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Interview: Professor Fred Loebinger

Ask any student around campus why they chose to come to Manchester and you’ll probably be faced with a standard response. Probably something containing the words “reputation” or “course structure.”

However, if you ask me the same question, my response will be a little bit different.

“A guy sat on a table waving his hands and feet told me to.”

A strange answer, you might think. But if you pose this question to anyone who’s studied physics at Manchester over the past few years, there’s a very good chance you’ll hear the same reply.

Professor Fred Loebinger is a well-known and much-loved member of the physics department here at Manchester. A particle physicist, he first came to the university as an undergraduate and never left. As the admissions tutor for the department, he has been responsible for convincing promising young students to come and study here.

Sadly for me and everyone else in the department, Professor Loebinger has just retired, ending an association with the university that has spanned for five decades. I managed to catch up with Fred just before he left.

I arrive at the sixth floor of the Schuster building, the home of particle physics at the university. Prof Loebinger is sat there with a group of students, who I assume are postgraduates. I am instantly beckoned over and told to sit down. It soon becomes apparent that they are not discussing physics, but rather are engaging in an intense session of word puzzles.

The next ten minutes or so involve me trying and failing to think up six-letter words ending in ‘r’ as I’m given hints by one of the other students. This bizarre start to the interview doesn’t even surprise me—Professor Loebinger is well known for his charismatic, if slightly quirky nature. After the puzzle is complete, we move to his office to continue our conversation.

GROWING UP

I ask Prof. Loebinger what sparked his interest in physics as a child. “There was no key moment, no epiphany,” he tells me. “What I had at school was an excellent physics teacher and a very boring chemistry teacher! And as it happened, my performance in school in chemistry was always better than in physics.

“But the guy that taught me physics was sufficiently inspiring to convince me that even though it wasn’t my strongest subject at school, it was the one I wanted to pursue. So I followed that stimulation through school and onto university, by then I’d decided that it was what I wanted to do.”

HIS TIME AT THE UNIVERSITY

Prof Loebinger first came to the university after finishing school and has been here ever since. After completing his degree, he stayed on as a postgraduate, then as a research associate before eventually being awarded professorship. I ask him why he decided to stay for so long.

“It’s a wonderful place!” he explains. “For me, every box was ticked. Manchester was doing everything I wanted to do.

“I always say that if where you are is particularly good, if you’re enjoying where you are, if they have a good reputation, if they’re doing the research that you want to do, if you think that the research group is a good group that you want to join, I think it’s wrong to artificially make yourself go somewhere else just to prove that you’re moving on.”

He talks about his career highlights, which he stresses have come in both teaching and research. I learn that his thesis involved disproving the existence of pentaquarks, a fact that is still used to this day. He beams as he tells me that he was in the group that discovered the gluon, an exchange particle that governs one of the four fundamental forces in the Universe.

In addition to his decades of teaching and research, Prof. Loebinger has also spent the past 30 years acting as the admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy. For most current undergraduates within the department, he is the first person they will have met, either on an open day or an interview day. I still fondly remember my first experience of him, when I came for my interview in November 2011.

As I mentioned at the start, he has a rather peculiar method of attracting students to the department. He sits on a table and starts to talk about the School’s key selling points. Each new point is accompanied by the waving of a limb. By the end of the talk, all four limbs are vigorously moving as he passionately explains why Manchester is such a wonderful place in which to study physics.

“To come clean, it’s meant to look a little bit spontaneous, but I’ve been giving the same talk, waving the same hands and feet, for many, many years,” he says. “The speech has changed a bit over time though!

“People don’t often admit to enjoying things which are seen as administrative rather than teaching or research, but I have to say that I also enjoyed doing the admissions bit.”

However, Prof Loebinger isn’t as thrilled at the popularity of his talk as you might expect. “It sounds as though I’ve been a very successful double-glazing salesman,” he laughs, “selling the place and encouraging people to come when perhaps they had better things to do!

