Friday, September 2, 2011


I received a nice email today from Gareth, a good friend and follower of this blog. He forwarded me a link to something called Collide@CERN, which seems very relevant to the blog's purpose.

Before talking about Collide@CERN, let me briefly discuss CERN. CERN is the particle physics laboratory that houses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC really is an incredible experiment, not just because of what it is measuring, but also because humanity decided to pool enough of its resources together and devote enough collective time to it to actually build and use it. I won't go into detail as to what the LHC actually does (CERN does a very good job of publicising this themselves and perhaps Gareth might be tempted into writing a guest post for us) but it is definitely the most important particle physics experiment that exists today and is basically studying what nature does at the smallest lengths and highest energies that we have ever studied. Coincidentally, very early on in its history, the universe was extremely hot and dense, so the laws and patterns observed by the LHC are also very relevant to the early stages of the universe. This is why CERN will often claim that the LHC is “recreating the conditions during the big bang”.

In any case, CERN have always been very, very good at outreach. It doesn't really surprise me that the most ambitious and most difficult experiment humanity has ever attempted is run by an organisation that tries so hard and so effectively to explain and popularise what it does. People care about what they know about and they know about what they are introduced to. If anyone is ever visiting Switzerland, it is well worth it to actually visit CERN. Not only will you be participating in a sort of high energy physics pilgrimage, but you should find CERN well catered to non-specialist tourists as well. I'd even go as far as to say you should consider visiting Geneva just to see CERN!

If I can allow myself to get to the point, Collide@CERN is a programme CERN is just starting that goes beyond just outreach and is part of a concerted effort by CERN to actively engage with the arts through what they've called Arts@CERN. Collide@CERN is a competition for artists. From the press release I linked to:
"The prize consists of a two-part residency. Two months will be spent at CERN, where the winning artist will team up with a scientist as inspirational partner; then one month will be spent at Ars Electronica, where the artist will develop work inspired by the time spent at CERN."
The programme seems to have some prominent artists behind it, as well as reasonably substantial funding.

I've always found CERN's contribution to science popularisation impressive. These new steps impress me even more. I'm intrigued to see how Arts@CERN develops. Perhaps some of our current and/or future readers might even be interested in entering the competition.

For anyone on twitter... both @CERN and @ArtsAtCERN have twitter accounts.


  1. The image was taken from this page:

    It is a photograph taken by Simon Norfolk:

    If anybody knows whether taking it from there and putting it here is at all illegal, please let me know so that I can take it down.

  2. It's fantastic that the image of the LHC's circular cross-section has become iconic in such a short space of time. Most people would recognise it immediately even if they don't know all that much about what it's studying. The aesthetic is definitely a way to connect people with progress in understanding of science and philosophy and I think that CERN has done a wonderful job in using this to raise its public profile. I wouldn't be at all surprised if similar 'big science' projects start to do likewise; the Human Genome Project missed a trick there!

  3. The Human Genome Project seem(ed) to also miss the beat with regards to popularising their stuff to be honest.

    I've had quick glances at twitter. Not only does CERN have an account, but all four detectors at CERN (the places where the collisions actually happen) have twitter accounts. So does NASA, so does ESA (European space agency). I can't find any major non-physics experiments (though maybe I don't know what they're called). I can actually see many more physics experiments with twitter accounts but I won't bore with a list.

    I even looked through who Richard Dawkins follows and found more physics stuff (CERN, Brian Cox, NASA, etc) than biology stuff.

    What are the big biology/chemistry experiments of our age? I wouldn't mind keeping better track of them. What is pushing the frontier in the most extreme/awesome manner (apart from James Felce of course)?

  4. I think there is a very significant difference in how research works in physics compared to biology and chemistry that means high-profile experiments are far more likely to come from physics. This is primarily down to the fact that a lot of current physics needs massively expensive bits of equipment, the LHC is a perfect example, as would be the Hubble Telescope or pretty much anything any space agency does. For that reason, the research can only be carried out by enormous (in terms of money and staff) projects that attract a lot of attention and scrutiny.

    Biology and chemistry, on the other hand, are much cheaper and so progress usually arises from the field progressing step by step with evidence coming from all over the place rather than from single massive leaps. As such there's less attention on one area and so it tends not to make the public arena quite so easily. I know that this also happens a lot in physics, but at least there are also the big projects out there to grab some headlines.

