Andrew Brinkerhoff, Class of 2005: MHA prepares grad for particle physics

March 2017

On a typical day, Andrew Brinkerhoff hops on his bike and pedals to work at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) — home to the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

The 2005 Mars Hill Academy graduate began his journey while studying particle physics at the University of Notre Dame. Through the graduate program, he spent 18 months working in Switzerland at CERN. He assisted in detector operations and analyzed particle collision data. His name is listed among those physicists who contributed to the Higgs discovery paper, which made international headlines in 2012 for the discovery of a sub-atomic particle that gives matter its mass.

Then, in August 2016 Mr. Brinkerhoff, who earned his undergraduate engineering degree from Grove City College, landed a post-doc position through the University of Florida to return to Switzerland. He is one of approximately 8,000 physicists who work with CERN – hailing from nations across the world. About half work on site.

“Most of the physicists work with one of the two major detectors, CMS and ATLAS, which perform similar functions, examining all the particles coming out of a collision,” he said. “Each is bigger than a house, and they are located 100 meters underground.”

Once Mr. Brinkerhoff’s time with CERN is complete, he plans to return to the U.S. and become a college professor. He lives in Strasbourg, France, near Geneva, with his wife, Mary, and their infant son.

Q: Working at CERN sounds glamorous. What is it really like?

A: I spend eight to 12 hours a week in meetings, occasionally more, and try to shield my students from the same fate. A fair amount of time is spent preparing presentations, and most of the rest is writing, reading and debugging computer code. A handful of hours each week goes to just thinking or discussing the right approach to problems. And then when you’re writing a paper, lots and lots of editing. That said, the problem solving is fun, and I occasionally even enjoy the coding itself. It’s always enjoyable when a study works out, to see in a plot what you suspected ought to be the case. Both meetings and day-to-day work contain opportunities to teach and learn from colleagues and students.

Q: What are some of the more exciting moments?

A: Students camped outside the auditorium overnight before the Higgs announcement, and there was also a packed house for the LIGO gravitational wave discovery, which was simulcast at CERN. It’s also something to go down to the experiment, or even to walk through one of the hardware-testing hangars the size of football fields. When you get outside the office, you catch a glimpse of the scale of the endeavor.

Q: How often is the accelerator in operation?

A: The accelerator typically runs from May to December with collisions going on continuously, 100 million per second, for 8-16 hours at a time. The collider runs day and night, and only pauses to refill with protons, or for a few days or weeks for maintenance and upgrades. We need this kind of volume, because most of the processes (types of particles coming out collisions) are extremely rare — some will only occur a few hundred times in the entire year — unless there is new physics.

Q: How did your classical Christian education prepare you for your field of study rather than a “school-to-work” approach?

A: Given that I didn't even think about studying physics until my senior year of high school, I wouldn't say I "dreamed" of becoming a physicist - I more or less fell into it.  However, getting into physics "late in the game" (by some people's perspective), and not having A.P. classes in high school, was no hindrance at all.  At many universities, if you're going to study in a technical field such as physics or engineering, they do not allow A.P. credits to replace the core required classes.  And if they do, skipping the class is often a disadvantage for the student: if the next-level class (say Physics II or Calculus II) is not offered until the spring, you just have six more months to forget what you learned in high school. 

Q: Though you did not have A.P.  science classes at MHA, were you equipped to tackle the challenges of the STEM field in college?  

A: Honestly, I think the Mars Hill approach likely served me better than an A.P. approach: building a good physics intuition and becoming adept at problem-solving are more important than having seen a certain set of content before college (where you will cover it again anyway).  Also, studying physics and calculus in the same year at Mars Hill allowed each class to reinforce the other - which makes sense, given that Newton originally developed calculus in order to understand physics.  Even in college, the first physics course is often algebra-based: so in that sense, I was already ahead of the game in high school.

Q: How did your MHA education shape the way you view learning?

A: Beyond college, in grad school (and afterwards), I suspect it's true in most fields of study or work that the biggest contributor to success or failure is not technical expertise, and certainly not early or "advanced" exposure to technical concepts.  This is certainly true in physics.  It is much more important to understand your particular task in both its immediate and larger context of significance, and to be able to communicate to others.  I have seen an incredible amount of wasted effort from students who follow rote procedures to perform a given study, but miss crucial details because they haven't understood first what the study is for - and thus haven't thought through how the logical sequence of a particular technique is designed to produce a certain conclusion. 

Q: How was your curiosity for learning fostered at Mars Hill Academy? 

A: Even more effort goes to waste when physicists are unable to communicate their findings concisely and effectively.  The key to effective research is a thorough understanding of both the internals of your work and its relation to other research, and an ability to communicate both the details and the big picture as part of a cohesive, compelling whole.  In most technical fields, even though success is measured by communication (publications and conference talks), effective communication is little emphasized or taught.  This means that just average writers and speakers will stand out - and rhetors of the caliber that Mars Hill churns out even more so.  Again, I suspect the same is true in engineering, medicine, and business.  This is why the skills of systematic, comprehensive analysis and intelligible, persuasive communication taught at Mars Hill are likely to serve its students better in all of those fields than additional technical instruction in any of them.