Author Archives: Rupert Cole

Max and Tangle’s guide to particle physics

To celebrate our Collider exhibition, we worked with the BAFTA award-winning Brothers McLeod to bring particle physics to life in this short animation. Myles and Greg McLeod had a pretty tough brief to squeeze all of particle physics (the entire Standard Model) into a two minute animation, but we think they pulled it off.

Collider content developer Rupert Cole interviewed scriptwriter Myles McLeod to find out how they did it.

Is this your first animation to do with physics?

I think it is! Though we’ve done maths before. We won a BAFTA for our psychedelic preschool maths show ‘Quiff and Boot’. Yes, that’s right, psychedelic maths. We also once explained Calculus using zombies. We’ve also done a bit of biology – dinosaurs to be precise – which was fun. We had to summarise 165 million years in 3 minutes. That’s efficiency for you.

Was it a challenge to cram so much particle physics into a two-minute animation?

Well, the challenge is where the fun lies. We were lucky that Harry Cliff at the Science Museum provided us with a wonderful visual explanation. Since we understood it, and we’re definitely not physicists, we knew that others would too. It was a great starting place from where we could then construct the backbone of the narrative. The next thing was what kind of a story did we want to tell, and what kind of characters would be in it.

How did you find physics compared with other topics you have worked with?

I think physics is one of those subjects that does both frighten and fascinate people. Everyone seems to have a drop off point, a point where you go ‘yes I understand that, yes I understand that’ and then ‘no I have no idea what you just said’. It’s such a fundamental science and some of it seems so deep and complex that on the face of it almost seems like magic, especially when you start talking about time moving at different rates and space being curved. On the other hand, it’s all about stars and forces and time and looking to beyond and imagining what’s out there and how it all works, so it’s a beautiful science too.

Where did the names Max and Tangle come from?

Well we wanted to take some characters from the world of physics so the cat is supposed to be Schrödinger’s Cat. Schrödinger coined the term entanglement, and Tangle sounded like a good name for a cat. We just needed a second character and Maxwell’s Demon was mentioned to us, and hey presto we had Max.

How did you decide on what the personalities of Max and Tangle would be like?

A lot of it came out of the question, ‘why would someone explain in a conversation all this information about particle physics?’ It seemed logical that one was clued up and clever and the other not as smart. Then it seemed like this could be a game of one-upmanship. So the less smart one needed their own advantage to balance things out, for Max that had to be his slyness and gung-ho approach to experiments. Once you start writing the script and getting them talking to each other they really start to show their personalities to you. When the voices come and later the animation, then they become even more distinct.

Do you have a favourite between Max and Tangle?

Max is great because he’s up to no good and it’s fun to have a character like that. They create chaos. But if you were asking me who I’d rather have over to lunch, I think I’d go with Tangle to avoid Max’s life-threatening experiments.

Discover more about protons, quarks and particle physics in our Collider exhibition.

LHC: Lip Hair Champions

Content Developer Rupert Cole explores some famous moustaches in particle physics ahead of the opening of our new Collider exhibition on 13th November. 

It’s that time again: Movember – the eminently charitable moustache-growing month raising awareness for men’s health. But what, you might reasonably wonder, has facial hair got to do with particle physics? Well, I have a theory; one backed by hard pictorial and anecdotal evidence…

The Cavendish lab’s moustachioed students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The Cavendish lab’s moustachioed students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

Consider the glory days of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, during which the first subatomic particle was identified, a revolutionary particle detector invented, and the atomic nucleus split by one of the first particle accelerators. Significantly, the great Cavendish leaders and pioneers of this period cannot be accurately described as clean shaven.

Joseph John Thomson

JJ Thomson has a “rather straggling moustache,” wrote a talented student called Ernest Rutherford in 1896, “but a very clever-looking face and a fine forehead”. In another letter to his fiancé, Rutherford made the additional comment that Thomson “shaves very badly”.

We may detect a hint of jealousy in Rutherford’s description of Professor “JJ”. As, according to one chronicler of the lab’s history, the young student Rutherford possessed only “a thinly sprouting moustache”.

