The Large Hadron Collider frequently appears in the news but how much do we really know about it? We know it is a particle accelerator built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN for short) which was instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs Boson, but what do those scientists really do in that 27km long circular tunnel?
For those who have always wanted to know more, Collider, an exhibition at the London Science Museum, aims to make the strange world CERN, the Large Hadron Collider and particle physics accessible to all.
The exhibition begins with a short introduction video, which briefly explains what CERN and the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) are. The video features several scientists of different ages, nationalities and backgrounds and focuses on the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012. This establishes the overriding theme of the exhibition clearly in the audience’s mind.
Collider focuses primarily on the collaborative nature of modern physics research. CERN has 20 member nations (19 from Europe and Israel) as well as 7 observer nations (including the US, Russia, Japan and India) which check their findings. Collider talks in detail about the challenges and advantage of having people of different languages and cultures working together on the mammoth LHC. Through videos we get to meet various members of the LHC team and we can see how diverse they are in terms of age, gender and race.
As well as talking about international collaboration, Collider also attempts to dispel the view of scientific breakthroughs as one man’s eureka moment. The theory of the Higgs-Boson was originally proposed by five different physicists through three different scientific papers and it is near impossible for one person to claim the discovery as their own. Even Professor Peter Higgs, after whom the elusive subatomic particle is named, has openly said that his work is part of an ongoing collaborative process. 10,000 people work on the LHC and the exhibition makes the point that scientific breakthroughs are the product of many people’s hard work.
Experimental particle physics is not the most accessible of fields and the Science Museum attempts to cater for visitors of all ages and levels of scientific understanding. A lot of effort is made to make sure Collider does not go over the heads of younger visitors whilst still remaining interesting to grown ups and those with an active interest in physics.As the visitors travel through the exhibition they observe white boards with illustrations of the processes which go on inside the LHC. These are simple enough to be understandable to pre-teen visitors but also provide a summary for older visitors.
Adjacent to these white boards are cross section diagrams of the components of the LHC, which go into much more detail of how the machine operates. Collider is certainly accessible to people from a non-scientific background, however I felt a lot of the ground of the exhibition had already been covered. The LHC and the Higgs Boson are frequently discussed in articles in mainstream media outlets, such as BBC News and the Guardian. As a reader of the science section of these publications, I felt I already knew a lot of what was in the exhibition. I can imagine that people who read the popular scientific press (New Scientist, etc) would find there was not much new to learn from Collider.
Where the exhibition really excels in its use of media; video, audio, projections, photographs and graphics are all interwoven throughout Collider to make a complete portrait of LHC. The photographs of the LHC are especially beautiful, full of amazing details. This was an exhibition that put a lot of effort into using all the mediums available to great effect.
It is too simplistic to imagine that the Higgs-Boson research is the only piece of important work that goes on at the LHC. Collider does focus very heavily on this better known discovery, particularly on the moment it was announced. As important as the Higgs-Boson is, there is a wide range of research done by the LHC which Collider overlooked.
At the end of the exhibition there are sections focusing on the other mysteries being investigated by CERN such as dark matter, dark energy and gravity’s relative weakness as a force. This was a well-chosen note to end on. One mystery is solved but more pop up, yet CERN, the LHC and their massive team of scientists from all over the world are still working hard to probe the enigmas of the universe.
I left the exhibition feeling stimulated and uplifted. Overall, Collider is very positive in mood. It also works hard to display the stereotype of physicist as old white men, pondering strange mathematical problems. Collider shows how accessible science can be, and how diverse it is; I hope it inspires visitors from all around the world that anyone can make a contribution to science.