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A particle physics evening

By Oli Usher, on 29 August 2014

Particle physics is a particularly abstruse area of science. The phenomena studied are so different from what we know and see that it is incredibly hard to convey even the most basic concepts.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that the past few years have seen an explosion in public interest in particle physics. The construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN a decade ago was one trigger for this – and the LHC’s triumphant discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 only confirmed the discipline’s popularity.

UCL is a major participant in the LHC (witness the 24 UCL authors of one of the papers that confirmed the discovery of the Higgs particle). Last week saw the BOOST conference, an international workshop for particle physicists at UCL. A group of them held a public event (A Particle Physics Evening, 20 August) hosted by UCL’s head of physics, Jon Butterworth.

Participants in the BOOST workshop, with Jon Butterworth at the centre. Photo credit: James Monk

Participants in the BOOST workshop, with Jon Butterworth at the centre. Photo credit: James Monk

The evening featured various talks on CERN and particle physics, including a live linkup with the CERN control room. (Unusually, given how flaky the technology usually is, the video-conferencing worked flawlessly. This is just as well – any networking problems would have been embarrassing given the world wide web was invented at CERN and UCL had the UK’s first connection to the internet.).

But the talk I want to highlight was on the ‘sonification’ of data from the Large Hadron Collider, presented by Lily Asquith of the Argonne National Lab (Asquith also did her PhD here at UCL).

The LHC explores the exotic world of high-energy physics, in which tiny particles collide at incredibly high speeds. Thanks to Einstein’s famous equation linking energy and mass, their kinetic energy generates mass when they collide, creating new and exotic particles that do not usually exist in the wild.

The particles in the LHC are so small and move so fast that they cannot be captured by cameras. Instead, highly sensitive instruments capture the movement of the particles within them.

Particles colliding in the ATLAS experiment at CERN. Photo credit: CERN

Particles colliding in the ATLAS experiment at CERN. Photo credit: CERN

The images generated from this data are quite familiar as they have been splashed across the media in the past few years. They are, in effect, maps of where the particles were detected during the experiment. The location in the detector maps to a location in the graphic; the colour represents the type of particle and so on.

But, Asquith explained, this isn’t the only way you can represent LHC data. What if, instead of giving the particles colours and lines, they were given different sounds?

She and her collaborators in the LHC Sound project have been producing sonic representations of LHC data, trying out different tones, volumes and waveforms to represent different particles, energies and locations.

A selection of sounds from the LHC Sound project is available on the UCL High Energy Physics website.

Remarkably, the recordings are incredibly vivid. Close your eyes and engage even a little imagination and the twanging and beeping comes to life – you can practically see the particles bouncing off each other.

This kind of melding of science with art is not unheard of – Arthur I Miller, emeritus professor in UCL Science & Technology Studies, has recently published a book, Colliding Worlds, on the topic – and it can give a fascinating new perspective on otherwise dry scientific facts.

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