Discovering Particles

Meet the team: Harry Cliff

What is it like being a scientist?
Hard to say, what’s it like not being a scientist? I might be able to answer that one in a few years, at the moment I’m still finding out.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
When I was 19 studying physics at university I read "Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman" - a book about the life and adventures of one of the most remarkable physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman. He was a man of intense curiosity and humour and he made a life of research in physics sound really exciting and more than that, fun!

What is the best thing about being a scientist / your job?
The freedom to use your time as you see fit, to be able to have your own ideas, develop them and see the results and the feeling that you’re doing something that has intrinsic value.

If you could go back in time which scientist would you like to meet and what would you ask them?
I think I’d probably go back and ask Isaac Newton whether he really stole his law of gravity from Robert Hooke.

What do you do in your free time?
I see my friends and girlfriend, go out for drinks, watch films and try to enjoy myself. Though during the week my free time is mostly taken up by writing.

What is the first science you remember doing?
I remember being about nine years old and having a lesson on light. Our teacher told us that light always travels in straight lines. I put my hand up and said that wasn’t true and that light could bend if it travelled near a very heavy object like the sun. My teacher looked pained and moved on quickly - I must’ve been an insufferable little know-it-all.

What advice would you give a school child who is interested in science/How would you inspire a child/non-scientist to be interested in the work you do?
Always ask questions. Question everything you’re told and never take anyone’s word for it. If something doesn’t make sense to you make sure you challenge it until you do understand.

What’s the funniest/strangest/most surprising experience you have had in your career?
Last November I was at Bill Bailey's stand-up show in London. He was doing a bit on the Large Hadron Collider and asked if there were any nuclear physicists in the audience. I shouted out that I was and we ended up having a back and forth for about five minutes. My girlfriend sitting next to me looked absolutely mortified. At the end of the show while he was taking the applause he said "thank you to my friend the nuclear physicist" – my brief moment of fame.

What discovery or invention could you really not live without?
Actually I’d be relatively happy to do without most modern gadgets like computers, phones and so on. Although it would make doing my job rather difficult it would relieve the pressure of always having to be plugged in and contactable 24 hours a day. One thing I’d be sad to see go is the train, not exactly the most modern invention, but still one that makes getting around incredibly easy and convenient.

What do you think is the most important thing yet to be discovered/invented?
I really hope there isn’t a "most important thing" – it implies that science somehow has an endpoint where we can say that we really understand everything. I think a world with nothing left to find out would be really rather impoverished and not a place I’d like to live. My prejudice is that no matter how much we understand there will always be much more to discover. Perhaps the next most pressing question is what lies beyond the Standard Model of particle physics – is there a theory that unifies all the fundamental forces and explains the structure of matter more completely?

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