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The ‘Collider’ exhibition brings quantum weirdness to Singapore

Particle physicist Dr Harry Cliff, co-curator of the 'Collider' exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, explains the strange world of physics to Chin Wei Lien

Photo: Science Museum, 2013
Dr Harry Cliff

‘Quantum’, ‘particles’ and ‘multiverse’ aren’t words we use often here. But we now have our chance as the ArtScience Museum readies its upcoming exhibition, Collider. The show brings the excitement and wonder of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its experiments to Singapore, hoping to shed some light on what exactly the largest machine ever built does.

Rather than pretend to know all that physics-y stuff, we jumped on a call with Dr Harry Cliff, co-curator of Collider, to tell us about the exhibition, the new horizons of physics, and his pitch for a future Doctor Who episode.

'We may be at a tipping point in the progress of science'

What is the most astounding fact about the LHC?

The thing that [impresses] me the most is that the largest and most complicated machine ever built by the human race was a collaboration between thousands of people from dozens of countries around the world, all speaking different languages and with different cultural backgrounds. And yet, when all the parts were brought together and the machine was completed, it worked!

Do you have a favourite exhibit at Collider?

It’s hard to pick a favourite, but [one of] mine comes at the end of the exhibition, where we’ve recreated a typical office corridor [at the] European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). When you walk through the space, you’ll see all kinds of details that give an impression of the international community of scientists who work there. There are even little physics jokes that people post on noticeboards. My personal favourite is an advert for a lost cat that reads, ‘Please return dead and alive to E. Schrodinger.’

When asked about the LHC, it is not uncommon for the layperson to ask: What’s in it for me? What would you say?

We do this kind of research [at CERN] because we want to find out more about the universe we live in, how it works, what the laws are that govern it, how it began and how it might end. These are big questions that are as old as history, and being curious about the world we live in is part of what makes us human. As Einstein said, ‘The search and striving for truth and knowledge is one of the highest of man’s qualities.’

What’s next for physics?

We may be at a tipping point in the progress of science. A lot of work over the past few decades has been an attempt to explain why the universe is so damn weird, but one by one those explanations have been shown to be wrong.

If we don’t find evidence of new particles at the LHC in the next few years, it could be strong evidence that the universe really is finely tuned for life. That may force us to accept the idea of a multiverse – multiple universes with different laws of physics – and that we live in [this] universe because it’s one of the few places where the conditions are right.

When you’re not working in the lab, where can you be found?

I’m often at the Science Museum [in London] working on new exhibitions or events or giving talks or lectures. I’ve even tried my hand at science stand-up comedy!

If you were to pitch a movie or TV show about particle physics and the LHC, what’d it be about?

I’ve always thought an episode of Doctor Who set at the LHC would be fantastic. You could imagine the Doctor arriving at CERN in the TARDIS to discover that engineers have been going missing in the tunnels under the laboratory. Inevitably, there’d be a lot of running around underground, where the Doctor would discover the LHC had accidentally opened a portal into another world. Maybe aliens would have been coming through and kidnapping engineers. Maybe not very realistic, but I [think] it’d be great fun.