Claire Lee

It's time! What an amazing experience this has been! Thank you to everyone who participated - the students for their great questions and fun times on the chat, the teachers for getting involved, my fellow scientists for being completely awesome, and last but not least the mods who kept everyone sane! Confirmed: had a blast!

Favourite Thing: Working on the biggest experiment ever, trying to discover new things about the universe, and understand this crazy place we live in. I also love trying to come up with new ways to explain what we do over here, particularly if I can make it interesting and funny at the same time.



University of the Witwatersrand (2001-2009) and University of Johannesburg (2009 – current).


MSc in high energy nuclear physics. PhD in particle physics in progress (how’s my alliteration?)

Work History:

I taught 2 years of undergraduate physics in South Africa. Otherwise, student.

Current Job:

PhD student.


University of Johannesburg (South Africa) and Academia Sinica (Taiwan)

Me and my work

I’m a student on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, where we smash together some of the smallest things in the universe just to see what happens.

I work at CERN, for a University in South Africa and an Academic Institution in Taiwan. The experiment I work on is called ATLAS, and it’s one of the 4 large experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Why do we do particle physics? Well, really, it’s so that we can find out more about the universe that we live in. Why do we want to find out more about the universe? Well – there is a lot of stuff that we don’t understand about the universe and how it works. But every time we have had a breakthrough, awesome new technology has come as a spin off. Your computer, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without the breakthrough in our understanding of quantum mechanics – how the universe works on really small scales. And that GPS in your car would keep being incorrect if we didn’t have Einstein’s theories of Relativity. Basically, today’s science is tomorrow’s technology.

So how do we do this?

Imagine that you’ve never seen a car before, and I give you one, right here in front of you. To really understand how it works you’d probably want to take it apart, look at all the pieces and how they fit and work together. But now imagine that I’d shrunk the car down really really small, so small that you couldn’t take it apart by yourself. The only thing you could do was make it move. How would you figure out what it was made of?

Well, one thing you could do is drive two of these mini-cars together, and have them crash (collide). If they’re going slowly then they’d probably just bounce off each other, which overall is pretty boring if you want to find out what they’re made of. But if you smash them together when they’re going really fast (ie, they have a LOT of energy) – well, then interesting things can happen! Maybe the roof breaks off and goes one way while the trunk goes another.  Maybe the next time, you have a tyre flying this way, and a mirror going the other. Maybe a third time everything shatters into little pieces and you’re left with just the engine block. If you do this enough times you can eventually get an idea of what the car is made up of.

And then maybe – just maybe – one time the cars smoosh together and out pops a whole new car!

This is kinda like what we do at the LHC – only in our case, our cars are protons. We smash the protons together and look at the tyres, and mirrors, and pistons that come flying out of the collisions. And if we’re lucky, very very occasionally, we get that new shiny car popping out too.

My Typical Day

Coffee. C++. Coffee. Meetings. More Coffee. More C++, and if I’m lucky I get to go underground.

Well, I get up usually around 6:30 or 7am (or whenever my son wakes up!) and after dropping him off at playschool I get in to work around 9. I’ll check emails, facebook, reddit, start downloading the output of any jobs I had running overnight on the grid, and either get to plotting some results or working on a new bit of code. Usually my advisor drops in during the morning for a chat and an update, sometimes we chat over coffee in the cafeteria.

I have lunch around 12pm, and then it’s back to the office for an afternoon much like the morning. Some afternoons I have some meetings where I usually show my latest results. I leave work around 6pm, pick up my son and head home. After my kid goes to sleep at 9pm I usually do a bit more work in the evening and get to sleep around 1am.

What I'd do with the money

Bring some of you over here to visit CERN!!!

Well ok so I was close but I didn’t win. In any case if you guys are still interested in getting a view of CERN, obviously you can visit anytime you like (access to CERN is completely free). Otherwise, ask your teacher to organise an ATLAS Virtual Visit where you can video chat with us live from the ATLAS Control Room:



I’d love to be able to fly some of the students out for a day visiting CERN! We could even go underground to vosit the detector (for the over 16’s) but even for the younger ones we can do a tour of cern, visit the place they build the giant magnets, visit the ATLAS and LHC control rooms and at the end of the day hang out eating ice cream amongst physicists and Nobel prize winners in the cafeteria.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

curious adrenaline junkie

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Yellowcard, 30 Seconds to Mars.

What's your favourite food?

Filet mignon de foie gras. And cheese Fondue. And raclette. And confit de canard. (ohmygoshwhyisthefoodheresogood!) And pizza, always pizza.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

The two things that pop up in my mind right now are 1) participating in this year’s FameLab Switzerland competition, and 2) Snowboarding this winter on Mont Blanc.

What did you want to be after you left school?

An astrophysicist, actually. Because I read a book and “astrophysicist” sounded like a cool job title.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not *really* though I was pretty lazy at times and got into trouble occasionally for that. But I didn’t actively try to get into trouble.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Physical Science (because I liked it) and Biology (cause I had the most amazing teacher).

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

Probably moving over to SwitzerFrance with my family to work at CERN.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Hmmm, not sure. Maybe a (medical) doctor. Or something to do with sports.

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

That I didn’t procrastinate so much; that I didn’t need to sleep; and that there was no cancer (for my dad).

Tell us a joke.

“I’m sorry, we don’t serve faster than light particles here” said the barman. A neutrino walks into a bar.

Other stuff

Work photos:

Just in case you got this far and would like to continue following my shenanigans in the physics world, my twitter account is @claire_lee

Good morning! A nice fresh spring morning near Point 1 (where ATLAS is located) and the CERN Globe behind me:


The LHC is a 27 kilometer underground tunnel, filled with magnets to bend and focus the proton beam: (those blue things are dipole magnets – there are 1232 of them at the LHC!) (photo copyright cern)


ATLAS is the coolest experiment because I work on it. Also, it’s HUGE (25m tall by 46 m long). This is a view down the middle, while they were still building it:  (photo copyright cern)


The ATLAS control room can get very busy during run time:


The equation that governs the universe, all on one whiteboard (plus a brief explanation):


I have a lot to do usually. This is a typical “to do” list:


I am also an ATLAS guide so I can take people down to visit the ATLAS detector, about 80m underground. This is me with one of the huge toroid magnet endcaps behind me:


I am quite chuffed with my new tshirt – I love The Big Bang Theory!


Finally, goodnight! (one of the nicer office buildings at cern)


Obligatory snowboarding in the Alps photo: