UK astronomers are celebrating funding to participate in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which will create what is being called “the greatest movie ever made”.

    When completed, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will be the world’s largest digital camera. It will be able to take images of the sky that each cover over 40 times the area of the moon, building up a survey of the entire visible sky in just three nights.

    That means that billions of galaxies, stars and solar system objects will be seen for the first time and monitored over ten years, with each patch of sky being observed more than 800 times in that period. UK astronomers will now play a key part after £17.7m of initial funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council confirmed the UK’s participation.

    Steven Kahn, the LSST Director, said: “I am delighted that STFC is supporting UK participation in LSST. It is great to see UK astronomers engaging in preparation for LSST, and we look forward to seeing our collaboration develop over the coming years. LSST will be one of the foremost astronomy projects in the next decades and the UK astronomical community will contribute strongly to its success.”

    “This is great news for UK astronomy. LSST has long been the missing piece in UK astronomy’s future programme, and funding by STFC for UK participation in LSST will provide our researchers with unparalleled access to the suite of major international facilities that will be coming online in the next 5-10 years”. Bob Mann, LSST:UK Project Leader, University of Edinburgh

    Unprecedented detail

    The telescope is being built in the Chilean Andes where conditions are some of the driest on Earth, making it the ideal position for observing. When it starts operating, the LSST will generate one of the largest scientific datasets in the world.  

    The LSST is a synoptic survey in several ways: billions of objects will be imaged in six colours in an unprecedented large volume of our universe. This survey over half of the sky also records the time evolution of these sources, creating the first motion picture of our universe.

    The LSST:UK Project Scientist, Sarah Bridle from the University of Manchester, said: “What is unique about LSST is that each of its images covers a large area of sky to a depth that captures faint objects, and that it takes these images really quickly. That combination of area, depth and speed means that we can do lots of different science with the same dataset. Over its ten years of operations, LSST will build up a very detailed map of billions of galaxies, with approximate distances to each, from which we will learn about the mysterious dark energy that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the Universe. But, equally, it will look for changes in the sky from night to night; both moving objects, like asteroids, and new ones, like supernovae, that appear where nothing had been seen before.”

    Big Data benefits

    As well as providing unprecedented scientific data, the development of LSST will help train future scientists and bring advances in computing.

    “Extracting scientific knowledge from LSST will pose major challenges in the management and analysis of data. These “Big Data” issues are seen across the commercial sector as well as in science, but astronomy provides the ideal testbed for addressing them, as our data is free from the ethical and commercial constraints found in other domains. Many from the generation of young researchers who develop their skills preparing for the LSST data deluge will end up applying their expertise in business or the public sector, so the impact of UK participation in LSST will be felt well beyond astrophysics," said Bob Mann.

    Edinburgh researchers are at the forefront of addressing the computational challenges posed by LSST. They are developing the Data Access Centre through which UK astronomers will analyse LSST data. This builds upon several decades of expertise in survey astronomy at Edinburgh.

    “The Wide-Field Astronomy Unit at Edinburgh has been curating the largest sky survey datasets for a long time, but LSST will be a step up for us. We have just published the latest data release for the VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea (VVV) survey, which contains over 50 billion rows of data and which we believe to be currently the largest public sky survey dataset in the world. However, that pales in comparison with LSST, whose first data release in 2023 will be about forty times bigger, and which will continue to grow over the following decade. The challenge is not storing the data – bigger databases already exist in the commercial sector – but providing astronomers with the flexible access mechanisms they need to extract astrophysical knowledge from the LSST dataset, with its spatial, spectral and temporal dimensions.” Bob Mann, LSST:UK Project Leader, University of Edinburgh

    Preparatory science

    In addition to funding development of the Data Access Centre, STFC is also supporting a range of preparatory science being undertaken by a distributed team of researchers in six UK universities on behalf of the 36 institutions in the LSST:UK Consortium. This work is coordinated by LSST:UK Project Manager George Beckett, who is based at the University of Edinburgh.

    "Many are talking about data-driven science, but LSST:UK is actually doing it. The preparatory phase in the lead-up to an operational telescope is a critical period. Acting on behalf of the whole consortium we have defined a programme of work, which the Edinburgh team will coordinate, that draws on the world-class expertise of the UK partner institutions . This will ensure that we are ready to exploit the LSST from Day 1."  George Beckett, LSST:UK Project Manager, University of Edinburgh

    CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its experiments are back in action, and UK researchers and colleagues are now taking physics data for 2016 that will give us an improved understanding of fundamental physics.

