Physics

Physicist Kate Shaw: ‘Even in conservative places, you do not have to be in conflict with scientific ideas’ | Science


Kate Shaw is a physicist based at the University of Sussex, where she studies the data that pours out of the Atlas experiment, one of the huge detectors that forms part of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, in Geneva. She is also the founder of Physics Without Frontiers, a Unesco-backed organisation that runs lectures, workshops and schools in war-torn nations to help kindle an interest in science and help local recovery.

You work on the Atlas experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. What does that involve?
I have worked on the experiment for the past 11 years and that brings me into two different areas of fundamental physics. The first is based on the top quark, the heaviest known fundamental particle in the universe. We are colliding beams of protons together and I study the top quarks that are produced in these collision. It is a great way of probing for new physics, which is really what we built our detector for. We are probing to understand complex issues that we still don’t understand.

And your second interest?
We are colliding protons millions of times a second at the centre of our detector and we need to know exactly the number of proton interactions that are taking place. This figure is known as luminosity. We calibrate it very precisely. We are looking at a scale of energy density of up to 13 billion billion electron volts. That is the collision energy we are getting in Atlas at the moment, conditions that correspond to a time in the early universe just a fraction of a second after the big bang. And when we build bigger colliders and hit things together even harder, we will be able to look back even further in time.

It is an astonishing machine. No country has the money or even the expertise to build something this huge on its own. It is a massive advert for international collaboration. The crucial point is that I can use it whether I am in my office in Sussex University or in Palestine. I can do my analysis and research on my laptop as long as I have connections with the internet. Science is a global pursuit now.

Did that influence your decision to get involved with Physics Without Frontiers?
I founded the programme in 2012. I was working in Palestine – at the Birzeit University, near Ramallah on the West Bank. I gave a talk on the Large Hadron Collider and people suggested I come back. So a year later I came back with two Palestinian colleagues who were also working on the Atlas experiment and we started training students. It really grew because the quality of students is very high but they only have a master’s programme, not a PhD programme.

From that beginning we started running courses. We go once or twice a year and run schools, workshops and training. Already in Palestine we have PhD students working back there and with other countries. It is all about building capacity in the country, about giving people access to science.

You do not know who is going to be the next great person, the next Abdus Salam or Alan Turing. So it is our job as scientists to make sure that everyone has access to education and to be able to get involved in research no matter what country you are from. It cannot really be the luxury by the western, richer countries.

How do you raise your funding?
It is funded by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, which is based in Trieste and was founded by the Nobel physics laureate Abdus Salam. It in turn is funded by three groups: Unesco, the Italian government and the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are a Unesco institute.

And how do you divide your work and what other countries are you now involved with?
It is about 50-50: half to Sussex on Cern stuff and the other half is with Physics Without Frontiers, which now has numerous outlets. Nepal, Afghanistan, and Palestine are my particular babies, as it were. But we also work in Latin America in Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay and we also go to Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

Do some authorities make things hard for you in places such as Palestine?
Yes. It can get complicated – in Palestine in particular. With the West Bank there are fewer problems but in Gaza the political situation is disastrous. It has been under siege since 2005. They have three universities which are all doing some great physics. But the faculties there are completely isolated. They cannot leave or travel and the students we get really struggle. Sometimes they miss opportunities because they cannot get out. It is very frustrating.

How does Palestine compare with other areas you are now working in?
One of our more recent focuses for attention is Afghanistan, which suffers from huge issues of security. But it also has an amazing young generation there who seem to have a lot of hope that they can make the country what they know that it can be. We worked with very young faculty members in the physics department. They were extremely strong in their subject, really passionate about starting physics there and getting international collaboration at Kabul University. We held a workshop and something like 300 participants turned up. It was fantastic.

It is a very secular activity you are involved in. Do some countries object to your godlessness?
I always tread a little carefully in the beginning but actually in places where you might find the most conservative people are living, they ask exactly the same sorts of questions about the big bang and the origins of the universe that you would get in any other country. It is very reassuring. Even in these places you do not have to be in conflict with basic scientific ideas. They can be accepted. They also recognise that having good PhD students in physics in the country is good for the economy.

At the moment we are just kicking off. We have been going for six years. It is only in the last couple of years that we have been really growing. In the end we hope that every university is connected with this programme and then that brings some more funding for physics there. Our aim is to create vibrant scientific communities across the world.

Hard lines: realities of life for scientists in the Gaza Strip



Photograph: Abid Katib/Getty Images

While students in Gaza may apply for, and be offered opportunities on, courses in other parts of Palestine or other countries, they encounter a great number of regulatory hurdles before they can take them up. It is common for students to offered a number of places but be unable to transfer due to the refusal of the authorities to issue the relevant permits.

Gaza students are often refused permits to attend scientific conferences in other parts of Palestine. Last July, four students were forced to participate remotely in the second Palestinian Advanced Physics School at Birzeit University because they were denied travel permits.

On a practical basis, operating a science lab in Gaza is extremely challenging. The electricity supply to the strip is erratic and can last between four and eight hours a day, making it difficult to use electronic instruments and perform experiments.

Border regulations mean that many of the materials required for science, particularly chemicals, are impossible for Gaza scientists to obtain. “The infrastructure of the laboratories is very bad because Israel considers that everything is dangerous to their security,” says Dr Rami Morjan of the Islamic University.

Equipment is also hard to fund and import. Potential overseas funding partners are nervous about buying equipment for Gaza institutions because they know from experience that it may be destroyed in a bombing raid. The result is that students often have to carry out research experiments remotely, using equipment at other institutions.

Gaza-based scientists who win grants for their research often end up losing the funding because they are unable to secure the equipment and materials needed to carry out their research because of the challenges outlined above.

Source: Scientists for Palestine



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