What Is A Particle?

If you’re going to name your podcast ‘Particle’, it’s probably a good idea to start by figuring out what a particle actually is – so that’s exactly what we did!

For our first episode, we’re chatting with Dr Ben McAllister, from the ARC Centre For Excellence in Engineered Quantum Systems at UWA (EQuS is fine for short). Ben works with particle detectors, and spends his time in a basement under the physics building looking for dark matter. We talked about making a Fringe show, what makes physics so cool, and what it’s like to research the one of the biggest mysteries in the universe.

The Particle Podcast is hosted by Rose Kerr (@rosie.zkerr) and you can find more of Ben at @drbtmcallister on Twitter and @CurioNetwork on Instagram.



What is a particle?

  • Host: Rose Kerr
  • Guest: Dr Ben McAllister

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Rose – Welcome to the Particle Podcast, where we talk about science and the people who just love it.


Rose – I’m Rose, and as a botanist, I’ve spent much more time looking at the ground than up at the stars.
So today, I’m thrilled to be joined by Dr Ben McAllister. Ben is an enthusiastic physicist and teller of Science Stories. We had a chat about Space, which I think is pretty out of this world!

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Rose – Welcome to the Podcast, Ben.

Dr McAllister – Thank you so much for having me.

Rose – So to start off with, this is the first question we always ask.

Dr McAllister – Okay

Rose – What do you actually do?!

Dr McAllister – Oh, wow, what a loaded question.

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – So, I am a scientist. Specifically, I am a physicist. Slightly more specifically I am a particle physicist, I guess.

Rose – how appropriate (laughs).

Dr McAllister – Um, Yeah, I know right.

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – It’s always, yeah anytime I hear from you guys I’m like nice! Good name for a-for an outlet. Yes, so specifically I work in Dark Matter.

So, for those of you who don’t know, I guess we’ll get into it a bit more. Dark Matter is this mysterious invisible stuff that makes up about 5/6th of all the matter in the universe, ah its huge, its everywhere. Its passing right through your body right now as you are listening to this. Its passing right through the studio, but we don’t really know what it is.

So, ah we built detectors in the lab on earth to try and observe it as it passes through, so that we can get a better understanding of what it is. And that’s what I do.

Rose – How does it feel to work, with something that we don’t completely understand yet?

Dr McAllister – Yeah, I mean good and, also um, kind of terrifying, right.
Because it’s like, you could spend a lot of time working on something that just turns out to not be true. And then you spend a lot of time working on like, you know all the, all of the science you have done is fine and it’s correct for the set of assumptions you started with.

But then like those assumptions turn out to be wrong because we don’t know really what the dark matter is and then like, yeah. Is that a waste of time?

Like if you ask me, it’s-it’s not, because you know, arguably, the only way we discover anything is by kind of stumbling around in the dark for a while and like if you stumble around in this direction and you don’t find something, then people know in future that they don’t have to go over there, as long as you do it properly.

So, from that perspective, it, it feels good to be doing it. I mean it’s like we talk about as like we’re ruling things out. You know we’re all pursuing different, different avenues towards finding out what the Dark Matter is. And like if were going down this direction and we don’t find anything then at least like we can kind of rule that direction out and-and go somewhere else.

Rose – But surely with something like Dark Matter, we understand, it like, it could be, it could be so many possibilities, so the list…

Dr McAllister – Yeah.

Rose – ..of things to test out is almost infinite.

Dr McAllister – Well yes, but that being said. There are some things better than others to go looking for which come from like where, there, we call it like motivation as far as the theory is concerned.

So, um I guess just jumping right into it, Dark Matter, stuff we know about it, right.

Like, we start off with what we know and then we build kind of theories that could explain the things that we know, and we look for the theories that are like most well supported by other aspects of physics and then we kind of pursue those things. So, it’s not like we are just being like, ‘Oh, it’s dark matter, so what if it was (fart noise – with mouth), this random thing’ and then like looking for it.

It comes from like, taking what you know and then kind of making the fewest kind of logical steps that you have to in order to, to describe it. So, the things we know about Dark Matter, it has mass, which means it is heavy, in the sense that it interacts with gravity. In fact, that’s the only way we really know about it at all is from looking at the way it interacts with other stuff that we can see in space.

So, we can see like, things moving around in space, in ways that we wouldn’t be able to explain if the only stuff providing gravity was the stuff we can see. So like stars moving around or even like galaxies within clusters, whatever, we see evidence of Dark Matter based on its gravitational pull. So, we’re pretty sure well we-we know it at least has mass or at least has gravity.

Um, we also know it doesn’t interact with Light at all because we can’t see it, it’s Dark Matter. It doesn’t reflect light; it doesn’t give off light ah so, you kind of can take those 2 ingredients and you can throw them into like a pot and then you can kind of go like ok, what areas of physics propose the existence of particles that might have those properties?

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Rose – Just to jump in: on a very appropriate definition today a particle is a very-very small piece of matter, so when we are talking about it, we are basically just talking about tiny, tiny, tiny, little things.

**Cue music

Dr McAllister – and based on like which sort of proposed hypothetical particles are the most theoretically well motivated, you can kind of pursue those avenues.

