Tag Archives: Large Hadron Collider

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.

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.

CERN: 60 years of not destroying the world

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole celebrates six decades of research at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 

Just before the Large Hadron Collider first turned on in September 2008, there was (in some quarters) a panic that it would destroy the world.

Doomsday was all over the media. “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?” asked one headline. Even when CERN submitted a peer-reviewed safety report in an attempt to allay fears, it didn’t altogether quash the dark mutterings and comic hysteria: “Collider will not turn world to goo, promise scientists.” 

This cartoon is pinned on the wall of the theory common room at CERN. Image credit: Mike Moreau

This cartoon is pinned on the wall of the theory common room at CERN. Image credit: Mike Moreu

In case you were wondering, the LHC has subsequently proved to be completely safe, and has even found the Higgs Boson to boot.

In fact, this isn’t the first time CERN has provoked fears of world destruction. In the lead-up to the signing of CERN’s founding Convention – 60 years ago this month – the proposed organisation was greatly hindered and influenced by apocalypse anxiety.

Only, back then, it had nothing to do with micro black holes swallowing the earth or strangelet particles messing with matter. No such exotic phenomena were needed. Just the mention of the words nuclear and atomic was enough to provoke serious paranoia in the Cold-War climate.

In 1949 Denis de Rougement, a Swiss writer and influential advocate for a federal Europe, attended the European Cultural Conference — one of the early conferences in which a “European Centre for Atomic Research” was discussed. “To speak of atomic research at that time,” de Rougement reflected, “was immediately to evoke, if not the possibility of blowing up the whole world, then at least preparations for a third world war.”

The press undoubtedly subscribed to the more extreme school of thought. On the second day of the conference, all the scientists present had to be locked in a chamber for protection as they had been pestered so severely by journalists on the previous day.

In some of the initial discussions, a nuclear reactor as well as an accelerator was proposed for the European research centre. It was carefully stressed that no commercial applications would be developed and all military work scrupulously excluded.

The French, who led these early proposals, removed the director of the French Atomic Energy Commission, the communist-leaning Frederic Joliot-Curie, after J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) stated the Americans wouldn’t support a project that included a senior figure with Soviet sympathies.

Left to right: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi, Morton C. Mott-Smith, and Wolfgang Pauli in a boat on Lake Zurich in August 1927. Image credit: CERN

Left to right: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi, Morton C. Mott-Smith, and Wolfgang Pauli in a boat on Lake Zurich in August 1927. Image credit: CERN

The nuclear reactor was dropped when Hungarian-American physicist Isidor I. Rabi, the so-called “father” of CERN,  stepped on the scene. Rabi, who co-founded the American research centre Brookhaven National Laboratory, put a resolution to the annual conference of UNESCO in Florence, June 1950 for a (“western”) European physics laboratory.

The fact Rabi omitted to mention a nuclear reactor was likely a political move on the part of the US, who were not keen on Soviet bits of Europe developing nuclear weapons. After much to-ing and fro-ing in the next two years, a provisional agreement was signed on 14 February 1952 by ten European states.

The next day, the signed agreement was telegrammed to Rabi, informing him of the “birth of the project you fathered in Florence”. The convention was signed on the 1st July, 1953 and CERN became an official organisation just over a year later.

Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi on 15 February, 1952 – marking the birth of CERN. Image credit: CERN.

Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi on 15 February, 1952 – marking the birth of CERN. Image credit: CERN.

For sixty years, CERN has been successfully exploring the unknown regions of the quantum world, while leaving the world we live in very much intact.

See a copy of the telegram and more in Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, opening this November. Click here for further reading on the history of CERN

An artists impression of the immersive collision experience in the Collider exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

Science Museum visitors to step into the greatest experiment on Earth

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group

Plans are unveiled today for the biggest-ever exhibition in the UK to focus on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s greatest scientific experiment, where a 10,000 strong international army of scientists and engineers is exploring the fundamental building blocks of the universe, from the discovery of the Higgs particle to the nature of antimatter.

The King’s College theoretician John Ellis has suggested that the LHC, the most compelling scientific endeavour so far of the 21st century, could inspire a generation in the same way that the Apollo adventure did in the 1960s. That is precisely why the Science Museum is bringing the LHC to the public in its new Collider exhibition, opening in November 2013. Visitors will be transported right into the heart of the 27 km circumference machine – that straddles the border between Switzerland and France – with the help of an award-winning creative team including Nissen Richards Studio, playwright Michael Wynne and video artist Finn Ross.

An artists impression of the immersive collision experience in the Collider exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

An artists impression of the immersive collision experience in the Collider exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

The immersive exhibition, the result of a unique collaboration with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, will blend theatre, video and sound art, taking visitors to the site of the LHC where they can explore the Control Room and a huge underground detector cavern, meet ‘virtual’ scientists and engineers and examine objects up-close. “I particularly like the fresh, theatrical approach the Museum is taking to bringing the drama and excitement of cutting-edge science to the public,” said CERN Director General, Rolf Heuer.

