Category Archives: Exhibitions

Science Museum stars in UK-Russia Year of Culture

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, reveals a remarkable new exhibition opening in 2014.

A landmark exhibition of the Russian vision and technological ingenuity that launched the space age is to be the centrepiece of the largest ever festival of Russian and British culture.

Under the working title of ‘Russia’s Space Quest’, the Science Museum exhibition will bring unknown stories of space endeavour to life through a unique collection of space artefacts, many of which have never before been seen either outside Russia or in public.

The exhibition will be the headline attraction of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, a year-long programme of events that will celebrate the rich cultural heritage of both countries, according to the British Council and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Announcing the UK-Russia Year of Culture at the Science Museum

Announcing the UK-Russia Year of Culture at the Science Museum

Olga Golodets, the Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs of the Russian Federation, said the year of culture ‘will lay a solid foundation for long-term cooperation in the future in various areas.” Rt Hon. the Baroness D’Souza, Lord Speaker, said it was a delight to launch the initiative.

At a launch event in the museum, Ed Vaizey, UK minister for culture, stressed the importance of the year for UK-Russia relations and  said it would be a “flow of ideas”. This point was echoed by Mikhail Shvydkoy, President Putin’s special envoy for international cultural cooperation, who hoped the project would create “new trust” between the two countries.

Paul de Quincey, director of the British Council in Russia, also announced BP as the first UK Founder Sponsor of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, represented by Peter Charow, VP of BP Russia.

Among the star objects on display in Russia’s Space Quest will be cosmonaut-flown spacecraft, pioneering rocket engines, space suits and other life support systems. There will also be examples of the personal and poignant – memorabilia belonging to some of the biggest names in spaceflight.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by 'Zvezda'.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by ‘Zvezda’. Credit: SSPL

The director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, said such an exhibition, the equivalent in impact of the British Museum’s landmark Tutankhamen exhibition, had been a dream of Deputy Keeper, Doug Millard, for more than two decades.

‘Russia’s Space Quest’, which is being led by curators Doug Millard and Natalia Sidlina, represents a major collaboration between the Moscow State Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, and draws on the support of many institutions and individuals in the UK and Russia.

Mr Blatchford said that it was important to have this exhibition to capture the excitement of the early years, while scientists, engineers and technicians from the Russian quest were still alive: “It is imperative that we do this exhibition now, before their stories are lost – as that would be a terrible blow.”

‘Russia’s Space Quest’ will also explore the science and technology of Russian space travel in its cultural and spiritual context, revealing a deep rooted national yearning for space that was shaped by the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century.

The dream of the Cosmists became a reality between October and November 1957, when Sputnik and then Laika the space dog were launched, and 1961 when the rest of the world watched in astonishment as  a Russian man became the first human to look down on our fragile blue world.

This week Intandem Films and Russia’s Kremlin Films joined the Russian Embassy to host a special screening in the Museum’s IMAX of the $10 million budgeted biopic Gagarin: First in Space.

The movie, directed by Pavel Parkhomenko, is produced by Oleg Kapanets and Igor Tolstunov and stars Yaroslav Zhalnin, Mikhail Pilippov and Viktor Proskurin.

The film dramatizes the story of how Yuri Gagarin was selected from over 3,000 fighter pilots across the USSR to take part in his country’s space program, that culminated in him blasting off in a Vostok rocket on April 12, 1961, after several failed unmanned launches.

The screening at the museum was hosted by the Russian Ambassador Alexander V Yakovenko, who praised Russia’s Space Quest as one of the  most important cultural events staged and supported by the U.K. and his country, and attended by Culture Minister Maria Miller.

The biopic was introduced by Yuri Gagarin’s daughter, Elena Gagarin, who said the world changed forever after her father made the first manned flight into space.

Collider: Celebrating with Higgs and Hawking

This week we were joined by two of the world’s most eminent scientists, Stephen Hawking and Peter Higgs, to celebrate the opening of our Collider exhibition.

Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking in the Collider exhibition.

Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking in the Collider exhibition.

The exhibition, open until May 2014, explores the people, science and engineering behind the largest scientific experiment ever constructed, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

After a packed event in Parliament on Monday evening (more about that here), Higgs and Hawking joined us for a full day of public events on Tuesday.

The day began with Professor Peter Higgs answering questions from a lucky group of students from across the UK in our IMAX theatre – with thousands more watching the Guardian live stream online.

