1 Comment »Posted on Wednesday 10 September 2008 at 9:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

Two arms, two legs, a head and everything. Beams have been circulated both ways, so congratulations to everyone at CERN – the Large Hadron Collider works! Let the science begin.

I woke up this morning and began watching coverage of the Large Hadron Collider on BBC News. They kept referring to the gigantic machine as “this generation’s moon landing”, but the trouble with the comparison is that the LHC does not fair well on television. There is no “one giant leap” moment, no easy sound bite.

A large amount of screen time was devoted to a room of scientists clapping occasionally as the beam of protons made its way around the full 27 kilometres of the LHC circuit, with the BBC presenters helpfully chiming in “I don’t know what they’re clapping about.” They had Simon Singh on, who was doing his best, but as with most live news coverage it boiled down to “nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening…wait…wait…I’m just being told that nothing’s happening.”

On the newspaper/internet sides of the media, its clear that the LHC is big news. Most papers are running stories pretty close to the front page, and online the scientists at CERN are topping the “most read” charts. Obviously, there is a huge public interest in the LHC.

BBC Radio 4 is by far the leading source of information for those wanting to learn more, with a substantial number of programmes for “Big Bang day”. I didn’t catch Andrew Marr on Today (I’d been wooed by pictures to BBC News), but with the aid of iPlayer I’ve managed to check out most of the offerings. Some links (for the next seven days only, unfortunately) and my reviews:

Engineering Solutions

In the first dedicated programme of the day, Adam Hart-Davis talks to the scientists and engineers at CERN who built the world’s biggest machine. Its nice to hear directly from the people who worked on the LHC, even if much of the conversation consists of Hart-Davis’ astonishment at some large number. The programme also highlights the international nature of the project, with men and women from a number of countries contributing. Worth a listen in order to get a more personal feeling for the events at CERN.

Woman’s Hour

Woman’s Hour began with a recap of the days events so far by Andrew Marr, and then moved on to a discussion with four female scientists, including one from CERN. They talked about the need to get girls more involved with science, and to show that that subjects such as physics are not just for boys. The female population of CERN makes up only 10% of the total, so its an issue that needs to be rectified. The panel suggested introducing girls to female scientists, as well as showing them how science benefits their everyday lives, could help with this.

The programme also featured interviews with female scientists at CERN, who talked about balancing their scientific work with family life. A common theme was the difficulty in taking a break from a scientific career in order to raise a family; in a fast moving fields, a few years out of the loop could mean it was almost impossible to return.

Physics Rocks

Presented by CERN physicist Brian Cox, who before becoming a scientist played with the band D:Ream – their hits included the New Labour anthem “Things Can Only Get Better” – Physics Rocks speaks to celebrities about their interest in physics.

Guests included the actor Alan Alda and his friend, physicist Brian Greene, who collaborated with him to create the World Science Festival in New York. A huge fan of science, Alda had even designed a t-shirt for CERN. The pair talked about what the possibility of parallel universe could mean for us.

Comedian Dara O’Briain flaunted his BSc in mathematical physics, and suggested that experiments like CERN are great for improving interest in science, whilst John Barrowman (who will pop up again as Captain Jack in the next programme, Torchwood) thought that CERN is “science fiction” and could be creating a “mini-universe”. Not too sure about that one.

Its one of the more light hearted programmes on offer today, as illustrated by Cox on homoeopathy: “how big a particle accelerator would we need to detect bullshit?”, but he views this irreverence as essential to bringing science to the heart of our culture.

Torchwood: Lost Souls

As the first radio episode of the Doctor Who spin-off, I wasn’t expecting too much from Torchwood. A bit naff even at its best, the prospect of an “edutainment” episode did not inspire confidence. It seems I was right to be sceptical, as the first half of the programme mainly consisted of characters talking about just how fascinating it all is.

“Something’s going on at the LHC!”
“The LHC, what’s that?”
“Well, the LHC is…[insert Wikipedia article here]”

Slightly condescending, to say the least. As for the actual plot, it turns out the testing of the LHC has opened up a portal allowing neutron-devouring aliens to come through, leading to the disappearance of 12 people at CERN. There’s some nonsense about the LHC being a gateway to heaven, and then our hero Captain Jack utters the dreaded phrase “reverse the polarity!” This allows him to seal the portal by colliding beams of protons and anti-protons (the real LHC only collides proton beams) and find the Higgs boson in the process. Oh dear.

The episode at least had a few nods for Torchwood fans, with the neutron-eating aliens impersonating two characters who had recently died on the show, and a speech about just how wonderful the human race is in our pursuit for knowledge, did produce this nice little gem: “sometimes, just asking the question is the answer.”

All this, and I’ve not even covered half the programmes on offer. Simon Singh talked about anti-matter in 5 Particles, Front Row was devoted to the representation of physics in the arts, and even as I post this The Great Big Particle Adventure is airing more interviews with CERN scientists. Finally, The Genuine Particle is a satire set in CERN, broadcast at 11.30. I’m looking forward to catching up with the rest tomorrow. Well done Radio 4, for some excellent coverage.


  1. One Comment

  2. I posted a short and to the point LHC FAQ

    http://www.sciencebase.com/large-hadron-collider.html

    By David Bradley on Thursday 11 September, 2008 at 3:13 pm

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