Science at Cambridge: The Compelling and Creative World of Physics

Halfway through my degree, I can confidently say that there’s nothing I would rather be doing. Physics is a stimulating subject in so many ways, allowing a really deep understanding of how the physical world works, which can be excitingly counterintuitive.

Studying physics was a natural choice for me – I’ve always loved playing with maths, and physics extends that into making you consider what the maths is telling you about the real world. I enjoyed reading about physics at school, and studying it at university makes everything you’ve read in popular science books so much more compelling, by giving you tools to truly understand the concepts, and then use them to answer questions about how the universe operates.

It is not just the subject matter, but also the act of doing physics; I get a real rush as I suddenly figure out how to finish a question after over an hour’s thinking.

There’s so much stuff happening in the course: with labs, supervisions and extremely fast-paced lectures, it’s not possible to get bored. Many people wouldn’t consider physics to be a creative subject, but I would argue differently: devising solutions to problems you’ve never seen before requires a lot of creativity, and I think studying physics really demands and develops both this creativity and an analytic mind.

I have really enjoyed quantum mechanics this year, because the course hasn’t just introduced new concepts, but also new ways of thinking, in terms of symmetries, inner products and probabilities. This is one of the things I like most about studying physics: thinking in new ways is challenging, but also very exciting. It’s also satisfying just to be able to make predictions about the way microscopic systems behave, when it is so distant from my previous knowledge of the world. I’m really looking forward to third year as it will give me the chance to study subjects like particle physics which I have only previously read about in popular science books and news articles. I’m also excited to be able to do some of my own research, particularly in fourth year.

Murray Edwards is the best place I can imagine to study. There’s a real sense of community, where everyone wants to see everyone else succeed, and it’s inspiring to be surrounded by other women who are equally passionate about science. I’ve just started a year as co-chair of Cambridge University Physics Society, something which I could never have envisaged doing when I was at school. I think studying in Cambridge really gives you the courage to do crazy things!

Physics is a fantastic subject to study in all ways – stimulating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding.

The last two years have been thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring, and I feel confident knowing that whatever I choose to do after I graduate, my degree will have prepared me for it.

Fionn Bishop
Undergraduate student

Intellectual Property and the Knowledge Economy

I work as a Senior Patent Attorney at a leading semiconductor design company.  Previously I worked as a Patent Attorney in a UK Patent and Trademark Attorney firm, and before this I spent some time working as a Railway Engineer.  I studied at the University of Oxford achieving a Masters in Engineering Science and am also delighted to have been named as an ‘inventor‘ myself on a patent application.  Patents are fascinating but this area of professional expertise is not well known so I’ll explain further.

Britain continues to grow into a knowledge economy where ideas are often developed and commercialised in the UK but manufactured abroad.  In order for businesses to protect their investments and products whilst maintaining their commercial edge; intellectual property (IP) rights are used.    From patents protecting new pharmaceutical drugs and electronics; trademarks and registered designs protecting new fashion ranges to trade secrets and confidential information protecting the latest Formula 1 cars.   IP is protecting innovation developed by companies in the UK every day.  Although all the types of intellectual property may be used to protect innovations in STEM areas, patents are often particularly valuable to companies.

The first patent laws were created in the sixteenth century to try to encourage inventors and businesses to share their knowledge and discoveries publicly.

Prior to governments issuing patents, most business knowledge was controlled by powerful Guilds and only available to their members.  This resulted in developments being constrained by the limited information available.  The hope was that the monopoly right patents provided, would encourage inventors to publish how to perform the invention.  This in turn would enable others to build on the information provided within the patent and result in furthering scientific progress.

The monopoly right provided by a patent lasts for up to 20 years and enables the patent owner to prevent others from working the invention and so recoup the investment costs required to devise the invention.  One method of doing this is to use the patent to protect the market in which the patent owner is selling goods by preventing competitors from doing the same thing.  A good example of a market where this is still a key use of patents is in pharmaceuticals where a company may use its patent to prevent any generic versions of a drug from being made available.

This approach is particularly suited to areas where any one product is only covered by one patent.  However, in some technical areas, for example telecommunications, there may be thousands of patents which could cover a single product.  In these areas competitors tend to implicitly accept that they all infringe each other’s patents and so have agreements not to sue one another or more explicitly agree to cross-licence each other’s portfolios.

The recent smart phone patent wars were caused by a new entrant to the telecommunications market disrupting these agreements.

They also showed businesses that their patent portfolios could be treated as tangible assets. This has led to a rise in so called Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) who buy patent portfolios from struggling or bankrupt companies and then assert them against companies who are manufacturing or selling products in the hope of extracting licence fees and royalties.

Whether it is to protect investment or develop new products and markets, Patents provide a vital tool to enable UK businesses to prosper, facilitating both the sharing and safeguarding of knowledge in a global economy.