Higgs talked about his scientific hero Paul Dirac (who went to Peter’s school), being nominated for the Nobel Prize and whether discovering the Higgs boson was a good thing for physics. “Do you expect me to say it’s a bad thing,” joked Peter.

I always found physics rather dull at school. Chemistry was far more interesting – Peter Higgs.

The afternoon featured a spectacular double-bill of science and culture, with novelist Ian McEwan and theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed in conversation and an audience with Stephen Hawking.

Presented by broadcaster Martha Kearney, McEwan and Arkani-Hamed shared their thoughts on similarities and differences between the two cultures. Professor Arkani-Hamed explained that the gulf between arts and science is one of language, often mathematics, with McEwan discussing the obsessive element in science – the pursuit of something larger than ourselves – and it’s similarity to the arts.

I like to think of science as just one part of organised human curiosity – Ian McEwan. 

It was a very rare treat, and a huge honour, to journey into time and space with Stephen Hawking. Stephen shared that the Science Museum was one of his favourite places, “I have been coming here for decades. And that simple fact, in itself, tells quite a story.”

He went on to discuss his early work on black holes (Hawking would like the formula he wrote to be on his memorial) and the information they contain, “Information is not lost in black holes, it is just not returned in a useful way. Like burning an encyclopaedia, it’s hard to read.”

Hawking finished his talk with a plea to us all to be curious.

“The fact that we humans, who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us, and our universe, is a great triumph.

So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and hold on to that childlike wonder about what makes the universe exist.”

As the day ended, the recent Nobel Prize winner and our most famous living scientist were given a tour of Collider.

Stephen Hawking views the Collider exhibition with curator Ali Boyle

Stephen Hawking views the Collider exhibition with curator Ali Boyle

We’ll leave the final word to Ali Boyle, the Collider exhibition curator.

Visitor Letters – Spaldwick School

We love receiving letters from our visitors and we always try our best to write back as soon as possible.

Recently pupils from Spaldwick School visited the Launchpad gallery and saw the Feel the Force science show presented by Explainer Dwain on their outing to the Museum (click to enlarge letters).

Explainer Dwain was so impressed that he thanked the pupils of Spaldwick school and answered queries about his co-star in the Feel the Force show – Phil the Frog!

SpaldwickA

Response Letter – pages 1 & 2

Response Lettter - pages 3 & 4

Response Lettter – pages 3 & 4

Explainer Fact: If you would like to send us a letter, please send it to: Launchpad Letters, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD

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.

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.

3D printing – an explosion of creativity!

Suzy Antoniw, Content Developer in the Contemporary Science Team, looks at the creation of a new exhibition on 3D printing.

What can make impossible shapes solidly real and create unique, one-off medical treatments that could change your life? A 3D printer of course!

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A demonstration of a 3D printer making a miniature figurine at the launch of 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

Around nine months ago we were given the exciting challenge of creating 3D: Printing the Future, a new Contemporary Science exhibition to show off the real-life capabilities of these hugely hyped machines and highlight the latest 3D printing research.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer.

The ‘ghost walking in snow’ effect of a sophisticated laser sintering printer at work – an invisible laser fuses together an object layer by layer out of powdered polymer. Image credit: Science Museum

But hang on, what exactly is a 3D printer? Even if you’ve read stories about them in the news you probably don’t have one sitting on your desk just yet. So here’s our definition: A 3D printer is a manufacturing machine that turns 3D computer data into a physical object, usually by building it in layers. They come in a variety of types that range from simple consumer models to sophisticated industrial printers.

A prosthetic arm concept  made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

A prosthetic arm concept made specially for the exhibition by Richard Hague, Director of Research, with students Mary Amos, Matt Cardell-Williams and Scott Wimhurst at the Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing Research Group, The University of Nottingham. Image credit: Science Museum

As well as covering the basics, we decided that our exhibition should focus on the incredible things that 3D printers can create – such as replacement body organs and teeth, that could make a difference to the lives of our visitors.

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printed white bone scaffold inside model of a head, by Queensland University of Technology, Institute of Health and Regenerative Medicine, Australia, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

3D printers have been around for decades, so what’s changed? In recent years the patents on simple 3D printing technologies have run out. 3D printers have become available to more people in the form of affordable consumer models, or even as open source plans freely available on the internet.

