the musings of an uncomfortable train passenger on the way to a life threatening interview


I looked, and indeed, there were sheeps

Another jubilant cry, “sheeps!”

This time on the other side.

The woman with 32 gigabytes of RAM on her knee raises an eyebrow.

Like a proper guided tour

“On your right you will see the stately home of so and so

and on your left, and more importantly, we have some sheep

“Sheep”  More confident now, and singular. Grammatically accurate.

Corrected, but not to the detriment of Interest

Who was still sitting tight second seat from the left, travelling backwards.

The mother of the professional sheep spotter is tired

A jaded peanut butter sandwich rests in her lap.

“Is that London you can hear?”

Asked the sheep spotter turned sound technician

As the train hurtled through King’s Sutton.

“It’s the tracks”

“No it’s not, I can hear London”

“It’s the tracks”

“No it’s not”

“Alright then, it’s London”

It was, irrefutably London

Once past the hunched hamlets of Northamptonshire

The sounds had changed

The ticklish syncopation of the rhythm of the train

Had switched tempo without warning.

Later, the emphasis was now on the first beat of the bar

No old ladies soft-stepping between village tea parties

Or sticky schoolchildren.

Just sullen automaton engrossed

In feats of virtual memory

Having long forgotten to make use of their own.

The train had no driver now

No engine, nothing

It was London that drew it closer, pulling it along the track

As the negative attracts the positive

The clatter of the city overwhelmed me

“sheeps?”  I looked and there were none.

carry your life lightly

Carry your life lightly

Beyond any imagined value

But don’t clutch it til your knuckles go white

Hold it gently like the tiny bird’s egg you found

The shell pale-speckled, atom thin 

But full of power and potential

To create the impossible


Carry your life lightly

We all have baggage

Some inherit a load too soon, before we can even see over it

Others collect it gradually, as the Earth repeats its orbit 

Again and again

Around the Sun

You can drag it behind you, complaining

Or find a way to shed some of the weight

You might build the muscles to handle it

Or you might find a suitcase on wheels

It will always be there, but if you let them

Other people will come into your life 

From time to time

And ease the load


Carry your life lightly

Don’t trap it 

Give it space to wobble around a bit

And if it looks like it’s getting a bit too close to the edge

Tip it back again

You’re in control, even if you think you’re not

You are the one carrying it, remember

No-one else


Carry your life lightly

Don’t overcompensate, 

Or turn the wheel too sharply 

But if you keep the handbrake on, you’ll never know

The joy of moving free, countering gravity

No need for fear

Even at speed you can correct a swerve


Carry your life lightly

Let the breeze run through its hair

Allow it to be loved by passers by

Show it off a bit if you want

But let it be a perfect absorber and reflector

And if you drop it

Pick it up 

It will bounce

Radical Atoms

This has to be the most brilliant title for a festival - a poetic and provoking pair of words that point to so much that is tantalising and extraordinarily exciting about the future  - an unbound future where digital and virtual merge with the real world in a meaningful, emotional synthesis, where bits can make physical atoms 'dance' - radical atoms that connect with human beings in tangible material interfaces.

Yesterday at Ars Electronica began with a talk from Prof Hiroshi Ishii, a visionary being who can see further ahead than most, and earlier than almost anyone. Check out his Tangible Media group at MIT to have your mind properly blown. Every project on here is exciting - from biological actuators in clothing that know when you're hot, to furniture that transforms to suit how you use it.  Listening to Hiroshi and everyone who spoke from his team, the 'alchemists of our time,' I know that I'm going to be furious when I die, even if I reach 100, because I won't get to experience The Future from that point on - it feels like we're reaching an era where all of our science and artistic and design practice so far is about to explode into a new paradigm of invention and creativity.

I'm wriggling with excitement to go and check out the Radical Atoms exhibtions at the Ars Electronica centre.


With my mind and soul excited, the rest of the day was spent exploring the Alchemists of our Time and Underworld Exhibitions at Post City - I won't list everything because there is far too much, but the landscape on show, of connecting digital and real world, and finding new ways to interact, beyond screens, and with real Stuff, was hugely inspiring. Highlights were an art science lab exploring terraforming and astrobiology, re-activating organisms trapped in salt crystals for millions of years to see if they might be eligible to be sent to another planet to kick start life. Joe Davis is the alchemist who leads this lab - more here.

