The High Schoolers Hunting for the Universe’s Secrets

Four British schoolboys had just been called from class. They were ten days away from their A-level exams, the ones that determine the direction the rest of their lives would take, but they’d been interrupted from their studies to discuss the deepest secrets of the universe—their work hunting for the magnetic monopole at the Large Hadron Collider.

Clearly, they would much rather be studying than be interviewed. The disinterested troop sat around a table in the back of a large High School science room outside of Canterbury in the United Kingdom. The teens, none older than 16, who could have been the early Beatles in matching school uniforms, were discussing graduate-level physics.

Young MoEDAL recruits. From left: Thomas Jefferies, Andrew Nicoll, Paul Holland, Patrick Abbott. Photo: Ryan F. Mandelbaum/Gizmodo.

“Monopoles themselves are very ionizing,” 16-year-old Andrew Nicoll told me. “4,700 times more than a proton. They’ll lose energy very quickly. Our chips are designed to detect very short lived monopoles.”

The monopole is exactly what it sounds like: A magnet with one pole. Take any magnet, and you’ll notice it has a north and a south pole. Chop it in half, and you’ll have two magnets, each with a north and south pole. Keep chopping, and each piece will always have two poles. But the monopole, if it existed, would only have one pole. Magnetic field lines, rather than connecting the north and south, would shoot off into infinity.

The basic equations for electromagnetism, the famous Maxwell equations, have an obvious blank that a monopole could fill. The equations with a magnetic charge, in other words, a monopole, would be symmetric with each magnetic term looking like the corresponding electric term. In other words, the equations would just look nicer.

Regular bar magnets have two poles, so they’re sometimes called magnetic dipoles. The lines representing the magnetic connect each pole. But a magnetic monopole would only have a single pole, so…

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