Go back to article: Curating the collider: using place to engage museum visitors with particle physics

Extreme places: the Large Hadron Collider

The LHC (Evans and Bryant, 2008; Evans, 2009), referred to by CERN staff as ‘the machine’, was four decades in the making. Unprecedented in scale and technical sophistication, it would take a global consortium including CERN’s European members and the United States to meet the eye-watering costs of development and construction. After an embarrassing false-start in September 2008, the Collider began delivering data in late 2009, with the promise of answers to many of the great unsolved problems in fundamental physics.

The subterranean world of the LHC stands in stark contrast with the somewhat shabby surface campus, a contrast we were keen to see play out in the exhibition. Those who get a chance to go below ground must first don a safety helmet and radiation badge and pass through a series of airlock-like security doors, all of which serve to heighten the sense of passing into an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous domain. A lift then transports visitors a hundred metres below ground to the experimental areas.

The LHC is housed in a 27km concrete tunnel beneath the Franco-Swiss border. Running along the outside edge is the Collider itself, a steel tube in blue and white vanishing into the distance in each direction. Inside this blank shell are thousands of superconducting electromagnets, guiding beams of subatomic particles around the ring at 99.999997 per cent of the speed of light.

Figure 9

Underground concrete tunnel with a blue metal pipe running through its length

The tunnel housing the Large Hadron Collider.

At four points on the ring the tunnel emerges into concrete caverns housing the four giant detectors – ATLAS, ALICE, CMS and LHCb. A visitor’s first reaction to encountering a detector is usually a mix of awe and disorientation as they crane their neck in an attempt to take in the full size of the machine. During operation, the particle beams are brought into collision inside these detectors, which produce 3D records of each collision up to 40 million times every second. Recreating the extraordinary experience of walking through the LHC tunnel and encountering a particle detector would be a key challenge for the exhibition team.

Figure 10

Photograph of the atlas detector during its construction with an engineer standing within its ring structure looking very small in comparison

The ATLAS detector under construction. This photograph of an engineer dwarfed by the detector was widely reproduced in the media. Today, with the completed detector filling almost all its underground cavern, it is difficult to take a photograph showing its full scale.

Back on the surface, the centre of activity is the CERN Control Centre (CCC). Here at the LHC’s ‘Mission Control’ a small team of engineers operate the Collider and its supporting infrastructure from an arc of computer monitors. For the most part the CCC is a tranquil place, occasionally interrupted by moments of activity, and even drama when problems arise. The engineers who work here refer to ‘the machine’ almost as if it were a living thing, many of them having spent long hours in the tunnel at work on the Collider itself. This link between man and machine made a strong impression on the exhibition team, and offered a potential way to engage visitors in what could otherwise seem an impersonal if impressive piece of scientific kit. One engineer in particular who spoke of his emotional bond with the Collider would provide inspiration for a main fictional character in the exhibition.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140207/006