BDr. Suzie Sheehy is an accelerator physicist who was in Australia in 1984 and runs research groups at the universities of Oxford and Melbourne, where she is developing new particle accelerators for use in medicine. As a science communicator, she received the Lord Kelvin Award in 2010 for presenting science to schools and the public. Her first book is The thing about everything: Twelve experiments that changed our world.
How did you first become interested in physics?
At the University [in Melbourne]when I was studying engineering with science next to it, I started asking questions in my lectures and I remember a [physics] speaker says, “Oh, we do not know the answer to that.” And I thought, how is it possible that in 19 years I can ask a question that no one has ever asked before? Suddenly the technique seemed a little more boring and the physics a little more exciting.
Where did that lead you?
I ended up moving to the UK to do my PhD. via a short stay in Cern, where I first saw the Large Hadron Collider. I was fascinated by the idea that we could use particle accelerators to do things like treat cancer and that it could have a direct societal impact.
You structure the book around 12 experiments from 1895 to 2012. Why?
It really is the history of modern physics and the evolution of particle physics. I sat down and made a spreadsheet with all the great discoveries, from the discovery of the electron to the Higgs boson, and what we discover today. So I had to ask, what did people think back then, and how did they learn what we know now? Which was incredibly difficult, because in physics we often give this inverted story, based on what we know. Getting into the headspace of someone in the 1890s and how they thought about the world was really challenging.
Some of the newer technologies are awe-inspiring, but earlier physicists were up and runningbreak experiments with truly interim materials.
Yes, I have always found it inspiring that people’s ingenuity likes [New Zealand-born physicist and Nobel laureate] Ernest Rutherford. It blew my mind to think that if I had studied at the time, I would have spent a significant portion of my time blowing glass or melting wax seals. A big part of the detailed skill now is designing computer systems that interact with the experiments. But even still, in my little lab in Oxford, I make small wiring connections and use large wrenches to get bolts on and off the lid of the vacuum container.
Instead of lonely geniuses picking great discoveries out of thin air, you write that a lot of experimental physics moves forward in the dark, feeling details until it finally clicks. Do you need a high threshold for boredom?
If you were to believe many of the historical versions of these discoveries, you would think that science is exciting in everyday life, and if you are wise enough, you will have that eureka experience. It is extremely harmful. Patience and perseverance are definitely key skills. The Eureka moment may come once in your career, or never, but you can get many small victories along the way and I make sure to celebrate the small victories.
The history of physics is overwhelmingly masculine, but you have managed to shed light on a number of women who have made important contributions over the last century. Were their stories hard to find?
In some places it is very difficult. Some of the women I came across in a photograph in a biography of one of the male scientists. That’s how I found Harriet Brooks, who was Ernest Rutherford’s first graduate student. I saw her looking at the camera and thought, who is this woman? It became important to me to make sure that women’s stories were written back, because in other versions they were deleted completely, not even mentioned as a page note.
Does physics still feel like a boys’ club?
I have worked hard to ensure that the research groups I form are more diverse and representative. However, my field is still quite male dominated – about 85-90% men. If we stick to the current rate of change, it will take about 75 years for physics to reach parity. It is clear that we have a long way to go and people are still facing major barriers, but this is a societal problem as well as a scientific problem.
Do you, as a prominent female physicist, feel more obligated than a man to perform publicly directed work and commitment? And does it ever feel like a time-consuming treasure trove of advancement in your academic career?
I’ve always done public-directed work, even as a bachelor, so for me it’s a little different. I find it really important to understand what people who are not physicists think about the work we do and what matters to them. That means I can translate between my physics colleagues, discuss some technical details, and other people who go, we do not understand why it is important. It’s actually a kind of superpower to be able to combine research and publicly facing work, and that’s one of the reasons why I now work with things that mean more to people outside of physics, because I hear it means something to them.
The amount of money invested in large physics projects from the 1950s onwards – Large Hadron Collider at Cern is just one example – is colossal. How can these amounts be justified, especially when so many other research areas are underfunded?
There is a whole field of research that analyzes value for money and economic and societal consequences of scientific projects. I just read one about the Human Genome Project and the return on investment of it was at least 4.5. So even though we do this out of curiosity, to create knowledge, because we are fascinated by understanding the world, and even though on the surface it looks like huge amounts of money, the return on investment is actually not just positive, it’s huge.
I do not like to be pragmatic about it that way. Ultimately, it’s about people understanding the world they live in and which has value – societal and philosophical value – even if it does not invent another widget.
You write that in almost every case, scientists who discover various particles and forces think they will have no practical use. What is an example?
We discovered muons from cosmic rays. No one expected them. They travel through us all the time. We can not make electronics out of them or anything like that, because they decay in a few 100 microseconds. So okay, maybe it’s just a curiosity. But within a number of years, people used them to depict themselves inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, where they found an extra room. They use them to image volcanoes, to get a time-based measurement of what the magma is doing. And there is no other imaging technology we can really use for that, for nothing else travels through in exactly the same way that a muon does. It’s like a CT scanner, but to scan huge objects on Earth.
You write about Big Science bringing different nations together to collaborate on extraordinarily complex projects. What effect does the isolation of the war in Ukraine and Russia have on this?
We already see it in some projects. For example, Germany has instructed their researchers not to collaborate and publish with Russian researchers. One of the major international projects being built in Germany is a very large particle accelerator project called Fair – the main goal is towards nuclear astrophysics and an understanding of the evolution of heavy elements in the universe. About 30% of the equipment was to come from Russia. Now it has been completely changed.
Meanwhile, Cern has announced that it has suspended Russia’s observer status. It has sent a shock wave through the community there. There’s a really strong sense that this is a big shift, not a temporary blip. What it changes to, we have no idea, but there is a huge concern about it. All I can do at the moment is look back at what happened after World War II, and the way people really felt a lot about using science for peace and crossing those boundaries, and that knowledge should benefit humanity. And I’m hanging on to that right now.
You end the book with the Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of the Higgs boson – a difficult act to follow. What’s next?
We are at a very interesting time in history. Many people saw the search for the Higgs boson as the last part of the standard model, but they were looking for much more than that. There are indications that we only know something in the direction of 5% of the universe’s mass energy content, and the rest is dark matter and dark energy, but we have no idea. And then there are neutrinos, whose behavior we can not fully explain. So there is so much we do not understand. Imagine you’re making a puzzle with 1,000 pieces, and you’ve just completed a corner, and you have that little sense of success, but the rest of it is still there. The role of the Large Hadron Collider, and what comes after that, is to find the next pieces.
Did the writing of this book change the way you approach your own research?
It really gave me new life and moved some of the doubts I had as a scientist. You go to the lab every day and make mistakes and you do it again and in the end you produce a result and you think I’m the only one who does it like that? Do other people just go in and do beautiful experiments and feel like a genius all the time? When you learn about all these honorable intellectual heavyweights who won Nobel Prizes and how they fought, you realize, it’s not just me, it’s the process. It has given me a sense of humor around it and made me more resilient in what I do.
Your book got a very nice text from Philip Pullman. Are you a fan of his work?
Yes. We got a talk back and forth about cloud chambers and cosmic ray particles and that sort of thing. I still need to reach out to him to show him a really functioning cloud chamber, because I’m not sure he’s ever seen one, and we’re both Oxford-based, so if he has time …
The thing about everything: Twelve experiments that changed our world is published by Bloomsbury (£ 20). To support Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may apply