“What I hope is that I opened their eyes to the opportunities at Manchester, which I honestly do believe is the best place to come and do physics.”

HIS WORK AT CERN

Prof Loebinger has enjoyed a long and varied career that has seen him travel across the world. I ask him about CERN, the famous research facility in Geneva where he spent many years working.

“I first went out to CERN in 1972, when it was a relatively small place compared to what it is now,” he tells me. “The accelerator that I went to work on was called the Intersecting Storage Rings (ISR) and that had just switched on.

“That was the first ever collider which collided protons against protons, which is the same as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I initially went for a year, because I had teaching duties back in Manchester, but that year got extended and extended and extended, and I ended up being there for six years!

“It was a really wonderful time, the community there was great. Geneva is a wonderful city, ideally situated in the middle of Europe, with easy access to everywhere. CERN was just a brilliant place to work—it still is!”

I was fortunate enough to visit CERN on a school trip back in 2011. Although I wasn’t able to head down into the tunnel to see the LHC for myself (it was running at this point), one thing that particularly struck me was the strong communal feel to the entire facility. I mention this to Professor Loebinger and he agrees heartily.

“There’s a real scientific buzz about the place, but it’s also very sociable,” he tells me. “There are people from all different universities, different countries, all collaborating together. There’s a wonderful feeling of collaborative spirit, everyone is working for the same goals on the same experiments.”

THE HIGGS BOSON

CERN has been the setting for many scientific and technological breakthroughs over the past few decades. Multiple particles have been discovered since the organisation was established in 1954, antimatter has been created and maintained, even the World Wide Web began as a CERN project. In recent years, however, one particular discovery has stood out above the rest.

The Higgs Boson was first proposed 50 years ago by six physicists including Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named. A long and well-publicised hunt for the particle finally came to an end in 2012, when two separate experiments at the LHC confirmed that it had been discovered.

I ask Prof. Loebinger if, prior to the discovery, there was a particular outcome he had been hoping for.

“The Higgs Boson—the theory behind it goes back to the 1960s,” he explains. “It’s been a long, long search for it. We were homing in on it—there was only a very small window in which it could exist, we’d ruled out all the other possibilities. We were homing in on that very narrow window.

“There were some physicists who really wanted it to be there, since it would vindicate all their work and the theories and the model. But there are always lots of physicists who say, ‘wouldn’t it be even better if it wasn’t there?’ Because that would open up the opportunity for something unexpected.”

A notable example of this is Stephen Hawking. Upon hearing of the discovery of the Higgs, he remarked, “It is a pity in a way because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect.”

However, Prof Loebinger doesn’t share Hawking’s view on this particular matter. “Frankly I was hoping for it, because we’d spent many, many years looking for it,” he explains. “It was the sort of culmination of this big collaborative experiment.

“I was over the moon that we found it because it doesn’t shut off other opportunities, but it at least says that everything that we thought was happening is happening. It looks as though we’re on the right lines. So I think it was a very positive marker, it means that everything is slotting into place.

“It leaves open the opportunity for a lot more to be discovered, but it means we’re not going down some cul-de-sac or some diversion that turns out to be wrong.”

PUBLIC INTEREST IN SCIENCE

The hunt for the Higgs and its subsequent discovery really captured the imagination of the general public. I ask Professor Loebinger whether he thinks that it was a key moment in alerting people to the many wonders of the scientific world.

“It reached out to a huge audience, it had a huge public clamour when it was discovered,” he says. “To be honest, I was somewhat surprised by that, because it’s not the same in people’s minds as something like the first landing on the Moon. That was very tangible—you could see them standing there on the Moon.

“The Higgs Boson, however, is very non-tangible. You can’t see it and it’s a difficult concept to explain to people who are interested in science but don’t have a deep background in it.

