Dr Suzie Sheehy was born in Australia in 1984 and is a physicist at the universities of Oxford and Melbourne. She received the Lord Kelvin award in 2010 for her work as a science communicator. The Matter of Everything: Twelve Experiments that Changed Our World is her first book.
How did you become interested in physics? When I was studying engineering with science on the side at university, I asked questions in my lectures, but one lecturer said they didn't know the answer to that. Engineering and physics were a little more exciting.
Where did that lead you? I moved to the UK to do my PhD after seeing the Large Hadron Collider for the first time. I was intrigued by the idea that we could use particle accelerators to treat cancer, and that it could have a direct societal impact.
The book has 12 experiments from 1895 to 2012 in it. Why? The story of modern physics is the development of particle physics. I made a spreadsheet of all the major discoveries, from the discovery of the electron through to the Higgs boson. I had to ask how people learned what we know now. In physics, we give this reverse history starting from what we know. It was difficult to get into the mind of someone in the 1890s.
My field is still 85-90% male. If we stick with the current rate of change, it will take about 75 years to reach parity
Physicists were doing innovative experiments using really makeshift materials, but some of the recent technologies are awe-inspiring. Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand-born physicist and a winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize, was an inspiration to me. If I had been doing graduate study back then, I would have spent a lot of time blowing glass and melting wax seals. Design of computer systems that interact with the experiments is a lot of the detailed skill now. In my small lab in Oxford, I'm making little wire connections and using big wrenches to get bolts on and off the lid of the vacuum vessel.
A lot of experimental physics is inching along in the dark and feeling out details until eventually it clicks, rather than being plucked out of thin air by lone geniuses. Do you want to be bored? If you were to believe a lot of the historified versions of these discoveries, you would think that science is exciting day-to-day and that you are going to have that eureka experience. That is very damaging. Key skills are patience and persistence. You can have many small victories along the way, and I make sure I celebrate them.
The story of physics is mostly male, but you have managed to shine a light on a number of women who made important contributions over the past century. Is it difficult to find their stories? It is very difficult in places. I found a photograph of some women in a biography of a male scientist. I was able to find the first graduate student by using that method. I wondered who this woman was when I saw her looking at the camera. I wanted to make sure that women's stories were written back in, because in other versions they were erased completely.
Is physics still a boys club? I have worked very hard to make sure that the research groups that I form are representative. The field is still male-dominated. It will take about 75 years for physics to reach parity if we stick with the current rate of change. We have a long way to go and people still face large barriers, but this is a societal problem as well as a science one.
Do you feel more obliged to do public-facing work than a man? Does this feel like a time- consuming tax on the progress of your academic career? I have always done public-facing work, even as an undergrad, so it is a little different for me. It's important to understand what people who aren't physicists think of the work we do. We don't understand why this is important because I can translate between my physics colleagues and other people. It is a kind of superpower to be able to combine the research and the public-facing work, and that is why I work on things that matter more to people outside of physics.
The amount of money invested in big physics projects from the 1950s onwards is huge. How can these sums be justified when so many other fields of research are not funded? There is a whole research field that analyses the value of money and economic and societal impacts of science projects. The return on investment for the Human Genome Project was at least 4.5, and I just read about it. Even though it looks like a lot of money, the return on investment is not just positive because we are fascinated to understand the world.
I don't want to be pragmatic about it. At the end of the day, it's about people understanding the world that they live in, and that has value, even if it doesn't invent another one.
In almost every case, scientists who discover different particles and forces believe they will not be useful. What is an example? We found muons from the rays. Nobody anticipated them. They travel through us all the time. We can't make electronics out of them because they decay very quickly. Maybe it's just a curiosity. They were used to image inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, where they found an extra room. They use them to get a time-based measurement of what the magma is doing. There is no other technology we can use that is the same way that a muon is. It is similar to a computed tomograph, but is used to look at enormous objects on the Earth.
There are indications that we only know something like 5% of the mass energy content of the universe… but we have no idea
You write about Big Science bringing together different nations. The war in Ukraine and the isolation of Russia have an effect on this. Some projects have it. Germany has told their researchers not to work with Russians. The main goal of the project is to understand the development of heavy elements in the universe, and it is being built in Germany. The equipment was supposed to come from Russia. That has been completely changed.
Russia's status as an observer nation has been suspended. That sent a shock through the community. There is a strong sense that this is a big shift. There is a huge concern around what it is shifting into. I can't do anything about what happened after world war two, but I can do something about how people felt about using science for peace, and how knowledge should be for the good of humanity. I'm hanging on to that right now.
You end the book with the discovery of the Higgs boson, a hard act to follow. What's next? We are at an interesting time in history. A lot of people saw the search for the Higgs boson as the final piece of the standard model, but they were looking for a lot more. We have no idea how much dark matter and dark energy we have in the universe. We can't quite explain the behavior of neutrinos. We don't understand how much there is. Imagine you are doing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and you have just completed a corner, but the rest of it is still lying there. The role of the Large Hadron collider is to find the next pieces.
Is the way you approach your research changed by writing this book? It made me feel better about being a scientist. You go to the lab each day and make mistakes, and you do it again, and eventually you produce a result, and you think, am I the only one who does this? Do other people just do beautiful experiments and feel like geniuses all the time? Learning about the intellectuals who won the Nobel prizes and how they struggled is a process. It gave me a sense of humor and made me more resilient in what I do.
Philip Pullman wrote a nice blurb for your book. Are you a fan of his work? Yes. We had a discussion about cloud chambers and things like that. I need to reach out to him to show him a real working cloud chamber, because I'm not sure he's ever seen one, and we're both Oxford-based, so if he has the time.
The Matter of Everything: Twelve Experiments That Changed Our World was published in 2000. You can support the Guardian and Observer by ordering your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.