Physicist helps Science Museum to put CERN on show

25 September 2013

An exhibition designed to immerse visitors in an experience of CERN comes to the Science Museum in London next month, with the help of post doc researcher Harry Cliff.

As the museum’s first fellow of modern science, he is on a three-year contract to help deliver the exhibition and has led in producing content to explain some of the fundamental physics behind the experiments at the LHC.

The museum is launching the show, Collider: Step Inside the World’s Greatest Experiment, on 13 November, and while final preparations are under way, Harry is spending all of his time on the project. Usually he works for about half his week on the exhibition and the other half at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, where he is involved in an international collaboration of around 500 people who are part of the LHCb experiment at CERN.

He’s enthusiastic about the research, which focuses on the bottom quark and is measuring asymmetries as particles flip between their matter and antimatter versions. There must have been some subtle difference between the two, or matter and antimatter would have annihilated each other in the aftermath of the Big Bang, he explains. “We are trying to get an insight into what that subtle difference might be,” he says.

Flipping between his two roles involves some mental adjustment as he moves between the museum and the laboratory but it is worth it, as the two positions complement each other, he says. He has worked with a content developer and other museum staff as well as playwrights, animators and sound artists to turn ideas for the exhibition into reality.

“Some of them would generally have no interest in particle physics but they are actually getting really excited about what’s going on at CERN and they have really embraced the material. It reminds you that what you are doing in your research job is actually exciting, and that reignites your passion as well.”

Working on the exhibition has also led to Harry discovering more about CERN, such as what is happening with the accelerator, rather than just the LHCb detector, and to gain a broader perspective.

Most meetings between the collaborators in the experiment take place remotely, but about every three months there is a face to face meeting, and Harry has to undertake shifts at CERN of about five or six days, twice a year. Being at CERN reminds him that it is a physical experiment taking place at a huge machine – an antidote to the danger of feeling that he’s simply playing with a spreadsheet at his computer, he says.

The awesome scale of CERN and the excitement of scientific discovery there, as well as the more prosaic nature of day-to-day activity, are aspects that the exhibition is designed to convey. It takes visitors on a journey through the site, includes a dramatic reconstruction of researchers discussing the discovery of the Higgs, and uses 360 degree projection to give visitors a sense of scale. Before entering this tour there is a free exhibition showing some of the objects used by particle physicists of the past, such as the cathode ray tube used by J J Thomson in his discovery of the electron.

Harry says that the content is quite challenging – it’s aimed at adults and schools are being encouraged to bring their A-level groups. “We’re not saying at all that children aren’t welcome, but we don’t want to say that the content is suitable for all children,” he said.

Back in 2007, the museum put on a smaller exhibition about CERN, called Big Bang, but this one will take a different approach, Harry says. “We want people to feel, as far as possible, as if they’re walking through CERN and seeing the excitement of the researchers in what they’re doing, which we hope will infect the visitor.”

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