Rose – Wow! So really, like everything you’ve just said comes down to you having a deep understanding of physics. So, I’m going to go way back.

Dr McAllister – Sure

Rose – When you were a kid, were you also a science nerd?

Dr McAllister – Um, yeah. I mean I would say probably, like broadly speaking. I mean I spent a lot of time wanting to be an actor, or a writer, or a journalist, or something. So, I’ve definitely kind of got a bit of an interest in that. But like yeah, I mean I’ve always been interested in maths and science in school.

I would love to say I’m one of those people who like was like, oh from you know whatever I knew I was going to be a physicist. But that’s, that’s not really true, like when I was at Uni I was studying engineering and physics, and I was like I’m probably going to be an engineer. Like I’ll you know, go get some kind of mechanical engineering job doing something a rather.

And, I was just kind of doing that, and then I finished undergrad and I had the option of going for like a Masters of Engineering or going into like physics research. And I was just like the physics research is just way more interesting.

Rose – Yeah.

Dr McAllister – Um, which is always interesting to me. I guess I should say, a lot more interesting to me that the mechanical engineering I was doing was, so I just kind of told myself I’ll go do Honors in physics and stick with the physics part for a while. But then I’ll probably go back and do the Masters in Engineering. And then I started like Physics Honors and just never looked back.

Rose – Wow!

Dr McAllister – Yeah.

Rose – Do you remember what it was about physics, like the moment where you were like, aw, ok, no, I’m stuck here I really enjoy this?

Dr McAllister – Yeah, I don’t know, I mean there’d be a few things. I mean I can trace it back like a little bit, like when I was in high school, I definitely had like a great physics teacher. She was like a PHD. She had done like a little bit of work in Physics research and then she moved into teaching. And really, she was fantastic. And so that was like a big motivator for me studying it at university for sure.

Ah, a little bit earlier than that, we had this really cool outreach program from um, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. They are a radio astronomy group in Perth. Ah, well based in Perth, but they like kind of like an international thing. Um, they came in and did some like after school stuff at my school. And like, that kind of like got me interested in like the astrophysics side of things.

But then like what made me want to stay in it? I think it was this research internship that I did in between, right after like finishing undergrad, so like I’d just finished my bachelors, with like a Majors in Engineering and, also, physics. And I was like off doing this summer research internship in China, working –

Rose – Wow!

Dr McAllister – in this research facility. And I was just like that was so cool, that I was like, I want to go back and do more of this.

Rose – That’s really, really, cool! What was it like studying in China?

Dr McAllister – Um, different.

Rose – Yeah!

Dr McAllister – Yeah. Interesting, yeah, I mean I would say. Like they, they definitely like, I will say like we got like, being like from Australia, we got some special treatment. I’d expect. Like we were like undergraduate students there for the summer, we had like offices. Whereas, there were a lot (laughing) of like PHD students and stuff working there who were like in big group offices.

Rose – Yeah, ok. (Laughs)

Dr McAllister – So, we definitely got the like visitor red carpet treatment, ah, to a degree. But no, it was, it was cool.

Rose – Do you think there’s value in studying science overseas?

Dr McAllister – Yeah, I mean, definitely. Like science is an international endeavor, for sure. The laws of Physics are the same here as they are in China. So …

Rose – That helps.

Dr McAllister – It’s um …

Rose – It definitely helps.

Dr McAllister – Yeah, yeah, definitely. No, I think it’s, I mean if you want to work in science you’re going to have a hard time doing it, if you are insular. Like the scientific community is, is relatively connected throughout. Yeah.

Rose – And sometimes you have to share information …

Dr McAllister – Yeah definitely.

Rose – … with stuff that you do especially, because it is so niche, I guess it probably helps to collaborate with other people.

Dr McAllister – In some senses its niche and in some senses it’s the biggest problem facing the world of physics today (laughs).

Rose – (laughs) Yeah, this is very true.

Dr McAllister – So, ah, yeah. No totally, I mean we do have a lot of good collaborations, it’s definitely groups from all over the world who are interested in Dark Matter pursuing different theories and stuff.

Rose – The thing with physics, when I picture physics, I think about what I did in high school. So, I think about equations, I think about gravity and I think about it kind of explaining how the world works and the stuff you can’t see. If say you go to uni and you do physics …

Dr McAllister – Uh huh …

Rose – … for example, what are the kinds of different things that you can kind of branch out into after that?

Dr McAllister – Right, ok. Well with a physics undergrad the way the university structure, at least in this country, seems to work at the moment. You can pretty much do whatever (chuckles) and you’re going to have like, high value critical thinking skills, and analytical skills.

I know I remember, relatively clearly, after finishing Honors, myself and the rest of my physics Honors co-hort like you start getting emails from like, finance company recruiters, being like ‘hey, are you interested in our grad program because the economic grads don’t know enough maths to do the modelling’ (laughs).

Rose – Wow!

