Like many other people, I was following the events surrounding the switching-on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN yesterday with great interest. The BBC has had some quite good coverage, particularly The Big Bang Machine, however I felt a bit frustrated with some of the explanations. On all of the coverage of the LHC we learned that:
- It is 27 km in circumference
- It is cooled close to absolute zero (about -271°C)
- Twin proton beams will be accelerated to speeds very near to the speed of light
- The protons will then be collided, resulting in them being "smashed apart"
- This will recreate conditions as they were very shortly after the start of the Big Bang
- Detectors will record incredibly short-lived products of the collisions, looking (among other things) for the theoretically postulated but never observed Higgs boson.
And that's it. Everyone agrees that it's revolutionary, exciting stuff that will answer huge questions which have puzzled physicists for decades, but we don't get any more details other than the impressive statistics of the LHC.
Now, I know that the concepts invovled in particle physics aren't exactly accessible for non-physicists. Every time I have to explain what I do for a living to non-biologists, I thank my lucky stars that I'm not a particle physicist. The 'what' of my research is pretty easy to explain to non-experts, though the 'why' (as in 'why in the world would anybody be interested in that?') is still sometimes problematic. But surely there's some, non-patronising way to explain more details of the experiments involved? There are so many interesting questions to ask.
For example, they often showed the graphical representations of the tracks of the particles which would be recorded by ATLAS and the other experiments in LHC. They were very pretty, but I'm assuming that the physicists won't be just gazing at the screens going, "Whoa! Look at all the pretty patterns... Far out, man...", then going off to have their tea. They are data and they mean something important, but how are they interpreted? How will they recognise the Higgs boson if it appears, and how will they distinguish it from other particles? How will they know for sure if they don't find it: in other words, how can they be sure that the absence of the Higgs boson is a real absence and not because their accelerator isn't quite fast enough, for example?
And then there's the whole 'the LHC will create black holes which will destroy the Universe' thing. Though the BBC and some other media organisations tried to imply that it was idiotic scare-mongering and all the physicists say it really can't happen, they all managed to get the question in. If I was Stephen Hawking, I would add a loud claxon sound to my speech synthesiser (like the QI claxon in the General Ignorance round), and activate it (preferably with the words CREATE BLACK HOLES WHICH DESTROY UNIVERSE flashing in white text on a black background on a convenient huge screen) whenever a journalist asked me the question. Then I'd mentally deduct 30 points and just carry on.