A smashing idea: Collider exhibition at London’s Science Museum

28 Mar 2014

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Alison Boyle, co-curator of the Collider exhibition at the Science Museum in London. Image via Science Museum

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Irishwoman Alison Boyle is bringing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to life at an exhibition in the Science Museum in London. Claire O’Connell paid a visit.

When you walk into the Collider exhibition in the depths of London's Science Museum, there's a palpable air of expectation.

The first stop is a mock-up of the lecture theatre at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider, where the historic announcement was made in July 2012 about possibly having found the Higgs boson particle.

The tension builds as characters on a wraparound screen relate the stories and emotions of researchers as they await the momentous announcement. Yet what is arguably CERN's most famous moment nearly didn't make it into the exhibition, explains Collider co-curator Alison Boyle.

"We started talking to CERN about this exhibition three years ago," she recalls. "We were initially going to be mainly talking about the engineering side, and at that stage they hadn't made the announcement about the Higgs."

But, just in time, the news came through that the proton-smashing LHC had yielded evidence of the long-sought particle.

"The July 2012 announcement happened in enough time for us to incorporate it into the exhibition – it worked out fabulously well for us," says Boyle. "Then Peter Higgs obligingly won the Nobel Prize – if he hadn't won I think we would have been more disappointed than he would have been!"

Even before the Higgs announcement and Nobel nod, the Science Museum was keen to tackle fundamental physics, notes Boyle, but there were inherent challenges.

"Museums do tend to struggle with the content, it is somewhat advanced and difficult in terms of artefacts, it is not the sort of thing that fits easily into a museum," she says. "But we felt the LHC is a key area of scientific research and interest for our visitors. The way we set up a show was always going to be a visit to an amazing place, but the fact that they found the Higgs and it was all over the news and people wanted to know more about it has given us a fantastic hook to attract visitors."

Collider exhibition

The Collider exhibition at London's Science Museum reveals what it's like underground in the tunnels at CERN. Image via Science Museum

A walk through the tunnel

Following the initial film, you get to wander through the exhibition's LHC tunnel, pinballing between whiteboards and exhibits that explain the fundamentals of particle physics, the dimensions and workings of the LHC, and the bigger questions that the science hopes to answer.

Boyle and co-curator physicist Dr Harry Cliff wove nuances of working at CERN into the Collider exhibition.

"We put in little elements of humour to soften the content," says Boyle. "And we also talked to a lot of people who work there and included some of their stories. Visitors like stories about other people and we brought that to the fore."

The result is an exhibition that will bend your brain but also provides useful and sometimes startling analogies to offer insights into the scale of the engineering involved and the minuteness of the hunted particles.

Get involved

So how did Boyle get involved with this line of work? A native of Galway, she initially studied physics at NUI Galway and went on to study astronomy and science communication before starting at the Science Museum on a six-month placement.

Thirteen years later, she's 'Deputy Keeper of Science and Medicine' – a job title she admits sounds a little Harry Potter-ish – and Collider is one of several aspects of her work.

"We plan permanent galleries several years in advance, and we also have temporary exhibitions and the regular job of keeping the collections up to date," she explains. "Other aspects of curatorial work include academic publishing, events and blogging."

Her advice to students with an interest in science and history is to volunteer in organisations where they have an interest, though her wisdom could be applied across the board: "Get involved," she says. "And build your networks."

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Collider runs at the Science Museum in London until 5 May (tickets available here) and at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from 23 May-28 September (tickets will soon be available here).

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