And an adventure through the subterranean industrial maze of the Underworld Exhibition, encountering installations down endless corridors and in dark rooms...reminding me that the theatre of encounter and experience plays a huge role in how we might engage new people with this kind of work. 


The day ended with a celebration of the Ars Electronica prize winners for this year, including a lifetime Visionary prize for Jasia Reichardt, who is a true pioneer and inspiration, and alchemist of our time and many times.


She conceived the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA back in 1968, which  travelled to the then new Exploratorium in San Francisco and kick started their journey into science and art - which feels serendipitous for me, as we start to enter this arena in At-Bristol, a science centre starting on this path almost a half century later! Jasia is in her 9th decade and still sharp and energetic and absorbing new ideas. Her background and story from a Common Room of artists and scientists getting together in Poland to talk and share ideas is the world I have always wanted to inhabit since I first read about the Lunar Society of the Enlightenment era. It's always wonderful to connect with like-minded people who are interested in the liminal spaces where ideas spark up against each other, alchemists of many disciplines who are pushing us ever onwards. 

Sculpture Factory :  Davide Quayola   

Sculpture Factory : Davide Quayola 

Photosynthegraph :  Yoko Shimizu

Photosynthegraph : Yoko Shimizu

Interface I :  Ralf Baecker

Interface I : Ralf Baecker

The Drinkable Book:  Theresa Dankovich

The Drinkable Book: Theresa Dankovich

The Living Language Project :  Ori Elisar

The Living Language Project : Ori Elisar

Alive Painting :  Akiko Nakayama

Alive Painting : Akiko Nakayama

Chozumaki :  Nelo Akamatsu

Chozumaki : Nelo Akamatsu

Time Displacement -  Chemobrionic Garden  :  Robertina Šebjanič, Ida Hiršenfelder, Aleš Hieng – Zergon

Time Displacement - Chemobrionic GardenRobertina Šebjanič, Ida Hiršenfelder, Aleš Hieng – Zergon

The greatest artscience show on earth!

Back at Ars Electronica. How a year has flown by on a turbulent but exhilarating stream that I couldn't have imagined when I was here last time. What's really exciting and satisfying is that this year I am here not just talking hypothetically about how At-Bristol is embracing an interdisciplinary approach and looking to include art in our venue, we now have a box gallery space being built as I type, ready to house the best science infused art and connect with new audiences.  When I started, everything was New and Unknown, and a lot still is, but is increasingly Possible.

In an attempt not to drench my Twitter feed with enthusiasm and endless images from this festival I'm going to document it in a few brief blog posts just once a day so I can let my excitement out and share a bit more of the world we're entering and finding our own way to connect with.



Spiral Falls - old package chutes in the vast sprawling cement playground that is Post City, a main location for the Ars Electronica festival, in an old postal sorting and transportation warehouse near the main station. The picture is missing the sound installation of rumbling bass and various sonic materials tumbling down the chutes.

Spiral Falls - old package chutes in the vast sprawling cement playground that is Post City, a main location for the Ars Electronica festival, in an old postal sorting and transportation warehouse near the main station. The picture is missing the sound installation of rumbling bass and various sonic materials tumbling down the chutes.

Opening night dancers, with bass speakers in the underground hall that vibrate every atom in you.  

Opening night dancers, with bass speakers in the underground hall that vibrate every atom in you.  

Performance by Dragan Ilic. A circularity of human/robot intention. Mesmerising to watch.

Performance by Dragan Ilic. A circularity of human/robot intention. Mesmerising to watch.


A few inspiring things that other people have said...

"When I have an idea I ask myself, do I know how to do this? And if the answer is yes, I don’t do it – we’ve done that, so let’s not bother"

David Lan, Young Vic. From a Guardian article on cultural tastemakers here.. 

I like this. I think it explains a lot of why I seem to have made my working life quite so difficult for myself, but also why I've been lucky in mostly finding work that keeps my soul nourished and gives life a forwards motion.  


And here's something that someone else didn't quite say but I've imagined what it would mean if they had....

“….science centres should be risk-taking pioneers, they should act and not wait..”

“….they should be a locus for crossings between science and life…”

"the new type of science centre cannot merely be a science centre as it has been until now. . . . the new type will be more like a power station (kraftwerk), a producer of new energy."

