In the third of our series of interviews with science communicators hoping to triumph at the FameLab final, please meet our second Harry: Harry Cliff of the High Energy Physics group at the University of Cambridge. Harry won his heat last week with a rather unusual topic…
Hello, Harry, congratulations on making the FameLab final! Tell us a bit about what you presented and why you picked it.
I talked about bottoms and how they hold the secret to the existence of the Universe. Bottom quarks that is, tiny particles which are produced in huge numbers at the Large Hadron Collider. Particle physicists are interested in them because they can teach as a great deal about the differences between matter and antimatter. One of the great unsolved problems of particle physics and cosmology is why matter and antimatter weren’t made in equal quantities at the Big Bang. If that had happened we wouldn’t be here today as the two should have annihilated each other leaving a cold, dark and empty Universe. Bottom quarks offer an exciting opportunity to study the phenomenon known as “charge-parity symmetry violation”, which is needed to explain why matter was created in greater abundance than antimatter.
How did you become interested in communication and have you ever done anything like this before?
Ever since I was at school I’ve enjoyed sharing interesting things I’ve learnt with my friends and family. Talking to the public about science in a more formal setting just seems a natural extension of this. I’ve given quite a few talks to public audiences before, and recently even tried my hand at a bit of science stand-up comedy, but competitive speaking is new to me.
Your style obviously struck a chord with the judges. What do you think is important when communicating science to the public?
Being clear and not taking yourself or your subject too seriously. All too often science is seen as complicated or difficult but this is almost always due to a lack of clarity. Science is about understanding a complex world with a simple set of principles. If you strip out the jargon and stick to the crucial elements, the crux of any scientific idea can be explained to a non-expert in a few minutes. A bit of humour always helps the pill go down more smoothly too!
Back to the day job for a minute: tell us about your research and areas of interest.
I work on the LHCb experiment, which is one of the four detectors at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the superlative-stretching particle accelerator near Geneva. At the moment I’m involved in searching for signs of new physics, beyond our current theories, through processes involving the “bottom” quark. Actually, at LHCb we tend to call it the “beauty” quark, which sounds a bit sexier. Although, I guess that depends on your point of view.
Do you have a plan for the future? Do you hope to stay in academia or would you like to do this sort of thing full time?
I’ve just finished my PhD and am about to start a new post, half continuing in research and half working in science communication. I think working in both areas will be complimentary; having a foot in research makes you more credible as a communicator and keeps you up to date with the latest developments while having contact with the public keeps you enthusiastic about your work and reminds you why you got into it in the first place.
Sci-comm seems to be on a high at the moment, with everyone talking about Frozen Planet and wanting to live with penguins. Looking into the future, do you have a dream presenting gig?
How about a special edition of The Sky at Night presented live from the surface of Mars, perhaps with Bill Bailey providing humorous musical accompaniment.
Do you have a website or have any events coming up where readers can see you in action?
I’ll be doing a short science-comedy set in London on the 13th December as part of “Bright Club”, an evening of academic research presented through the medium of stand-up comedy. See http://www.brightclub.org/ for more details.
Tell us something cool about science!
You are a leftover. Every particle in your body is a survivor from an almighty shoot-out between matter and antimatter that happened a little after the Big Bang. In fact, only one in a billion particles created at the beginning of time have survived to the present day.
Thanks very much for talking to us, Harry: good luck in the final!