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Tristan du Pree
Tristan du Pree is a particle physicist, dark matter hunter and New Scientist blogger at Nikhef, the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics.
“I’ve just arrived at Nikhef, really, having spent the last seven years at CERN. I actually did my PhD here at Amsterdam Science Park in 2010, on the difference between matter and antimatter. A lot has changed at the park since then. It’s much bigger, there are better facilities, and transport links are improved – we have our own train station now. It feels like a dynamic place to be."
“At CERN, I was involved in the CMS experiment in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), including the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, and dark matter research. At Nikhef, my research is funded by a Vidi grant and is part of the ATLAS experiment at CERN, which is a collaborative effort involving around 4000 researchers worldwide. At Nikhef, I work together with two PhDs and one post-doctoral researcher. I collaborate a lot with people outside our experiment, which is where being located at Amsterdam Science Park is a great advantage – my CERN colleagues were a bit jealous when I came to work here, because while CERN has underground collisions, it doesn’t have what Amsterdam Science Park has – the synergy with other fields like astrophysics. Nikhef itself is very well respected around the world."
"The ATLAS experiment tests the Standard Model of the universe – how fundamental particles, the basic building blocks of the universe, work. I started off studying theoretical physics – black holes and the big bang, all the big ideas from Einstein and Hawking. I wrote my MSc thesis on supersymmetric cosmic strings. I enjoyed it, but it was all theoretical, pen-and-paper stuff. Most of it was predicted years ago, and has never been proved. I decided that I wanted to look for something myself. This was the time when the LHC experiments were starting up at Amsterdam Science Park, so it seemed like an opportunity to discover something myself. From working on theory, I moved to working on the experiments behind the theory."
“As a physicist, it’s a huge advantage to be located at Amsterdam Science Park”
“Finding dark matter may seem academic, but it’s important because, if the theories are correct, only 5% of matter and energy are ‘normal’, and the rest is all dark. So finding dark matter would help explain the 95% of the universe that remains mysterious. We don’t even know for sure that dark matter exists – we know it only from its supposed gravitational effects. No one on earth has seen it, so some of my Nikhef colleagues are searching for it in underground experiments in Italy that look for flashes of light, while we look for it by colliding protons that will maybe produce invisible particles."
“We think dark matter is a massive, weakly reacting particle – but there are alternative ideas. University of Amsterdam professor and theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde argues that dark matter doesn’t exist, and that gravity works differently than we thought. I find Verlinde’s theory quite interesting. It is certainly an interesting complementary activity at Amsterdam Science Park, compared to the ATLAS searches that I do at the LHC, the direct detection searches that my Xenon1T colleagues do underground, and the dark matter phenomenology of my theoretical colleagues here at the park. Personally, I think that while Verlinde’s idea is intriguing, the hypothesis that dark matter is some kind of particle is currently still the best and most complete model to explain all the observations. And the particle hypothesis is what we hope to prove in the coming years, at the LHC or Xenon1T. So we’re just continuing to search for the dark matter particle!"
“My CERN colleagues were a bit jealous when I came to work here, because CERN doesn’t have what Amsterdam Science Park has – the synergy with other fields”
“Of course, this is fundamental research. It’s not going to result in a start-up anytime soon. It’s great that we have so many spin-offs at Amsterdam Science Park, and that there’s more emphasis on doing research that is useful, but it remains vital to understand things better. Imagine if we’d only wanted to do useful research on lighting 150 years ago. We might have limited ourselves to making better candles and so never have invented the light bulb."
“As a physicist, it’s a huge advantage to be located at Amsterdam Science Park. All the particle physics expertise in the Netherlands is located here in one place, together with experts from many other disciplines. It’s easy for me to talk to people on other dark matter projects, or those involved in theoretical physics or computer science. One part of my research is in B particles, and here I can easily go and talk to people looking for other kinds of particle, for additional insights. There’s a great computing infrastructure here – it’s the place where the European web was born, after all. And then of course it’s in Amsterdam. So there are lots of benefits to being here."
“One thing here annoys me – I like to see other people at the park but when I go from Nikhef to UvA, for example, I cannot automatically access the building. As my Nikhef pass doesn’t work there, I have to get a visitor’s pass. This doesn’t stimulate collectivity and easy exchange in my opinion. I understand that we need a security system, but I wish we could have a single global one.
Ultimately, my dream would be to observe dark matter as part of our ATLAS experiment, and then for the underground experiment in Italy to find dark matter too. Then the theorists here and elsewhere could put it all together with plenty to go on. With the collaborative nature of Amsterdam Science Park, we could play a big role in understanding and interpreting the findings.”