Discovering Higgs at the Science Museum

Our online Science editor Vanessa tells us about her visit to the Science Museum to see their CERN exhibition and to get a glimpse of the elusive Professor Higgs.


I remember hearing rumours about an experiment that could end the world, not fully understanding why, but waking up the next morning thinking, “Well it can’t have worked. I’m still here.” But somewhere, fundamental physicists were trying to understand how particles gain their mass.

Finally, after some time, they found it. The Higgs Boson – the last piece of the puzzle when understanding the Standard Model, a model that explains how the basic building blocks of matter ‘fundamental particles’ interact, governed by four fundamental forces: electromagnetism, gravity, weak and strong.

Here at Roar!, some of us were lucky enough attend an interview with the man himself, Professor Peter Higgs, one of the brains behind this exciting discovery. He turned out not to be a mad scientist with cutting words and crazed ideas; there were no tufts of hair sticking up at various angles. Instead, Professor Higgs was softly spoken, fair and very diplomatic in answering the questions thrown at him, even the awkward ones regarding Tom Kibble and if he should have jointly won the Nobel Prize.

The interview was an insight into his mind. “How do you visualise the Higgs Boson? As a particle?” was an interesting question asked by a Radio 4 representative. Higgs replied that he thinks of it as merely a by-product of a theory and is not able to visualise it. Of course, for the general public a visual image does need to be presented, and the “colour yellow does the job” according to Alison Boyle, lead curator of the Collider exhibition.

Of course, not everyone has a degree in Fundamental Physics, so grasping the concept of the Higgs Boson and other physical concepts is a struggle. According to Higgs, “It takes a bit of effort on both sides [the public and scientists]. If I start to explain to somebody who has no background in Physics, I often find there are a whole lot of misconceptions.”

The actual exhibition was made to give a realistic taste of life at CERN. The walls were a replica of the decor right down to the finest detail of the pin marks on a bulletin board with notes of erratic equations. It was very interactive, with virtual interviews of employees explaining their role and experience at CERN. Real apparatus and machinery from the Large Hadron Collider was on display, some behind glass windows, some held on a stage for people to admire its sheer complexity. But above all it was very fun, made to entertain and explain to all age groups the ‘coolness’ of fundamental physics and working at CERN.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN, was also present and impressed with the general layout, stating: “I recognised CERN in this exhibition.” Big experiments at CERN consist of more than 3,000 scientist, which Heuer jokes “means 3,000 egos.”

There’s still a lot of mystery in fundamental physics, and a lot is left in the dark. Heuer concluded the interview with a final thought: “It’s high time we enter that dark universe.”