Big Bang Day, Radio 4

Hurrah! Public service broadcasting with knobs on
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The Independent Culture

Well, is it the Higgs boson or the Higgs particle? We seem to be inclining towards the latter, which is a shame. For while more people may know what a particle is than know what a boson is, "Higgs boson" sounds better: more mysterious, more scientific.

Thanks to Radio 4's Big Bang Day last Wednesday, there are more people than ever before who could give the then science minister William Waldegrave the answer he craved in 1993, when he asked facetiously for a comprehensible definition of what a Higgs boson was and why we should be looking for it.

We now know that the Higgs boson is the reason everything, even William Waldegrave's brain, has mass; we just haven't seen one yet. Which is why the Large Hadron Collider has been built, and why Radio 4 sent Today's Andrew Marr to watch it being switched on. According to the Afternoon Play Lost Souls, a specially commissioned episode of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off, it should not have been switched on until the possibility of murderous extra-dimensional aliens jumping into our universe had been ruled out. (Most people have been worried about the LHC sucking the earth into a black hole. They worry needlessly. It won't happen until October, when the really interesting experiments start.)

Most successful of the laudable attempts to get our heads round this subject have been Simon Singh's daily 15-minute programmes, 5 Particles, which patiently and lucidly tell us about electrons, quarks, antiparticles and the like. We are a long way, it transpires, from agreeing on the pronunciation of "quark" – does it rhyme with "ark" or "walk"? – let alone powering the Enterprise with antimatter. Incidentally, it's quite legitimate to use the noises made by the Enterprise to keep people's attention in programmes like this, but when, as in Ben Miller's r Great Big Particle Adventure, you use the music from the Winter Olympics while a scientist makes an analogy using snowshoes, then that's just distracting.

My favourite, though, was Steve Punt's one-off comedy, The Genuine Particle, which proposed that turning on the LHC would create a wormhole in time. It was an almost direct homage to Douglas Adams ("If we'd wanted an experiment that could have been halted by cups of tea we would have held it in England" or "It's very hard to smuggle an X-ray detector through an X-ray detector"), and none the worse for that. It also used more science, less patronisingly, than the episode of Torchwood. (It was disconcerting to learn that I knew more about particle physics than the good people of Torchwood. And I don't really know that much either.)

But let us salute Radio 4 for going crazy about the LHC. This is public service broadcasting with knobs on, a massive vote of confidence in general levels of interest and intelligence. I'm rather sorry it's over.