In the past six months European Agency for Nuclear Research (CERN) has completed repairs on, and now begun the largest scientific undertaking in history.
Devised by 6000 of the best scientific minds the Large Hardron Collider (LHC) seeks to broaden understanding of particle physics and discover what gives matter mass, and explain effects like gravity.
The Agency have built the largest machine in history, and 100 meters under the Franco Swiss border have pushed forward the boundaries of science and engineering to bring its Large Hadron Collider on line.
The project has faced many problems both scientific and terrestrial in the form of terrorist concerns, power failures and the spiraling cost of repairs and preparations for the experiment. From the faulty welding that caused the massive helium leak in September 2008, the masses of repairs needed to the machinery, to its successful restart and subsequently becoming the highest powered particle accelerator in history.
Media coverage of the topic has similarly run the gamut from rampantly opinionated in blogs, to terror inducing reports of the worlds immanent destruction by CERN created black holes to reports laughing at the theories that have sprung up around the experiment. With an undertaking like this the boundaries of what is being done and what it hopes to achieve blur. Due to the scale of the project is moves beyond mere science and can be seen to challenge our understanding of how physics works and the universe in which we live; it takes on an almost supernatural standing, both in what it hopes to achieve, and in the fear it can create. But there is humor as well, in both the coverage, and in peoples reactions to the event. Indeed, some of the theories proposed by those involved in the experiment borders on comical. And depending on whether the experiment excites or terrifies you the media have been there to keep you informed through out its journey. The Agency itself has kept a strong internet presence with regular video posts and a continual monthly newsletter sent out to keep the public informed and to foster understanding of the project, its status and what it hopes to achieve.
It is natural for people to fear what they do not understand. And with the largest scientific undertaking by our man kind it follows that not everybody will have an intricate knowledge of particle physics and the effect that discovery of the Higgs Boson Particle would have, or why we should even question it.
Most people fear the earth could be reduced to a singularity by a black hole created in the heart of the experiment. This is based on a misconception. The scientists involved are unsure if black holes will even be created, let alone of a size to destroy the planet. But because this is difficult to understand, people are naturally afraid.
There have been reports which have used this natural fear. This fear due to the complexity of the project was compounded when coupled with the current threat of terrorism in August.
When headlines include in the same sentence terrorist suspect and a nuclear research facility, it is understandable that people read such headlines ‘TERRORIST suspect at NUCLEAR research FACILITY’ those words do tend to leap out at you from the screen. In fact the headlines did not warrant the fear they no doubt caused and it is particularly telling that CERN reacted with one of the suspects team members commenting that the most dangerous material he would have had access to was a hammer. The scientist, Adlene Hicheur did not even work for CERN he was a contractor with another company who was working on the CERN project. World Radio Switzerland covered the story very well, with balance and a clear head. Pointing out initially that the suspect was in custody while the police decided to continue investigations or to drop the case.
Juxtapose this with the coverage of The Jamestown foundation, an international terrorist watch group, reported differently stating that the scientist in question Adlene Hicheur had exchanged emails with high ranking members of the North African al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM ). While the scientist did exchange emails, and he appears to have agreed to help the al-Quaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the fears triggered in headlines was unwarranted. There is no connection between his work at CERN and any terrorist threat, in fact he wasn’t even a CERN employee!
While it seems some news agencies focus on the negative, there is much media out there that tries to foster understanding of the project. It’s no small feat to try to explain the greatest scientific undertaking of our species to anyone with out advanced scientific or engineering training.
In an attempt to explain the experiment, there has been much content that use humour to communicate the complex experiment for the lay-person. Much of this content originated, or is recirculated on Youtube.com. CERN has utilized the site well, creating its own channel CERNTV. The Agency’s videos have been watched by more than 2 million people. Their content varies from documentary style pieces that explain the experiment, to brief news item style pieces with news of the experiment first in its repairs, and now as it is underway.
A large number of videos are available on Youtube.com about the Large Hadron Collider. Many posts have been documentaries created by other media outlets that further discourse on the subject and others which take the project less seriously.
One of the finest examples of this is the LHC Rap posted by alpinekat:
Alpinekat is in fact science writer Katherine Alpine and the rap she posted on youtube ( embedded above) a great post that makes the experiment accessible to the greater public by use of popular music and humor.
The BBC has also kept up a good media coverage of the experiment through the Science & Environment section of its news site.
The BBC has had many stories on its website, and these have been supported by great visual images. On 20 November 2009 the site posted a story that particularly stood out with a slide show that tracks the history of CERN and the LHC experiment in pictures. The slide show is supported with brief stories outlining the nature of the science that they are exploring and it goes a long way to explain the scale of the experiment by outlining some of the computing requirements of the project. This guide provides an easy to use interface with a comprehensive lay guide to the project.
It is inevitable whenever humans are expanding the boundaries of knowledge on any topic that people will find it difficult to understand. This is double so when it is the boundaries of already advanced particle physics.
Much of the media concerning the LHC experiment has been written for the everyday ‘Joe Public’ and it is interesting to see how this varies between very basic and quite advanced, even though coverage is aimed at the same audience. The String theory is one that now matter how simply it is explained still seems impenetrable to the uninitiated.
Even the literature produced by the Agency itself at the CERN site is quite detailed in its explanations. So detailed as to be confusing. But the material itself isn’t so confusing as the range of information that is available to the public through the site.
The site breaks down the experiment stage by stage and outlines each of the components involved, and the variety of separate part of the experiment that are taking place. From the TOTEM (TOTal Elastic and diffractive cross section Measurement) which is in fact a separate experiment running in conjunction with the LHC to measure the output of the collider. To the main attraction ALICEthat will generate temperatures 100 000 times hotter than the sun.
Some of the most far fetched articles have come from scientists themselves. A theory was put forward that the project was plagued with such set backs as the initial helium leak that shut the project down, to the delays with the repairs and start date of the project. Two physicist put forward an idea that the Higg-Boson Particle that the project hopes to create and detect are so abhorrent to nature, or in fact ‘God’ that the project was being shut down by ripples of space time preventing the particles creation. The particle physics equivalent of the classic time travel paradox of killing your own grandfather.
The journey that the Large Hadron Collider has taken in the space of little over a year from being shut down to creating history by being the largest and highest powered machine created by humans, is literally astronomical.
The project and what it hopes to achieve is so closely related to everyone on this planet, but its enormity is difficult to communicate. It has created fear, and awe in equal measure.
In fact the project is of such a scale that the lines blur and it extends beyond mere science. The scale of the project and the engineering involved in its creation have set marks in history. What its findings could mean verge on religious.
CERN and its experiments have had so many effects on the world already, giving us astounding leaps forward in technology. The internet was created to transfer the vast streams of data created by experiments! As well as advances in medical imaging and X-ray imaging technology.
The most exciting thing about this experiment is that it is something we as a species can look to. This is the most science we have ever even dared to try. We are literally pushing forward our knowledge of the universe and our place in it.
With the project only just restarted, the machinery is still running at reduced power, and further discoveries will be made. The power will be increased, and the collisions will continue, and our knowledge will grow.