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App puts LHC on your mobile

Pete Wilton

A new free app for Android phones launched today is giving people the chance to get closer to the world’s largest physics experiment.

People who download the 'LHSee' app will, for the first time, get live data from collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) sent direct to their mobile phone, as well as being able to find out more about how its instruments work and play a ‘Hunt the Higgs boson' game.

The app is the brainchild of Oxford University scientists and is supported by STFC: I asked one of its creators, Alan Barr from Oxford University’s Department of Physics, about squeezing the LHC onto a mobile:

OxSciBlog: Where did the idea for the LHSee app come from?
Alan Barr: For ages I’d been thinking that with the amazing capabilities on modern smart phones we really ought to be able to make a really great app - something that would allow everybody to access the LHC data. In fact I’d sounded out a few commercial companies who said they could do the job but I found that it would be expensive, and of course I’d have to teach their designers a lot of physics. So the idea was shelved.

Then, a few months later, I had one of those eureka moments that make Oxford so wonderful. I was having a cuppa in the physics common room, and happened to overhear a conversation from Chris Boddy, one of our very many bright Oxford physics graduate students. He was telling his friends that for fun he was writing some small test games for his Android phone. Well you just can’t let moments like that pass.

Within no time we’d put together a proposal, STFC had provided a small grant award, and Chris had a prototype app running on his own phone. 

OSB: What will the app enable users to do?
AB: We’ve squeezed in a bunch of cool features. If you want to learn about the science of the LHC, then you can play with the animated tutorials about the LHC and the ATLAS detector. Then you can stream videos to your phone about the construction of the detector, and its operation.

When you’ve become an expert, you can play the ‘Hunt the Higgs’, game, to test your skills. Personally, my favourite is being able to view collision events in 3D on my own phone. 

OSB: How close does it get you to real science at the LHC?
AB: This is the nice part. When we showed the app to our colleagues at CERN they loved it. They agreed that, for the very first time, we could make a live stream of actual honest-to-goodness genuine LHC events available to the public.

You can get them in real time, so you are seeing the results as they happen. Of course we can’t send you every collision – the LHC produces GigaBytes of data each second. But what you get is real, and you can see all the detail. Amazingly it’s even possible to pick out the individual proton-proton collisions.

OSB: Why is an app a good way to communicate LHC research?
AB: As of May 2011 there are well over 100 million activated Android devices out there. I kept coming back to this idea that as well as being phones these are really small pocket-sized computers with network connections and touch screens.

Focusing on these features, it seems completely natural to design an app to explain how we do our science, and the beauty of the physics we hope to uncover.

OSB: What do you hope users will take away from using the app?
AB: When the LHC was started, the news media used eye-catching images of the collisions to accompany their stories. It was an obvious thing to do because the pictures are so interesting, but it can be hard to get beneath the surface.

With the app you can understand what these strange shapes and lines actually mean - in terms of the individual particles detected. Our hope is that people can now appreciate the pictures and the science all the more - and perhaps even be a little inspired.

Dr Alan Barr is based at Oxford University’s Department of Physics.