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

JJ Thomson. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

Nevertheless, concealed in Thomson’s supposedly wayward bristles was a creative and audacious genius. At the time, the Cavendish’s director had been performing his groundbreaking experiments on cathode rays. The next year he shocked the scientific world when he announced the existence of a particle smaller than the smallest atom – later dubbed the “electron”.

Ernest Rutherford

Once the rambunctious New Zealander’s lip-hair had acquired its full bushy substance, he was well on the way to scientific stardom.

His first momentous contribution to physics came in 1902 at McGill University, Canada. Rutherford and his colleague Frederick Soddy explained what radioactivity actually is – the process of atomic decay.

Soddy described his co-discoverer simply as an “exuberant natural, young man with a moustache”. Biographers would later characterise Rutherford’s ever-growing asset as reminiscent of a “walrus”.

By the time he succeeded his old moustachioed mentor, JJ Thomson, as Professor of the Cavendish, Rutherford had already discovered the atomic nucleus (1911) and managed to split nitrogen atoms in half, causing them to transmute into two oxygen atoms (1917-19).

But it was at the Cavendish that he ushered in the era of accelerator physics. Contemporaries recall a particular accessory: a pipe, containing the world’s driest and instantly-flammable tobacco.

Ernest “The Walrus” Rutherford. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Ernest “The Walrus” Rutherford. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

On one Spring day in 1932, Rutherford entered the lab in a famously foul mood. His pipe “went off like a volcano” – having pre-dried his tobacco on a radiator. Impatient at the progress his young researchers John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton had made with their 800,000-volt proton accelerator, he instructed them to “stop messing about… and arrange that these protons were put to good use”.

At Rutherford’s suggestion, they immediately installed a zinc-sulphide scintillation screen – a device which causes charged particles to sparkle when they hit – into their wooden observation hut. A few days later, Walton saw on this screen evidence that their machine was splitting the nucleus of lithium atoms!

Had the authority of the tache and pipe not intervened, the Cavendish men may have been pipped to the discovery by the clean-shaven American teams, who boasted the biggest and best of accelerators.

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

CTR Wilson, one of Rutherford’s fellow students at the Cavendish, was a
“modest” personality with a similarly unassuming moustache. He spent 16 years assembling cloud chambers – a device he initially invented to study meteorological phenomena.

A keen mountaineer – an activity that always complements well-trimmed bristles – Wilson derived inspiration to build cloud chambers when he was atop Ben Nevis, observing beautiful optical effects.

His third and final chamber, completed in 1911, was later described by Rutherford as “the most original and wonderful instrument in scientific history”. Incredibly, it could capture with photographs the tracks of particles. Wilson had invented the first detector that could visualise and record the subatomic world.

CTR Wilson, 1927. Credit: AB Lagrelius and Westphal

CTR Wilson, 1927. Credit: AB Lagrelius and Westphal

It seems remarkable that the humble moustache may have had such a crucial role in the foundation particle physics. Never again would the Cavendish be led by lip-hair champions; and considering the lab’s unprecedented success in this golden period, we can reliably infer the cost of this absence.

I leave you with the words of Arthur Eddington: “An atom which has lost an electron is like a friend who has shaved-off his moustache.”

Next week you can see Thomson’s cathode-ray tube, Rutherford’s atomic models, the Cockcroft-Walton accelerator, CTR Wilson’s cloud chamber, and much more at the Science Museum’s new Collider exhibition. 

For more famous physics moustaches click here.

Unboxing CERN

Content Developer Rupert Cole on unboxing objects from CERN for Collider, a new Science Museum exhibition opening in November 2013.

There are not many things that would persuade me to wait for a van in the rain at 7am; but this was not to be missed. For on this particular cold, wet and early morning at the Science Museum, our hotly-anticipated Collider objects were due to arrive from CERN.

8am. An hour on and the van was here. Evidently, good objects come to those who wait.

Unveiling the LHC crates. Credit: Harry Cliff

Unveiling the LHC crates. Credit: Harry Cliff

Maybe it was the fact we had been working with only object dimensions and tiny pictures, but the first sight of even just the crates, in their various sizes and shapes, suddenly made the exhibition feel all the more real and tangible.

