By Francesca Day (@FrancescaDay), University of Oxford. Francesca will be standing on one of our soapboxes at our London event, Saturday the 30th of May. There, she’ll be talking about hunting for new particles with physics fan fiction.
I have wanted to be a physicist for as long as I can remember. Physics asks and answers the most fundamental questions about how the universe works. Why would I want to do anything else, when I could study the structure of physical reality? This all sounds rather glamorous and philosophical. My day to day work is a little more mundane – a mixture of programming, maths and reading. All the same, I am ecstatic to be living the dream I had as a ten year old.
I am doing a PhD in theoretical particle physics. The physical universe is built of particles, and I’m searching for evidence of new particles yet to be discovered. In particular, I’m working on dark matter – this boils down to a huge number of unexplained observations. We’ve spent a very long time observing the movement of stars and galaxies. All this data we’ve collected about the way they’re moving and how fast they’re moving tells us that there is a lot more mass in the universe than we can explain with the just particles we know about.
Physicists have been thinking about the problem of dark matter, as well as other hints of new particles, for a long time. In that time, many different ideas for new particles have been developed. Inevitably, most of them are going to turn out to be wrong. One of the main aims of particle physics today is to disprove some of these ideas by showing that they conflict with observations or experiments. In this way, we hope to chip away all the wrong ideas to reveal the truth.
So just coming up with an idea for a new particle that solves a problem isn’t enough. You need work out what other consequences your new particle, if it does indeed exist, would have. Otherwise how will we know whether or not it really exists? Theoretical particle physicists spend their time thinking up new particles that almost certainly don’t exist, and then imagining what it would be like if they did exist. It’s a bit like physics fan fiction – a concept I’ll expand on from my soapbox!
Growing up, it never occurred to me that there would be any conflict between being a scientist and being a woman. I have a ready-made role model in my Mum, Ottoline Leyser, who was an inaugural Soapbox Scientist. She is a plant biologist, a mother and makes excellent scones. This has put me in a very fortunate position. I hope that initiatives like Soapbox Science will increase the visibility of female scientists for the benefit of budding scientists who aren’t lucky enough to have awesome scientists for mothers.
As I progressed from A-level physics to my undergraduate degree to my PhD the proportion of women dwindled. I was puzzled by the question “Can women have it all?” – a question that haunts many women hoping for a fulfilling career and a family. But men have been “having it all” for centuries without anyone batting an eyelid! I suspect the assumption is that, even in 2015, a male scientist has a wife who will take care of his children and darn his socks while he ploughs ahead with his career. But this need not be, and quite often isn’t, the case. In some families the Dad provides most of the child care. My stay-at-home Dad was an exceptional role model, teacher and parent. I have turned out just fine. Other couples choose to split it 50/50. Many families don’t have the traditional “Mum, Dad and kids” structure. The choice lies entirely with the parents themselves and should not be affected by societal pressures or assumptions – the new shared parental leave rules are particularly welcome in facilitating this. But too often childcare and the running of family life are still seen as primarily the mother’s responsibility.
Outside of science, I am a stand-up comedian and sci-fi/fantasy nut. I very much intend to “have it all”.