    UK particle physicists have been eagerly awaiting the move up to full energy so that they could get back to working on understanding the fundamental physics of the Universe. During the annual winter break of the LHC the accelerator complex and experiments have been fine-tuned using low-intensity beams and pilot proton collisions, and now the LHC and the experiments are ready to take an abundance of new data.

    Following a short commissioning period, the LHC operators will now begin to increase the intensity of the beams so that the machine produces a larger number of collisions.

    “For the UK team working on the ATLAS instrument at the LHC our focus now will be on using the larger number of even higher energy collisions to better understand the Higgs boson. Despite confirming its existence back in 2012, there is still a lot for us to learn about the Higgs boson to be able to fully test Peter Higgs' original theory." Dr Victoria Martin, University of Edinburgh Particle Physics Experiment  group and a member of the ATLAS team at the LHC.

    “The start of this new season of physics at the LHC means that the many UK researchers working both in CERN itself and back in the UK will have much more data to work with – much more of the information they need to start to answer some of the big questions that still remain in physics including why there is a lack of antimatter in the Universe, the nature of dark matter particles and whether Supersymmetry, the theory that predicts the existence of a whole other set of ‘super’ particles, is correct”Prof. John Womersley, particle physicist and Chief Executive of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

    The four largest LHC experimental collaborations, ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb, now start to collect and analyse the 2016 data. Their broad physics programme will be complemented by the measurements of three smaller experiments – TOTEM, LHCf and MoEDAL – which focus with enhanced sensitivity on specific features of proton collisions.

    “The restart of the LHC always brings with it great emotion. With the 2016 data, the experiments will be able to perform improved measurements of the Higgs boson and other known particles and phenomena, and look for new physics with an increased discovery potential.” Fabiola Gianotti, CERN Director General and Honorary Professor in the School of Physics & Astronomy​.

    The Large Hadron Collider

    This is the second year the LHC will run at a collision energy of 13 TeV. During the first phase of Run 2 in 2015, operators mastered steering the accelerator at this new higher energy by gradually increasing the intensity of the beams.

    Beams are made of “trains” of bunches, each containing around 100 billion protons, moving at almost the speed of light around the 27-kilometre ring of the LHC. These bunch trains circulate in opposite directions and cross each other at the centre of experiments. Last year, operators increased the number of proton bunches up to 2244 per beam, spaced at intervals of 25 nanoseconds. These enabled the ATLAS and CMS collaborations to study data from about 400 million million proton–proton collisions. In 2016, operators will increase the number of particles circulating in the machine and the squeezing of the beams in the collision regions. The LHC will generate up to 1 billion collisions per second in the experiments.

    The Higgs boson was the last piece of the puzzle for the Standard Model – a theory that offers us the best description of the known fundamental particles and the forces that govern them. In 2016, the ATLAS and CMS collaborations – who announced the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 – will study this boson in depth.

    But there are still several questions that remain unanswered by the Standard Model, such as why nature prefers matter to antimatter, and what dark matter consists of, despite it potentially making up one quarter of our universe.

    The huge amounts of data from the 2016 LHC run will enable physicists to challenge these and many other questions, to probe the Standard Model further and to possibly find clues about the physics that lies beyond it.

    This new physics run with protons will last six months. The machine will then be set up for a four-week run colliding protons with lead ions.


    There are four main experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN: ALICE, LHCb, CMS and ATLAS. Each one has been undergoing major preparatory work for run 2, after the long shutdown during which important programmes for maintenance and improvements were achieved. They will now enter their final commissioning phase.


    ALICE was built in a cavern 100m below ground near St Genis-Pouilly in France. ALICE is a heavy-ion detector designed to investigate the properties of the Strong Force that keeps particles inside the atomic nucleus together, and how this energy generates mass. It is the force that we know least about.
    ALICE recreates conditions that existed only 0.00001 seconds after the Big Bang; temperatures 300,000 times hotter than the Sun and densities 50 times greater than in the core of a neutron star.


    LHCb was built in a cavern 100m below ground near Ferney-Voltaire in France. It is investigating the subtle differences between matter and antimatter. One of the most fundamental questions is why is our Universe made of matter? It is widely thought that initially equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created, and currently there is no evidence opposing this.

    LHCb studies the decay of particles containing b and anti-b quarks, collectively known as ‘B mesons’. Physicists believe that by comparing these decays, they may be able to gain useful clues as to why nature prefers matter over antimatter.


