Thinking big

Curator Ali Boyle blogs on Big Science, a recent discussion about science and society since WWII that was part of our Collider events series.   

If you want to get an understanding of giant scientific projects like CERN, go into your kitchen and take your microwave apart. Actually don’t – we recommend that you leave potentially-destructive household experiments to the guidance of Punk Science. But as Jon Agar points out, a household device that we now take for granted contains a component that is a signature of the sciences since WW2. The magnetron – which generates the short-wavelength radio waves (or ‘microwaves’) to heat up your dinner – was crucial in the development of airborne radar for WW2.

While the names usually associated with the invention are those of University of Birmingham scientists John Randall and Harry Boot, they were not stereotypical lone geniuses in a laboratory: Randall was employed by General Electric, and the research was sponsored by the Admiralty with the aim of detecting submarines. This interplay between academic, industrial and military interests is often characteristic of Big Science – a broad term which historians use to describe the large-scale projects of the sciences of the late 20th century.

The original cavity magnetron is on display in Making the Modern World

The original cavity magnetron is on display in Making the Modern World (Image: Science Museum)

Last week’s conversation between Jon and Lisa Jardine, held in our Collider exhibition, discussed several examples of Big Science, and ways of making sense of it. One handy mnemonic is the Five M’s: money; manpower; big machines; military interests and media attention – although CERN, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year, is a notable exception to the ‘military’ rule. It was founded with the aim of using peaceful scientific research to knit Europe together again after the war. Find out more here.

This pan-European institution preceded later economic and political unions, although over the past 60 years particle physics has also witnessed Britain’s ambiguity about being part of Europe. Immediately after WW2 Britain was one of the few European nations that didn’t need a joint accelerator, as it already had its own large facilities, and there was much discussion before signing the CERN convention. Although UK universities and industrial partners were major players in building the Large Hadron Collider, they might not have been involved at all. Jon showed us a 1984 letter, preserved in the National Archives, in which Margaret Thatcher – who trained as a scientist – expresses doubt about ‘extravagant’ collaborative projects. Mrs T was eventually convinced of the worth of keeping the UK in CERN, and was even partly responsible for one of the most common analogies used to explain the Higgs boson. (Mind you, Peter Higgs himself admits that it’s pretty impossible to explain the mechanism simply, in this interview with Jim Al-Khalili).

On a 1982 visit to CERN, Margaret Thatcher is shown a cavity from the Large Electron Positron Collider - see a similar one in our exhibition. (Image: CERN)

On a 1982 visit to CERN, Margaret Thatcher is shown a cavity from the Large Electron Positron Collider – see a similar one in our exhibition. (Image: CERN)

And sometimes exploring Big Science involves looking at the little things: Lisa says that one of the best ways to understand how our lives are intertwined with science is to explore how science is intertwined with life. Big Science provides plenty of opportunities to explore social interaction amongst large groups, whether it’s the staggering 75,000 people working at the Manhattan Project’s Oak Ridge site as development of the atomic bomb neared completion (see an exhibition of the official photographer’s work here) or the 3,000 people onsite at CERN at any given time. We’ve tried to recreate some of CERN’s everyday scenes in Collider, which runs at the Science Museum until 5 May and then at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from 23 May – 28 September.

The audio recording of Lisa and Jon’s wide-ranging conversation can be listened to here, and you’ll find further coverage in Jon’s book on 20th century science. You can also hear more from them both, and many other historians, on science of all shapes and sizes in Lisa’s radio series.

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