Eureka!: 60 Seconds

Extreme Physics

60 Seconds with Ciaran Williams

Ciaran Williams.

Ciaran Williams. Photo: Douglas Levere

Interview by Grove Potter

Ciaran Williams grew up in Gloucester, England, and is the first person in his family to go to college. An assistant professor in the UB Department of Physics, he does theoretical calculations for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest particle accelerator, on the border of France and Switzerland. For a particle physicist, the 17-mile collider is like the NASA program: It’s where new knowledge gets discovered, and where weak theories get shot down.

Williams just won a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to continue his LHC project, and also to bring his favorite physics projects and a team of undergraduates to Salamanca High School twice a month for the next five years, with the goal of sparking an interest in these young learners for science.

How did you choose physics?

I always liked astronomy and science fiction—“Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and that sort of stuff. I got a telescope when I was a teenager. That really was the hook.

What does the LHC do?

It smashes beams of protons together at near the speed of light to create conditions similar to those of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. The energetic collisions create new particles—for split seconds— and reveal secrets about how matter is formed.

What do you do for the LHC?

My main role is computing mathematical predictions for what the LHC experiments will show. There are a few thousand physicists around the world, including myself, who work on the theoretical side, and a few thousand more who work on the experiments themselves. So if my calculations don’t agree with the data, that would mean something is wrong with our theory and we’d have to think of new theories that would fix it.

The Higgs boson was discovered at the LHC in 2012. What does that mean?

The Higgs is a particle, and the interaction it has with other particles generates their mass. It’s not the reason you and I have mass, but it’s why fundamental particles get their mass. For a long time our theory of physics was nonsense, unless you had the Higgs. Its discovery amounted to the missing piece of data needed to complete the Standard Model, on which modern physics is built.

Can you describe your NSF grant?

It’s designed to create the next generation of researchers and educators. Salamanca High School has a large Native American population, and the aim is to provide access to science and scientists and also to try and boost the number of Native Americans who apply for college positions.

Any advice to young, aspiring physicists?

Anyone who wants to be a physicist understands that they have to like science and math. But I was quite lucky to be involved in amateur dramatics when I was a kid—my mom made me do it. As a result, it made me not terrified to be up in front of a large group of people. There are many, many good scientists with no ability to present their work. If I was going to give advice to a good young scientist, it would be to get some practice doing public speaking.