Two subatomic particles walk into a bar…

By Katherine Gombay

Michael Stoebe wants to help you find out what happens next. He’s only been at McGill for two months, but he’s already made a significant contribution to the University community. The physics PhD student, who arrived from Germany in January, organized McGill’s first participation in the International Hands on Particle Physics Masterclass that was held on March 17. And while many McGill students celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by dressing in green, declaiming poetry or scattering plastic shamrocks, a group of about 35 students from six CEGEPS, including one in St. Félicien, 300 km north of Quebec City, came to the university to experience first-hand what is involved in studying and working in particle physics.

“I took part in the same event three times in Germany, and I wanted to create something like it for students here,” said Stoebe. So after spending six weeks settling in to his course work, Stoebe started contacting CEGEPS across the province to invite them to participate in the event. The masterclasses are the brainchild of Michael Kobel, a physics professor from Technical University Dresden, who was Stoebe’s MSc supervisor. The program started six years ago and now involves more than 8,000 students in 23 countries, from South Africa to Brazil.

As well as listening to lectures about subjects like black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the students also analyzed real data collected within the last few months from the new and powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Using videoconferencing, the CEGEP students in Montreal were able to question the scientists at CERN in Geneva about their work.

“There were four or five students who stayed after the event, and they kept asking us questions,” said Stoebe. “They’re interested in physics and if you don’t screw it up and you make it accessible, they look at you with excitement and glowing eyes – that’s what makes it worthwhile for me.”

Stoebe plans to organize a similar event with universities from across Canada in the fall.