Dr McAllister – So, yeah, I mean that’s um, that’s relatively common. Like there’s a lot of people who finish either undergraduate or even graduate degrees in physics and go work in like analyst jobs, either in finance or some other sector because the, again the analytical skills, the mathematical modelling skills, the data analyst skills, that you have to learn to do physics are sort of highly sort after in a lot of areas.

Um, people become, people go work in defence, that’s another relatively common one in different ways. People will go and work like, in actual like um, cyber security defence type stuff. Like signals analysis, but people also go work in defence consultancy, so you know, ‘here’s an intelligence report about what we know about the state of um, the nuclear program in Iran’. Tell me about it, kind of thing right. That’s some of the pathways people go down.

You could also go into research, you could also take that physics undergrad and go do a grad study in like any other field. Right

Rose – Yeah.

Dr McAllister – But, that’s that’s kind of true of any undergrad these days.

Rose – That’s very true, you can seem to. It seems like people are able to broaden into just about anything. But for you, you decided to keep going with physics, you did Honors. So, what is your current project, if you had to sum it up in like …

Dr McAllister – A few sentences?

Rose – Yeah.

Dr McAllister – So, ah my current work is the same work I was doing during my PhD. Which is this thing called ORGAN. Which stands for, let me give you this, and then I promise I’ll tell you what it means.

Rose – Laughs

Dr McAllister – It’s the Oscillating, Resonant, Group, Axion experiment. So, the …

Rose – Wow!

Dr McAllister – The ORGAN experiment is what we call it. It’s a horrible back-ronym, which is extremely common in physics, especially particle physics, people love to give things an acronym first and tell you what it means later.

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – There was a bit of a sort of a race to the bottom, with this, in ah specifically, the Dark Matter community, I worked in recently. Where you had acronyms coming out like, MADMAX and ABRACADABRA, like the guys that came up with ABRACADABRA they were very much like …

Rose – That’s so cute.

Dr McAllister – Here’s an acronym, now let massage some words to fit it. Completely, but anyway, um. Axion Dark Matter. So, ah, we talked before about how we know about dark matter, from gravitational observations a little bit and how we have different theories about what it might be. One of the most popular theories, and if you ask me the best one …

Rose – Hmmm?

Dr McAllister – … is that it’s made up of these particles made up of ‘axions’. Which are theoretical particles that are motivated by like a completely different area of physics. And if axions exist and axions are the Dark Matter, and they’re passing through this room and our bodies right now. The theory tells us that they should have a certain, a very weak interactions with other kinds of stuff that we can see and can interact with.

Notably, these particles are called ‘photons’, which are actually the particles of light. So, the light in the room that you are in right now, or if you are outside, the light from the sun. What that light actually is on a very, very small scale, is many, many, many, many photons, these little particles of light so the theory tells us that axions should interact with photons.

The interaction occurs when like, an axion interacts with a magnetic field, it will turn into a photon. Or some, some small amount of axions inside a magnetic field, will turn into a photon. So, ah what we do is, we get a big strong magnet, we turn it on in our lab, we assume there’s a flux of axions moving through that magnet, and some small percentage of them are going to convert into photons inside the magnet.

And the thing that’s nice about that is, we as a species are, really, really good at detecting photons, in fact it’s the thing that we’ve gotten like by far best at, ah as far as physics is concerned. And, so we can take something we have no chance in detecting, in the form of Dark Matter and convert it into something we are great at detecting, in the form of axions.

Now, I’m being reductive, there are a lot of engineering challenges that are associated with this, um, there are a lot of reasons that it is actually very hard to detect those photons, but that’s the basic idea. So, we built a detector for those photons, that we, that those little flashes of light if you like, that we expect to be generated when axion Dark Matter passes through the magnet.

Rose – Gosh! That is, one of the most complicated, heavy topics that I’ve ever heard. Its great!

Dr McAllister – (laughs) ah, it’s definitely, ah, not as complex as some that I run up against ah, travelling around at conferences and stuff. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff. But, yeah, it’s interesting.

Rose – So here’s a challenge for you …

Dr McAllister – Mm hm.

Rose – I know you like science communications …

Dr McAllister – Yeah!

Rose – That’s something we’re going to talk about a little later.

Dr McAllister – Oh.

Rose – How would you explain what you do to a kid who’s maybe like, let’s say they’re about 8 years old. How would you explain what you do for work?

Dr McAllister – How long have I got? (laughs).

Rose – Aww. I don’t know, let’s say about a minute or so. How would you explain it?

Dr McAllister – Ok, ah, we are looking for stuff that we can’t see but we know is there. So, we know from looking out in space, that there’s lots of invisible stuff passing through the earth at all times but we don’t know what it is.

We know there’s a ton of it and we think it’s pretty important to figure out what it is. So, because its passing through the earth, its passing through a room where you could build like a detector, or an experiment and we basically do that. We build like a box, to try and observe the stuff as it passes through, so we can figure out what it is.

Rose – That’s great!

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Rose – I’m thinking about the fact that today, you’ve come along its quite late in the afternoon,

Dr McAllister – Uhm…

Rose – You’ve been at the lab all day. You’ve been at work all day.

Dr McAllister – Yeah, I have.

Rose – What does a typical day look like for a physicist like you?

Dr McAllister – Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, it looks really different from day to day, which is one of the things I love about this job.

So sometimes you’ll be very hands on, working on an experiment. Like ah, putting, like in a very mechanical sense, like putting screws into things. Like putting something together, taking something apart. Ah, inserting new components that have been ah, manufactured in the workshop down the hall, and stuff like that. That will be like a pretty typical day.

Sometimes it’ll be maintenance on an experiment that’s currently operating, so, like there’s a lot of stuff, once you’ve bolted your experiment together and its running, you have to do a lot of stuff to the outside parts to kind of keep it running. Sometimes you’ll do a lot of that.

Sometimes you’ll be reading papers because there will be like a new discovery in the field and you want to read up on it.

Sometimes you’ll be analysing data that you took from other experiments. Sometimes you’ll be kind of proposing new experiments, like sitting there and thinking, and like sort of sketching out like, how sensitive a given experiment you might propose might be, and whether it’s worth doing and stuff.

Um, and sometimes you’ll be doing like modelling, like computational modelling of the experiments to see whether they are going to be any good. So, lots of different stuff.

Rose – Yeah. No kidding. At least that keeps your day a bit fresh!

Dr McAllister – Yeah!

Rose – Do you ever get intimidated by the size of the work, the fact that you could be doing these experiments, and you know ticking off that check list, finding out stuff about Dark Matter or finding out new things. Do you ever get intimidated by, how long it could take you to find answers?

Dr McAllister – So, yes, there is definitely like a-a, kind of um, you need a certain mindset going into it. Which is like, you-you know when you are going into something like this, where your probing around in the dark looking for an answer to like a huge question like this, that you may literary never find it. Um, and you just kind of have to-to make your peace with that.

In terms of like how people feel about that in general in the field, I will tell an anecdote of my experience working with some other people, who I won’t name, who work in similar stuff on like a large-scale experiment. And there’s kind of like two generations of researchers working on this experiment. There’s the older group that have been like working on it for like you know a couple of decades, and they are kind of like the senior professors at this point. And then there’s the younger group of people, like early career researchers like me who work on it.

And when you talk to the like earlier career researchers, there’s this prevailing kind of perspective, of like you see something, like you know, you get false positive detections all the time, like you see something, and the immediate assumption is that it’s a false positive.

Rose – Oh.

Dr McAllister – Like, everything that you see, you’re like, oh, ugh, now we got to figure out where this is coming from …

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – so we can rule it out and move on. Whereas, like when, the senior professors are down in the lab and they see they are like, *gasp* we could have done it, this could be it!

Rose – Aw.

Dr McAllister – (laughs) Like, they get really excited kind of thing. And like of course like, either way, you go through the due diligence process of trying to determine if it’s a real thing or not. But it’s just like a different mindset of one seeing one, which is kind of interesting. Inter generational.

Rose – I imagine there are quite a lot. Like, ah,I could see how the desire to find out more could really propel you through a long career in physics.

Dr McAllister – Hmmm

Rose – So, I imagine there’s quite a big range of people who have been studying it for a really long time, and fresh physicist coming straight out of Uni.

Dr McAllister – Yeah, no for sure um, you’ve got to stay curious.
There’s more physics now, than there’s ever been in the past. I mean like, 150 years ago, like what you learnt in high school physics, if you did year 12 physics, was kind of like all the physics anybody knew.

Rose – Yeah.

Dr McAllister – And, like that’s definitely no longer the case. And getting a PhD in physics at the moment, doesn’t mean you know everything about physics. Like there are, like not even like, close, like there are entire fields of physics, that people will have done PhD’s in, that I would know like literally nothing about because it’s so broad now you can’t know everything. And so, you’ve got to stay curious.

Like you finish your PhD in a usually like very niche specialised area and then you kind of just like start broadening out. And if you want to have a long career, you’ve got to kind of be like, oh like, where can I kind of take these skills that I learnt in this area and apply them to kind of tangential areas and start kind of broadening your knowledge.

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Rose – This is a tricky question, because …

Dr McAllister – Go on.

Rose – I definitely can see the value in science. Almost all science because I love …

Dr McAllister – Yeah!

Rose – being curious and finding things out. But for the average person: why should and should people care about physics?

Dr McAllister – Ok, so there’s two kinds of answers to that question. Um, firstly, are we talking about physics more broadly or are we talking specifically about Dark Matter?

Rose – Lets go Dark Matter.

Dr McAllister – OK. Well, yeah two kinds of answers. One of them is a kind of more philosophical one.
Which is along the lines of, its within our fundamental human nature to explore. I mean, it’s the only reason that the world is as connected as it is today. Which, you know depending on your perspective, that may or may not be a good thing.

But, um, it’s you know, it’s certainly, a fundamental aspect of human nature to look at the unknown and try and figure out more. It’s just like what we do.

Um, and you know, this is like in some sense, it’s like the biggest blank spot on the map if you like. Because like we’ve learned over the several hundreds of years, like a lot of detail about things that make up people and planets and stars, like the fundamental particles inside atoms, quarks and electrons, stuff like that.

