Mark Lancaster

June-1: In Chicago doing shifts for the CDF experiment.
June-2: In Chicago doing shifts for the CDF experiment.
June-3: In Chicago doing my last of 7 shifts for the CDF experiment.
June-7/8 : Back at UCL in the UK
June-9/13 : In Japan at Muon workshop/COMET meeting

I've got a few more words about this on this blog which I'll use during IAS2010 to archive my inane prattle.

Favourite Thing: Look at data that no one has seen before and measure something or find something out from the data that no one else knows.



St. Marys RC High School, Blackpool, 1978-1985


Keble College, Oxford University, 1985-1988 (MA), 1988-1992 (PhD)

Work History:

Bristol University, Oxford University, DESY (Hamburg, Germany), Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (California, USA), UCL, Quadriga Worldwide PLC, UCL



Current Job:

Professor of Physics

Me and my work

Understanding what happened in the nano-second after the Big Bang and developing new accelerators to treat cancer/generate safe nuclear power


Using particle accelerators I am trying to understand how particles such as the electron acquire mass and why at the start of the universe, in the time taken to make a cup of tea, all the anti-matter mysteriously disappeared which allowed a univese dominated by matter to evolve to create stars, galaxies and ultimately humans. Without understanding why what we are made of has mass, and why matter survived being annihilated by anti-matter in the early universe, then we can have no knowledge of how we came to exist.

We only have speculative theories of what generates mass (e.g The Higgs Mechanism) or what caused all the anti-matter to disappear (Sphalerons and Heavy Neutrinos !); so we need experiments to test these ideas. So far all we have is computer generated data or images such as the one above showing what would happen if  a Higgs Boson were produced at the LHC and then decays (in 0.000000000000000000001 secs)…






I’m also helping (well my PhD student is !)  to develop a new type of particle accelerator that can be used to treat cancer (using protons instead of the usual X-rays) and which can also safely provide neutrons which can be used to get rid of harmful long-lived nuclear waste and which can also be used to power a thorium based nuclear reactor which doesn’t produce any isotopes useful for weapons and which can safely be turned on and off without the potential for it going “critical” and which also produces significantly less harmful nuclear waste than conventional uranium or plutonium reactors. The picture to the left is part of a prototype accelerator at Darsebury Labs in Cheshire which this year will  hopefully demonstrate that a new novel way of particle acceleration is possible.





I was born and educated in the Riviera of the North, Blackpool at St. Marys RC High School and studied physics at university. I didn’t realise I wanted to be a scientist until the third year of my undergraduate studies when I started to learn about particle physics and how it was possible to have a very simple description of nature in terms of a small number of fundamental (ie having no substructure) particles. The simplicity of this (and that I wasn’t very good at “hard physics”) appealed to me and since then I’ve been hooked and have been designing and building experiments and then taking data to try and answer the question: is there a single unified theory that can explain the four fundamental forces of nature (2 nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity). My work has allowed me to live in Germany and the USA and I’m presently involved in an experiment (CDF) at the Tevatron in Chicago.





I’m also trying to get a new experiment (COMET) off the ground in Japan which is seeking to answer why all the anti-matter disappeared at the start of the universe by looking at a very intense beam of muons (heavy electrons) and seeing if any of them spontaneously convert into electrons…








I’ve also been (peripherally) involved in an experiment in Antartica trying to detect the most energetic and distant particles in the universe (ultra high energy neutrinos) which travel across the universe and interact with the Antartic ice producing a radio signal that can be detected by a balloon circling the South Pole with radio antennas attached. Yes it is minus 40 and yes he is wearing shorts…

My Typical Day

There isn’t one … see below

There isn’t really a typical day – each one is different. In any given day I am doing a mix of about 10 things from around 20 things that  I’m generally doing and that gives a lot of variation – there are 184756 ways of picking 10 things from 20 – so that gives me 500 years of different days…at times I wish I was just doing one or two things. What I begin the day intending to do rarely happens since something new comes up on an hourly basis throug the email ether which in generally needs to be dealt with quickly. Here’s the 20 things I’m typically doing:

