When particles collide: high on the Higgs boson
A visit to the Large Hadron Collider exhibition in London is a must for the curious
A large back-lit image of the Large Hadron Collider at the Science Museum in London. Photograph: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty
I left school knowing some French, a bit of Latin, how to do buttonhole stitch and how to iron a man’s shirt. But no science. Which is why, when I went to the exhibition of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in London’s Science Museum, I took it all in my stride: to the untutored mind, anything is possible. Protons, particles and accelerators don’t faze me one bit. And that’s just as well, for the show is full of virtual encounters, moving patterns of light and simulated lecture theatres with – yes, it’s him – Brian Cox popping in to ask a scientific question.
There’s a video with an Italian physicist in the LHC headquarters in Cern in Switzerland telling us his wife complains the project means more to him than she does. And he smiles: “I can always find another wife.” And here’s another scientist saying they don’t much like stereotypes in Cern. “You know,” he said, “how Italians are always late and Germans always on time.” Well, I did but I didn’t like to say.
Anyway, what the LHC people want are free particles that operate outside the box, and then it’s bingo. “Occasionally an exotic particle such as the Higgs boson is created,” we are told. An exotic particle? I could have swooned. Boson, by the way, is from Satyendra Nath Bose, the eminent Indian physicist who worked with Einstein.
Basically, the Hadron Collider is a huge machine that creates conditions similar to those in our universe a split second after the Big Bang. The key to it all is the Higgs boson. Step into that moment at the exhibition and hang on to your hat.
The backstory is that Higgs predicted the existence of this exotic particle in 1964, but many scoffed, so the people in Cern built a 27km tunnel and sent some particle beams tearing around inside it, with a collection of powerful magnets to make them go around corners. Then they sent another lot of particles the other way and when the two collided, the explosion produced energy that was 100,000 times hotter than the very core of the sun. To dampen things, they made a helium cooling system, which was colder than anything in outer space. The main thing about the explosion, however, is that it recreated the Higgs boson, the original one having broken up.
The green-to-go button was first pressed in September 2008. I was watching out for a sign: a streak of light across the sky perhaps, a subterranean shifting, a darkening of the sun. But all we got was a fault in the electrical wiring, so that the whole thing had to be shut down for a year and rewired at a cost of £24 million.
“Physicists are dreamers,” a videoed Hungarian engineer tells us, her hard hat at a jaunty angle. “They ask us to do the impossible, and we have a go.” They had a go and so Richard Higgs, the Nobel physicist at Edinburgh University, was vindicated.
There are still a few doubters, however – this particle may act as Higgs predicted, but is it the real thing?
“Physics,” says the curator Alison Boyle, “can only work on the world as we know it.”
So set aside the God Particle idea. Higgs is not a believer. It’s not a phrase used by the Cern people, nor does it crop up in the exhibition. Boyle (no, she’s not related to Robert Boyle), who graduated from NUI Galway with degrees in physics and astronomy, drew in Olivier award-winning writer Michael Wynne to draft a script for the exhibition. “We knew,” she says, “that this exhibition would require something different.”
Hence the talking virtuals, squiggles that contain jokes, graphics that haul you inside the collider, that Italian making jokes about his wife, a mock-up of a Cern work-room complete with coffee cup and calendar open at a significant date, and a shadowy physicist standing there doing nothing but thinking.
“Those characters are a composite of many people working at Cern,” says Boyle.
Now, with the Higgs boson filling in a new bit of the jigsaw, the search is on for Dark Matter and its Wimps, the weakly interacting massive particles that hold everything together. But don’t hold your breath. This could take time.
If you’re in London, drop in to this magical extreme-dream machine. It’s poetry in motion – and that you’ve got to believe.
Exhibition runs until May 6. sciencemuseum.org.uk