On your wavelength

Interactions: Conversation with Ben Still

Post by Iulia Georgescu.

Ben Still talks about his new book Particle physics brick by brick, an accessible and extremely enjoyable introduction to particle physics all LEGO fans will love – and who is not a LEGO fan?

Still

You have been involved with various outreach activities, how did you get the idea for this book?

The idea has been with me since 2009 when I first started participating in outreach as a newly appointed postdoc. I took it to the outreach team at Queen Mary, University of London and we fleshed out the ideas into workshops. These workshops and materials covered only a small portion of particles and used similar blocks to represent quarks in one instance and nucleons in another. They were fantastically popular.  Since then, I have had in the back of my mind an attempt to use a LEGO analogy to encapsulate as much of particle physics as possible. The result is Particle physics brick by brick.

Are you a LEGO fan? Which is your favourite set?

I am a huge fan, I got hooked as a kid.  I am an avid collector of the Architecture series, but I have to say that my favourite kit is the Saturn V rocket released recently in the Creator series.

Is LEGO a good tool to teach science in general? What is the best physics/science LEGO?

Sometimes you need a hook to get those otherwise disengaged in science to get involved and LEGO certainly helps bring in a broad audience. It made sense to me to use LEGO after many utterances of fundamental particles being the building blocks of nature. I think that the best use of LEGO in any sense, whether for teaching or for leisure, is creativity. I tried to stress in the book that with just the rules I cover you can be creative and build particles and chemical elements which don’t appear in the book. I think that LEGO is a great way of linking science with creativity and showing that science is about exploration.

Technic and Mindstorm are fantastic for the advanced technical creative, but I still love good old fashioned bricks.

In the book you explain particle physics in a very accessible way, but you do not shy away from abstract concepts that might intimidate the layperson. Who is this book for?

The book was officially aimed at ‘science interested adults’, but I think that teens from 14 years with an interest in science will find the book equally exciting. I did not want to shy away from the more abstract concepts because they are important, particle physics is abstract compared with our day-to-day lives. The book is structured, however, in a way that I hope eases the reader into the abstraction. I think the earlier chapters involving the history of the universe can be used with younger readers when hands-on with the LEGO as the workshops have shown in the past.

lego

What do you think are the biggest challenges in explaining particle physics to the general public? How to avoid the pitfalls of hype or misleading analogies?

Our everyday lives are deterministic, we know if we strike a football in a certain way it will follow a path which we can calculate. Particle physics lives in the quantum world where probability, not determinism, rules. In this world all sorts of weird wonderful and mind-bending things can happen because so much is possible if not probable. It is this separation from our daily experiences that makes particle physics a tough subject to get across sometimes. It would be much easier if we were living in the quantum world too because the goings on of particle physics would be day-to-day.

In the book I openly talk of the limitations of analogies and throughout admit to the shortcomings of the LEGO analogy I use. In a very real sense our scientific understanding is nothing but an analogy of the underlying fundamental laws of nature. New science is found at the edge of our knowledge and so understanding the limitations of any scientific analogy is the way that science progresses.

What is the trickiest idea/concept in physics you would challenge other physics communicators or yourself to explain?

The collapse of a quantum wavefunction beyond the Copenhagen interpretation. Not only is the theory vast in depth and scope, but the experiments which have been devised to seek out understanding of the process are complex.

Communicating physics to the general public is challenging, but physics outreach to physicists from other fields is equally hard. Particle physics is known to be a bit hermetic, but some ideas and concepts are finding their way to other areas of physics. What do you think can be done to better communicate particle physics to other physicists?

That’s a tough one to answer! Particle physics is a global enterprise with collaborations numbering in the thousands which is why some might think the community is hermetic. However, I think that there are many cross collaborations which exchange knowledge and employ techniques developed for particle physics, not only with other areas of physics, but across the sciences. These collaborations tend to be small scale and a local affair within a university or research institutes, but they seem now to be growing in size as a new generation of conference and journals attest to. These multifaceted conferences are key to encouraging dialogue.

I feel that the skills that one develops in public engagement are exactly the skills required to communicate research to other physicists. That is deconstructing a complicated theory in order to explain it to a general audience, by avoiding the mathematical rigor and jargon poses a tough challenge. I found that developing these skills allowed me to afterward build up the mathematical rigor and common jargon to a level where I can also explain particle physics to other physicists in greater depth than to a general audience.

The book:

Particle Physics Brick by Brick, UK edition
Particle Physics Brick by Brick, US edition, coming 21 March 2018

If you get hooked, which we have no doubt you will, discover more LEGO Physics here.

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