In Conversation with Professor Andy Parker…Master of Peterhouse and former Head of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge

December 2023

Andy Parker is currently Master of Peterhouse at the University of Cambridge

As we speak to Professor Andy Parker, he is sitting in the office of his newly appointed role as Master of Peterhouse at the University of Cambridge and notes “It’s very different from being head of the Physics department. The role allows for greater interaction with students and there’s a more diverse set of people. There are less scheduled meetings from 9 to 5 but more thinking time and evening events, which is a nice change.

Andy’s interest in Physics began at a young age: “All of it was based on curiosity. When I was a kid, my father was an engineer, so I was around people who made stuff. I used to dismantle clocks and radios and try to put them back together again”.  He studied Physics at Oxford and in his final year, Andy wrote his paper on bubble chambers (vessels filled with superheated liquid to detect electrically charged particles moving through it) landing him a summer internship at CERN. His summer experience led him to pursue a Ph.D. in Physics at UCL in 1979, specifically on neutrino beams: “Neutrino means ‘little neutral one’ – they are the weakest-acting particles in the universe and incredibly difficult to measure. To detect them, you must put a lot of material in their way and produce a lot of neutrinos hoping that one or two will hit something. For two years, we ran the CERN neutrino beam at full intensity, and we had 300 hits. After that we had to process the photos, digitise and analyse the data,” a processAndy describes as “fun and unique.”

After completing his PhD in 1983 Andy continued to work at CERN, eventually as a staff physicist. He led various projects including a system for the UA2 experiment and detector construction work building silicon censors.  He was elected project leader for six years for the development of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, working with 50 different universities.

After his success at CERN, Andy returned to the UK and became an assistant lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory: “I became involved with the physics that could be done with the lab machines. We experimented with super-symmetry and even extra spatial dimensions… One of the predictions was that we could make quantum-sized black holes. Of course, the newspapers got hold of this, and articles were published with headlines announcing that ‘the large hadron collider was going to destroy the world.’” He climbed the ranks of the department and in 2018, Andy became head of the department. The start of his new position coincided with the news of a Ray Dolby legacy to rebuild the Cavendish Laboratory, what would become Andy’s final project in the department. With additional funding from the government, the building is expected to be completed by early 2024.

On the impact of philanthropy, Andy notes: “Philanthropy lets you do things you couldn’t otherwise do. Government funding is very tight so it’s harder to do blue sky research, whereas donors are usually excited about science. It also widens the access for talented students to pursue their goals. PhD students, like the P.C Ho Scholars, rely heavily on philanthropic donations, and their research focuses on a range of topics: particle physics, cold atoms, quantum, and the latest space telescope. Some of the P.C Ho Scholars will become academics, others will go into industry with the mindset of discovery, but they will never forget the training they had. If you give them that opportunity, you have set them up for life.”

In 2019, the Huo Family Foundation donated £3 million to Cambridge University to endow the P.C. Ho PhD Studentships in Physics.