A Collision Course

Prospero’s J.P. gives a rave review to “Collider,” a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC):

Admirably, the curators do not shy away from the notoriously complicated science the LHC was designed to shed light on—not just the Higgs boson, but also other outstanding physical puzzles like how matter and antimatter differ or what dark matter, of which there is six times as much as the atomic variety, is made of. To their credit, they do not make it feel like a textbook. Throughout the exhibition the physics is clearly explained on computer screens, faux white boards and nifty multimedia features (an explanation of the make-up of the atom, projected onto an uneven, white table-top, is particularly mesmerising). The explainers steer mercifully clear of analogies, which often serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate the unintuitive world of quantum physics. Instead, they describe as much as is possible without resorting to actual equations.

There is more to the show than the science, however. The museum pulled off the even harder trick of depicting CERN’s character. Depictions of the accelerator itself include plenty of chunky, complicated-looking gubbins, mostly spares shipped in from CERN. The museum’s walls are lined with photos of CERN’s corridors, complete with assorted notices and warning signs (in English and French). There is a (yellow) Renault bicycle used by Roberto Saban, the LHC’s head of hardware, to potter round the 27km tunnel. And the exhibition recreates the physicists’ offices in Building 1, CERN’s oldest block. Bulletin boards contain posters advertising conferences and seminars, but also recruitment to the CERN choir. Geeky cartoon strips abound, along with a notice for a lost cat. (“If found please return to Erwin Schrödinger. Dead or alive.”) The only thing missing from this replica of the Geneva compound is the sticky formica floor.