At last, particle physics is in the public eye!

29 September 2008

A smattering of news coverage on the LHC start-up

We all witnessed the incredible press coverage CERN received for the start of the LHC a few weeks ago. James Gillies, head of CERN Press Office, summarized it well in the CERN Bulletin: "The statistics speak for themselves: 300 journalists on site, over 2000 TV broadcasts, 100 million hits on the CERN website, and an estimated global audience rivalling the number of particles in the LHC's first beam." Even Google had a special LHC themed graphic on its search home page on the 10th of September such that half a billion people will have seen it! Particle physics had never drawn media attention like before. Of course, there is no such thing as bad publicity and the hoax about black holes swallowing the Universe certainly contributed to captivate public attention.

ATLAS own outreach efforts also paid off. “During the past three years, the number of hits on the website went from half a million in 2005 to 1.26 million hits in 2007,” says Michael Barnett, ATLAS Outreach Project Leader. “But during the week of the LHC startup alone, we received just as many visitors as in the whole of last year!” he adds.  So far this year, our website has received 3.5 million visits.

The ATLAS e-news website, although primarily intended for the collaboration use, received up to 1800 visits a day during the LHC startup and many people in the global media and wider public are now subscribing to receive it weekly.

I received messages from friends and family who had heard about the LHC startup in places as diverse as Cape Verde, Canada and Thailand, wishing us luck with the start of the LHC or more recently, commiserating about the recent incident. Clearly, the many journalists who covered this event managed to convey their own excitement about our research. So I thought of checking with two journalists who had participated in the LHC startup events to see what this whole experiment meant to them.

Geoff Brumfiel, physics writer for Nature Magazine, said he had been awaiting the start of the LHC since he got into physics writing about six years ago. So Geoff was eager to come to CERN to be part of it. “Covering big press gaggles like the LHC startup is always difficult, and I was very focused on my various duties as a journalist,” he said. “But I did still have fun. It was definitely better than a shuttle launch for three reasons: I didn’t have to get up as early; it didn’t depend on the weather; and the food in Geneva is way better than the food at Cape Canaveral.”

Talking about the Big Media event at CERN, Geoff confesses: “To be honest, my favorite part of the startup was actually the day before the event, when I got a chance to schmooze with physicists from all over the lab. As a physics reporter, I (obviously) really enjoy hearing about what you're all up to.”

Dennis Overbye, science writer for the New York Times, had spent a week at CERN in the spring of 2007 talking with various theorists and experimentalists, as well as visiting the experimental areas. He says he had been waiting for the start of the LHC ever since the SSC was cancelled!  Throughout the summer, Dennis kept checking with people at CERN, hoping to be one of the first to find out when it would finally start. “Although my initial impression was that the First Beam night was going to be a media event, i.e. no physics for another couple of months, I was unexpectedly moved by the enthusiasm of the physicists and everybody involved. It reminded me of how long YOU had been waiting to take the next step up in energy.”

Dennis followed the LHC start remotely, joining the “pajama party” organized at Fermilab. “People came out in the middle of the night, in pajamas and bathrobes! It was fun and informal, which I appreciated. I've been to much stiffer events. Everybody was very friendly and helpful, explaining things and even fetching me champagne while I was writing my article and missing breakfast.”

Mitchell Voydat, a 53-year old clerical employee in a large hospital in California, USA, is one of many people who recently signed up to receive ATLAS e-news. One of many, but by far the most enthusiastic!

When asked how he first heard about us, he explained how the media furore surrounding the start-up had piqued his interest to the point where he even got up in the middle of the night to check the radio for the latest from Geneva. In the aftermath of the successful start-up, he started to dig a little deeper for information on the net, and stumbled across ATLAS e-news. “I found what I was looking for”, he says. “Your news stories concerning the few days before the startup, not only were very informative and very interesting, but I felt like I was right there experiencing what was happening. I could feel the intensity and the concern of everyone in anticipation of the startup of the Large Hadron Collider.”

You’d be hard pushed to find a more enthusiastic reader, and it is heartwarming to see that so many people are following what we are doing. Let’s just hope we will be up to the job and won’t disappoint them! With all the public money invested, giving back something is the least we can do.

Pauline Gagnon

Indiana University


Related articles by Geoff Brumfiel published in Nature magazine recently:
Sept 9: LHC by the numbers and Physicists flock to Geneva
Sept 10: The race to break the Standard Model and LHC switches on
Sept 22: LHC meltdown before first collision

Related articles by Dennis Overbye published in the New York Times recently:
May 15, 2007: A Giant Takes On Physics’ Biggest Questions
Aug 8: Date Set for Operation of Large Hadron Collider
June 27: Seeking End To Suit, U.S. Says Collider Is No Danger
Sept 8: Fingers Crossed, Physicists Are Ready for Collider to Roll
Sept 10: Protons and Champagne Mix as New Particle Collider Is Revved Up
Sept 19: Problems Stall Action for Collider       
Sept 20: New Particle Collider to Be Shut Down for Repairs
Sept 23: Collider Operations on Hold Until Next Year