Like if you zoom in on your arms, you see cells, you zoom in on those cells and you see molecules, you zoom in on those molecules and you see atoms, and inside the atoms, you’ve got like quarks and electrons and stuff making them up. And, like, that’s the same stuff that makes up like the planets and the sun and everything.

And we know a lot about that stuff but, we also know now, that’s like 1/6th of the stuff,

Rose – Wow.

Dr McAllister – So, it’s actually much less than that, it’s actually more like 1/20th of the stuff, but that’s a whole different thing. I’ll come back to that in a minute (laughs).

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – It’s 1/6th of all the matter, that stuff that makes up like people and planets and stars. So, like in some sense, it’s just like how can we not need to know more about like what all this other stuff is.

Which leads me to the slightly more practical, tangible answer about why people should care.

Which is like, when you look at every major achievement, technologically speaking in human history. It comes from poking around in the dark pulling on the threads that we don’t know where they are going and seeing what falls out.

Like, if we only ask questions that we already know the answer to we’ll never discover anything. If we didn’t look at like the big outstanding questions, and go like, oh, what’s that? We would never had discovered electricity; we would never have like computers; we would never have (chuckles) like radio wave communication or anything like that that powers like every aspect of our life today.

We need to, to go poking around in the dark, to learn anything new and to me, when you consider what we’ve achieved as a species with a knowledge of just 1/6th of all the matter, the idea to me that we shouldn’t even be bothering worrying about the remaining of the 1/6th is like patently observed (laughs).

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – But that’s you know, that’s just my perspective of the issue. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. Do you want me to go on?

Rose – Ah, no. I liked that a lot actually, I liked the idea that it’s if this is what we’ve achieved from knowing this much, imaging how much more we could get. I think that kind of puts it in a perspective from maybe a subject people who at school are studying and found it a bit scary and intimidating, I know I did, to what it actually means in the real world which is pretty cool.

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Rose – You are quite involved in science communication.

Dr McAllister – I try.

Rose – And you obviously quite enjoy talking about what you are studying and sharing that with other people, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be here today.

Dr McAllister – Yeah!

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – I didn’t just come here to do you a favour.

Rose – (laughs). Uh so I wanted to ask. How did you find yourself in the science communication space?

Dr McAllister – Ah, well that’s a great question. I, I think, probably, I mean I kind of mentioned earlier, like in my younger life I had a bit of interest in like being an actor or a writer, or something. So, I’ve always had like a bit of an artistic interested I suppose. And I just found that like, the combination of those interest’s kind of put me in a unique spot to talk about the physics.

I mean I don’t want to like paint with a broad brush here, because I think like, physicists in particular do get painted with a broad brush a lot of the time, ah, in terms of their communication skills. And I know a lot of who great, and like very, like great to speak to and great to hear talk about their work. I mean we know a lot of famous physicists, right, like your, Carl Sagan’s, Neil DeGrasse Tysons, Brian Cox, etcetera and so forth.

Um but, you’d be lying, if you denied the fact that there is a communication barrier in physics as a field. And so being someone who like has a interest in doing that kind of thing, I feel like you almost have kind of a duty to do that kind of thing. And I feel like the public, kind of has a right to, to know and try and understand the work that’s being done largely with the tax money, if they are interested in learning that stuff.

Then yeah, I think it’s great. I also think it’s, um, extremely valuable, I mean you obviously share this opinion, you’ve got to like get people interested in and inspired by the science. It’s important as a society, that everyone kind of feels like it’s a-a good thing to be doing, because, otherwise like there won’t be public support for it and then it won’t be happening.

Rose – Do you remember what your first, I guess, steps in science communication were? Like the first things you kind of participated in.

Dr McAllister – Yeah, that’s a good question. I think um probably like a three-minute thesis competition. Probably yeah, some time earlier in my PhD like a yeah sorry three-minute thesis, if you are not familiar, it’s this international competition where uh typically PhD students and sometimes other kind of graduate research students are given three minutes and one single slide to like present their entire thesis.

And it’s this like international phenomenon, blah, blah, blah, lots of different groups around the world do their own version of it at different times. And yeah, I think probably participating in stuff like that. Yeah, at every opportunity that I could get.

Rose – Is it scary talking about what you study in front of such a big audience. Because I know that you’ve also done TED-X in Perth.

Dr McAllister – Yep

Rose – I do do my research, I am …

Dr McAllister – Oh, fantastic!

Rose – …a journalist by trade! Um …

Rose and Dr McAllister – (laugh).

Rose – Is it kind of scary?

Dr McAllister – Ah look, I mean yes, and no, you get used to it. I did a lot, I did a lot of theatre in school and then also through university. And like, I’ve been on a couple of stages now, it is definitely, like a-a skill to learn, like anything else. I don’t get much stage fright these days. There’s definitely, like a rush of adrenaline before you go on, like, absolutely, that’s undeniable. But, yeah, it’s not, it’s not too bad.

Rose – It’s so interesting that you’ve got, a theatre background as well because, a lot of the science communicators I know, myself included, we’ve always enjoyed drama at school.

Dr McAllister – Hmmm.

Rose – Like, it seems to be a thing,

Dr McAllister – Yeah.