    ATLAS is one of the four main experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Like CMS, ATLAS is a general purpose detector designed to investigate a wide range of physics including supersymmetry, extra dimensions and particles that could make up dark matter. The scientific goals for the two experiments are the same, but they use different technical solutions. These similar science goals, but different designs allow the two experiments to cross-check results and confirm exciting discoveries such as a Higgs boson.


    Like ATLAS, CMS is a general purpose detector designed to investigate a wide range of physics including supersymmetry, extra dimensions and particles that could make up dark matter. The scientific goals for the two experiments are the same, but they use different technical solutions. These similar science goals, but different designs allow the two experiments to cross-check results and confirm exciting discoveries such as a Higgs boson.

    Congratulations to the School's Prof. James Dunlop, who has been elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society.

    "I am delighted that Jim Dunlop has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society for his outstanding investigations in observational astrophysics. This is a well-deserved accolade and follows his recent awards of the George Darwin Lectureship (2014), and the Herschel Medal (2016) from the Royal Astronomical Society. On behalf of the School I would like to express our congratulations." Prof.  Arthur Trew, Head of the School of Physics & Astronomy

    About the Fellowship

    The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship made up of the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the UK and the Commonwealth. Fellows and Foreign Members are elected for life through a peer review process on the basis of excellence in science.

    There are approximately 1,600 Fellows and Foreign Members, including around 80 Nobel Laureates. Each year up to 52 Fellows and up to 10 Foreign Members are elected from a group of around 700 candidates who are proposed by the existing Fellowship.

    "The scientists elected to the Fellowship are leaders who have advanced their fields through their ground breaking work. We are delighted to welcome them to the Royal Society.” Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society

    These prestigious 5-year awards support highly talented early career researchers from across the world to develop their careers. 

    The School invites applications in the following areas:

    Food and Rheology: Soft condensed matter research and its impact through the Edinburgh Complex Fluids Partnership, particularly in the rheology of soft materials and in applications of physics to food and personal care products. 

    Computation/Big Data: Exploiting the link between particle physics simulations and the co-design of high-performance energy-efficient microprocessors.

    Remote Sensing/Big Data: Data-driven astronomy and its link to wider data-science projects in remote sensing. Collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute and the Higgs Centre for Innovation will also create significant opportunities for cross-fertilization of algorithm research and exploitation of intellectual property.

    About the Fellowships

    Fellows will initially concentrate on research and innovation, with a start-up package in support, but will be trained in teaching and student development skills and be expected progressively to take up this core academic activity. It is anticipated that following a successful end of year 3 review the majority of Chancellors Fellows will transition to an open-ended lectureship.

    Selection criteria

    Applicants must have a PhD in Physics and present clear evidence of their potential to undertake leading research in collaboration with industrial partners. Successful candidates will demonstrate scientific excellence, capacity to contribute to knowledge exchange, and a track record in obtaining external funding for such projects.

    A commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching is essential for all academic posts as Chancellor's Fellows will be expected to teach and to contribute to curriculum development at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

    Holders of personal Fellowships are welcomed.


    Follow the links below to see the particulars of each position.

    Information about how to apply is available from the University's Apply Here webpage.

    All applications should include a completed Application Form, a Curriculum Vitae, a Statement of Research Interests, and names and contact details for three referees.

    Congratulations to Dr Jamie Cole and Professor Alex Murphy for their success in the 2016 Teaching Awards.

    Jamie won the award for Best Personal Tutor and Alex was runner-up, which represents a clean sweep for the School in the Personal Tutor category.

    “Personal Tutors in the School of Physics & Astronomy are dedicated to helping students realise their academic potential. The recognition Alex and I received – which belongs also to many equally deserving colleagues and to our excellent Student Support Team – will encourage the School in its desire to provide a high level of support to our students within a vibrant, challenging and hopefully rewarding learning environment.” Dr Jamie Cole

     “We are incredibly pleased by this result, which shows our students’ recognition of the pastoral care that we give them. Over the past few years we have had more than our fair share of EUSA Teaching Awards, but this is the first time that we have won both the award and runner-up. My congratulations to both Dr Cole and Professor Murphy."   Prof. Arthur Trew, Head of School

    EUSA Teaching Awards

    The EUSA Teaching Awards recognise excellence in teaching and student support.  This year, there were over 2,200 nominations for courses, teaching staff, dissertation supervisors and professional and administrative staff.

    Every student at the University has a Personal Tutor to help them make the most of their studies and to provide them with academic guidance and support throughout their degree.

