Particle Physics? It’s The New Rock’n’Roll

If you’ve shuffled around HMV lately you’ll know that groups assembled from real-life professionals are ‘in’ this year. The Soldiers – a singing trio made up of actual squaddies who’ve all served in Iraq – sold 600,000 copies of their debut album and are threatening to release a follow-up. An order of Benedictine nuns just signed a record deal with Lady Gaga’s label. Then of course there’s Brother, who all man the dodgems at Chessington.

But singing scientists? Is that a thing? It hasn’t been until now – unless Stephen Hawking appeared on T4 On The Beach and I missed it. But that’s all changed thanks to a team of megaminds working on the Atlas Experiment – part of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, aka the biggest and most expensive science experiment on the planet – who’ve just released an album, ‘Resonance’.

Truth be told, it isn’t very good. But that’s not the point. It’s a PR tool. The idea is to make the wider world aware of the mind-boggling, potentially world-changing work these scientists are doing 100 metres beneath the city of Geneva.

I went over there, and nodded and tried to look intelligent while they explained, in patient idiot-speak, why they’d built a machine that can measure 600 million particle collisions in the time it takes to click your fingers, at temperatures not seen since the Big Bang. To onlookers, our encounter probably looked like a circus performer trying to teach a swan to ride a penny farthing.

But I’ll try and give you the gist, anyway. The primary aim of the Atlas Experiment is to produce and observe antimatter. It’s something of a puzzle as to why antimatter and matter didn’t completely cancel each other out when the universe was created. For reasons unknown, the matter came out on top (by an unimaginably tiny amount) and therefore the universe ended up being something rather than nothing. Phew.

All photos care of The Atlas Experiment at CERN

So what is antimatter? Well, that’s the tricky thing. You can’t exactly scoop it up with a soup ladle. At the current rate, it’d take the Atlas scientists ten million years to collect a gram of the stuff. What a ball-ache. But they’re giving it a go anyway. And the Large Hadron Collider – which collects 3200 terrabytes of data each year, enough to fill three billion books – is the only apparatus in existence that gives them a chance of seeing what they hope to see.

Sounds boringly technical? There may be other applications for the knowledge they are accumulating – new forms of energy, a technological solution to climate change, literally a cure for cancer. The science is so revolutionary, they just don’t know. The only way to find out is to keep smashing those particles together, and keep taking measurements. It may take decades for truly juicy discoveries to be made.

“This will take a long time,” admits Steve Goldfarb, a shining-eyed research scientist with a salt-and-pepper beard who sings in the Cannettes Blues Band during breaks from his day-job: searching for elementary particles called muons. “Einstein couldn’t conceive of the mobile phone, but mobile phones use special relativity and quantum mechanics. The possible practical results of what we’re doing at Atlas are beyond our imagining.”

Given the complexity of the project, you assume Atlas HQ will be gleaming and futuristic – a Bond villain-style bunker, with scientists gliding around on Segways. Actually, the bits above the ground are startlingly shabby: a collection of squat little ‘50s buildings, reminiscent of a University campus that’s gone to seed. It’s a reminder that the whole project is publicly funded, so they can’t exactly waste money by erecting fancy buildings.

Even so, it’s an incredibly exciting environment to be in. There’s something profoundly Utopian about the LHC – the idea of the world’s finest minds coming together, not to build businesses or set up hedge funds, but simply to further mankind’s understanding. It’s like the Manhattan Project, only instead of developing a weapon of horrifying destructive power, they’re unlocking the secrets of the universe. On balance, that’s probably better.

Those rockin’ scientists in full

Certainly, there’s something about this epic undertaking that appeals to more cosmic-minded musicians. Thom Yorke was moved to write a song, ‘Super Collider’, inspired by the LHC. Brian Eno has paid a visit. Muse want to play a gig here, as do The Orb (“the Grateful Dead played the pyramids, this is the 21st Century equivalent”). Even The Black Eyed Peas dropped by, though it’s hard to imagine the assembled particle physicists were too desperate to meet the band behind ‘Boom Boom Pow’ and ‘The Time (Dirty Bit)’.

The scientists I spoke to were keen to play down any intrinsic link between physics and music (at one point I started waffling about string theory and how the universe might at the most fundamental level be governed by vibration and patterns and oscillation, and, y’know, isn’t that just like muuusic, maaan? They smiled politely and changed the subject).

Even so, there’s clearly something going on. Theoretical physics has never captured the public imagination in this way before. It’s a bit glib to say that science has become sexy and accessible thanks to Professor Brian Cox (who famously used to be in D:Ream, and has an office at CERN). But the smooth-cheeked TV presenter is keying in to a broader phenomenon. Sales of popular physics books rocketed in 2010.

Why should this be? Simple: science of this magnitude is religion for smart people. To contemplate dark matter and extra dimensions is to grapple with the literally inconceivable. Consider this: in the first seconds after the Big Bang the universe was a “quark-gluon plasma”: basically a liquid. Except you probably wouldn’t want to drink it. In fact you wouldn’t even be able to see it, because visible light didn’t exist yet, only radiation.

Thinking about this stuff instills us with something that’s hard to come by in daily life: a sense of awe. It presents us with a vision of the world, and of ourselves, that is – to quote F Scott Fitzgerald way out of context – commensurate to man’s capacity for wonder.

A computer-generated image of the detector itself: note the people top left, for scale

Admittedly, a few hobby blues numbers recorded by research scientists in their downtime is quite a long way from such cosmic immensities. But ultimately ‘Resonance’ isn’t really about music, it’s about awareness. At a time when government purse strings are tightening all over the world, the high-minded folk working on the Atlas Experiment know they need to convince the public of the long-term value of their expensive research.

They deserve to succeed in this. There’s a strong case for arguing that what is going right now beneath the Geneva soil is the most important and profound work happening anywhere on the planet.

“Are we ever going to understand the birth of the universe?” muses Goldfarb in the bustling Atlas canteen before I leave. “Maybe we will. What’s certain is that what we’re doing here – it’s the only way we’re going to figure it out. But even if we don’t find the answers, we can’t stop the search. It’s in our nature as human beings. We’re intelligent creatures. We need to keep looking. We can’t stop now.”

More on the Atlas Experiment

Order ‘Resonance’ from iTunes (proceeds go to charity)