Harry Cliff: The man who's making an exhibition of the Higgs boson at the Science Museum

Steve Connor talks particle physics with Harry Cliff, the man who has turned the Large Hadron Collider into a Science Museum spectacular 

Brian Cox may have the rock-star looks, the tele-visual presence and a great mop of hair, but the real star of the particle physics show that opens in London this week is a young PhD student called Mingming Yang. While Cox has to make do with just a cameo role in the short dramatised film that opens the latest exhibition at the Science Museum in London, it is the character based on Ms Yang who takes centre stage.

The blockbuster show, Collider, attempts to portray the physical excitement and drama, as well as the science and engineering, behind the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) machine, that found the Higgs boson last year. And it was Ms Yang, a postgraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who had to present the key data at Cern in Geneva that finally revealed the existence of the Higgs particle, more than half a century after Peter Higgs had first proposed it as a theoretical possibility.

Collider, which opens on Wednesday, is the inside story of the events that led up to that discovery told in the form of a walk-through exhibition. It is one of the Science Museum’s most ambitious shows to date and has taxed the science communication powers of Harry Cliff, 27, the Cambridge University particle physicist who acted as the museum’s science adviser.

“It’s a very different experience to a standard museum exhibition. It’s certainly not objects in glass cases. It gives you the visceral experience – the sounds and the sights – of what it’s like to be at Cern. It’s a visit to Cern,” Dr Cliff said.

While people wait to gain entry to the all-ticket exhibition, they will be able to view a small collection of historical curiosities telling the story of particle physics. It begins with the discovery of the electron at the end of the 19th century and ends with the announcement last year that the Higgs boson, the fundamental sub-atomic particle that imparts mass to matter, had been found, Dr Cliff said.

“The idea is that while you are waiting to go into the exhibition you can browse the historical collection and get an idea of the kind of questions people try to answer in fundamental physics. The most recent exhibit is a bottle of champagne emptied by Peter Higgs and his colleague on the day of the announcement, 3 July, last year.”

Trying to portray a machine that is 27km long – about the size of the Circle line on the London Underground – with magnets the size of a building has not been easy. Neither has the attempt to explain the sub-nuclear events that take place when two opposing proton beams travelling at 99.99999 per cent of the speed of light collide together to produce sub-atomic particles that exist only for a fleeting fraction of a second before disappearing.

“The big challenge of doing the show is that the LHC is an absolutely enormous machine and the things it is studying are too small to be seen. It doesn’t lend itself to being exhibited so we’ve had to be really quite imaginative,” Dr Cliff said. “We went to all these places at Cern and took extremely high-quality photographs and we’ve recreated the spaces using incredibly large images. You encounter all the objects as if you are really in that space. There is no museum voice. Everything is delivered in a naturalistic way as if you’ve walked into someone’s office with a whiteboard explaining what a quark is, or you’ve come across some engineering drawings lying on a work bench and that explains what this object is.”

To open the exhibition, the museum commissioned playwright Michael Wynne to dramatise the Higgs discovery in a 13-minute film. The opening scene is the auditorium at Cern where Ms Yang had to present the data she was tasked to analyse. Dr Cliff said that the character in the film is not meant to be Yang herself, but a character loosely based on her and others like her.

“It was a meeting in the Cern auditorium that happened in June 2012 before the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson and it’s the moment when a young PhD student has to stand up in front of her colleagues to discuss the results of her search for the Higgs,” Dr Cliff explained.

“It’s based on a lot of first-hand accounts. We actually met Yang, who this character is based on, and we did a lot of extensive interviews with people at Cern. There were about 500 people involved in the search for the Higgs boson and they were all split up into different working groups. Ms Yang was a member of one of the working groups but she happened to be working on the channel, which is the way the Higgs decays, which gave the most evidence.

“What she presented was the most convincing evidence really that the Higgs had been found. It was the moment of discovery for the scientists. It was the moment when everyone involved with the experiment realised that this thing really does exist. It’s why we chose that moment.”

After visitors are taken through the hi-tech engineering and esoteric science of the underground LHC they come to the final part of the exhibition, the room where Yang, like other young Cern scientists, had to do the hard, cerebral work of data analysis – often in the early hours of the morning.

“The last exhibit is the recreation of the rather shabby 1970s office corridor at Cern and off to one side is the office of the young PhD student you see at the beginning. The thing about Cern is the contrast between the extraordinary and the mundane. Underground there is this almost science-fiction world with these beautiful machines but above ground it’s really quite tatty, like a 1970s university campus. All the money goes underground.”

As for Cox, he appears briefly in the introductory film as “a new boy called Brian”, according to Dr Cliff. The “boy” is called upon to get the teas in for the other scientists in the control room, he said. “He has a tiny cameo role, but he was a good sport. He even gives a little sideways look into the camera as he’s told to get the tea.”

What a pro.

Harry Cliff: a life in science

Harry Cliff was born and brought up in Bromley, south London. He studied physics at Cambridge from 2004 to 2008 and worked at Cern in the summer of his third year. 

However, he says, he didn’t find the experience of working at the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particularly enjoyable and considered switching to law, before being persuaded to carry on with physics.

He studied for a PhD at Cambridge, running experiments on the LHC. He applied for the new role at the Science Museum, which, he says, would allow him to continue his research as well as developing an exhibition about the LHC.

Now living in Camberwell, he began work at the museum in 2012.

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