View of the LHC tunnel. Image credit: CERN

View of the LHC tunnel. Image credit: CERN

For the first time, visitors can get up close with exclusive access to part of the large 15-metre magnets that steer the particle beam, and elements from each of the LHC’s ‘eyes’, four giant detectors housed in caverns around the machine, notably CMS and ATLAS, where collisions take place. They will also be able to follow the story of sub-atomic exploration through the Museum’s collections – on display will be J.J. Thomson’s apparatus which led him to the discovery of the electron in 1897, and the accelerator used by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton to split the atom in 1932.

JJ Thomson (1856-1940) at work. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

JJ Thomson (1856-1940) at work. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

When in operation, trillions of protons race around the LHC accelerator ring 11,245 times a second, travelling at 99.9999991% the speed of light. Evidence for a Higgs-like particle was found in the aftermath of the resulting collisions between protons.

Named after the British physicist Peter Higgs who postulated its existence more than half a century ago, and who will help launch the new exhibition with other leading figures, the particle is 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.

The highlight of the exhibition, according to Alison Boyle, the Science Museum’s curator of modern physics, will be a 360-degree projection taking in both extremes of the scale of the LHC. ‘We are going to take our visitors from an enormous experiment cavern to the very heart of a proton collision.

Artist's impression of the immersive detector experience. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

Artist’s impression of the immersive detector experience. Image credit: Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio

Key figures from CERN, such as Professor Heuer, attended a gala ceremony held last month by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation at the Geneva International Conference Centre, hosted by Hollywood actor and science enthusiast Morgan Freeman with performances by singer Sarah Brightman and Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. Freeman mused that it was “a bit like the Oscars” and made the best joke of the night when referring to complaints about physicists ‘playing god’: “I have done it twice and I don’t see the problem.’

Yuri Milner, the Russian theoretical physicist turned internet entrepreneur who backs the prizes through his Milner Foundation, said it “celebrates what is possible in humanity’s quest to understand the deepest questions of the universe.”

The evening celebrated two Special Fundamental Physics Prizes of $3,000,000, one for Prof Stephen Hawking, who himself has been the subject of a special exhibition here at the Science Museum, for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum features of the early universe, based on his efforts to combine theories of the very big (general relativity) with the very small (quantum theory). In his acceptance speech, Hawking thanked Milner for recognising key work in theory with what is now the most lucrative academic prize on the planet.

The second special prize was shared by the leaders of the LHC project, CMS and ATLAS experiments from the time the LHC was approved by the CERN Council in 1994: Peter Jenni, Fabiola Gianotti (ATLAS), Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Singh Virdee, Guido Tonelli, Joe Incandela (CMS) and Lyn Evans (LHC), for their role in the epic endeavour that led to the discovery of the new Higgs-like particle.

After they all took the stage Mr Matsuev performed Edvard Grieg’s “The Hall of the Mountain King”, presumably a reference to the great caverns in which the Higgs-like particle was first spotted. The award-winning biographer Graham Farmelo, who has advised on the development and launch of Collider, said it was ‘the most impressive gathering of great physicists for almost ninety years – since Einstein and most of the other discoveries of relativity and quantum theory met at the famous Solvay Conference in 1926’.

The Museum’s £1m Collider exhibition is part-funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Winton Capital Management, the Embassy of Switzerland in the United Kingdom, and is supported by a number of individuals.

Collider will open in November 2013 and run for six months. Visits to Collider will be timed and, to avoid disappointment, please visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/collider to book tickets.

LHC home screen Jan 3rd

The LHC’s Christmas Holiday

Over the past three weeks, deep under the Jura Mountains on the Swiss-French border, a monster has been sleeping. Over Christmas, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest experiment, takes a break from colliding protons together in an underground tunnel. The machine normally runs for 24 hour-a-day, seven days a week, but for four weeks in January and December, it is switched off.

LHC home screen Jan 3rd

So long, and thanks for all the fish! The LHC operators look forward to their Christmas holiday.

There are several reasons for the extended break. The physicists, engineers and support staff who operate the machine and experiments are human. Yes, they are devoted to the search for the fundamental laws that govern the Universe, but they also like to indulge on Christmas pudding and see their families.

That explains why the LHC doesn’t run on Christmas day, but why does it shut down for three weeks?

Because it’s cold outside.

The cold doesn’t affect how the LHC works – far from it, as the machine is cooled to -271ºC. But it does affect the power supply.

One of the most intriguing facts I’ve learned over the course of working on the Science Museum’s upcoming LHC exhibition is that even though the LHC does an extremely specialised and power-consuming task – accelerating protons so they have the energy of a high speed train and are travelling at nearly the speed of light – the machine takes its power from the French grid. The same nuclear, coal and hydro-electricity plants that provide the energy to light the Mona Lisa and charge your mobile on holiday also power the LHC.

When it’s cold outside French electricity consumption spikes. In December, France uses about 50 percent more electricity than it does in August, heating, cooking and lighting dark days. When all systems are go, CERN can use as much as a third of Geneva’s power, or the same as a large town. So during darkest depths of winter, when the French grid is being stretched the most, the LHC powers down.

The time off isn’t wasted. Repairs and upgrades are always needed, so engineers have been busy tweaking to ensure the LHC is in tip-top condition for its run in 2013. From next week LHC will fire protons into lead nuclei for a month. After that short run, the machine shuts for two years for a serious upgrade.