By Margaret Harris
When particle physicist Jon Butterworth and cosmologist Pedro Ferreira took the stage last night at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, they did so as representatives of the two pillars of modern physics. Butterworth, a leading member of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, spoke about the discovery of the Higgs boson and the effort to understand the nature of matter on the quantum level. Ferreira, a theorist at the University of Oxford, focused on Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which describes the behaviour of colossal objects such as galaxies and black holes.
The equations of quantum mechanics and general relativity are famously incompatible, but far from starting a Harry Hill-style confrontation (“FIIIIGHT!”), the advocates of the two theories shared the stage amiably, fielding questions from audience members and talking about their respective new books (Smashing Physics for Butterworth, The Perfect Theory for Ferreira). You can hear Ferreira and Butterworth’s responses to some common (and not-so-common) questions in the clips below.
As the event’s moderator, I got to chat with both speakers beforehand, and in the process I learned something startling. I’d never met Butterworth before, but back in 2009, I reviewed a series of short documentary films called Colliding Particles that featured Butterworth and some of his students. I liked the films and thought they gave viewers a good idea of what it was like to work at CERN, but there was, I noted, “relatively little physics” in them.
Butterworth decided this was a fair point, and he wrote his first ever blog post in response. (Update: He’s also written a post about the Festival of Ideas event.) Less than a year later, his new-found talent as a blogger earned his Life and Physics blog a spot on the Guardian‘s network, and the book deal followed from that. So in a rather roundabout way, my little review was the catalyst for an entire book – one in which, Butterworth says, he tried to balance the gossipy, my-life-as-a-scientist stuff with an in-depth look at the physics of hunting the Higgs boson.