It may come as a surprise that not all physicists share in the excitement surrounding the Higgs boson, boosted further by the award of the physics Nobel Prize to Peter Higgs and François Englert, who first postulated its existence. Some of them feel twinges of resentment at the way the European centre for particle physics CERN in Switzerland, where the discovery was made with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has managed to manipulate public perception to imply that the LHC itself, and particle physics generally, is at the centre of gravity of modern physics. In fact most physicists don’t work on the questions that predominate at CERN, and the key concepts of the discipline are merely exemplified by, and not defined by, those issues.
I have shared some of this frustration at the skewed view that wants to make all physicists into particle-smashers. But after taking a preview tour of the new exhibition Collider which has just opened at London’s Science Museum, I am persuaded that griping is not the proper response. It is true that CERN has enviable public-relations resources, but the transformation of an important scientific result (the Higgs discovery) into an extraordinary cultural event isn’t a triumph of style over substance. It marks a shift in science communication that other disciplines can usefully learn from. Collider reflects this.
The exhibition has ambitions beyond the usual display of facts and figures, evident from the way that the creative team behind it brought in theatrical expertise: video designer Finn Ross, who worked on the stage play of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and playwright Michael Wynne. They have helped to recreate a sense of what it is like to actually work at CERN. The exhibits, many of them lumps of hardware from the LHC, are displayed in a mock-up of the centre’s offices (with somewhat over-generous proportions) and corridors, complete with poster ads for recondite conferences and the “CERN choir”. Faux whiteboards and blackboards—some with explanatory notes, others just covered with decorative maths—abound. Actors in a video presentation aim to convince us of the ordinariness of the men and women who work here, as well as of their passionate engagement and excitement with the questions they are exploring.
The result is that the findings of the LHC’s…