Philosophy at the Large Hadron Collider: An Interview with Sophie Ritson

Sophie Ritson completed her honours degree at the University of Melbourne in 2011, majoring in the History and Philosophy of Science. After finishing her PhD at the University of Sydney, Sophie’s academic work took her to Austria. She is now part of a large interdisciplinary team exploring how scientific knowledge is produced at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. In conversation with Samara Greenwood, Sophie tells how she came to be doing her work, and a little about what is involved in being a philosopher of science.

How did you come to be a philosopher of science? 

I first became interested in the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) when I was studying physics at the University of Melbourne. I noticed an HPS subject called ‘From Plato to Einstein’ and thought it sounded like lots of fun and something a bit different. I found the lectures interesting and enjoyed having discussions in the tutorials (which were quite different from physics tutorials). After that I was hooked! I switched to a double major in physics and HPS.

At first, I really struggled with the writing and had to work hard to improve my skills. I ended up doing honours and my supervisor was my ‘Plato to Einstein’ lecturer, Kristian Camilleri.  He was very patient and helped me a great deal. We even ended up publishing two papers together! Following that I was thrilled to be accepted into the PhD program at the University of Sydney. I also spent a year at the Cambridge HPS department as part of my PhD investigating the debates surrounding String Theory.

I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow in a German and Austrian funded research project, The Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider, based at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria.

I have great memories of HPS at Melbourne Uni. I learnt a lot from the subjects, and from the other students who were completing very diverse majors.

Sophie’s research group: The Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider, 2016. Photograph: Photograph: Friederike von Heyden


What does your current research involve? 

My research focuses on how knowledge is produced in contemporary scientific practices. I look at how research methods and scientific values have changed, and continue to change, over time.

I explore these topics by analysing the experiments taking place at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). They make for a fascinating subject as they are unique in many ways. I look at two of the four major experiments at the LHC, the CMS and ATLAS experiments. These experiments are general-purpose particle physics experiments, designed to utilise the huge range of physics opportunities that the LHC provides.

Almost 4000 international researchers are involved in each experiment and every publication from the collaboration lists each researcher. This is a long way from the ‘Nobel Prize model’ of science or thinking about science as coming from individual geniuses.

In examining current practice, my goal is to develop a deeper understanding of the changing conditions of twenty-first-century science. In particular, I explore the role of novelty and creativity in knowledge formation in massive collaborative experiments. I have recently been working on a notion of novelty as disruption and have shown that, in high-energy physics, novel disruptive results are positively regarded as they may provide fertile avenues for future work.  There is a concern that high-energy physics has a lack of available promising future directions, so disruption is welcomed as a generator of alternative futures.

Do you work closely with scientists in your work? What is that relationship like?

I do work closely with scientists in my work, collaborating with both experimental and theoretical physicists as part of my current research project. Collaboration is rewarding but can be difficult because the physicists sometimes don’t understand why we philosophers might be interested in something they take for granted. One example of this is the trigger software used in the CMS and ATLAS experiments. Because the experiments generate so much data, due to space constraints, they are forced to delete 99% percent of their data before it is saved. The trigger software is designed to include the interesting collision events in the 1% of data saved. The reliability of this software is well known to the physicists, but we are interested in how the physicists came to understand this software is reliable and does not introduce bias into the data sample.

I also interview physicists for my research and travel to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva for a few weeks every year. It’s definitely worth engaging with scientists because we gain insights into the way science is practised in a way that is impossible when only using written texts.

Could you tell us a little about your current role?

My current role is a 100% research postdoc position, although I try to do some teaching, as I enjoy it and find it a great way to engage with broader topics. I applied for the job in the last months of my PhD. It was quite stressful trying to complete my thesis and also applying for jobs, but the experience was helpful. The applications forced me to express clearly and succinctly what I thought my research achieved to an audience that was generally informed but did not have any knowledge of my specific project.

I am very lucky there are five PhD candidates and five other postdocs involved in my current project, as well as thirteen primary investigators (PIs). When we all get together (either online or in person) it’s lots of fun.

It can sometimes feel like you are in a bit of a precarious position being a postdoc, somewhere in between being a student and having a permanent academic job. Having five other postdocs in the same position has been really great. Half of the PIs are physicists and the other half come from history, philosophy, and sociology of science. Because we all come from diverse epistemic communities, we have lots of disagreements, but we also learn from each other.

Was the move overseas difficult? 

The move overseas had difficult aspects to it. The Austrian government decided to change the immigration laws when I was mid-application and because the new laws were not yet available, there was no one who could let me know what was going on!

Austrian universities also have a very different culture to Australian universities, and it took me quite a while to adjust. There is a level of formality that I was not used to, with both professors and students. Just as a small example, I got in trouble for organising a discussion over a lunch of sandwiches. I was informed that sandwiches were not a real lunch. Real lunches should be warm and ideally have two courses! Of course, I wasn’t really in trouble and I have come to enjoy going for a hot lunch with colleagues instead of having a sandwich at my desk.  It’s a nice opportunity to discuss your work informally with colleagues and get to know all the interesting things people are working on.

What are the most important skills you developed through your HPS studies? 

Because I am still in the field of HPS, all the skills I developed in my HPS studies have been important. More broadly, I developed communication skills. I hadn’t realised how much work is involved in producing writing that is comprehensible and enjoyable to read. Nor had I realised how much you need to practise!

Feature image: Sophie’s research focuses on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, such as the ATLAS collaboration, 2007. Photograph: Maximilien Brice, courtesy CERN.