    In March 2016, six undergraduate students from the College of Science & Engineering attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics held at the University of Oxford. Now in its second year, the Conference aims to help undergraduate women continue in physics by showcasing options for their educational and professional futures.

    The Conference included academic and career panel sessions, skills workshops, a tour of facilities at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, talks from speakers including Prof Christine Davies, Prof Fay Dowker and Prof Daniela Bortoletto, and a number of social events. Year 3 student Emma Stam tells us about the event.

    “Before attending the conference, I had been worried that all of the talks would be from women telling us all how hard being in a STEM field is for women working in the industry.  However, the message seemed to be more about having confidence in your own abilities which seems to be something that women struggle with more than men.

    “Throughout the conference, we were given information about various internships that were available with the companies that the speakers worked for or the laboratories that we toured and I applied to three summer internships in RAL that I wouldn’t have known about or considered before this conference.  Also, during our visit to RAL, it was interesting to see people from a range of disciplines all working in one place.  As I have an interest in biology, I got the chance learn about career opportunities that involved both physics and biology.

    “My confidence in myself was definitely boosted after the Conference, by hearing stories that I could relate to both from the other girls that attended the Conference and the guest speakers.”

    The Schools of Physics & Astronomy and Chemistry covered the cost for these students to travel to Oxford for the Conference.

    “If funding hadn’t have been provided, I don’t think I would have been able to afford to attend the conference, so the fact that Edinburgh paid for travel for all of us is really appreciated!  We were told that we were the largest group of girls from one single university that had ever attended the conference!”


    Prof Graeme Ackland has been awarded a 2.5m euro (£2m) European Research Council Advanced Fellowship, the most prestigious and lucrative grant available from the Council. The grants provide "Attractive long-term funding for exceptional research leaders only in projects being highly ambitious, pioneering and unconventional". Here Prof Ackland explains his project, "Hydrogen at Extreme Conditions: Applying Theory to Experiment" (HECATE), which involves the study of high pressure solid hydrogen.

    Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element in the universe. It exists under extreme conditions in stars and planets, and nuclear fusion requires creating such extreme temperature and pressure on earth. Lightweight storage of hydrogen in condensed form would unleash its potential as a fuel.

    The behaviour of a collection of protons and electrons presents an iconic challenge in fundamental physics. Diamond anvil cells (DAC) recently generated pressures above 400GPa, accessing conditions where the mechanical work of compression equals the chemical bonding energy. Most elements undergo dramatic structural changes in this regime, and rival predictions for hydrogen include molecular and atomic metals, superfluidity, superconductivity and one-dimensional melting. Yet when the new phase IV was discovered in 2011, it was none of these things: it was a totally unexpected complex molecular insulator.

    At these conditions experimental data is sparse: we must exploit it to the fullest extent, yet previous theoretical work has concentrated on routine density functional theory (DFT) simulation producing unmeasurable predictions. I will conduct a programme combining neutron scattering and Raman spectroscopy with theory and simulation focused on measurable quantities. This will require developing and implementing heuristic theories which do not currently exist. 

    I will develop methods to find free energy, theory to extract Raman frequencies and linewidths from simulation, and techniques to determine the signature from entanglement of quantum rotors. This requires a thorough re-examination of the quantum scattering processes in the framework of DFT, including the interaction timescale and in metals, and a full quantum treatment of indistinguishable nuclei. Thus HECATE will be uniquely placed not only to produce new phases of hydrogen, but to reliably identify what has been found.

    Statue of
    Hecate from
    British Museum

    The HECATE project is named for the eponymous three-faced Greek goddess, echoing the plasma, liquid and solid phases of hydrogen.  The  research has nothing whatsoever to do with her Roman equivalent, Trivia. 

    Congratulations to Professors Annette Ferguson and Cait MacPhee of the School, who were today among the 56 distinguished individuals elected to become Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE).

    Annette is Professor of Observational Astrophysics and leads the stellar populations research group in the Institute of Astronomy. Her research focuses on understanding how galaxies form and evolve based on data taken with the world’s forefront telescopes. On her election, she said:

    "I am very happy to be recognised by the Society and look forward to contributing towards its many aims and objectives.”

    Cait is Professor of Biological Physics in the Institute for Condensed Matter and Complex Systems. Her research focuses on the behavior of biomolecules, their role in health and disease, and their possible use in industry. On her election, she said:

    "I have very much enjoyed being a member of the RSE’s Young Academy of Scotland and I am delighted to have been elected to the Fellowship. The breadth of disciplines that is represented within the Fellowship makes the RSE a vibrant community."

