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

Place and particle physics

The study of space is a well-established tool in history of science. David Finnegan (2008) identifies broad categories of study over the past few decades: detailed histories of specific sites; exploration of how science is bound up in regional and national identities; territorial claims, whether intellectual, material, or political; and the changing boundaries across which scientific expertise moves.[2]

Scientific laboratories, as privileged places of scientific activity, enjoyed considerable attention in the 1980s and 1990s. However, in recent years many historians have moved away from microstudies of mainstream laboratories and instead turned their attention to wider sites of scientific activity (such as the home, or the pub), or to the relationship between science and various publics. In a 2008 issue of Isis on the subject of bringing laboratory history back into focus, Robert E Kohler argued that it was time for a revival of studying the lab as a social institution, building on studies of individual places to create more systematic macrosocial histories of the laboratory in different eras (Kohler, 2008).

During the boom in laboratory studies, large particle physics facilities attracted particular attention, and historians overlapped with sociologists and anthropologists of science. Notable studies in the field include Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes, exploring the different manifestations of power and gender relations in laboratories in America and Japan, and Peter Galison’s Image and logic, which explored how the ever-larger and more specialised technologies of particle physics were developed and managed by different subcultures within engineering and physics disciplines (Traweek, 1992; Galison, 1997). Although each laboratory is unique, broad common characteristics of spaces can be identified.

From the Second World War until the mid-1960s, a factory model dominated the architecture of large-scale physics facilities. Hundreds of workers were based at centralised facilities, often sharing common layouts: at a 1947 London meeting ‘Discussion on the Design of Physics Laboratories’, several participants advocated basing the site around a hub, with scientific staff at the centre while services and other activities were relegated to the periphery. However, as Galison and Jones note, the growth in electronic infrastructure and data sharing from the 1970s onwards meant that experiments could not be considered as taking place solely at a single facility (Galison and Jones, 1999). Famously, the distributed communications and work practices of particle physicists foreshadowed a transformation far beyond their discipline: Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 proposal for managing the large amounts of information generated by CERN’s experiments became the model for the World Wide Web (Berners-Lee, 1989). In this connected world, it is useful to consider the international physics community in light of Karin Knorr-Cetina’s description of ‘a sort of collaborating organism’ in which large experimental consortia can draw in virtually all scientists working in the field (Knorr-Cetina, 1992, p 133).

Figure 5

Photograph of Tim Berners-Lee sitting next to a computer display on which the words world wide web initiative are legible as well as an old CERN logo

Tim Berners-Lee, pioneer of the World Wide Web, c 1990s. By the end of 1990 the world’s first web server was in operation at CERN.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140207/004