It was little more than eighteen months ago that the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (or CERN) announced the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, the so-called ‘God particle’, and it was only a couple of months ago that Peter Higgs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for first postulating its existence way back in 1964. Yet already the Science Museum has created an exhibition that celebrates this major scientific breakthrough, and lets visitors explore the piece of kit that made it all happen – the largest and most complicated scientific experiment of all time – the Large Hadron Collider. For a museum that aims to inform and educate the public about science’s place in today’s world, and to inspire future generations of scientists, Collider is a triumph: as topical and as cutting-edge as any exhibition could ever hope to be.
I especially enjoyed the way the exhibition was able to delve deep into the science of particle physics, and at the same time tell a very human story. The Higgs-Boson discovery represented the culmination of more than fifty years’ work by more than ten thousand people, and in this exhibition we meet some of the people (or rather, actors) who played a part in this enormous project. They’re all one big happy family, it seems. Engineers, computer scientists, technicians, PHd students. The Germans are punctual and reliable, we are told, while the Italians turn up late for everything, but can think somewhat more ‘outside the box’. We journey through not only the particle accelerator itself, but through corridors and messy offices, past notice-boards and posters, and tables full of coffee cups and chocolate wrappers.
It was while I was trying to absorb all the complex science that was scribbled on all the notebooks, whiteboards and computer screens scattered around the place that I was struck by just how ambitious a remit this is. Explaining to punters like me what the Higgs-Boson actually is, and why its discovery is apparently so important, is by no means an easy task. Sure, I still can’t quite get my head round it all, and I’ve been fascinated by science all my life, but I certainly left knowing an awful lot more about particle physics than I did when I went in. I might even be in a position to be able to give an across-a-pub-table explanation of what the God particle is, how it gives all the matter in the universe its mass, and how it fits into the ‘standard model’ of particle physics. Well, I’ll be giving it a good go at some point in the near future, anyway.
The journey begins with a scene you may have already seen on the news last year. The rows of wooden benches on which we sit, in front of a huge wrap-around screen, makes it look as though we are in the auditorium where the discovery of the Higgs-Boson was announced to the CERN team, and to the world’s media, on 4th July 2012. It is here that we encounter the first of the many characters who work at CERN that we will meet along the way, including the woman who first glimpsed, on the screen on her laptop, the spike in a graph that indicated that the God particle had been detected. We also catch a glimpse of the poster boy of popular science himself, Brian Cox (the one person who is not played by an actor, who makes a brief cameo as the man who makes the coffee).
Then we leave the autotorium, descend underground, and enter the LHC. The bulk of the collider itself is a circular tunnel, located 570 feet below the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, with a total circumference of 27km. It is a size almost impossible to comprehend, but the the museum has done well to try and convey it in quite a small space. Small sections of tunnel are recreated in detail, and large images on the wall help create the illusion that the giant tube you are standing in carries on for miles into the distance. With all the warning signs and health-and-safety notices you instantly get the feeling of a workplace. And the video screens showing more of the people who work there, complete with their hard hats and fluorescent jackets, explaining what their job entails makes the space seem busy and alive with activity.
I was astounded to discover that all of the protons that are fired around the 27km tunnel, and smashed into one another, come from one tiny container of hydrogen gas, smaller than your average fire exstinguisher, and fired through a small nozzle only only 4mm thick! Indeed the staggering numbers and astonishing statistics continue to come thick and fast throughout. The magnets used to accelerate the protons around the tunnel are cooled to a temperature of almost absolute zero, about -271.3 degrees celcius, making the inside of the LHC the coldest place in the universe. Meanwhile the heat generated when the particles collide has been known to reach 1.6 trillion degrees celcius, about 100,000 times hotter than the Sun. At full speed the particles can complete a lap of the 27km tunnel more than 11,000 times a second. In fact, at 99.9999991% the speed of light – nearly 300,000km per second – the particles travel so fast they actually travel back in time. As explained by Einstein’s theory of special relativity, because time travels slower for the particle that it does for the observer (ie. the detectors), this time-travel has to be factored into all the calculations. Mind-bending stuff alright. Personally, the most curious fact of all for me is the rather simple but strangely paradoxical one which is that to find the smallest thing in the universe, us humans have had to build the biggest experiment ever. That’s particle physics for you, I guess.
Perhaps the exhibition could have contained a little more about how discoveries like the Higgs-Boson, and our understanding of sub-atomic particles in general, has benefited humankind, and what technological advances it has brought, or could bring, in the future. Not so much for my benefit, since I am already convinced that scientific progress always brings enormous benefits to humankind somewhere down the line. Indeed, most of the people who come to visit the Science Museum are probably convinced too. But I do come across many people who have trouble with the idea of pouring vast sums of money into projects such as the LHC – about three billion pounds in total, according to the latest estimates – unless a very tangible example of Something Really Useful can be guaranteed to result from it, and I fear that there may not be enough to satisfy such people in this exhibition.
As with a lot of modern science, it is the groundbreaking technology that is required to study particle physics in the first place that has provided untold benefits to the human race, from the medical imaging techniques and cancer treatments that use particle accelerators to the relentless increase in computing power that we have come to completely take for granted in today’s world. In fact, the kind of computing power needed to process the data generated by the LHC’s detectors, which observe a total of some six-hundred million particle collisions every second, is simply too much for CERN to handle on-site. As beautifully shown by a digital animation in the exhibition, as the particle collisions occur the data emerging from CERN’s detectors in Switzerland is instantaneously sent to some eight-thousand separate locations spread across the globe. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, which crunches through about one petabyte of data every day (about 210,000 DVDs worth), is a direct successor to another piece of technology that a British chap called Tim Berners-Lee invented at CERN in 1989, something called the World Wide Web.
So, whether you are interested in learning about nature’s great mysteries, or are interested in the actual work that goes into stumbling across one of nature’s great mysteries, Collider certainly does not come up short in any way, and is well worth the entrance fee. Oh, and you get a free badge too.
Collider runs at the Science Museum until 6th May 2014, with tickets costing £10 for adults and £7 for concessions. And while you’re at the Science Museum, be sure to pay the brand new Media Space a look – its featured exhibition Only In England is not remotely science-related but is terrific none the less!
POSTSCRIPT (23rd May 2014): Collider has now re-opened at the Science Museum’s sister museum in Manchester, the Museum of Science and Industry, where it will run until 28th September 2014. Tickets cost £7 for adults and £5 concessions – everything really is cheaper up north! – and can be booked here.