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

Hipsterboy 3D printer machine, for display purposes only (several components omitted), by Christopher Paton, United Kingdom, 2013. Image credit: Science Museum

This new freedom to invent has generated an explosion of creativity. And it’s not just hackers, tinkerers and makers who’ve felt the benefits of this new breath of life for engineering and design, but established industry and academia too. So how do you represent a diverse and dynamic explosion of creativity?

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

Close up view of the objects on display in the 3D: Printing The Future exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum

In July we began collecting 3D printed stuff for what has been known as ‘an explosion’, our ‘mass display’, ‘the wave’, ‘the wall’ and (my favourite) a ‘tsunami of objects’. The display contains over 663 objects – the largest number we’ve ever acquired for a Contemporary Science exhibition, thanks to generous loans, donations and the enthusiasm of the maker community.

Among the amazing ‘wave’ of objects you can see a display of 150 miniature 3D printed people – visitors who volunteered to have themselves scanned in 3D at the Museum over the summer holidays. Look closely at the wall and you may spot actress Jenny Agutter reading her script, model Lily Cole and BBC Radio 4 presenter Evan Davis - with his arm in a sling!

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

A wall of miniature 3D printed figures in the new exhibition 3D: Printing the Future. Image credit: Science Museum

The free exhibition is open to the public from 9 October and will run for nine months.

The last particle?

Could the Higgs be the end of particle physics? We’re still a long way from answering one of the biggest questions of all, says Dr Harry Cliff, Head of Content on our Collider exhibition.

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for their work that explains why subatomic particles have mass. They predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle, which was confirmed last year by experiments conducted at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

But today’s celebrations mask a growing anxiety among physicists. The discovery of the Higgs boson is an undoubted triumph, but many note that it hasn’t brought us any closer to answering some of the most troubling problems in fundamental science.

A senior physicist went so far as to tell me that he was “totally unexcited by the discovery of the Higgs boson”. Though not the typical reaction, this discovery threatens to close a chapter of 20th century physics without a hint of how to start writing the next page.

Until July last year, when physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced its discovery, the Higgs boson remained the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, a theory that describes all the particles that make up the world we live in with stunning accuracy. The Standard Model has passed every experimental test thrown at it with flying colours, and yet has some rather embarrassing holes.

According to astronomical measurements, the matter described by the Standard Model that makes up the stars, planets and ultimately us, only accounts for a tiny fraction of the universe. We appear to be a thin layer of froth, floating on top of an invisible ocean of dark matter and dark energy, about which we know almost nothing.

Worse still, according to the Standard Model, we shouldn’t exist at all. The theory predicts that, after the Big Bang, equal quantities of matter and antimatter should have obliterated each other, leaving an empty universe.

Both of these are good scientific reasons to doubt that the Standard Model is the end of the story when it comes to the laws of physics. But there is another, aesthetic principle that has led many physicists to doubt its completeness – the principle of “naturalness”.

The Standard Model is regarded as a highly “unnatural” theory. Aside from having a large number of different particles and forces, many of which seem surplus to requirement, it is also very precariously balanced. If you change any of the 20+ numbers that have to be put into the theory even a little, you rapidly find yourself living in a universe without atoms. This spooky fine-tuning worries many physicists, leaving the universe looking as though it has been set up in just the right way for life to exist.

The Higgs’s boson provides us with one of the worst cases of unnatural fine-tuning. A surprising discovery of the 20th century was the realisation that empty space is far from empty. The vacuum is, in fact, a broiling soup of invisible “virtual” particles, constantly popping in and out of existence.

The conventional wisdom states that as the Higgs boson passes through the vacuum it interacts with this soup of virtual particles and this interaction drives its mass to an absolutely enormous value – potentially up to a hundred million billion times larger than the one measured at the LHC.

Theorists have attempted to tame the unruly Higgs mass by proposing extensions of the Standard Model. The most popular of which is “supersymmetry”, which introduces a heavier super-particle or “sparticle” for every particle in the Standard Model. These sparticles cancel out the effect of the virtual particles in the vacuum, reducing the Higgs mass to a reasonable value and eliminating the need for any unpleasant fine-tuning.

Supersymmetry has other features that have made it popular with physicists. Perhaps its best selling point is that one of these sparticles provides a neat explanation for the mysterious dark matter that makes up about a quarter of the universe.

