Particle physics inspires children to become scientists
“Yes, spin-off companies are going to have an economic impact on society, but this pales into insignificance when compared with the economic impact that is generated by inspiring people to become scientists.” - Professor Andy Parker, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge
Professor Andy Parker has two, separate, and very different, areas of research. On the one hand, he is a particle physicist and founder of the ATLAS experiment for the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland; while on the other hand, he is an expert in distributed computing and has led several projects that have led to commercial applications in this field.
So when it comes to impact generation activities, he is aware that what might be appropriate for one area of his work, is not appropriate for the other area. However, there is one fundamental belief that drives all his impact generation activities. “I believe tax payers deserve to be told what their money is being spent on,” says Professor Parker , who is deputy head of department at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.
While his work in distributed computing has resulted in two spin-off companies, several industrial projects and therefore considerable impact on society, he feels that his work in particle physics has the biggest impact.
“Yes, spin-off companies are going to have an economic impact on society, but this pales into insignificance when compared with the economic impact that is generated by inspiring people to become scientists,” says Professor Parker . This is why he frequently gives public lectures and will often speak to journalists. He has made several TV and radio appearances and is often in the press. “I don’t do all this press work because of Pathways to Impact,” says Professor Parker . “I don’t feel this kind of work benefits me at all. It simply takes up my time. But I feel it is my duty to inform the taxpayer about what we are doing.”
And it seems the taxpayer is really interested in particle physics. “Whenever I give a public lecture, the hall is packed out. Not because of me, but because people are interested in the origins of the universe and in work of the Large Hadron Collider,” says Professor Parker . He admits that he has benefited from the award-winning PR work done by his colleagues at CERN. “The current level of public interest in particle physics is unprecedented,” says Professor Parker . “I think even CERN has been a bit surprised by the public’s enthusiasm for its work.”
As well as public lectures and press interviews, Professor Parker and his colleagues also work with schools to develop lessons for pupils. One project, which is partly funded by charity, involves school children building cosmic ray detectors. “The big impact of these activities is getting children fired up about science,” says Professor Parker . “This is something that is impossible to measure or quantify.”
The impact of his other work, in distributed computing, can be quantified more easily. Today, Professor Parker works with companies ranging from start-ups employing one or two staff, up to major international corporations and the industry-collaborative projects he is involved in solve many important problems which directly affect society. For example, one telemedicine uses video conferencing technology in order to diagnose and treat patients more quickly and two radiotherapy projects are aiming to reduce side-effects from radiotherapy and improve cure rates.
“Projects such as these come about through networking activities,” says Professor Parker . “Some of these might be planned events, but other connections occur by serendipity, such as a chance conversation over lunch. I am always on the lookout for opportunities to apply my research and therefore create impact, but many of these opportunities cannot be planned in advance.”
Institution:Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge
Funding council:STFC and EPSRC