LHC. Camera. Action! (part 1)

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about his work on Collider, a new Science Museum exhibition opening in November 2013.

In the past year, I’ve become a regular passenger on the evening flight from Gatwick to Geneva, home of CERN and the mighty Large Hadron Collider.  I think I could recite Easyjet’s pre-recorded safety announcement pretty much word-for-word if pushed. But this was a rather special trip, as I was visiting CERN perhaps for the last time on museum business.

I was accompanied by a team with a dazzling array of skills. Creative mastermind Pippa Nissen had marshalled exhibition designersgraphic designers, a sound artist, an animator, a camera technician and a radio producer. Not to mention our video designer, Finn Ross, fresh from his win at the Olivier Awards, and the inevitable after-party hangover. And me, a quantum superposition of particle physicist, curator and travel rep.

Our mission was to capture the essence of CERN so that it can be (almost literally) recreated in the Science Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Collider. All this material was to be gathered in just three days, using only cameras, microphones and the minds of our design team.

Day 1, Wednesday

One does not simply walk into CERN. Its gates are guarded by unfailingly helpful, though rather formidable, security personnel and to gain access you must produce a CERN ID card or a visitor pass.

CERN security gate.

CERN security gate. Image credit: Science Museum

We had rather brilliantly chosen the 1st of May as our day to arrive, a national holiday in Switzerland, meaning the reception where we would normally collect our passes was closed. I had arranged for them to be left with the security guard at the main gate, but conveying this to him proved a challenge in my halting GCSE French. Finally, with a bit of gesticulating and some help from our more linguistically capable graphic designer, we located the passes and stepped across the threshold into the world’s largest physics laboratory.

CERN is the size of a medium-sized town, spread across several sites, the largest of which straddles the border between the Swiss suburb of Meyrin and the French village of St-Genis-Pouilly. The lab grew up organically from its beginnings in the 1950s and is a peculiar hodgepodge of office buildings, warehouses and laboratories. CERN’s rather shabby above ground stands in stark contrast to the shining machines that inhabit its subterranean spaces. As far as is possible, the money goes underground, spent on CERN’s reason for being: exploring the unknown regions of the quantum world.

Our job on day one, however, was to explore CERN’s above ground world. The first few hours were spent photographing the exteriors of buildings to act as backdrops in the exhibition. There was a particular warehouse door, in varying shades of rust and faded blue, that really caught the team’s attention. It will take me a while to forget the image of the design team gathered around it while Finn took high-res shots with his £20k camera. That’s designers for you I suppose.

The long beige corridors of CERN's Building 2. Image credit: Science Museum

The long beige corridors of CERN’s Building 2. Image credit: Science Museum

Then we ventured into the star of the show, the enigmatic Building 2, a 1970s block that houses a large number of institute offices. Along its long beige corridors you find offices of universities from all over the world, including the room where Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and my own home-away-from-home, the Cambridge LHCb office. We spent a happy afternoon photographing the office doors, each with their own personal details that do more than any museum text panel could in getting across just how international a place CERN is. We owe a particular debt of thanks to a PhD student from Bristol, in on a holiday to work on her thesis, who obligingly allowed us barge into her office to take photographs.

Meanwhile our sound designer was busily recording the soundscape of CERN from the clanging of doors and the echo of footsteps on lino to the hum of electrical equipment. Once we had recorded enough material to rebuild Building 2 in its entirety should any calamity befall it, we made a brisk trip around nearby parts of the lab, taking in the main auditorium where the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced to the world, and a series of labs and warehouses including the LEIR accelerator ring, the machine responsible producing beams of lead ions for our muse, the Large Hadron Collider.

But after all that, we had only scratched the surface of the sprawling laboratory. The next day it would be time to go underground…

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