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Ada Lovelace Day: Pippa Wells

Alexandra Feachem 09:13, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Pippa Wells, project leader on the Atlas Detector Experiment at CERN

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. We've asked Alexandra Feachem, who produces science programmes for Radio 4, to mark the day with a post about a woman in science she admires.

As the Season Producer for the recent Big Bang Day on BBC Radio 4, I spent two years travelling to and from CERN, The European Laboratory for Particle Physics, just outside Geneva, the site of the largest and most ambitious science experiment ever undertaken. Here, deep below the French/Swiss countryside, in a 27km long circular tunnel, lies a monster particle accelerator, that has come to be known as the Big Bang Machine. When fully up and running by the end of this year, the Large Hadron Collider will be smashing tiny subatomic particles together at speeds just shy of the speed of light, and in the process, recreating conditions found at the very dawn of our universe, just a billionth of a second after the big bang. It is in fact the ultimate boy's toy, and, as one would imagine in a place that is the undisputed Mecca for physics and engineering, a first glance around the halls and corridors of CERN does seem to indicate a prolific number of men.

But early on in my visits, I went to see one of the greatest of all the engineering feats at CERN - the ATLAS detector. Here amongst the vast steel construction, endless wires and machinery, and numerous workmen in heavy boots and hard hats, I met Pippa Wells, one of the most senior figures on the ATLAS project. As we stood in the vast cathedral-sized chamber, some 100 metres underground, that houses ATLAS, Pippa stood out instantly, not only for being one of the few females we came across on that day, but also for the enthusiasm and commitment she has shown to a project that she has dedicated the best part of her working life to. Pippa is in fact responsible for one of the most sophisticated and vital parts of ATLAS engineering - the inner detector. Like a huge digital camera, this device will be photographing and recording the big bangs, as they happen, some 40 million times per second, and in the process, will help reveal what the earliest moments of our universe may have looked like.

You can see how, as a young physics student in the mid 80s, Pippa was first drawn to the work at CERN. But it has been a real labour of love - having been some 20 years in the making and with many ups and downs along the way. But as Pippa told me, the potential of this work to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe makes it irresistible. It has also offered her a unique learning experience, not just scientifically and technically, but also culturally, working as she does with people from more than 35 different countries, who have also come to CERN with the same ambition and drive to learn more about the world in which we live. I should also point out, that in between tackling some of the most difficult questions posed by humanity - Pippa has also managed to squeeze in 3 children, including twins. She is the ultimate multi-tasker. I asked her if entering such a male dominated field had ever put her off taking up physics as a career? She told me, "I have always been fascinated by particle physics because of what it can tell us about how the universe works. I was fully aware that science in general is male dominated. That didn't put me off, because I was sure I had just as much right to study physics as anyone else."

The physics and ambition of the experiment at CERN is pretty awe inspiring stuff, but as I discovered when I met Pippa and her colleagues, so are the people that work there.

Picture from Atlas e-News.


  • Comment number 1.

    I always think that there might be a close connection between particle physics and playing the violin, Alexandra, in the sense that sub-atomic particles may ultimately turn out to be more like strings.

  • Comment number 2.

    I thought the Woman’s Hour coverage of ‘Big Bang Day’ portrayed a most distorted and unrealistic tapestry of physicists’ lives. Where are physics graduates – Ph.D or no Ph.D – supposed to work when the large companies that used to support in–house R&D have all disappeared or been gobbled up by predatory US corporations – who then dispatch all the R&D and intellectual property off to China (that happened to me)?

    The follow-up feature on ‘Weekend Woman’s Hour’ interviewed a female Ph.D medical physicist. IMO this highlighted the loathing that R4 has for the world of manufacturing and people who can actually make things.

    I’d recommend reading up on the life of the late Prof. Edith Clarke (1) for any women interested in the world of heavy electrical power engineering or symmetrical components. R4 listeners who are musical can sing the late George Dixon’s ‘Hob Shoe Hob’ whilst building their alternator :) :) :)



  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks for your comment @Lawrence Jones. I notice that Christina, one of 753 (so far) other contributors to Ada Lovelace Day, has written about Edith Clarke here: https://www.ludost.org/node/59. Not in detail but as part of a fascinating list of ten 'pioneering women of computer science'


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