Broadly there were two concerns. Was everything there? And how to shift a two-tonne superconducting dipole magnet, aka “the Beast”? Luckily, on hand to help with the latter was a forklift truck – naturally, delivered by a bigger truck.

One forklift truck. Credit: Harry Cliff

One forklift truck. Credit: Harry Cliff

Once the two-tonne Beast had been fork-lifted over to the Goods Lift (conveniently situated up a slope) there was the small matter of getting it in. At this stage, ascertaining whether everything had come relied on the skilful art of imagining which object might fit in which crate. Given the variety of objects, ranging from a 22-cm delicate crystal detector piece to a whopping 2-metre-long iron magnet, guessing according to the logic of packing was relatively straight forward.

Later, came the Christmas-esque joy of cracking open the crates and seeing the LHC treasures in the flesh. Looking at the cross-section cut of the dipole magnet, it was nice to see that even “the Beast” had a friendly face.

Dipole magnet cross section. Credit: Harry Cliff

Dipole magnet cross section. Credit: Harry Cliff

After the museum conservators have polished various nooks and crannies, and the workshop team have made some mounts, the objects will be installed into this empty gallery – and soon after that, the gallery will make its dramatic transformation into the world’s greatest scientific experiment.

Exhibition space ready for the Collider exhibition. Credit: Ali Boyle

Exhibition space ready for the Collider exhibition. Credit: Ali Boyle

Come and experience the sights and sounds of CERN at Collider, a new immersive exhibition opening this November at the Science Museum. Book tickets here

Beaming with Joy: LHC celebrates five years of not destroying the world

Content Developer Rupert Cole, and Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science Dr. Harry Cliff, celebrate the LHC’s 5th birthday for Collider, a new Science Museum exhibition opening in November 2013.

Five years ago, at breakfast time, the world waited anxiously for news from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The first nervy bunch of protons were due to be fired around the European lab’s latest and biggest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), as it kicked into action.

Some “mercifully deluded people” – as Jeremy Paxman put it – feared the LHC would do no end of mischief. There was talk of planet-swallowing black holes, the transformation of the Earth into a new state of “strange” matter, and even the prospect of the obliteration of the entire universe. But for those of more sensible dispositions, the LHC’s first beam was an occasion for great excitement.

As the protons sped all the way round the 27km tunnel under the countryside between Lake Geneva and the Jura Mountains, thousands of physicists and engineers celebrated decades of hard work, incredible ingenuity and sheer ambition. Together they had created the largest-ever scientific experiment.

After the LHC was switched on, project leader Lyn Evans said, “We can now look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.”

Operating a massive particle accelerator requires much more than flicking a switch – thousands of individual elements have to all come together, synchronised in time to less than a billionth of a second.

University College London’s physicist Jon Butterworth recalls a “particularly bizarre memory” from that day. Relaxing in a Westminster pub after an exhausting LHC event in London, Butterworth found he could follow live updates from his own ATLAS experiment on the pub’s TV.

Time for a rest. Credit: CERN

Particle physics continued to make news. The following fortnight’s joy turned to dismay as an accident involving six tonnes of liquid helium erupting violently in the tunnel – euphemistically referred to as “the incident” – damaged around half a mile of the collider, closing the LHC for a year.

Since then, besides the brief setback that was “baguette-gate”, a bizarre episode when the collider was sabotaged by a baguette-wielding bird, the LHC has been producing great work. Hundreds of scientific papers have been published by the CERN experiments, on topics as diverse as searches for dark matter candidates, the production of the primordial state of matter (known as quark-gluon plasma) and precision measurements of matter-antimatter asymmetries.

However, it was on July 4 last year, that the LHC snared its first major catch with the discovery of the Higgs boson – as one of the most significant scientific finds of the century. The Higgs boson was one of the longest-sought prizes in science – it was almost fifty years ago in 1964 that three groups of theorists laid the ground-work for what would become the final piece of the theory known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics. They proposed an energy field, filling the entire Universe that gives mass to fundamental particles.