“I was surprised how much they took on board. I was delighted, but it still surprises me. You can’t actually see the thing, you can’t really see its effects, you have to take the physicist’s word for it that it is this magical ingredient that we’re searching for. But the public have taken that on board and gone ‘Wow!’”

The more I think about Prof. Loebinger’s response, the more I realise how surprising the public’s interest in the Higgs Boson really was. It was subject to a lot of news coverage, but it’s not an easy concept to visualise. I remember seeing the same animation of protons shooting round the LHC on all the major news stations, but that was all that there was to go on.

THE FUTURE OF PARTICLE PHYSICS

Professor Loebinger has already told me about the wide range of opportunities that have opened up in particle physics following the discovery of the Higgs Boson. I ask him what he thinks the next major breakthrough will be.

“There are lots of avenues which people are actively pursuing, notably additional Higgs Bosons,” he says. “The one Higgs that we’ve found is a neutral Higgs, but there’s the potential for positively and negatively charged Higgs Bosons out there as well, we’re looking for those.

“We’re looking for supersymmetry, which would give us a whole raft of new particles that are partners of the ones that we’ve already found, but with different properties and different masses.

“Then there are a whole load of new areas of physics that have been opened up over the last decade or so involving neutrinos. As it happens, Manchester has a big involvement in almost all those activities. We’ve really positioned ourselves well to be involved in where we think a lot of the action is going to happen.”

This leads directly onto my next question. I ask Professor Loebinger how big a part he expects Manchester to play in the near future.

“Well Manchester already plays a very big part,” he explains. “We’re involved in a major way in two of the big experiments at the LHC, called ATLAS and LHCb.

“One of the big goals of LHCb is to work out where all the antimatter in the Universe has gone. Everybody believes that when the Big Bang happened, matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts. But if you look around, we don’t see large concentrations of antimatter.

“So somehow, that antimatter has disappeared. We have theories that might explain where it’s gone, but they haven’t been successfully tested experimentally. One of the big aims of LHCb is to try and experimentally verify what we can explain about where the antimatter’s gone.”

“We’re also in working parties involved in looking at the next high energy accelerators,” Prof. Loebinger tells me. “The International Linear Collider which is being proposed, and more recently, there’s the very large collider that’s being proposed at CERN. The LHC is 27km in circumference, but the one that people are now muttering about and starting to work on would be 100km! Manchester’s involved in all of these.

HOW THE DEPARTMENT HAS CHANGED

During his 50-year stint at Manchester, Professor Loebinger has seen a lot of change at the university. I learn that when he first arrived as an undergraduate, he was one of only 100 physics first years, just four of whom were girls! These days, the department takes in roughly 280 undergraduates every year, with roughly 20 per cent of them being female.

I ask him how proactive the department has been in encouraging girls to come here and study physics. “I was part of this drive to get more girls in back in the 80s,” he says. “We ran residential courses, we produced videos and posters, we had campaigns that toured round. We were very successful!”

He proudly talks about the growth of the department’s reputation. “It is now correctly seen as one of the top physics departments, certainly in the country, but I think we’re something like 13th in the world!” he states.

“We’ve got the Regius professorship—we’re the only physics department in the country ever to have been awarded it. If you look at why it was awarded, it was awarded for excellence in teaching and research.”

ADVICE

I conclude the interview by asking Professor Loebinger if he has any advice for people hoping to follow him into the world of physics.

“If you look at the areas of science that cover the range from the very smallest particles, which is particle physics, right to the very largest scales, which is astrophysics,” he says. “That is the Universe and that is all covered by physics.

“There’s nuclear physics, there’s medical physics, there’s environmental physics, there’s biophysics, there’s solid state physics—there’s a whole range that covers that. There is no other science that does it over that whole range. So from both the breadth of study that you can do and the consequential breadth of careers that you can go into, I would say that there is nothing to touch physics.

“But then again, I’m biased!”

Tags: CERN, higgs boson, lhc, lhcb, loebinger, Manchester, particle physics

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