Rose –Where people have done both science and drama.

Dr McAllister – Just like attention hogs.

Rose – Yeah probably.

Dr McAllister and Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – Just like, got to get on stage, got to have a mic. Yeah.

Rose – I think as a kid, you can participate in lots of different things and not make the connection that those could work together in a future career.

Dr McAllister – Mmm.

Rose – So, I never pictured working in, enjoying theatre and enjoying science and being able to connect the two …

Dr McAllister – Mm hmm.

Rose – … and do something like podcasting.

Dr McAllister – Yeah.

Rose – Or communicating science.

Dr McAllister – Totally

Rose – Its, one of those things where, I don’t know, sometimes people feel bad that they don’t work in what they originally studied.

Dr McAllister – Mm hmm.

Rose – But I think that those skills can translate no matter what you end up working in.

Dr McAllister – Absolutely.

Rose – I came across your name because you are doing a fringe show in Perth.

Dr McAllister – Yes, that’s right.

Rose – Which unfortunately, because of the nature of the podcast …

Dr McAllister – Is over (laughs).

Rose – It’s well and truly over. But, tell me a little bit more about how you turned science communication into a Fringe show.

Dr McAllister – Ah, yeah great, so people who are listening to this right now would be familiar about the concept of a podcast.

Rose – Yes.

Dr McAllister – Um …

Rose – Otherwise your mind is blown at this point (laughs).

Dr McAllister – Yeah, you’re like, ‘what am I hearing?!’ (laughs).

Rose – This isn’t music! (laughs).

Dr McAllister – Yeah, this isn’t even the radio (laughs). Ah, yeah, so I made a couple of podcasts. Ah and, I’ve kind of always been interesting in making like a science communication podcast, a science podcast and then I was at this um like science communication competition, this thing called Fame Lab. It’s quite similar to three-minute thesis, if you ask them they actually came first and three-minute thesis ripped off their ah, concept. But anyway…

Rose – Oh, drama!

Dr McAllister – Yeah, a bit of drama. Anyway so, I was at the ah the national final for that and I met this other researcher from Queensland, which she’s actually from the states but she was, ah, doing her PhD in Queensland at the time in Marine Biology. And, I thought that her presentation was really great and I was looking to like start up this science podcast. And I just like kind of grabbed her and I was like, ‘hey, do you want to do this thing with me’ and she was really keen.

And so we started kicking around like, conceptually what it would be. At the same time I was kind of like doing fringe shows and other stuff with my like, more theatrey friends, on the other kind of side of my life. And then I was like, ‘hey, we haven’t actually launched this podcast yet, what if we did it live at Fringe?’

And, Taryn, the other scientist, was really into it, and so we were like yeah great! And we just put it together. And it’s just like a live podcast. We sit there, we do basically what we are doing now, ah, perhaps in a slightly more performative way. I don’t know. I guess like, it really is people talking but the nature of like having a live audience there makes you kind of ah, I don’t know come-come alive little bit more maybe. Ah, but yeah, no, we, we talk about we, we say, our politics, history and culture through the lens of science.

Rose – Great!

Dr McAllister – Rather than just doing like a science lecture.

Rose – Well that’s the thing right, you can apply science to pretty much anything. I personally love pop culture. Super into things like reality TV and music and all sorts of things. And you kind of can start dissecting them into a scientific way if you try hard enough.

Dr McAllister – yeah, I mean especially like, a lot of the episodes of um, The Uncertainty Principal which is the name of that show ah, I will typically start with like um like a history thing almost. Like, I will always, just be like, I feel like that’s a really interesting way to draw people in.

Like, the history of this particular scientific field; Where did it come from? How did we learn about it for instance, the existence of Dark Matter. How did we get to where we are today? Then you’re not really talking about like the hard science of it, but you’re still talking about the science. And like, you can do the same thing in politics, a lot of the time, like what’s going on with say nuclear energy right now, politically. And like, what are the laws on it, etcetera and so forth.

I find it’s a great way to kind of communicate the science in a way that, people who don’t have a hard science background can grab onto.

Rose – Yeah, for sure. Some of the best scientific conversations I’ve ever had are with people who haven’t studied it, they are just interested. I think that’s the power of you know, opening conversations.

**Cue Music (New segment)

Rose – I want to take a complete side step for a minute. You obviously do your, study and your work in WA.

Dr McAllister – Uh-huh.

Rose – Do you think it’s a good place to work in science?

Dr McAllister – Yes, I do. I think it depends like, what kind of science you want to work in. I won’t pretend to speak for all fields

Rose – Yeah.

Dr McAllister – Because I don’t really know what the state of Western Australian science is like in, let’s say, chemistry or biology or whatever.

But ah, at least in physics at the moment, we’re doing pretty well. I mean we’ve got, as I’ve mentioned before ICRAR, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research who are very heavily involved in the Square Kilometre Array that’s currently under construction, which is the biggest telescope ever constructed by human beings.

Rose – Amazing!

