Profile: The fact of the anti-matter - Museums Association

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Profile: The fact of the anti-matter

Particle physics on show at the Science Museum
Museums Association
Harry Cliff is the Science Museum’s first fellow of modern science and the curator of its Collider exhibition, which runs until May 2014. He also researches matter/anti-matter symmetries at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) and Cambridge University.

How’s the double life going?

Working at the museum for three days a week is a real collaborative effort, whereas particle physics is about getting my head down in quite complicated computer code. That’s if I can manage to remember where I left off the previous week.

What’s life like at Cern? All jet-packs and protein pills?

The reality is sitting in drab 1970s-style offices most of the time analysing data and eating canteen food. There’s a huge disparity between the above-ground and below-ground worlds; all the real money is spent underground. You can walk into a cavern and see a 15m-high detector, which is a very beautiful object. It’s very space age down there.

Do you show both worlds in the exhibition?

Yes, it’s important to show the day-to-day stuff. I spent a day with our graphic designers photographing in excruciating detail the corridor outside my office at Cern. Everything’s correct, right down to the posters on the doors.

Is it full of science types talking about being shy with girls?

In the canteen we generally talk about physics in a language called Cernois, which is not exactly English or French. There’s no hierarchy at Cern; everyone is employed by a university and everything happens by consensus. You have to get on with people to be a particle physicist because you need to take people with you when you develop ideas.

Weren’t people worried that Cern would destroy the world?

Cern slightly embraced all that when it got going because it was a great way of explaining what was really happening. There’s quite a funny document flying around that is basically a risk assessment of the hazards posed by the Large Hadron Collider, one of which is the destruction of reality by the creation of a black hole. That puts your usual office dangers into perspective, doesn’t it?

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