This “Higgs mechanism” neatly explained why the weak nuclear force was so weak and why light is able to travel over infinite reaches of space. It also laid the groundwork for the unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces into a single “electroweak” force, in a coup similar to James Clerk-Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism in the 19th century.

Peter Higgs at CERN’s public announcement of the Higgs Boson, 4 July 2012. Credit: CERN

However, like air, the Higgs field itself is invisible; the only way to know if it is there is to create a disturbance in it, like a breeze or a sound. It was Peter Higgs who first suggested that if the field existed, it would be possible to create such a disturbance, which would show up as a new particle. Hence, the boson was named after him, much to the irritation of some of the other five theorists responsible for the theory.

The LHC’s discovery of the Higgs closed a chapter in the development of fundamental physics, placing the keystone into the great arch of the Standard Model. The LHC is currently being upgraded so that in 2015 it will reopen at almost double its previous energy. What every scientist is now aching for is a sign of something new, physics beyond the Standard Model, and most probably beyond our wildest aspirations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation (original article).

Through the past, present and future, follow the compelling drama, the amazing achievements and the inspirational hopes of the LHC at Collider, a new exhibition opening this November at the Science Museum.

The Conversation

If Particle Physics Did Parties…

With the Collider exhibition now open, Content Developer Rupert Cole explores some famous physics parties of the past. 

As it happens, Carlsberg did do particle physics. The Danish beer giant was an unlikely benefactor of the Niels Bohr Institute – one of the great centres of theoretical physics research.  

And Bohr himself even lived at the brewery’s “Honorary Residence” after winning the Nobel Prize, complete with a direct pipeline supplying free Carlsberg on tap! Just imagine what untold influence lager had on those groundbreaking discussions of quantum theory during Bohr’s thirty-year stay…

Niels Bohr’s luxury mansion at the Carlsberg Brewery, 1963. Credit: CERN

Niels Bohr’s luxury mansion at the Carlsberg Brewery, 1963. Credit: CERN

After my last blog about bubble chambers and beer, I thought, since it’s the festival season, why not go the whole hog and explore a few partying highlights from the history of physics.

The first Cavendish Laboratory Dinner, 1897

During the Christmas Holidays of 1897, the staff and students of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory had a memorable dinner party at the Prince of Wales’ Hotel.

It was a “rollicking affair”. JJ Thomson, Professor of the Laboratory, was remembered by a student to be “as happy as a sand-boy”. Thomson, of course, had been very busy that year discovering the subatomic world. Another physicist, Paul Langevin, sang La Marseillaise with such fervour that a French waiter embraced him.

That night was the beginning of a Cavendish tradition: singing physics through the medium of light opera. Lyrics about atoms and ions were put to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, long before Tom Lehrer. The next day, Thomson remarked that “he had no idea that the Laboratory held such a nest of singing birds”.

It must have been quite a noise, as the Proctors of the University came to enquire at the hotel what the “proceedings” were about. Fortunately, they did not enter the room – “being,” Thomson supposed, “impressed, and I have no doubt mystified, by the assurance of the landlord that it was a scientific gathering of research students”.

JJ Thomson and his Cavendish students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

JJ Thomson and his Cavendish students, 1897. Credit: Cavendish Laboratory

The first dinner was such a hoot that it became an annual occasion. The merry songs that emerged at these events were soon immortalised in regular published editions of The Post-Prandial Proceedings of the Cavendish Society.

Feynman’s entire anecdotal oeuvre

“There’s so much fun to be had”

Not many Nobel prize-winning physicists can say they’ve played the frying pan in a samba band at Rio’s Carnival; made complex calculations on napkins in strip bars; or spent a sabbatical on the Copacabana drinking themselves teetotal and seducing air-hostesses. A raconteur of almost mythic proportions, Richard Feynman had a natural aptitude for partying.

Costume parties really brought out the showman in Feynman. He was very versatile, boasting a clothing repertoire that ranged from a Ladakhi monk to God. But it was on one April Fools’ Day that Feynman surpassed himself. Sat primly on a chair, looking regally and nodding graciously to other guests, Feynman was the very image of Queen Elizabeth II – wig, white hat, green dress, purse and gloves. At the end of the evening, he performed his royal finale: a striptease!