Dr McAllister – Which is being you know, produced mostly in Western Australia and a little bit of it in South Africa as well. So, like if you are interested in the astro side of things, it’s absolutely going to be the place to be in sort of, the next couple of generations. Um, at the same time, on the like lab physics front ah, we are like at least at the University of Western Australia where I work we have um nodes of these things called ARC Centres of Excellence, which are like the sort of the top level government funding ah for like various different things related to physics.

There’s the one that I primarily work for which is called EQUIS, ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineering of Quantum Systems, and this brand new one which just started this year which is called the ARC Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics. Which is kind of what I am transitioning to working in.

And um like yeah, I mean like we’ve got quite a good research community here working on those topics. And like, were bizarrely well funded for a physics lab in Australia I must say ah and around the world. So, yeah, I think it’s great.

**Cue music (new segment)

Rose – What are some of the misconceptions about physicists?

Dr McAllister – Ok, great. I think the first one is that physicists like sit in front of computers all day. Or like, sit around like typing or scribbling all day. There is sometimes bits of that in the job. But, again as we have already discussed, one of the things I love about it is how variable it is, how much it gets you out and around, you get to travel a lot. Yeah, so that’s, that’s certainly one of them.

Another misconception, I would say, is that physicists are like the characters that you see on The Big Bang Theory. Again, like in every ah, profession, you’ve got a percentage of those people, they do exist. No question about that but yeah I mean, if you go hang out in a physics department you’ll meet all kinds of people.

Rose – And I guess going on from that, what do you wish people just knew? About either what you study or about physics and your work in general. Either way.

Dr McAllister – We aren’t just studying like niche things that are of interest to us for the sake of our interest. A lot of the time it kind of looks that way, and that is a lot of like the-the mechanical day to day about how and what you choose to study. But the reason it’s interesting to us is because it’s like a big unknown question and, we know, we can see it throughout history, whenever we start unravelling these big unknown questions; that’s when we have massive technological leaps forward. Like, we aren’t just studying them for interest. They are interesting for sure, but we are also studying them because like, it will change our understanding of the universe.

**Cue music (new segment)

Rose – Ok so, I asked some of ah, our co-workers at Particle …

Dr McAllister – Great.

Rose – … what kind of questions, they would like to ask a physicist?

Dr McAllister – Fantastic!

Rose – So, feel free to say that you can’t answer these.

Dr McAllister – No, I’ll do my best.

Rose – But also, ah, what is a wormhole?

Dr McAllister – Ok ah, wormhole is a thing that comes from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, so the Theory of General Relativity is the theory of gravity that was proposed by Einstein, something like a hundred years ago.

Rose – With the apple falling from the tree kind of deal.

Dr McAllister – No, that was Isaac Newton.

Rose – Oh my goodness.

Dr McAllister – That was yeah, hundreds of years earlier. Um, general relativity is the theory that replaced Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravity.

Rose – Ok.

Dr McAllister – So, like, general relativity, is this analogy that you may have heard, is the idea that like all of space and time is like a rubber sheet, and any thing that has any mass creates like dense in that sheet. And, so you can like distort the fabric of space and time with things that are heavy.

And so, this is where um, stuff like black holes can be predicted, like things that are like so dense, that you imagine creating like this huge well in that rubber sheet …

Rose – Yes.

Dr McAllister – … that nothing can escape from. Also, if you’ve also seen that movie Interstellar, the other consequence of that like, a space of sub-type gravity, is that it also distorts the passage of time.

So, like when you are in a very high gravitational well like time flows, you know faster or slower, relative to somebody who’s not. So, that’s the Theory of General Relativity, it’s this theory that like, all this space in time this interconnected fabric that’s distorted by the distribution of mass and energy and all observations of gravity, like the apple falling ah down towards the earth are all just a consequence of the fact that everything lives on that rubber sheet and the mass distorts the sheet and so things like roll. You know, down the …

Rose – Oh, I like that.

Dr McAllister – … down the sheet. Yeah, so like, the earth if you like. If you like ah, to think about the apple. The earth is like a you know, small pebble on a rubber sheet creating a bit of a dent, and the apple like, sits on the sheet, and then because there’s a bit of a dent, it like rolls down the sheet towards the earth. And like heavier things create bigger wells, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

The idea of a wormhole is to take that idea a little bit further, and to say, like well you’ve got your rubber sheet here you can make like a big dent, what if you could like make a tunnel. From one point …

Rose – Ahh.

Dr McAllister – … on the rubber sheet, to another point on a rubber sheet.

So, let’s now you imagine if you have like-like a sheet of paper, um, or like again, well let’s just stick with the rubber sheet. And that is all of space and time, and like obviously like a rubber sheet is two-dimensional, you can only go left and right, right. But, Imagine it in-in-in three spatial dimensions in one-time dimension, so its four dimensional.

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – (clears throat) Four-dimensional rubber sheet, right. And like, it-it can be bent around and like you know crumbled up into a ball or whatever. But, like from your perspective on the sheet, you don’t know that that’s happening because you live like, in the dimensions of the sheet. Does that make sense?

Rose – I think so.

Dr McAllister – It’s like, let’s take it back to two-dimensions right, if you live on a two-dimensional piece of paper, you can’t tell if that the piece of paper is bent …

Rose – Yes.

