If you asked most people to name an academic pursuit that they feel is accessible and open to the public, particle physics wouldn't exactly be top of the list. It isn't easy to look at this mass of abstract concepts, Greco-Roman names and complicated equations and figure out what means what and how everything fits together. The Science Museum's new exhibition, Collider, has set itself the daunting task of changing that.
The eponymous collider is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, and a key part of the exhibition's appeal is communicating the true scope and enormity of this experiment. The Collider's main tube is a ring 100 metres underground and 27 kilometres long, and the bulk of the machinery is in one place several times the height of a man. The central area of the exhibition helps to reinforce this point: it's designed to look like you're in the interior of the Collider, complete with images and models of equipment from the real Large Hadron Collider. According to Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the Director General of CERN, it feels just like the real thing – which is of course deliberate. The idea is that if a visitor can feel as if they're inside the Collider they'll feel involved in the particle physics experiment and empathise with the people working on it, lest the whole experiment seem too remote and abstract for a visitor to relate to the people doing it.
There are many science exhibitions, so what makes this one different? Arguably the most important thing is that the Science Museum worked closely with physicists from CERN itself. It shows; the exhibition contains lots of genuine particle physics, explained by real scientists in plain-language terms that ordinary people can understand. The videos on the walls of the main part of the exhibition, where CERN scientists explain various aspects of the Large Hadron Collider's function, are generally clear, and there are engaging displays with well-thought-out analogies that can communicate tricky concepts to an unfamiliar audience. A few of the more complicated displays, such as a few of the Feynman diagram-esque posters, are less clear to any visitor who doesn't already know what a W or Z boson is – but only a few. On the whole, they do a very good job at being comprehensible to the general public.
Aside from the central portion of the exhibition, there are some interesting other things as well. At the beginning of the exhibition we're presented with a history of particle physics, from the cathode ray tube that J.J. Thompson used to discover the electron (the first particle smaller than an atom to be found) in 1897 to the bottle of champagne that Peter Higgs opened the day before the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced over a century later. Each physics item (although not the champagne) is accompanied by an understandable, concise explanation of what it does and means. It's a neat idea and it provides context for the rest of the exhibition that is to come, giving us a sense of where the Large Hadron Collider fits in the wider history of particle physics. For the mechanically inclined, they've also helpfully included some very professional drawings of equipment, so if you've always wanted to know what a liquid helium-based superconducting magnet looks like, this is the place for you to go.
As for going to the Science Museum's latest exhibition, it depends a lot on what kind of interest you have. For someone already well-versed in particle physics, it's a great experience to explore it, look around and find out a little bit ... but don't expect that everything you see will be new to you. But for a mature adult untrained in particle physics and trying to find out more, this exhibition is a treasure trove and a unique opportunity to receive an introductory understanding of particle physics straight from the horse's mouth; it's directed at adults, not young children, and it's pitched at just the right level.