On Tuesday 4th March the Physics Department took their U6th students to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford for a day of lectures, workshops and tours of one of the UK’s leading scientific research establishments.

An initial lecture about the history of particle accelerators and the necessary progression to larger machines in search of higher and higher energies (culminating in the RAL4large Hadron Collider at CERN) provided some useful context for the A2 Unit 4 exam. The technical content backed up what we have been discussing at Cranleigh and reaffirmed that lots of the syllabus is directly related to cutting edge  21st century scientific research. A talk that provided some useful revision of the Standard Model of the universe followed, before turning swiftly to some University level concepts. Although not directly accessible to all, it did provide some great extension work and piqued the interest of those hoping to study Science and Engineering in the coming years.

A computer exercise analysing real-life data from the ATLAS experiment at CERN illustrated quite how complex particle interactions can be and allowed the students a glimpse of real scientific research. In fact, there were loud calls for a Nobel Prize after a Cranleigh team identified a carefully planted fake dataset indicating the formation of the infamous Higgs Boson – if only!

A tasty lunch during the break ensured that everyone was ready for an inspirational lecture from Dr Kristian Harder about the LHC at CERN. He discussed the problems RAL3with the current Standard Model and how the research at CERN was trying to resolve some of these issues. He highlighted how work completed at RAL has contributed to the project as a whole as well as how particular pieces of apparatus have helped to detect the energetic particles produced by the collisions 100m underground.

The group then split to take a tour around the ISIS facility where muons and neutrons are used to perform high resolution spectroscopy of everything from experimental drugs to aeroplane wings, and where work is done to improve the resilience of electrical circuits to neutron bombardment. The tour took the students to the main proton beam, the target areas and the experiment test chambers where samples and objects are placed for analysis. The interactions between the particles and the objects can not only reveal defections in their physical structure but can also be used to see chemical reactions taking place in slow-motion. To see such an advanced facility in full-swing got the students asking questions about work experience and university placements; they got lots of positive answers.

A final lecture on the applications of particle accelerators to medical physics was particularly interesting and nicely bridged the gap between Physics and Biology. The advances in radiotherapy cancer treatments were investigated in depth and highlighted just how much work is still to be done in this crucial field. The use of ions rather than x or gamma rays is becoming more and more prevalent as with the help of particle physicists, research oncologists start to realise the benefits these treatments have to offer. Dr Rob Edgecock impressed upon us that these advancements in radiotherapy really will save lives.

An interactive plenary quiz ensured some healthy competition between teachers and students alike from all schools. Two of the top six scores in the room were from Cranleighans – I will leave the reader to guess from whom!

Many thanks to TRF for his help on the day and to the students for being excellent Cranleigh science ambassadors.