Thanks for the question. If you ask the question, what is the universe made of? then pretty quickly you learn that it’s made up of atoms, which are made up of electrons, protons and neutrons. But then you will ask, what is a proton made of? the answer is smaller things called quarks. At the moment that as much as you know from doing experiments like at the LHC. But I imagine you, like me, will want to know what those quarks are made of, as well as the electron. At the moment we don’t know but that’s the kind of question the Large Hadron Collider is going to help us answer. This is what particle physicists are working on at the moment. All this should help us understand what happened at the big bang or what’s happening inside black holes.
I really wanted to learn more about how the universe works. And you don’t learn that by looking at how humans hop, or how pigs poop, or how butane burns. You need to go to the extremes of what’s inside the universe to get a grip on the basics. And I mean either the extremely big: looking at the universe as a whole, figuring out what galaxies are, how they move, how they change, what black holes do, and so on, is one approach. Starting at the “opposite” end, trying to find the smallest bits of the universe and seeing what they are, how they interact and so on, is the other approach. The former is astronomy or astrophysics or cosmology, the latter is particle physics. I picked particle physics, probably because I happened to grow up near one of the biggest particle physics labs at the time. 🙂
I got interested in the frontiers of science when picking up a textbook on the theory of relativity when I was a kid, and then physics in school became more and more interesting, and this is also where I first learned about the concept of particles. I read a lot of popular science books about the universe and about particles, and that got me hooked to the point that I studied physics and became a scientist.
However, being an experimental particle physicist, I am always a member of a huge team of scientists, because our experiments are so big and complex that it takes hundreds or even thousands of scientists to work together to build them, run them, and look at their data. That makes it very hard for anyone of us to say, “hey, this is something that *I* found out”. For example, I am one of the people who discovered the Higgs boson. But in fact I only contributed a few pieces to the puzzle that are hardly worth mentioning, as important as they may have been ultimately for the discovery. But in a big puzzle, which piece is most important? No single specific one, usually. Thus, the interesting facts that I discovered are more technical things, because this is the kind of work I do on these experiments. For example, a few years back I was working on one experiment that was breaking down further and further over the years, and nobody knew why. It consisted of 100s of identical particle detectors, and one after the other broke. We couldn’t repair them, because they were in the middle of a huge apparatus that was so complicated that it would take years to disassemble it and then put it back together. We couldn’t even look at our problematic detectors, for the same reason. I was the person who discovered that some of these detectors were not completely broken, but had only developed a problem that confused the readout electronics so much that it gave up trying to get any data from these detectors. I then developed ways for our electronics to cope with the damaged detectors, and that allowed us to put a large number of them back into action at least partially. *That’s* the kind of contribution I do for science. It’s almost like engineering, but we can’t leave this kind of job to engineers alone, because it takes a lot of scientist expertise to figure out if something is wrong, what is going wrong, and what the priorities are in addressing these issues.