We work among extraordinary people doing extraordinary things; get to know some of them by reading these quick-fire interviews.
Name: Alan Barr
Job title: Professor of Particle Physics
What are you currently working on?
One major ongoing project is the search for dark matter. The Large Hadron Collider is just about to restart after a big upgrade, and my team at CERN and I have been working out which data to analyse from the millions of collisions the LHC will generate each second – and which algorithms to use to do that. Because of storage limitations, data from only about one in about 40,000 of the collisions can be saved, with the rest being lost forever. We are using analysis of previous data together with computer simulations of theories predicting dark matter to decide which collisions to keep.
During the period the collider was being upgraded we have also been delving more deeply into the quantum side of particle physics. Borrowing techniques from the field of quantum computing, and then applying them to decays of Higgs bosons, we have been exploring how to test foundational quantum concepts at very high energies.
Describe a typical day
I often start the day by checking out the physics preprint articles. Knowing what’s been done and what questions remain can often spark new ideas for areas to explore in my own research. Mornings might be spent thinking and calculating, trying to turn seeds of ideas into mathematical equations or computer code. In the afternoons, when not tutoring undergraduates at Merton College I am usually discussing ATLAS measurements and searches with colleagues around the world.
In the evenings I often return to physics problems I have been thinking about during the day. Sometimes a new context – and some food! - can help to unlock ideas and even solutions.
If you had an entire day at your disposal (not at work), what would be your ideal way to spend it?
I love being outdoors: walking, camping or cycling. Taking out a canoe and enjoying a family paddle through the waterways of Oxford is a perfect way to wind down.
What is your favourite place in Oxford?
There are so many, but let’s say Christchurch meadow, going for a run with friends. Fast enough to feel it, but slow enough to chat and share ideas along the way!
What discovery would you like to see in your lifetime?
Finding dark matter would be fantastic – how could we not be excited about understanding the huge missing matter component of the universe?
Right now, we are also starting a project with school students, helping them to analyse data from CERN in their classrooms. I am always impressed with the creativity and freedom of thought that I encounter in these sessions. I would like to think they might discover something even more interesting than we expect – perhaps something which we haven’t even thought of yet…