  1. writing a research proposal (generally asking for money to buy equipment, employ new researchers, pay existing researchers)
  2. analysing data from the CDF experiment (this is almost entirely done in C++ on PCs/laptops). We are trying to measure the mass of the W boson (responsible for the weak nuclear force) to a precision never achieved before.
  3. running meetings and “managing” the electroweak physics group of the CDF experiment
  4. doing shifts for the CDF experiment (that is what I am doing tonight – for the next week I am the “scientific coordinator” for the midnight to 8am shift – hence I am presently at Fermilab just outside Chicago – 90 degrees and humid as hell).
  5. talking to/helping my PhD students, finding out what they have (or not) done and ensuring they are on track and not going AWOL !
  6. writing references for people to get to the next stage in their research career
  7. helping/advising the younger people in my research group write their research proposals
  8. giving lectures to undergraduates at UCL
  9. supervising the project work of final-year undergraduates at UCL (my student this year worked on the COMET experiment)
  10. marking undergraduate work (last week I marked 60 exam scripts)
  11. organising the teaching in UCL physics department (for my sins I am chair of the department’s teaching committee)
  12. managing the research of UCL’s particle physics group. This is mostly ensuring everyone gets paid (!) and juggling money between different research grants  and making sure logistically that everyone can do the research they want to do.
  13. giving talks in local schools about my research
  14. arranging for school children to visit to UCL and occassionally supervising them for “work experience” weeks
  15. preparing for and giving talks at international conferences on my research and writing them up for proceedings (this is what I’m doing this afternoon)
  16. campaigning to get more money into science and justifying to “opinion formers” e.g. politicians, civil-servants, journalists why what we do IS vitally important. A few years back I shadowed a MP for a week in parliament.
  17. ocassionally giving interviews/quotes to newspapers, magazines (New Scientist etc) and making sure what the journalists print is factually correct
  18. interviews for radio or TV (e.g. Horizon, BBC News, BBC Breakfast time)
  19. helping the Institute of Physics prepare material for various reviews, lobbying material. I am member of the IoP teachers committee and high energy physics committee
  20. attending meetings of the STFC research council and reviewing research proposals for them
  21. dealing with inane requests for information which should already be in a database from UCL
  22. interviewing prospective researchers and PhD students for positions in our research group
  23. trying to facilitate funding for overseas PhD students wishing to study at UCL
  24. going to UCL committee meetings to ensure that we run like a well oiled machine
  25. ….

A lot of this work is done by email or in phone meetings or meetings that are video-conferenced so I spend a lot of my day typing furiously into my very fine MacBook Pro.

What I'd do with the money

Organise visits to UCL for school-children so they could do experiments that are beyond GCSE and A-level in our undergradute and research labs.

I’d use the money to produce study packs and pay helpers so that school children could visit UCL and use our undergraduate teaching and research labs to do the types of experiment that they couldn’t do at GCSE or A-Level such that they can experience how “real” science is done i.e. that it doesn’t always go to plan !

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Pragmatic, Cynical, Northern

Who is your favourite singer or band?

New Order/Joy Division

What is the most fun thing you've done?

In the last week – seeing Charlie Adam’s free kick go in at Wembley

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

To be healthy and live to a old age with JB and Stanley; To do less admin and more science; Work less than 60 hours a week

What did you want to be after you left school?

I had no idea when I left school other than to have a good time at University

Were you ever in trouble at school?

No – I was a spod. Well we were often late back to school after lunch after playing snooker – “Spot of Bother With The Pink Lancaster”…

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

Measure the mass of the W boson to a precision never previously achieved and make the first measurement of the gluon a low-x (sorry a bit technical)..

Tell us a joke.

What do you call a tellytubby who has been burgled? A: A tubby.