by Polly Bennett. Published: 17 February 2012

What a delight to open the door to someone so young and full of energy. Nicolas Arbor, a French PhD student from the Laboratoire de Physique Subatomique et de Cosmologie (Grenoble, France) radiates an infectious freshness. His path to his physics PhD has been an unusual one, peppered with mind-expanding experiences. The result is that the stories and anecdotes he relates during our discussion are refreshingly original. Most relate to his world travels, but throughout it is evident that his desire is to eventually straddle two facets of science: research and communication.

Nicolas Arbor

Nicolas on his travels in Bolivia

For his undergraduate degree Nicolas juggled both physics and the philosophy of science before moving on to a Masters degree. In-between he squeezed a year of travel, to experience the world and carry out a kind of science communication project looking at how physics education was conducted in countries across the globe. “I wanted to see something other than Grenoble or France. But with my girlfriend I also built up this project. We got some funding from our ‘Conseil general’ and went to universities in some poor countries like Mongolia, Laos, and Bolivia to see how physics was taught.” Most of our meeting is spent talking about these travels. Between the first and second year of his Masters degree Nicolas took the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia to Mongolia, before travelling through parts of Asia and South America. He finished in Africa, teaching in a primary school, before visiting Morocco and heading back to France.

“We went to countries not really present in international science and discussed with teachers, researchers, and students. I love physics and I love education in physics, so in Mongolia for example it was interesting to see in which institutes students learn physics, what specific topics they study, what materials they use. Mongolia is a strange country but very fascinating. We found that Russia fund a lot of the materials for the University of Mongolia, so all the books are in Russian. We wrote a blog about our experiences and had a special section for the project.”

“I came back from my travels thinking that we are lucky to be here [at CERN], because some students in the world have a lot of difficulties. There are no materials, they have no books, no money, no teacher. That’s why I chose to do a PhD. It’s a chance to be paid for 3 years by France to do this kind of physics research. I had no choice but to accept.” This brings Nicolas onto his third great passion in the triad of science: politics. “People have to be able to ask politicians for money for all these projects, but at this time with more and more poor people and more difficulty for the countries, it’s sometimes difficult to defend the researches we do at CERN. Understanding secrets of matter is very interesting, but it’s not a priority for human beings compare to medical researches, energy or food. That’s why communication is important. Science is funded by politicians, industry and the general public (via taxes), so it’s a duty of a researcher to explain to everybody its work."

Nicolas eventually focused on physics for his Masters rather than philosophy. “I’m not sure there’s a clear reason why I chose physics. I think maybe it’s easier to learn philosophy as a hobby, with a book.” However, Nicolas has not left philosophical questioning completely. “When I had to choose an area of physics for my PhD I wasn’t very aware of ALICE or hadronic physics, but I read this paper and I found it interesting to study matter; why it’s heavy and how it’s made. It’s a very fundamental question not related to industry. It’s a kind of philosophical question.”

In this 2nd year of his PhD, Nicolas has now knuckled down to conduct his thesis research. He is currently a member of the EMCal Collaboration. Consistent with his passion for all facets of science, his thesis will cover both analysis and detector elements of the field. The general topic of his thesis is to study the correlation between photons and jets of hadrons, using them as probes for studying the properties of the Quark Gluon Plasma (QGP). “I’m working at the moment to ‘tune’ EMCal simulations so they are as close to reality as possible, and also conduct a gamma-hadrons analysis where the goal is to study how the fragmentation of a parton is modified in the QGP medium.”