These are  re-imagined quotes from Alexander Dorner, influential 20th Century museum director, where ‘science centre’ and ‘science’ are substituted in place of ‘museums’ , ‘art’ and ‘art institute’.  I came across Alexander Dorner via Hans Ulrich Obrist's book, Ways of Curating, and have been using them as runway lights as we think about evolving what a science centre is and does and why... 

Thinking About tinkering

So as expected, I am properly bad at regular blogging. But I will claim that's because of being busy doing things instead of blogging about them, when of course I ought really to be doing both. 

Anyway - I'm a year in to working out what being Creative Director in At-Bristol means, and people often ask me how I'm finding Bristol as a city. Answer = pretty brilliant. I’ve been really struck by what an incredibly energising and creative place Bristol is. People DO stuff. They are generous with ideas and resources. And the city operates in a sort of Golden Ratio of number of people to surface area to geography that offers a very life enhancing balance of nature, culture, good food, inspiring horizons, art, music and all without having to queue for as long as you do in London. Of course there are huge social issues and divisions as in almost any city, but here I also feel I encounter a good proportion of people in the cultural sector with authentic desire and effort to address those imbalances, tough and intractable as they are. 


So, I'm loving it. The buzzy busy nature of the place means it's a great city to launch a new Tinkering Space, which is exactly what we did in At-Bristol last week.

It's a project that has seen At-Bristol working much more collaboratively than before - both across departments and teams in house, and also externally, notably with the delightful team at the Knowle West Media Centre Factory.  Our space is just one space of many in the maker movement - it's easy to spiral off into detailed definitions of fab labs, hackspaces, maker faires, but suffice to say that we've taken inspiration from the wonderful variety of spaces and makers that we've encountered and have inspired us - for me including the maker space at KWMC, Ryan Jenkins and the Tinkering Studio in the Exploratorium, Science Gallery's MakeShop and Sabrina Barucci from the MUSE Fab Lab.  These people, true to the maker movement, share ideas, plans, recipes for workshops, facilitation methods and more, in an open source, open hearted style. So our versions of the air table, ball run and shadow boxes all came to life through the skill and imagination of our At-Bristol workshop and exhibitions team and exist in other forms elsewhere too, descendants of the experiments and tinkering exploits of many minds out there.


So why Tinker?  Everyone will have a slightly different answer to this - for me, Tinkering is simply an itch that gives me great pleasure to scratch - as a kid I was always told to STOP FIDDLING!  And, PLEASE PUT THAT THING BACK TOGETHER -  so I am personally beyond delighted to have a space on the floor dedicated to poking, prodding, pulling apart, breaking and making again. 

But Tinkering is much more than that. The idea of a Making space for At-Bristol was born long before I started here and in fact the notion of Making and Tinkering really sits at the heart of what an interactive science centre is all about. We are lucky in Bristol to have a workshop and in house team behind the scenes and so everything you see on the floor here is the result of Tinkering with a capital T. 

At-Bristol picked Tinkering partly coz we just like the word, and it means we get to have a Tinkering Officer, which felt like a job title we wanted to be able to say out loud a lot (it's had some great reactions) - and partly because it has a sense of open ended creativity about it. It’s about trying new ideas, being given permission and freedom to improvise, and make unexpected surprises and discoveries. Tinkering has just a hint of mischief about it. 

A Tinkering Space is a multi-disciplinary mash up of workshop, laboratory, art and design studio and garden shed. And crucially, it has its door wide open with people ready to share ideas and skills and help you get stuck in.  

A Tinkering Space is for everyone. It’s a place for conversations to happen, a social experience, supporting each others ideas, and celebrating and learning from the things which don’t work as much as the things which do.

Humans on the planet today face a number of so called Wicked Problems - the complex challenges that require a connected multifaceted approach - climate change, social inequalities, a rapidly growing and ageing population, pressure on global healthcare, antibiotic resistance, equal access to education, the existence of Donald Trump, the list goes on. Many great advances in science of the sort that might assist with these problems, have come about through Tinkering of some sort - through a serendipity of events borne of curiosity.  Rutherford was essentially tinkering when he set his student a task to see what happens when you fire alpha particles at some gold foil - and discovered the structure of the atom.  Newton tinkered with glass in his lab to split visible light into the rainbow. Tinkering is about connecting heart, mind and hands to try something out, adapt existing tools and available materials to solve a problem or test an idea.