Although discovering the Higgs boson may have been put forward as the main reason for building the 27km Large Hadron Collider (LHC), what most physicists have really been waiting for is a sign of something new. As Higgs himself said shortly after the discovery last year, “[The Higgs boson] is not the most interesting thing that the LHC is looking for”.

So far however, the LHC has turned up nothing.

If supersymmetry is really responsible for keeping the Higgs boson’s mass low, then sparticles should show up at energies not much higher than where the LHC found the Higgs. The fact that nothing has been found has already ruled out many popular forms of supersymmetry.

This has led some theorists to abandon naturalness altogether. One relatively new idea known as “split-supersymmetry” accepts fine-tuning in the Higgs mass, but keeps the other nice features of supersymmetry, like a dark matter particle.

This may sound like a technical difference, but the implications for the nature of our universe are profound. The argument is that we live in a fine-tuned universe because it happens to be one among an effectively infinite number of different universes, each with different laws of physics. The constants of nature are what they are because if they were different atoms could not form, and hence we wouldn’t be around to wonder about them.

This anthropic argument is in part motivated by developments in string theory, a potential “theory of everything”, for which there are a vast number (roughly 10500) different possible universes with different laws of physics. (This huge number of universes is often used as a criticism of string theory, sometimes derided as a “theory of everything else” as no one has so far found a solution that corresponds to the universe we live in.) However, if split-supersymmetry is right, the lack of new physics at the LHC could be indirect evidence for the existence of the very multiverse anticipated by string theory.

All of this could be rather bad news for the LHC. If the battle for naturalness is lost, then there is no reason why new particles must appear in the next few years. Some physicists are campaigning for an even larger collider, four times longer and seven times more powerful than the LHC.

This monster collider could be used to settle the question once and for all, but it’s hard to imagine that such a machine will get the go ahead, especially if the LHC fails to find anything beyond the Higgs.

We are at a critical juncture in particle physics. Perhaps after it restarts the LHC in 2015, it will uncover new particles, naturalness will survive and particle physicists will stay in business. There are reasons to be optimistic. After all, we know that there must be something new that explains dark matter, and there remains a good chance that the LHC will find it.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the LHC will find nothing. The Higgs boson could be particle physics’ swansong, the last particle of the accelerator age. Though a worrying possibility for experimentalists, such a result could lead to a profound shift in our understanding of the universe, and our place in it.

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

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Celebrate the Nobel Prize at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, celebrates the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics ahead of the opening of our Collider exhibition next month.      

Congratulations to Briton Peter Higgs and Belgian François Englert, winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

A few minutes ago, after an unusual delay, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the physics prize in Stockholm, ending this chapter of the quest for new elementary particles, the greatest intellectual adventure to date.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, comments: “That it has taken decades to validate the existence of the Higgs Boson illustrates the remarkable vision of the theoretical work that Higgs, Francois Englert and others did with pen and paper half a century ago, one that launched an effort by  thousands of scientists and inspired a staggering feat of engineering in the guise of the Large Hadron Collider.

What is the Higgs? Here’s all you need to know, in just 90 seconds, from Harry Cliff, a Cambridge University physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science

Although the identity of the winners has been a closely-guarded secret, many have speculated that those who played a central role in discovery of the long-sought Higgs, notably the emeritus Edinburgh professor himself, were leading contenders for a place in history.

The Science Museum has been so confident that the Large Hadron Collider would change our view of nature that we have invested more than £1 million, and worked closely with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, to celebrate this epic undertaking with its new exhibition, Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, which opens to the public on 13 November. 

Here Higgs explains how the Large Hadron Collider works during a visit to what is now Cotham School, Bristol, where he was once a pupil.

In July 2012, two separate research teams at CERN’s £5 billion Large Hadron Collider reported evidence of a new particle thought to be the Higgs boson, technically a ripple in an invisible energy field that gives most particles their mass.

This discovery represented the final piece of the Standard Model, a framework of theory developed in the late 20th century that describes the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces, with the exception of gravity.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who will attend the launch of Collider, bet a year’s salary the Higgs will be found at the LHC.

Another speaker at the Collider launch, the world’s most famous scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking, lost a $100 bet he made against the discovery (though he is adamant that Higgs deserves the Nobel Prize).

Higgs, who refuses to gamble, told me just before the LHC powered up that he would have been puzzled and surprised if the LHC had failed in its particle quest. “If I’m wrong, I’ll be rather sad. If it is not found, I no longer understand what I think I understand.”

