by Polly Bennett. Published: 02 March 2012

In preparation for an exhibition about the LHC, members of the Science Museum, London, visited CERN last week to review potential objects for display and to research the experiments and the accelerator itself. In a busy schedule that spanned two days the group met the experiments’ outreach coordinators, members of CERN’s services and logistics teams, and shifters in the CERN Control Room. On their visit to ALICE, led by ALICE’s Outreach Coordinator Despina Hatzifotiadou, the group was offered objects such as a Time of Flight (TOF) detector prototype and Photon Spectrometer crystals.

Science Museum

The Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum

The development of the exhibition is still at an early stage but the Science Museum’s Curator of Astronomy and Modern Physics, Alison Boyle, said, “Something like the LHC is a huge challenge for museums given its enormous size. One of the things we’ve been very keen on looking at is the engineering side; as a museum we like to have 3D objects on display.” The museum had a small exhibition about the LHC in 2007, before start-up, which focused more heavily on the science. (Find out more at sciencemuseum.org.uk/antenna/bigbang).

During the many discussions with physicists and engineers on their visit, the group was taken by the importance of pursuing a greater fundamental knowledge of the universe in its own right; with industrial and medical applications bonus spin-offs. Steve Goldfarb, ATLAS Outreach Coordinator, gave a well argued justification that fundamental knowledge forms the building blocks from which all other science is based. Won over by this explanation Alison stated that, “I think that’s something we’d really like to try and get across in the exhibition.” The museum has not yet decided whether to focus on all four main experiments or to discuss the aims of an experiment generally, accompanied by some specific examples from each. “It’s so much for visitors to take in. To get across the idea that there is an accelerator, the LHC, with four experiments, may seem simple but it’s already quite a challenge for visitors. We need to do more testing with visitors to find out their prior assumptions and knowledge. We’re not in the business of formally teaching people physics or engineering - instead we aim to inspire visitors, encourage them to see science and engineering as culturally important, and enable them to explore more for themselves.”

The exhibition will be temporary and aimed at adults who will mostly have little previous knowledge of particle physics or engineering. As such, the visiting group hunted for human stories that visitors could relate to. “People might have thought we were asking some weird questions like ‘what makes a really good day at work?’ or ‘how do you guys all get on?’, but it’s those kinds of things that add flashes of colour. It’s a way into concepts that might be too complex for visitors otherwise,” Alison explained.

Several group members were intrigued by the stories of low-tech solutions for the high-tech equipment of the ALICE TOF Multigap Resistive Plate Detector, which uses fishing line to space the glass plates. Harry Cliff, a Science Museum fellow, who divides his time between the museum and the LHCb team at the University of Cambridge, UK, said, “The fact that it’s made from kit you can get from a hardware store would hopefully connect with visitors. They don’t know what a p-doped semiconductor is but they know what fishing line is.”

To broaden the accessibility of CERN objects to visitors, Science Museum staff were accompanied by professionals from external creative industries. “We brought people from the world of theatre, digital production, market research, and so on, who would look at CERN and the things we saw in very different ways. Over the next few weeks we’ll get together again and work up some of our ideas, working through what the exhibition experience might actually be.” The exhibition, Alison goes on to explain, is unlikely to consist solely of objects with printed labels. Instead the experience will be more immersive, making use of accompaniments such as new media interpretation in the form of, for example, animations or computer interactive games. “These help when it’s not apparently obvious what something is and visitors can dig down into different layers of information. Hopefully it will be an experience that will give you as close a sense as possible of the LHC without actually being at CERN.”

Summing up their visit Alison concludes, “Museum exhibitions take quite a long time to design and the research we did at CERN has given us some important first impressions. There is a lot more digging down to put the meat on it. We were amazed at how willing people were to give us their time and loan us objects, and we’re looking forward to being in touch with them again as the exhibition progresses.”