    “It is fantastic to welcome such a range of outstanding individuals to the Fellowship. Each newly elected Fellow has been nominated on their notable and extensive achievements. In joining the Fellowship, they will strengthen the RSE’s capacity to advance excellence across all areas of public life; both in Scotland and further afield.” - Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

    The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE)

    The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is an educational charity established in 1783. Unlike similar organisations in the rest of the UK, the RSE’s strength lies in the breadth of disciplines represented by its Fellowship. Its membership stands at approximately 1600 Fellows from across the entire academic spectrum – science and technology, arts, humanities, social sciences, business, and public service. New Fellows are elected to the RSE each year through a rigorous five-stage nomination process.  This range of expertise enables the RSE to take part in a host of activities such as: providing independent and expert advice to Government and Parliament; supporting aspiring entrepreneurs through mentorship; facilitating education programmes for young people, and engaging the general public through educational events.

    A PhD student in the School of Physics and Astronomy has been chosen to present his research at the House of Commons as a finalist in the highly competitive SET for BRITAIN 2016 competition. Flaviu Cipcigan, a PhD student jointly funded by the University of Edinburgh and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), will present his research, “A model of the water molecule using electrons on a spring”, at Westminster on Monday 7th March 2016.

    Flaviu’s research concerns the creation of a new method to accurately and efficiently calculate intermolecular forces using ‘electrons on a spring’ – quantum Drude oscillators. These are model oscillators that behave according to laws of molecular mechanics within a force field, and can thus be used to simulate models of electronic polarizability. His work is crucial to advancing our ability to use computer simulations to design molecules with specific intended functions. This work is directly applicable to a number of important fields, such as drug design and the creation of new materials for energy storage.

    Flaviu and his team utilised the technology to create a broad, but predictive model for water, and in doing so advanced our understanding of this vital substance. He and his team discovered the reasons for one of water’s most interesting properties – its unusually high surface tension. The work of Flaviu and his team discovered previously unrecorded structural motifs within the molecule which are thought to be responsible for this property. His PhD work is as a result of a joint collaboration between NPL (Vlad Sokhan and Jason Crain) and IBM (Glenn Martyna).

    Flaviu has been shortlisted from hundreds of other applicants to the SET for BRITAIN 2016 competition, a national poster competition for early-career scientists across all major scientific disciplines. The competition gives early-stage and early-career researchers the chance to present their research and win a prize of up to £3,000. Gold medal winners in all the categories will be chosen after the presentation at the House of Commons. It also allows these researchers to engage with a number of Parliamentarians, and raise the profile of their research, their institutions, and themselves.

    This is an excellent opportunity for Flaviu and we wish him all the best in the final. 

    Work has begun on constructing the Higgs Centre for Innovation at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.

    £11 million investment

    The Centre will support start-up businesses with the aim of creating new market opportunities, especially in big data and space technologies. It is funded through a £10.7 million investment from the UK Government. The Science and Technology Facilities Council will invest £2million over five years to operate the centre.

    Entrepreneurial boost

    The centre will aim to link industry with cutting-edge scientific and engineering expertise at the STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre. It will focus on supporting business both through incubation activities and access to facilities for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Connecting engineers, academics and PhD students directly with small businesses will help boost their entrepreneurial experience at the start of their research careers.

    The stand-alone building at the Royal Observatory will be run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council in partnership with the University. The centre is due to be completed in 2017.

    “The construction of the Higgs Centre for Innovation is an exciting new development in the long established collaboration between STFC and the University of Edinburgh at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. The new centre will cement Edinburgh's reputation as a world leader in the fields of astrophysics and big data, and provide new opportunities for knowledge exchange between astronomers, particle physicists, engineers and industry.” Prof. James Dunlop, Head of the Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh

    A huge amount of work has been put in by all partners over the past year to develop plans for the Higgs Centre for Innovation and now we begin the exciting phase of seeing it built before our eyes. We look forward to the completion of this important project and the benefits it will bring to both future generations of scientists and industry." Gillian Wright, Director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre

    The construction of the Higgs Centre for Innovation is an exciting new development in the long-established collaboration between STFC and the University of Edinburgh at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. The new centre will cement Edinburgh's reputation as a world leader in the fields of astrophysics and big data, and provide new opportunities for knowledge exchange between astronomers, particle physicists, engineers and industry.

    The Higgs Centre for Innovation is named in honour of Professor Peter Higgs of the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy. The pioneering scientist received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013 for his prediction of the existence of the Higgs boson particle, which enables other particles to acquire mass. This fundamental particle was discovered by scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 2012.