Author Archives: Alison Boyle

About Alison Boyle

Deputy Keeper of Science and Medicine | @ali_boyle

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.

LHC: Lifting Heavy Contraptions

Curator Ali Boyle on how the Collider team are installing some of the larger objects in our new exhibition. 

It’s just three weeks to go until Collider opens with a flurry of exciting events. Which means that we’re getting to the best part of exhibition work – after all the planning, the objects are finally starting to make their way onto gallery.

That’s sometimes easier said than done when your objects come from CERN. A few are so large that we’ve had to install them on gallery early and build the rest of the exhibition around them. First up was the object we call The Beast, a 2-tonne section of one of the giant dipole magnets that keep the LHC’s particle beams on course.

Thankfully it was only a section – a whole LHC magnet weighs in at 35 tonnes and is 15 metres long. And our basement gallery is a lot easier to get to than a tunnel 175 metres below ground, the challenge faced by CERN as they upgrade the LHC’s magnet system.

dipole_lifting

Conservator Richard (in white) supervises The Beast being lowered onto its trolley. (Credit: Alison Boyle)

Another 2-tonne behemoth, delivered from CERN that morning, followed – an accelerating cavity from LEP, the Large Electron Positron collider, which previously occupied the tunnel that now houses the LHC. The copper cavity, used in the first phase of LEP operations, looks like something Jules Verne might have imagined.

The LEP cavity's storage sphere is carefully lowered into place. (Credit: Alison Boyle)

The LEP cavity’s storage sphere is carefully lowered into place. (Credit: Alison Boyle)

Of course, being the Science Museum, we’re used to big bits of kit. The LHC objects, although hefty, were a piece of cake compared with getting the planes in. Or handling the 4-tonne Rosse Mirror, which we moved into its current position in Cosmos & Culture in 2009.

Made of speculum, a mixture of copper and tin, the Rosse Mirror is six feet in diameter. It is one of the few surviving original pieces of the largest scientific instrument of its day, the enormous telescope built by the Earl of Rosse at Birr Castle in the Irish midlands and known as the  ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’. The mirror was donated to us in 1914 – here it is being delivered.

Easy does it … moving the Rosse Mirror into the Western Galleries, 1914. (Credit: Science Museum)

There’s a clear distinction between ‘doers’ and ‘watchers’ in this photograph. On Collider this week I was definitely the latter. As those keen observers of the museum world, the Ministry of Curiosity, point out, curators rarely do the actual muscle work.

So, rather than take my word for it, why not ask someone who really knows about moving big bits of particle accelerator around? Lyn Evans (or ‘Evans the Atom’ as he’s dubbed in the press) was Project Leader for the LHC build. Next Wednesday 30 October, thanks to our friends at the London Science Festival, you can hear him talk about the LHC’s engineering challenges at Science Museum Lates. He’ll be joined by Collider‘s very own Harry Cliff, who’ll give a sneak preview of how we’re bringing CERN to South Kensington. Not all of it obviously, as that would be a bit too heavy…

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening on 13th November 2013.