We must unfortunately cut short of the entire Feynman backlog of anecdotes, so instead click here for a video of Feynman playing “orange juice” on the bongos.

Higgs’ champagne moment, 2012

On a Saturday night in Sicily, Peter Higgs was dining with friends when the phone rang. Fellow physicist John Ellis had called to tell Higgs to come to CERN. Swiftly, travel arrangements were made and another bottle of white ordered. History was being written.

A few evenings later, Higgs was in Ellis’ Geneva home sharing a bottle of champagne with family and friends – that day he had read a note that confirmed the particle he had predicted to exist 48 years ago had finally been found.

The following day, on 4th July 2012, CERN held a conference announcing to the world the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Emotions running high in the packed lecture hall, Higgs likened the experience to “being at a football match when the home team has won”. Fittingly then, on the Easyjet flight home to Edinburgh, he turned down more champagne in favour of a can of London Pride.

See JJ Thomson’s 1897 cathode-ray tube, Peter Higgs’ champagne bottle, and experience more great moments of discovery at Collider, a new exhibition at the Science Museum.

The Art of Boiling Beer: 60 years of the Bubble Chamber

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole explains how beer was used for cutting-edge particle physics research. 

Late one night in 1953, Donald Glaser smuggled a case of beer into his University lab. He wanted to test out the limitations of his revolutionary invention: the bubble chamber.

Previously, Glaser had only tried exotic chemical liquids in his device. But now his sense of experimental adventure had been galvanised by a recent victory over the great and famously infallible physicist Enrico Fermi.

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Donald Glaser and his bubble chamber, 1953. Credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Fermi, who had invited Glaser to Chicago to find out more about his invention, had already seemingly proved that a bubble chamber could not work. But when Glaser found a mistake in Fermi’s authoritative textbook, he dedicated himself to redoing the calculations.

Glaser found that, if he was correct, that the bubble chamber should work with water. To make absolutely certain he “wasn’t being stupid”, Glaser conducted this curious nocturnal experiment at his Michigan laboratory. He also discovered that the bubble chamber worked just as well when using lager as it had with other chemicals.

There was one practical issue however, the beer caused the whole physics department to smell like a brewery. “And this was a problem for two reasons,” Glaser recalled. “One is that it was illegal to have any alcoholic beverage within 500 yards of the university. The other problem was that the chairman was a very devout teetotaler, and he was furious. He almost fired me on the spot”.

On 1st August 1953, 60 years ago this Thursday, Glaser published his famous paper on the bubble chamber – strangely failing to mention the beer experiment.

Glaser’s device provided a very effective way to detect and visualise particles. It consisted of a tank of pressurised liquid, which was then superheated by reducing the pressure. Charged particles passing through the tank stripped electrons from atoms in the liquid and caused the liquid to boil. Bubbles created from the boiling liquid revealed the particle’s path through the liquid.

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

Particle tracks produced by Gargamelle indicating the discovery of the neutral currents, 1973. Credit: CERN

One of Glaser’s motivations for his invention was to avoid having to work with large groups of scientists at big particle accelerators. Instead, he hoped his device would enable him to study cosmic rays using cloud chambers in the traditional fashion; up a mountain, ski in the day, “and work in sort of splendid, beautiful surroundings. A very pleasant way of life – intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic”

Ironically, as the bubble chamber only worked with controlled sources of particles, it was inherently suited to accelerator research, not cosmic rays. Soon the large accelerator facilities built their own, massive bubble chambers.

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Design drawings for CERN’s Gargamelle bubble chamber. Credit: CERN

Between 1965-1970 CERN built Gargamelle – a bubble chamber of such proportions that it was named after a giantess from the novels of Francois Rabelais (not the Smurfs’ villain). Gargamelle proved a huge success, enabling the discovery of neutral currents – a crucial step in understanding how some of the basic forces of nature were once unified.

This November you’ll have the chance to see up close the original design drawings for Gargamelle, and much more in the Collider exhibition.