There’s a vital skills gap to address in STEM - science technology engineering and maths - we desperately need more people to be inspired to take up careers in STEM and spaces like this can make a difference - whether we spark a lifetime of curiosity in Tinkering, or provide a first step to boost confidence in thinking and making that grows elsewhere, at school, at home. We want to nurture ideas and people and remove barriers to getting started.   

But let's not get hung up on learning outcomes and direct sprouting of STEM careers. We don’t all have to become scientists - we just want to enable citizens of planet Earth to have agency in shaping our collective futures. We’re also launching our Robot Encounters programme along with the Tinkering Space - in a landscape where second wave robotics and a tech revolution offers us great potential as well as concern about impact on jobs, we want to enable informed conversation and empower all of us to have a voice and, to realise that any one of us can potentially pop the lid of our robot assistant and Tinker - technology should no longer be something we simply consume, but something we can help shape ourselves. 

And aside from the heavy stuff, it’s all about the pure joy of making something where there was nothing before. It's about freedom to play, something we forget to do as adults. It's been a joy to watch the first people playing in the space, naturally starting to Tinker, unprompted, adding weight to handmade fliers on the air table, tweaking 'wings' to create more lift. The human instinct to tinker is in all of us. We just need to give people time and space to Tinker, because wonderful things can arise when they do. That’s what our new space is for, and we really are curious and excited to see what everyone will make of it and in it. 


Photo by Katherine Jewkes

We were very lucky to have three brilliant change makers find time to give us a little provocation each at our Tinkering launch.  Check out KWMC for inspiration on how technology and tinkering can change lives - the social agenda set out by Carolyn Hassan and her team is truly inspiring and truly making a difference. She gave us the provocation at our launch, to consider the need for Tinkering and Making spaces to be popping up all over the city - something we can all take action on. 

You really must also explore the work of Rusty Squid, led by the gently polymathic David McGoran, highly trained and skilled puppeteer, dancer, roboticist who implored us to wade into the magically murky waters where art and science flow together.

And to counter the scare stories of AI and robotic job apocalypse, Jonathan Raines of Open Bionics painted a picture of the future of robotics and wearable tech. Open Bionics are an award-winning Bristol startup who exemplify what happens when we apply open tech for good - 3D printing affordable prosthetic hands for kids. 


The space will only fly when people use it, and share skills and ideas. If you are a maker, tinkerer, hacker, artist, designer with something to test out with an audience, or a workshop you'd like to run, or need to try an idea out on a 3D printer or laser cutter, get in touch. If you do not (yet) identify as any of the above but have ideas for what you'd like to do in the space, or what you'd like us to try, let us know! 

Art/science/ culture/+ goulash

I'm three months into my new job. It's an actual job, with an office and appraisals and annual leave and all those invisibly regular things that I find illogical and alarming after a decade as a freelancer. But it's OK because this job also involves a 3D planetarium, adventures in a new city, a workshop with a laser cutter in it, and places where I can pop away from my desk to make a stop frame animation or go and watch the slow beauty of rainbow coloured formations of water freezing.  There are also wonderful people - my new colleagues and the so called visitors, who are wriggling with brilliant questions. More on them in another post.  But right now, the job involves a small restaurant in Linz and a plate of goulash. 

I am at the food and hot chocolate end of three superstuffed days at the Ars Electronica Festival, on a mission to absorb the intersection of media art and science as it exists in 2015. Happily, my new job description as Creative Director of At-Bristol science centre says something like; come up with some fresh ideas and see what happens if we explore more of an arts approach to things in a science centre. Well, this is right up my strasse, after a zig zag path through particle physics, children's animation, screenwriting, classical music and opera cinema, I am relentlessly waving the flag for cross pollination, multi-disciplinary practices and general connecting of ideas.    


I intend to try and keep up a few blog posts going forward so I'm not going to write long academic essays where I brilliantly weave arguments with a robust list of footnotes and references.  I might just bung a Thing down in a couple of sentences to keep track of ideas or provoke a discussion.  

So to cut belatedly to the point - why do I think the combination of art and science is worthwhile?  

Because, very simply, it is the picture of a thriving future. It is essential that we become a culture of connected ideas and people to create solutions to our global challenges. And it's not just necessary, it is a natural progression. At some point there will be no art/science to speak of, there will just be Culture2.