Adeline-Fleur Smith
Senior Patent Attorney at ARM



Career Path: Understanding dark matter – a collaborative venture

16a-sarah-williamsAs a researcher on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, one of the things I love about my job is that on a day-to-day basis I get to interact with scientists from different backgrounds all around the world. The ATLAS collaboration includes around 3000 physicists from over 175 institutes around the world, all working together to answer fundamental questions about the elementary particles and interactions in the universe.

My work focuses on searches for new particles at the LHC, and in particular those that could help explain what makes up Dark Matter in the universe.

Astrophysicists now believe that dark matter makes up nearly 25% of the mass energy content of the universe (with only 4% being normal `baryonic matter’ which we can explain and the rest being dark energy, a mysterious substance that actually causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate). Although we don’t currently know what dark matter is made of, there is strong evidence that it could constitute a “weakly interacting massive particle” (or WIMP) which could thus be searched for in the high energy collisions at the LHC.

The LHC collides bunches of protons together around 40 million times a second, and recording these collisions requires enormous detectors (the ATLAS detector is around half the size of Notre Dam Cathedral in Paris and weighs as much as the Eiffel tower). Most particles produced in collisions decay instantly so we can only indirectly infer their existence by trying to reconstruct information from their decay products. The data is read off the detector, reconstructed and stored at large computing sites all over the world waiting to be analysed offline by particle physicists.

It is very rare to perform a LHC search on your own, it normally takes a group of a dozen or more physicists working together to produce the final result.

For example, I tend to work a lot on the statistical analysis, which considers quantitatively the level of agreement between the observed data and the prediction based on the Standard Model (which encapsulates our current understanding of the elementary particles on the universe).

Another aspect of my work that I appreciate is the variety of skills that I have gained and used over the years in carrying out my research. The large volumes of LHC data makes computer programming unavoidable, so I have had to learn a variety of programming languages including c++ and python. In addition to that, working in such a large collaboration requires strong communication skills. Before I started my PhD I had very limited experience of public speaking however I very quickly became accustomed to presenting on a weekly basis. I have also had the opportunity to present at international conferences around the world, including in Taipei, Moscow and later this month in Adelaide.

There are so many fundamental questions within the sciences that are waiting to be answered.

Challenges range from finding alternative energy sources that can be exploited on a global scale, to developing new techniques for the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening diseases.  We need young women (and men) with a passion for new knowledge, the creativity to solve problems and the personal qualities to engage effectively in interdisciplinary teams.  It’s an exciting and rewarding field and can provide you with many unexpected opportunities along the way.

Sarah Williams

Science at Cambridge: Building robots (and self-belief!)

11D Joanna and radio

UniversityMy name is Joanna and I’m a second year Engineering student at Murray Edwards College. I’ve always been interested in science, and as years progressed I found myself unable to choose just one narrow discipline. I decided studying Engineering will teach me how to apply a wide range of knowledge to everyday concepts. This was also why the engineering course at Cambridge was especially interesting to me, as its open structure with general engineering taught during the first two years allowed me to further explore different areas before deciding which one is the most fulfilling for me.

I remember being a little apprehensive about my own abilities in a technical field before I started my degree. While taking part in a Physics Olympiad in my home country I met boys who made robots with their fathers ever since a young age, and were taking apart computers for fun (I was the only girl in the national finals, as well!). My high school didn’t even have a laboratory and if I took apart one of our home appliances my mother would never forgive me. I wondered, would I ever be able to create something myself? Could I ever compete with them? And then the Cambridge course started and I got my answer – yes! Thankfully, it seems the university believed in me more than I believed in myself.

11D Robot Wall-E
Robot Wall-E

In the very first week we were asked to build robots from Lego Mindstorms. I still remember it as a week of absolute panic and despair – but also utter delight when at the end of it our robot was actually moving and doing what we wanted it to. Not long after that we were asked to build an AM radio using a bunch of wires, capacitors, resistors and our knowledge of circuits. (In the photo at the top you can see me, excited, with the ready “product”.) This year, we were asked to build a robot again. In groups of 6, in the space of a month, we created, almost from scratch, an actual moving thing that could follow lines, pick up multi-coloured sticks and sort them into boxes scattered around a playing area. I was responsible for the electrical systems on the robot, such as light sensors, PCB boards and actuators.

Interestingly, considering my initial apprehension, those hands-on activities became the most enjoyable part of my degree. This is why I applied to the Cambridge-MIT exchange scheme, and from September will be studying at the top Technology Institute in the USA, known for its hands-on approach and dedication to research. The research aspect is especially interesting for me. In the next two years I want to specialize in Electrical and Information Engineering and hope to one day be able to contribute to the development of electronic devices.

Joanna Stadnik
Undergraduate student