    The Human Genome Project was perhaps less well publicised for two reasons that I can think of. Firstly, it was completed before most of the current internet media were well established so had no option in that respect. Secondly, the nature of the work was a bit more vague and difficult to get across than, say, the work at CERN. This is because it wasn't trying to answer a specific question, like "why does matter have mass", but rather was trying to give us the means to ask new questions, and so the public explanations for what it was actually doing were quite vague, like "it will give us the base code of human life" with absolutely no explanation of what that actually means. It could probably have been handled better, but it think their task of publicity was inherently more difficult than that of some large physics projects.

    As far as current big biochemistry/molecular biology work goes, there are lots of very interesting new developments that are worth keeping track of. One is our increasing understanding of non-coding DNA and its role in regulation of gene function, which is pretty important since it makes up about 98% of our genome. Others include things like recent developments in getting high-resolution structures of complex membrane proteins such as GPCRs that will allow us to understand their behaviour in more detail, or ever improving single-molecule microscopy techniques for use in living cells and the ability that gives us to look at native protein activity (we have to thank physics for that one). I admit it is definitely more difficult to keep informed about what's going on because there aren't really any massive high-profile projects, but Nature and other excellent journals have very informative regular podcasts and blogs (e.g. that are well worth a visit. However I'll also do my best to keep everyone who reads this blog regularly up to date with any big advances in molecular biology, so stay tuned!

  5. I accept the point about the Human Genome Project (HGP) being of an earlier age, so not being able to use the internet (it would be interesting to compare CERN's last accelerator, the Large Electron Positron collider (LEP) to HGP). However the comment about HGP not being for one specific purpose just shows me how clever CERN have been at publicising the LHC. There is simply no truth at all in the statement that the LHC was built by physicists to explain one clear thing (the generation of mass), this is just one of the many of the LHC's purposes that CERN has stressed again and again with the public to give them something to relate to. Equally, when CERN stresses again and again that the LHC will "recreate the big bang"... this may be true-ish, but it isn't the sole purpose of the LHC. So I disagree with the claim that the HGP's "task of publicity was inherently more difficult than that of some large physics projects". High energy physics is frickin hard to explain!

    Thanks for the list of interesting projects in biochemistry, that's a good start... but ideally what I want is a source (other than just you and this blog) that will automatically tell me when an interesting development is made. I have subscribed to Nature on twitter, that was a good idea - any other good news sources?

    You're probably right though about the fact that the size of physics's biggest experiments makes them more obvious (this is only high energy physics though). I'd always seen this size issue as a problem in the past, but with respect to raising public awareness of physics, you're right that this is definitely an asset. There must be equivalently important, individual experiments in other fields though, even if they don't take staff of 1000's. Is there no modern equivalent to the HGP?

  6. I didn't mean to imply that high energy physics isn't tough to explain - I'm well aware that I understand only a minuscule amount of what is known! I'm also aware that the work at CERN is far more than just about Higgs, but I still feel the fact that it is answering specific questions makes it easier to hold the interest of a non-specialists.

    The HGP is still going, it's mainly now trying to identify where genes and other regulatory segments start and end within the code. Other than that it's just individual labs/institutes plugging away at it. Some of the more well known ones do a pretty good job of self-publicity (e.g. the Craig Venter Institute,, which was in the news recently for creating the first replicating artificial organism) but generally it's quite difficult. Your best bet is definitely the big journals like Nature, Cell and Science.

  7. Heh, and I didn't intend to imply that you thought you understand high energy physics. What I was intending to imply was that the LHC is no more "answering specific questions" than the HGP is/was. This I am going to continue to intend to imply.

    Both projects are designed to acquire information. In both cases, that information is being used (and will be used) to answer specific questions. I don't see the difference. Can I not use the human genome to answer specific questions (in exactly the same way that I can use scattering cross-sections at the LHC)? Or am I missing a subtlety here?

    I have now subscribed to the rss feed of the JCVI press releases. Thank you for the tipoff.

  8. I will always be thankful for this discussion because it caused me to follow @NatureNews who introduced me to this: