INTERVIEW ‘Teaching students is vital for particle physics research’

11 November 2020

Scientists who don’t really feel like students and education? No way, brand new UvA professor and Nikhef researcher Marcel Vreeswijk says. Education, he stresses a few weeks after his appointment, is vitally important for science. If you don’t know how to interest young people in your profession, the whole research will soon be over.

Marcel Vreeswijk (Amsterdam, 1969) studied experimental physics at the University of Amsterdam and obtained his doctorate there as well. He then worked at particle institutes such as DESY in Hamburg and CERN in Geneva, and even Fermilab in the US.

Since the beginning he has been involved in the construction of the largest particle detector in the world, the ATLAS detector at CERN. In 2012, it found the much sought-after Higgs particle. Nikhef is currently coordinating the Dutch contribution to the ”Inner Tracker”, a radical makeover of ATLAS in 2026.  After that, an unimaginable amount of measurement data will be collected for ten years.

In recent years, in addition to his work at Nikhef’s ATLAS group, Vreeswijk has been head lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and training director of the bachelor’s program in physics and astronomy. He quit, but he will stay on for a while as education director of the University of Amsterdam’s College of Sciences.

He is fanatic in what he does, Vreeswijk recognizes. In research. But certainly also in education.  Doing a lot of research may be the quickest route to becoming a professor, but teaching at this wonderful university is incredibly rewarding and needs to be done right!

But is teaching really very important?

‘Education is important for several reasons. It gives young people opportunities, I think that’s a great thing. But it is also essential that we continue to interest young people in our profession and the research we do. If we don’t have a next generation, it will be over in no time’.

 Education is in the interest of research?

‘That’s even the whole idea of a university: the researcher as a teacher. Research benefits from good students. And education benefits from the presence of good researchers. I also see it as a form of research valorization: research provides internships, projects, practical training.

Is it also just fun, teaching?

‘It’s a lot of fun. Students always keep you on your toes. They ask and invent things that sometimes they can’t do at all. Then it comes down to your own insight and dexterity. I have a lot of fun in that game of questions and answers’.

Never bored in front of the class?

‘Never. And when I notice that others do, as education director I intervene as well. Although you have to keep asking yourself why someone doesn’t function well sometimes. Why someone comes off badly in evaluations. That can also lie outside the person. As a director, some people shouldn’t be placed in front of a group of first-year students. Others, on the other hand, do.

 There is also a lot of criticism of the university system. An education factory, it is called.

‘That criticism is generally justified, I think. Look, for researchers like me, teaching is also an opportunity to try out new things. Bring examples from my own research, so that people can see what all that basic knowledge is good for. That goes without saying. We have the components for the new ATLAS detector in the hall. But full-time teachers are further away from that, they just have to work their hours’.

Not ideal.

‘Absolutely. But I’m also aware that it can hardly be otherwise with the current numbers of students. There just aren’t enough researchers to teach them all.

That new part of ATLAS, what is it supposed to do?

‘That is the so-called Inner Tracker (ITk), a particle detector for the inside of the new ATLAS that can detect particles in the LHC accelerator immediately after the collision of protons. The current ATLAS detector is more than ten years old. The machine is up and far too slow for the high beam intensities that LHC will deliver later this decade. ITk can cope with this deluge of particles, is the intention’.

The ITk wheel has been in Nikhef’s hall for a long time, but is now gone. Where has it gone?

‘Everything has changed because of corona. Projects like ITk are large international collaborations, but everywhere the work has become complicated. There are lockdowns, travel restrictions, and even forest fires in California that are getting in our way. Previously, German colleagues came to our lab to test their parts, but that’s not possible now. So we sent the entire mock-up to Hamburg. By the way, I hope we’ll get it back as well, we’ll have to continue with our tests later’.

 This kind of work requires a lot of patience.

 ‘Certainly now. But we’re used to that in this business. It takes a long time to build experiments, it’s no different. It takes a long time to measure properly. It is a profession that takes a long time. With perhaps once every five or ten years a real hit. Think of the top quark, mass of neutrinos, Higgs particle and gravitational waves’.

That seems difficult to me, especially for students.

 ‘If you’re just talking about huge discoveries, it is. But it’s not like that. When you’re in research, you have challenges every day that require your full commitment to solve them. That could be in the analyses: do I understand the backgrounds in these measurements, am my statistics correct? And with the ITk it’s much more: is everything made as precisely as on the drawings? Can the construction really handle the minus 40 degrees that will be needed later? How do we know for sure that all the sensors are working?

 Science is mainly a question of cautious steps forward?

 ‘It’s a huge puzzle, and what we’re trying to do is understand the pieces of the puzzle. If that succeeds, you’ll be very happy in practice. I don’t think about the big picture every day by a long shot’.

 And the puzzle as a whole?

 ‘It’s not even the most important subject of ATLAS, but for me the biggest question is why there seems to be much more matter than antimatter. You would think that exactly the same amount must have arisen, but then the universe would be filled with light and not matter. Then we would not be there. But we are there, and there must be a reason for that. What is that reason? Can we discover it? You have to admit: there are smaller questions in life’.

(Interview by Martijn van Calmthout)