ATLAS in the podosphere

23 February 2011

The Guardian's Andy Duckworth recording on location at ATLAS

“Most programs would normally do their Christmas special from somewhere like Lapland. We're different though,” says The Guardian newspaper's Andy Duckworth, introducing the seasonal special of their Science Weekly podcast: Christmas at the Large Hadron Collider.

Science Weekly is a lively 30-ish minute podcast that covers topical issues, philosophical questions, and new developments in science. It has quite a following, and was named Best Podcast in the Web Awards. The LHC and the physics it will explore is a favourite topic on the show, and this Christmas, ATLAS and ATLAS physicists were the stars!

“I have to warn you though, the Large Hadron Collider is asleep at the moment, so can you please lower your voices and walk on your tiptoes?” whispers ATLAS Outreach Officer, Claudia Marcelloni, as the programme opens over a sound bed of Hollywood-inspired eerie notes, sleigh bells, and the sound of cars racing past the Globe.

The Guardian crew were invited, along with other media, to meet some of those involved with the Resonance music CD, but, admits Duckworth, “Yes, it was a brilliant excuse to come and see the place we're always talking about on the podcast … We wanted to allow our listeners to get a peek behind the curtain of one of the most amazing places on earth: a look at the human side of such a technical and enormous operation.”

This sense of awe was echoed by some of the physicists who took part in the recording. Lukas Pribyl enthuses: “It feels like working on a space station or something like that. It's rather inspiring because you're working with many people who are smarter than you and you can learn a lot from them.”

But of course, CERN is about as far away from a space station as you can get, aesthetically speaking, and it didn't go unnoticed. “Part of me had expected neon lights everywhere, people walking around in space suits and robots roaming the corridors. I think I had expected to see a vision of the future from the 1960s!” jokes Duckworth. “Clearly, the ATLAS control room helped satisfy my futuristic desire.”

As the recording follows Duckworth on his visit to Point 1, Steve Goldfarb summarises for him: “What's happening right now is… absolutely nothing … [During the winter shutdown] we start to lower the supply of helium to the accelerator. As it eats less and the temperature gets colder, it starts to fall asleep. It's much like a bear – a bear stops eating as it gets towards winter. Now the accelerator is in its cave.”

As well as touring Point 1, Duckworth visited Restaurant 1 to find out what physicists talk about over lunch, and sought out the corridor where the World Wide Web was invented. Speaking with various ATLAS physicists, he managed to cover topics such as working hours, how people plan their time, the international environment, working relationships, how people reacted to 'the LHC problem' in 2008, the male-to-female ratio, the Resonance CD, and, of course, the ubiquitous and endless meetings.

“If they took all the meetings out, do you think you'd have found the Higgs boson by now?" he asks a cool headed Nick Barlow. “I would like to say yes,” Nick laughs, “but sadly I think scientific honesty compels me to say no, we need a lot more data before we can find the Higgs.”

The physics on the cards did get a look in though, with SUSY, Dark Matter, and the quark gluon plasma seen in last year's Heavy Ion collisions all getting a mention.

“We weren't expecting, this year, to be doing discovery already – and we are!” enthuses Steve, before making a comparison between the detector and the Hubble Space Telescope, to illustrate the magnitude of the potential discoveries that await ATLAS: “We've taken our own Hubble, we've launched it and we're looking in. We're looking inside at the smallest parts of our universe, and trying to understand them. So I can imagine in the next couple of years, we're going to be finding all sorts of things. It's getting very exciting. It's opening our eyes for the first time on this universe that we've never ever seen before.”

“We're careful not to talk about [the LHC] all the time [on the show], but it always captures the imagination,” says Duckworth.

The Science Weekly team – no strangers to awards – think this episode (link) is particularly special, and have entered it for several prizes. “We'll find out later this year if the judges like it as much as we do. Fingers crossed,” says Duckworth. Have a listen for yourself!


Ceri Perkins

ATLAS e-News