Thursday, November 21, 2013

The LHC comes to London

Here’s my latest piece for the Prospect blog. I also have a piece in the latest issue of the magazine on quantum computing, but I’ll post that shortly.


It may come as a surprise that not all physicists are thrilled by the excitement about the Higgs boson, now boosted further by the award of the physics Nobel prize to Peter Higgs and François Englert, who first postulated its existence. Some of them feel twinges of resentment at the way the European centre for particle physics CERN in Switzerland, where the discovery was made with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has managed to engineer public perception to imply that the LHC itself, and particle physics generally, is at the centre of gravity of modern physics. In fact most physicists don’t work on the questions that predominate at CERN, and the key concepts of the discipline are merely exemplified by, and not defined by, those issues.

I have shared some of this frustration at the skewed view that wants to make all physicists into particle-smashers. But after taking a preview tour of the new exhibition Collider just opening at London’s Science Museum, I am persuaded that griping is not the proper response. It is true that CERN has enviable public-relations resources, but the transformation of an important scientific result (the Higgs discovery) into an extraordinary cultural event isn’t a triumph of style over substance. It marks a shift in science communication that other disciplines can usefully learn from. Collider reflects this.

The exhibition has ambitions beyond the usual pedagogical display of facts and figures, evident from the way that the creative team behind it brought in theatrical expertise: video designer Finn Ross, who worked on the stage play of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and playwright Michael Wynne. They have helped to recreate a sense of what it is like to actually work at CERN. The exhibits, many of them lumps of hardware from the LHC, are displayed in a mock-up of the centre’s offices (with somewhat over-generous proportions) and corridors, complete with poster ads for recondite conferences and the “CERN choir”. Faux whiteboards and blackboards – some with explanatory notes, others just covered with decorative maths – abound. Actors in a video presentation aim to convince us of the ordinariness of the men and women who work here, as well as of their passionate engagement and excitement with the questions they are exploring.

The result is that the findings of the LHC’s experiments so far – which are difficult to explain at the best of times, although most interested folks have probably gathered by now that the Higgs boson is a particle responsible for giving some other fundamental particles their mass – are not, as in the traditional science-museum model, spruced up and served up to the public as it were on a plate, in the form of carefully honed metaphors. The makeshift feel of the environment, a work-in-progress with spanners and bits of kit still lying around, is itself an excellent metaphor for the science itself: still under construction, making use of what is to hand, its final shape as yet undetermined. The experience is as much about what it means to do science as it is about what the science tells us.

This is a good thing, and the fact that CERN itself has become a kind of living exhibition – with more than 100,000 visitors a year and an active outreach programme with strong involvement of schools – is worth celebrating. The short presentations at the preview event also made it clear why scientists need help in thinking about public engagement. It has never been a secret that Peter Higgs himself has little interest in the hoopla and celebrity that his Nobel award has sent stratospheric. In a rare appearance here, he admitted to being concerned that all the emphasis on the particle now named after him might eclipse the other exciting questions the LHC will explore. Those are what will take us truly into uncharted territory; the Higgs boson is the last, expected part in the puzzle we have already assembled (the so-called Standard Model), whereas questions about whether all known particles have “supersymmetric” partners, and what dark matter is, demand hitherto untested physics.

Higgs is the classic scientist’s scientist, interested only in the work. When asked how he visualized the Higgs boson himself, he didn’t launch into the stock image of Margaret Thatcher moving through a cocktail party and “accreting mass” in the form of hangers-on, but just said that he didn’t visualize it at all, since he considers it impossible to visualize fundamental particles. He said he had little idea of why what seemed to be a previous lack of public interest in science has now become a hunger for it.

All this is not uncommon in scientists, who are not interested in developing pretty pictures and fancy words to communicate their thoughts. That no doubt helps them get on with the job, but it is why they need leaders such as CERN’s current director general Rolf-Dieter Heuer, who can step back and think about the message and the role in society. Hearteningly, Heuer asserted that “the interest in society was always there – we scientists just made the mistake of not satisfying it.”

As Heuer pointed out, the bigger picture is mind-boggling. “It took us fifty years to complete the Standard Model”, he said. “But ninety-five percent of the universe is still unknown. It’s time to enter the dark universe.”

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