Under the border between France and Switzerland lies the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
It’s the biggest scientific experiment in history—a tube as long as London Central Line with cathedral-sized caverns for its detectors. It’s kept colder and emptier than the vacuum of deep space, and
creates collisions hotter than the heart of the sun. It’s a far cry from the two men in a lab who discovered the first subatomic particle, the electron.
It can often seem incredibly distant and intimidating. The Science Museum’s new exhibition Collider does a wonderful job of making it seem real.
It effectively explains and demystifies what the collider is doing. In essence the LHC pushes matter to the limit to see how it is put together. It uses giant magnets to smash tiny particles together hard enough to produce conditions not seen since the start of universe.
Most people first heard of the LHC through media speculation that it could destroy the universe. Then its most famous discovery, the Higgs boson, was unhelpfully nicknamed the God particle.
The exhibition demystifies this by recreating a visit to the facility, with artefacts from a century of particle hunting and video projections of enthusiastic scientists. One spectacular surround animation takes us on a particle’s journey through the collider.
Its hunt for new subatomic particles involves more than 10,000 scientists and engineers—not to mention countless construction
workers and technicians. This monster project involves hundreds of universities and dozens of governments.
It reflects a long term trend towards “big science”, as looking at the universe at smaller and more fundamental levels requires powerful equipment and lots of data.
Projects of this scale can’t be separated from the history of the societies that produce them.
So the nuclear industry, and by extension the military-industrial complexes of rival imperialisms, cast a long shadow over particle physics.
Similarly, the science of genetics that began with a monk looking at the peas in his garden is now the preserve of global corporations.
The LHC isn’t for any specific profit-making or warmongering purpose. Though the exhibition suffers slightly from being a celebration of the institutions of European capitalism.
A too triumphal version of the Higgs story can make science sound like a quest to track down the last pieces to complete a jigsaw puzzle of the universe.
But as some of the scientists in the exhibition point out, the real excitement comes when the pieces don’t fit the puzzle—and require the whole theory to be turned on its head.
The LHC looks set to dominate research in particle physics for years to come. Behind the headlines lies an exploration that this exhibition is a chance to enjoy and understand.