Dr McAllister – … in half of not, right. You just live on that paper and to you it’s all the same. But, if you were on that sheet of paper or that rubber sheet, and it was bent over itself and somebody could like punch through it, then you could get directly from this side of the piece paper to that side, without going up all the way over the fold.

Rose – Yes.

Dr McAllister – you’d just go straight through. That’s essentially a worm hole.

Rose – Ah!

Dr McAllister – Mm.

Rose – And, are they something that we think exists?

Dr McAllister – Could exist.

Rose – OK.

Dr McAllister – Depending on who you ask. Never, been, observed so far.

Rose – Ooh, oh that’s kind of exciting. Another one we had was. What would you put in a blackhole, if you could?

Dr McAllister – Um, nothing (laughs).

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, condemn anyone to that fate or anything.

Um, what would you put in a blackhole if you could? Oh boy! That’s an interesting one. Maybe some kind of, yeah, nah, phew, some kind of thing, that could transmit the information of what’s going on from the inside out. Because we don’t know.

Rose – Aw, yeah. Good point.

Dr McAllister – That’s, ah, but like, you know, the-the-the nature of the blackhole is that you can’t. Like, you can’t transmit anything out of a blackhole, because it’s so dense that not even light can escape the gravitational well it creates in the sheet and if you can’t send light out you can’t send any data or anything, so.

Rose – I like the idea that you-you want to send something in to so you …

Dr McAllister – To see what’s going on in there.

Rose – Fair play.

Dr McAllister – Because you can’t observe it.

Rose – Yep, fair play!

Rose – And the last one that we have was; What’s your favourite equation?

Dr McAllister – Oh boy!

Rose – (laughs).

Dr McAllister – That’s a great, great question. I feel like that’s one of those things, where it’s like, um, there’s this really great joke, you ask like a, like a math enthusiast, ‘how many decimals of pie do you know?’ And they are like, 2,307. And you ask like a mathematician, like ‘what’s pi?’and they are like ah, about 3.

Rose and Dr McAllister – (laugh).

Dr McAllister – Ah, I don’t know. I don’t really play favourites with my equations. Um, I-I would say ah I really like, just because of there’s like a nice elegant symmetry to them ah Maxwell’s equations, which are the equations that govern the motion of light. So, its …

Rose – Wow!

Dr McAllister – … really four equations. But also, there’s a way you can represent them so that it’s just one equation. So, I’m not really cheating.

Rose – I like that. And that’s something we can see. Something we can relate to. And to finish up, this is something I’ve been looking forward to asking, the whole time pretty much, you’ve been talking.

Dr McAllister – Go on.

Rose – Ah, I have been listening but also I have been looking forward to this.

Dr McAllister – Yeah, oh I’m on tenterhooks.

Rose – (laughs) What is your favourite physics fun fact?

Dr McAllister – Oh boy!

Rose – Something people could take to a dinner party, or many the next time I’m in the lunchroom and I’m lost for something to say.

Dr McAllister – Yeah.

Rose – That I could just say and people will be like, ‘wow you’re so smart Rose, that’s such a good fun fact’.

Dr McAllister – Ok. Here’s a, here’s a bit of a weird one. There is a certain interpretation of quantum mechanics which is call the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, which a lot of like really smart people actually believe is true. Ah, it’s not like some like crazy fringe idea.

Which is that like every time a very small event happens like an electron flips around on an atom or something, something in the realm of quantum mechanics, something very small, the universe itself actually splits into two paths, one where it went one way and one where it went the other and, we are only like consciously existing in …

Rose – … all of …

Dr McAllister – the world that we are currently in.

Rose – Wow.

Dr McAllister – But like some version of you is existing in another one, yeah. Google the ‘Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’. A lot of people believe that that’s a real thing. I will hedge that a little bit by saying that like, that some people consider there’s other universes like just mathematical universes, that aren’t like real physical ones. But some people also view them as like tangibly real universes.

Rose – Wow.

Dr McAllister – So, yeah!

Rose – I feel like I’ve seen a bit of that like in pop culture.

Dr McAllister – Yeah.

Rose – And in like TV and stuff.

Dr McAllister – That’s one that gets exploited a lot and stuff but fair enough, it’s crazy.

Rose – Yeah, oh!

Dr McAllister – (laughs).

Rose – I love that. I’m probably going to be thinking about that (laughs) for the rest of the afternoon.

Dr McAllister – (laughs).

Rose – Well thank you so much for joining us Ben.

Dr McAllister – Hey, thank you so much for having me.

**Cue music – close out.

Rose – Thank you for listening to the Particle Podcast. Check out more of our content on all of the socials as well as at This episode, as always, was recorded in the wonderful science hub that is Western Australia. And we are proudly powered by Scitech.

Rockwell McGellin
About the author
Rockwell McGellin
Rockwell is a jack of all trades with a Masters in science communication. He likes space, beer, and sciencey t-shirts. Yes, Rocky is fine for short.
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Rockwell is a jack of all trades with a Masters in science communication. He likes space, beer, and sciencey t-shirts. Yes, Rocky is fine for short.
View articles