Uncovering the mysteries of the dark universe

Nottingham Research Fellow Dr Peter Millington is based in the Particle Cosmology Group, School of Physics and Astronomy

Why did you apply for a fellowship? 

The Nottingham Research Fellowship (NRF) represented an exciting opportunity for me to grow my research independence, and an important stepping stone towards applying for and securing additional third-party funding to grow my own research group. 

Why Nottingham? 

The University of Nottingham is the natural host for my research programme in terms of the proximity and wealth of complementary expertise. From my previous experiences of the Particle Cosmology Group, the School of Physics and Astronomy, and the University of Nottingham, I had also seen the willingness to support the professional development of early career researchers such as myself.

What has the experience been like? 

Despite the on-going pandemic (My NRF started in August 2020.), I have been offered significant support at all levels within the university. This has helped me to grow my independence and secure the additional third-party funding that will enable me to establish my own research group.

How would you explain your research? 

I am a theoretical physicist working in particle physics and cosmology. I use mathematics to describe how the fundamental building blocks of nature – the elementary particles – move and interact with one another on microscopic scales, and what this means for the evolution of our universe on its largest scales. 

What inspired you to pursue this area? 

From a young age, I always wanted to understand what things were made of and how they worked. I am extremely lucky that trying to understand what the universe is made of and how it works has become my day job.

How will your research affect the average person?

I hope that the breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe inspire people to be interested in science, to study science and to value the scientific method. 

What challenges are you hoping to tackle? 

Our “standard model” of particle physics has been incredibly successful, explaining the bulk of what we see at collider experiments, such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But the known particles of this standard model only make up 5% of the ingredients of our universe. To explain how galaxies formed, and why their stars and gas move the way they do, we need dark matter. And to explain why our universe is expanding at an increasing rate, we need dark energy. Together, these missing ingredients make up the other 95%. Yet, while we can infer their properties, the origins of dark matter and dark energy in terms of new particles or new forces of nature remain a mystery. Uncovering this “dark universe” is one of the biggest challenges in theoretical physics, and one that my research is helping to address.

What has been the greatest moment of your career so far? 

I have had the good fortune to listen to, to discuss with and to work alongside a diversity of scientists from all over the world. Being a part of this rich community has not only opened my eyes to new physics, it has broadened my horizons and given me new perspectives; it has allowed me to find wider common experience and left me with life-long friendships. These compose the greatest moments of my career so far. 

Who or what has helped you get to where you are today? 

The ebbs and flows of academic research can be tough, and I am incredibly lucky to have had the support of a great many wonderful (and incredibly patient) people: family, friends, colleagues, and mentors (many of whom are or have been at the University of Nottingham). They have been there to share in the successes and encourage me through the challenges. 

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Discover what you are passionate about and strive for that.

What next? 

The lone, unkempt theoretical physicist single-handedly uncovering the mysteries of the universe is an inaccurate and unhelpful stereotype. Real progress relies on collaboration and the combined efforts of a diverse community of scientists. I am incredibly excited about establishing my own independent research group of postgraduate students and post-doctoral researchers, helping to support the next generation of scientists, and leading part of the theoretical physics community’s efforts to understand why our universe looks the way it does. 


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