LHC in da house

6 Octobe r 2008

Some of the CMS performance crew

You don’t have to go far from CERN’s building 40 to meet a celebrity now! Katie McAlpine, ATLAS e-news webmaster and journalist, has become sort of one, after her quirky Large Hadron Rap video posted on Youtube.com has reached more than 3,500,000 hits.

So, how any one can possibly bring together rapping, the music style associated with street gangs, and high energy physics, a scientific discipline? Katie has the answer: “Physics rap fuses two very different cultures. That’s what makes it fun.”

“Some on both sides argue that science and hip-hop should never meet, but most agree that the attempt is at least humorous!” she adds.

Katie’s comfortable attitude in front of the camera did not come easy. She has been honing her skills for a long time now. After finishing a dual degree in professional writing and physics at Michigan State University, Katie joined the American Physical Society as an intern, where she created the unlikely “neurochip rap”. So, when she knew she was coming to CERN, Katie’s evil plans to compose the Large Hadron Rap rapidly emerged: “As soon as I was slated to come to Geneva, I knew I'd have to make a rap at some point,” she laughs.

In spite of the apparent oddity of the LHC Rap project, when Katie first threw the idea to her friends and colleagues, she felt that people were supportive for the most part, “if in a smirking sort of way,” in Katie’s own words. “And who can blame them – it’s a strange thing to do…” she adds.

“Although, now that it's become a genuine success as far as communications is concerned, there's no longer much smirking.  It's not just a crazy idea anymore - it's a crazy idea that worked.”

Katie, a science writer herself, has been mostly struck by the flurry of press coverage. Stories about the rap have been featured in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and Reuters, among others: “This was the strangest bit for me,” she concedes. “I found out that when you do five interviews in a day, with radio, TV, and print journalists, you don't wind up with time for much else - including lunch.”

All the buzz around the LHC Rap has helped Katie make her name better known in the science communication field: “I've been approached for some freelance writing work and I am also working on a book proposal for a layperson's guide to the LHC,” she explains. “I may be commissioned to do raps in the future. That would definitely be exciting!” Katie jokes.

At a moment in which some argue that the general public interest in science is in decline, such a claim may need to be put in quarantine - to judge for the number of visits that the rap has drawn. Maybe it is all about finding the right formula to ‘rock the public’s head’.

The video has been particularly successful as a science teaching resource. “I am most proud of the fact that so many teachers have contacted me to get a copy that they can play in their classrooms,” Katie says.

Science communication, in the crossroads of two worlds

Working in the boundary between science and writing is something that was in Katie’s mind from the beginning of her university education. Her decision was heavily influenced by her father's ‘out of the box’ thinking: “My dad used to tell me that the usual careers that they give you in those career aptitude tests in high school don't come even close to covering all the possibilities,” she recalls.

Katie was sitting down to breakfast shortly after one of those conversations, reading an article about black holes in Discover magazine when she first thought of becoming a science writer: “I realised that someone must have written the article. I was good at writing and interested in science. I'd found my career.”

On Wednesday, September 24th, Katie performed her rap live during the CMS fest. “It was a lot of fun. We were nervous since we didn't have much chance to rehearse as a group, but I think we pulled it off,” she says.

“The videos are a bit rag-tag anyway, so it wouldn't make sense for us to look too professional!” she smiles.

Lizzie Gibney and Ceri Perkins, two fellow science communicators at CERN and also fellow backing dancers in the Youtube.com video were among the volunteers who accompanied Katie in her first live performance.

“Katie completely stole the CMS show. I was stunned by how famous she’s become,” says Ceri. “Afterwards, it took us 20 minutes to get to the back of the hall, everyone wanted a chat or a photo with her!”

“It's crazy to see how popular the rap has become,” Lizzie adds. “Katie even used her celebrity status to persuade members of the CMS management onto the dance-floor!”

As Katie says in the rap “CMS and ATLAS are two of a kind”, and ATLAS also had its start-up party last Saturday October 4. The next issue of ATLAS e-news will report on the ATLAS fest, where Katie also performed with a big success!

Cristina Jimenez

ATLAS e-News