Ben Smart

Another chat has ended. It was fun! But I need to learn to type even faster! Still answering your questions as fast as I can ;)

Favourite Thing: My favourite thing to do in science? Hmm, it’s got to be either solving puzzles (science is full of tricky problems, and it can be fun trying to solve them), or discovering things that no one has ever known before.



Montrose Academy – 1999 to 2005. Edinburgh University – 2005 to 2010 (undergraduate). Edinburgh University – 2010 to present (postgraduate)


I have a degree in mathematical physics. In school I got A grades in Higher Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and a C in Higher English. I got A grades in Advanced Higher Physics and Chemistry, and a B in Advanced Higher Maths.

Work History:

I’ve worked in a few bars, on a wildlife reserve looking after endangered animals, and in a bike shop. All just small jobs while I’ve been a student so that I could afford to eat!

Current Job:

I’m a PhD student – I work at CERN doing scientific research all day.

My STFC Facility:

The University of Edinburgh and CERN

Me and my work

The largest machine ever created by mankind is buried underground just outside the city of Geneva, and I use it to blow stuff up, recreating the big bang so that I can find out how the universe works!

I work at CERN, just outside Geneva, on the ATLAS Experiment. I’m a PhD student, and the main thing I’m doing out here is looking for a particle called the Higgs Boson. The Higgs Boson is named after Professor Peter Higgs who used to work at Edinburgh University. He came up with an idea (a theory) that describes why things have mass, and if his idea is correct then there must be a new particle that no one has ever seen before, so this particle was named after him: the Higgs Boson. At CERN we’re looking for the Higgs Boson, because if we find it then we’ll know that Peter Higgs’ idea must be correct, and then we’ll understand a bit more about how the universe works.

My Typical Day

My day: Drink coffee. Make computers do whatever I want them to do. Discuss physics problems with friends. Drink more coffee. Try to think of clever ways to find things no one has ever seen before. Discover how the universe works.

Most of my day is spent creating computer programs to help me do my work. We need computers to do the work for us because there is too much data to search through by hand.

I spend some of my time using my computer programs to try to find the Higgs Boson, but I spend most of my time just trying to understand how our machine (the ATLAS Detector) actually works: we’ve built this great big machine, but now we need to know how well it can measure the things we want it to measure.

I also spend a lot of time in meetings, and even more time reading and writing emails to other scientists. The meetings are often pretty boring, but we need to write emails to each other and have meetings so that everyone can share things they’ve learnt with everyone else. One good thing about meetings and emails is that you can ask other scientists questions about the things you don’t understand, and no one minds, even if it’s a really silly question, because we all try to help each other.

I don’t have a lot of free time because I enjoy doing the science that I do and so I spend a lot of time doing it. It’s like a hobby for me, as well as a job. When I do have free time though I like to go cycling in the mountains and enter races (it’s beautiful, and cycling down a mountain at 60mph is a lot of fun!) I also just hang out with friends or talk to my girlfriend on the phone since she lives in Scotland. I also drink more coffee that I probably should…

What I'd do with the money

I’d like to set up a website with regular videos all about physics and the universe. Stuff to capture peoples’ imaginations! The money would go towards the website and a camera to film the videos with.

I want to share my enthusiasm for science with other people. Demystify science and make it more accessible to everyone, because it really is fascinating stuff, and people find it fascinating as long as it’s presented to them in an understandable and enjoyable way. Just look at what Brian Cox has done for science with his TV shows.

I’ve spoken to groups of secondary school physics teachers (25 to date) about what they and their pupils would find helpful and interesting, and every one of them has said that to be able to contact scientists and ask them questions would be fantastic (like on I’m a scientist get me out of here!)

To combine these ideas, I’d like to set up a website. On the website I and other scientists here at CERN would post videos about science: from easy to understand explanations of physics, to what it’s like to be a scientist and what we actually do day to day at CERN. The other thing the website would allow is for schools to contact scientists at CERN and ask us questions, either by email or by internet video call. We would then answers those questions, either directly in the video calls, or in videos posted on the website. Several of my colleagues here at CERN have said that they are willing and keen to help with this.

The money be spent on the website and equipment needed to make the videos (camera, microphone, and so on).

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Ambitious, ardent, happy

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Daft Punk

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Either mountaineering in the alps, ice climbing up a glacier, and standing at the edge of a sheer drop looking down at a bright blue lake that was over a kilometre below me. Or cycling up and down mountains (up because you get a sense of achievement, down because you go really fast!)

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Find the Higgs Boson, race in the Tour de France, get a job as a university physics lecturer.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A physicist!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Unfortunately yes. My friend and I came very very close to blowing up a wing of the school building while making things we shouldn’t have been making in Chemistry class.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I showed that something that everyone thought was really great was actually pretty useless. Doesn’t sound very exciting I know, but in science even showing that something doesn’t work is a good thing, because it means we’ve learnt something new.

Tell us a joke.

There’re two fish in a tank, and one says “How do you drive this thing?”

Other stuff

Work photos:

The ATLAS detector (the machine I work on) being built.
This is the ATLAS detector being built. It’s the machine I work on and use. It’s 44 metres long, 25 metres wide, and is in a cavern about 100 metres underground.

The building I work in.
This is where I work each day. My office is on the 3rd floor in the middle of this picture. Due to a mistake in the building design my office is freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer!

The best time to visit:

Any time! CERN has free tours available all the time. If you visit when all the machines are switched off though (called a shutdown) then you might even be able to go underground into the tunnels and caverns and see all the stuff we have down there (it’s pretty cool).