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Casting Mr Higgs

Science | Schools

Pete Wilton | 30 Apr 12

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Exactly what sort of headgear do sub-atomic particles wear?

This is one of the important issues addressed in an animation about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the first offering from Oxford Sparks, a new portal giving people access to some of the exciting science happening at Oxford University.

In search of the science behind the fun, I asked Alan Barr of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, who works at the LHC, about his role as scientific adviser on the animation and coping with a cast of prima donna protons…

OxSciBlog: Why do you think we need an animation about the LHC?
Alan Barr: The Large Hadron Collider is one of the inspirational science experiments of our time, but it can be difficult for a non-expert to understand what it is about. Anything which helps make the science accessible - even as a first taste - is a good idea as far as I’m concerned. So when the OxfordSparks team suggested using ‘A quick look around the LHC’ as a pilot for OxfordSparks.net, I happily agreed to help advise on the science side.

OSB: What contribution did you make to the LHC nugget?
AB: I wish I could say I’d done the animation – but thankfully the hard bit was done by Karen Cheung, a really impressive professional animator from the company Jelly. My role as scientific consultant was to try to make sure that, as well as being great fun, the cartoon conveyed as much physics as possible, and as accurately as possible. Of course that’s a bit tricky in a cartoon. Protons don’t really wear crash helmets, and the Higgs boson doesn’t really have a flower in his hat, even if he appears to in the cartoon. But we were able to illustrate the basic ideas of what happens at CERN - the acceleration, the collisions and the detection of new particles.

OSB: What concept are you most proud to see in the finished animation?
AB: When particles move close to the speed of light, the effects of Einstein’s relativity are really important. Very fast particles get heavier, and so our character - Ossie - starts feeling rather bloated as he gets accelerated. Later on, when the protons collide, their energy is turned into new, exotic particles - again just as predicted by Einstein and as we observe in the collisions at CERN.

We’ve also put together some extra information on the OxfordSparks web page describing a little more background about how the accelerator works, and the role that Oxford played in the construction and operation. We explain, for example, how we one can detect the characteristic signals we expect from exotic new particles like Mr Higgs.

OSB: What feedback have you had from fellow physicists/the public?
AB: I emailed an early version of the animation to some of our own graduate students here in Oxford. As soon as I heard their laughter coming down the corridor I knew that we were onto a winner. After we released it on YouTube the uptake was fast… I’ve just had a peek at the YouTube page and there have already been more than 27,000 views, so it’s clearly caught the public imagination. We’ve also had interest from other LHC scientists around the world… so who knows – we may even end up going international, just like the LHC itself. 

You can like Oxford Sparks on Facebook, follow on twitter or visit at YouTube.