When Higgs was in the CERN auditorium last year to hear scientists tell the world about the discovery, he was caught reaching for a handkerchief and dabbing his eyes.  On the flight home, he celebrated this extraordinary achievement with a can of London Pride beer.

The Science Museum hoped to have the can, now deemed a piece of history Alas, Higgs had dumped it in the rubbish before we could collect it. However, the museum does possess the champagne bottle that Higgs emptied with his friends the night before the big announcement.

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The modest 84-year-old  is now synonymous with the quest: the proposed particle was named the Higgs boson in 1972.

But there have been demands that the particle be renamed to acknowledge the work of others. Deciding who should share this Nobel has been further complicated because a maximum of three people only can be honoured (prompting many to question the criteria used by the Nobel committee).

The LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, is the cumulative endeavour of around ten thousand men and women from across the globe. In recognition of this the Collider exhibition will tell the behind-the-scenes story of the Higgs discovery from the viewpoint of a young PhD student given the awesome task of announcing the discovery to her colleagues (though fictional, the character is based on Mingming Yang of MIT who is attending the launch).

However, although one suggestion is to allow the two research teams who discovered the Higgs boson to share the accolade, the Nobel committee traditionally awards science prizes to individuals and not organizations (unlike the Nobel Peace Prize).

Instead, the Nobel committee honoured the theoreticians who first anticipated the existence of the Higgs.

Six scientists published the relevant papers in 1964 though, as Belgium’s Robert Brout died in 2011, there were five contenders (the Nobel Prize cannot be given posthumously).

In August 1964, François Englert from the Free University of Brussels with Brout, published their theory of particle masses. A month later, while working at Edinburgh University, Higgs published a separate paper on the topic, followed by another in October that was – crucially – the first to explicitly state the Standard Model required the existence of a new particle. In November 1964, American physicists Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik and British physicist Tom Kibble added to the discussion by publishing their own research on the topic.

Last week, Prof Brian Cox of Manchester University, who works at CERN, said it would be ‘odd and perverse’ not to give the Nobel to Peter Higgs, and also singled out Lyn ‘the atom’ Evans, the Welshman in charge of building the collider, as a candidate.

And the two likeliest winners were named as Peter Higgs – after whom the particle was named – and François Englert, according to a citation analysis by Thomson Reuters.

Today’s announcement marks the formal recognition of a profound advance in human understanding, the discovery of one of the keystones of what we now understand as the fundamental building blocks of nature.

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

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

Ask A Curator 2013

A global Q&A session, better known as Ask a Curator Day, takes place on Wednesday (18th Sept). Will Stanley, who manages the @sciencemuseum Twitter account, explains more…

What’s the story behind that object? How was it invented? Which is your favourite? Whenever I see a Science Museum curator, I find myself asking questions (and often tweeting about the result). Now it’s your turn. On Wednesday, our curators will answer your questions (between 1-6pm) for #AskACurator day.

Over 500 museums from 34 countries will be joining in via Twitter, and our curators are poised to take part too: just tweet your questions to @sciencemuseum using #AskACurator.

We have put together a great team to help answer your questions:

You can delve into the Secret Life of the Home, with Helen Peavitt, our Curator of Consumer Technology – just ask Helen how fridges changed the world – or tweet a question for Katie Maggs, our resident medical collections expert.

Our Curator of Time, Transport and Navigation, David Rooney (@rooneyvision), is a recent convert to Twitter, but will be on hand to answer your questions about Alan Turing, Making the Modern World and this ghostly 3D scan of the Shipping galleries. Curator Ali Boyle (@ali_boyle) will be answering your particle physics questions just two months before the new Collider exhibition opens.

If communication is more your thing, our Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, Tilly Blyth (@tillyblyth) has been looking at 200 years of communication technologies for new gallery, Information Age. Content developer Charlotte Connelly (@connellycharlie) even visited Cameroon in her quest for mobile phone related objects for the gallery.

Finally, our Collections Coordinator Selina Pang (@spangoline), will try to answer any other collections questions you might have.

Top tips for #AskACurator

  • Try asking “I find ____ fascinating. Can you let me more about it?” That’s sure to get our curators tweeting.
  • Sometime we won’t be able to fit lengthy answers into a tweet, but don’t worry, great questions and answers are likely to turn into future blog posts.
  • Don’t worry if you are not on Twitter either, we’ll be sharing the best questions (and answers) in upcoming blog posts (like this post for example).