut out networking with and contacting potential sponsors, to ensure that the budget that feeds the project group is secured as soon as possible. Already they have amassed a list of over 70 government and corporal organisations to get in touch with, so they won't be running out of work anytime soon!
Meanwhile, the publicity group set out its plans to slowly build up the CAPS online and social media presence, especially so that prospective sponsors can get a feel for what we’re about. First of all though, we need a logo! Sketches and concepts were pitched to the rest of the committee but nothing was agreed upon; it was left up to the group, in particular master designer Kyaw, to finalise the logo.
The project group have their sights set a little further in the future; they presented their nascent plans for the conference itself; their ideas for the programme, events, travel and accommodation, then everyone had the chance to pitch in some suggestions. It’s early days, but already things are looking pretty exciting!
Of course we are all still a group of students, and we couldn’t end an evening on such a businesslike note, so everyone headed to The Court on Tottenham Court Road for some food, a few drinks, and plenty of (unashamedly nerdy) chat. A successful evening all round!
We are currently looking for organisations to sponsor us. In return we offer a wide range of various services, including publicity functions for your organisation as well as career fairs, guest lectures, and much more. For a more detailed description of how you can collaborate with us, consult the CAPS 2017 Sponsorship Brochure.
For further information, and to discuss possible sponsorships you can also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
For general enquiries please email email@example.com
For more specific issues you can contact any of the corresponding group leaders below:
You can also get in touch through any of our social media pages (click the icons on the menu).
This year's Conference for Physics and Astronomy will be held at University College London, situated in the Bloomsbury area of central London. Address: Gower St, Kings Cross, London WC1E 6BT.
UCL is one of the world's leading universities, founded in London to open up education to all on equal terms. Today our outstanding research and innovative teaching drive entrepreneurial solutions to the world's major problems.
UCL’s department of Physics and Astronomy has earned a renowned reputation in both teaching and research. With facilities ranging from the five telescopes of the Mill Hill Astronomcal Observatory in north London to the worlds only positronium beam, groundbreaking and fascinating physics research here never ceases. In addition to traditional physicists, UCL is home to a thriving community of graduates and undergraduates of interdisciplinary sciences, including Medical Physics and Geophysical sciences.
For the curious scientist, there is hardly a better place to live than London. Studded with outstanding universities and research centres, museums and institutions, the city will not disappoint anyone who sets out to expand their horizons in whichever way they choose. CAPS’17 will aim to allow attendees to explore these aspects of UCL and the city it is embedded in, alongside connecting physicists from across the country.