I first learned about Monica Dunford because of her starring role in the documentary “Particle Fever”. She played a very important part in what was the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the world; no small feat! I was absolutely captivated by her love and passion for physics and for her insatiable desire for finding the elusive Higgs Boson particle, also described as the “god particle”, which potentially explained the origin of all matter.
Monica is an inspiration to all of us. We are excited to have her as part of our series of “Great Women Doing Great Things”. We will continue to follow her career and support her in her future scientific endeavors. Join us in reading this fantastic Q&A we had with Monica and enjoy one of the great scientific minds of our time.
1. Tell us a bit about your career in physics and how you ended up being involved with such important projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the documentary “Particle Fever”?
Well, I certainly never thought I would be a physicist and I never, never thought I would be in a documentary! I really hated physics in school and found it insanely boring. After my first year in college, I was looking for a summer job and the one of the physics professors was advertising for students to help assemble electronics. I fell in love with the work. Specially I like how it is start-of-the-art computing and electronics but the goal of this technology is to answer some of the oldest, fundamental questions about the origins of the universe. Since that summer, I have stayed in physics ever since.
Getting involved in the filming of “Particle Fever” was a similar unexpected experience. Just before the Large Hadron Collider started, there was a lot of media excitement. So camera crews were often in the control room where I was working at the time. When I was asked to interview for a documentary, I thought it was just one more camera crew. Little did I think that we would be filming off and on for more than five years! The documentary team followed more than a dozen people but only six of those people made the ‘final cut’ of the film. The film team had more than 300 hours of footage and it was really hard for them to decide what to keep and what to leave out.
The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory which describes both the fundamental particles that make up our universe and how those particles interact. For example, an atom is made of up of an electron and a proton, but that proton is composed of three ‘quarks’. The quarks and electrons are some of the fundamental particles of the Standard Model. The Standard Model also describes interactions like how charged particles, like the electron, interact via electromagnetism. The lynch pin of this theory though is the Higgs boson. The reason that this particle is so important is that without it none of the other particles would have a mass or weight. But unlike all the other particles in the theory, the Higgs boson had never been experimentally observed. So in order for the Standard Model, which describes so many things like electromagnetism really well, to work at all, it needs the Higgs. But without experimental evidence of the Higgs, a theory is just a theory.
The discovery of the Higgs boson was the last missing piece of the Standard Model. But the most interesting thing, is that we have not found anything else yet. The Standard Model, although it describes some things very well, has big open holes in other places. From astrological measurements, we know that 20% of the universe’s energy density consists of something we call dark matter. We have no idea what that is and the Standard Model (whose particles make up only 5% of the universe’s energy density) has no explanation for this. If you are asking yourself, what about the remaining 75% of the universe, now that, we really don’t know! These are pretty big holes. We had thought when we had an accelerator which could produce the Higgs, we could maybe also produce dark matter. We haven’t seen anything like that yet.
3. Why do you think Stephen Hawking feels this discovery made physics less interesting?
Well, I certainly can’t speak for Stephen. But in my experience, I think the theorist always want a challenge and so proving a theory wrong is much more interesting than showing it is right! Experimentalists and theorists always like to poke fun at each other.
4. What was/is your exact job at CERN? What interesting projects are you currently working on?
I work on one of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider. The ATLAS experiment is almost 5 stories tall and has millions of electronics components. There are two parts to working on such a big experiment. One is building and maintaining the detector itself. For more than five years, this is what I focused on. I helped build and then calibrate one of the calorimeters (derived from the word calorie, the calorimeter is used to estimate the energy of particles produced from a beam collision). The second part is analyzing the data (we have tons of data!) to measure the Standard Model, search for the Higgs, etc. This is what I do now. I am most interested in searching for possible dark matter particles. Not knowing what 20% of the universe is made up of really keeps me up at night!
5. What is the most impressive fact you know about our universe that is absolutely mind blowing?
That anything like galaxies or stars exist at all! At surface value, there is no reason for this. This is another problem with the Standard Model. Our universe is made of matter, not anti-matter. In the early universe both matter and anti-matter existed in equal amounts. But the anti-matter all disappeared, leaving the matter to make up our galaxies. The Standard Model can’t explain how this happened. Again, a problem that keeps me up at night!
6. What are your thoughts on religion and/or god? To you, does god exist?
I get asked this question a lot. I think the media is wrong when reporting that science and god are in conflict. They are not. Scientific methods cannot and were never intended to address religious questions. I never mix in my mind, thoughts of god with questions of science.
7. Are we insignificant?
I certainty don’t think so! Although when thinking about the timescale and size of the universe it is easy to sometimes think that. On the other hand, I never cease to be amazed at the creativity of humanity. Many times at work, I stop and think to myself ‘Wow! We are able to discuss the big questions of the universe.’
8. If the universe is infinite and our lives are finite, what brings you the most happiness and peace? What bothers you and how do you personally deal with problems?
Great question! I love philosophical questions about time. One of my favorite books is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It is a wonderful book on the perceptions of time. For me, happiness and peace comes when time is forgot. When I am living in the moment and by living in that moment appreciating only that moment. I find in today’s high connectivity, fast-paced world that it is easy to allow the quickness of time to stress me out. I find relaxation in nature where everything is in the moment and there is no tomorrow or yesterday. As a result, I am very passionate about environmental issues.
9. How can people follow your work?
My favorite way to follow the newest results from CERN is this blog. It is really fun and all the most exciting news is posted there.
I love LA ISLA’s business policy with its focus on both environmental and social issues. The world needs more businesses with these ethics! I also love the LA ISLA style and quality. It is the perfect match of simplicity and elegance but in a way that it totally unique. The stitching work alone is a work of art.