So let's stop with the old Two Cultures chat and get on with it. I was a little surprised that at the world's cutting edge sciart gathering, we are not too far along in the discourse and there was some stating of the bleedin obvious. But presumably it's because we still need to. There are scientists (some say the majority?) who would assume an arts collaboration has no value and artists who might not imagine they have access to science. Not to mention a public still hindered by unequal education and opportunity and labouring under misunderstanding and media manipulation of crass scientific stereotypes. 

But the sands are ever shifting. Science and art are sparking up together again. The digital revolution means we are connected at our fingertips to almost all of human knowledge amassed to date. And it all lives on top of itself in the Internet. We no longer have to walk from one end of the library to the other to get from the science and technology stack to the fine art stack via grumpy librarian and indecipherable Dewy Decimal system. These fields of endeavour are now separated by just a few twitches of a finger.

The next generation of digital natives draw fuzzier boundaries than subscribers to the print edition of Radio Times magazine. TV watching is no longer confined to set times in front of a fixed location - it is accessed at any time of day or night, wherever there's wifi.  Curation of visual fodder belongs to the realm of individual mood and circumstance, not determined by the broadcaster.  You might find yourself Google image searching the Joy Division T shirt design you're after, and then it's not far in the time and space of the internet to get from the Unknown Pleasures album cover to stacked plots of radio signals from pulsars and onwards..... Which just goes to show that science has been inspiring art since 1979  - and vice versa, in fact the two have been intertwined since the first humans set out to understand the universe, should you wish to explore the online knowledge emporium further.


Point is,  in a few generations time, I hope that it will seem odd to box up fields of knowledge and talk about them intersecting as if this is novel or notable. We are heading for a holistic view, a new Age of Enlightenment and what's exciting is to be at the leading edge of this right now.

So yes, combine science and art and look to a time when the word 'culture' doesn't just bring to mind the art and cuisine and ritual of a society, but its science too. Austrian culture? Yodelling, goulash, wave equation, cyber art!  

It needs institutional change and an evolved process of academic research and understanding of creative economies and scientific and artistic literacy at a governmental level - but that's no reason not to go there. After all, the fringe is the interesting place to be. We do it not because it is easy but because it is hard. (Insert your own Kennedy ref and footnote here). 


Above all, these few days at Ars Electronica tell me that the confluence of science and art produces a vibe of futuristic optimism, a sniff of what an equitable, connected community on Earth might look and feel like. It's been about conversation with people who are curious and seeking something. That surely has to point to a fine way forward. Ultimately I live for moments of transcendence, for edging a bit closer to The Source, and having flashes of joy and wonder. I got some of that in the performance of Philip Glass' Etudes for piano with live projection of train journeys and clockwork. And in the simplicity of needles in jars that tinkled to the Earth's geomagnetic force, and the water balancing sound installation in an attic room, and the trace of a smile on a robot face generated by a stranger who hugged me from across the room. 


So, we have arts centres and we have science centres and there's Ars Electronica and Science Gallery Dublin and Fab Labs and Fun Palaces and Maker Spaces and all those places In between that I'm unaware of.  The question occupying me lately is, what does the new breed of cultural space look like in the world where we no longer have to put a / between art and sci?

I think there will be music and experiments and theatre and art and play and possibly goulash.




Relativity in art

Happy New Year! Day 1, 2015 and I'm trying to read more this year instead of wasting time by scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, searching for the answers to unasked questions that are no use to me.

Colliding Worlds by Arthur I Miller is my new book to start the year. It's about the intersection between art and science - my favourite space to play in. And I'm discovering new artists in this book. Lissitzky - Russian designer/artist working in early part of 20th century - was inspired by relativity and Minkowski's diagrams of the space time continuum. I love this typographic/architecture/science diagram aesthetic.


Vladimir Tatlin, working on the monument

Vladimir Tatlin, working on the monument


The Higgs Boson - what's the point?

So it looks like the Higgs Boson has been found. Or at least, a Higgs Boson. Or something like it. I’ll try and explain the difference in a bit. Either way, potentially the biggest moment in physics for a century or so, played out live on the internet this morning for anyone and everyone to see. Some people are saying it’s up there with discovering DNA. It might well be, but it’s too early to say at this stage. But it is certainly the most famous particle yet discovered, thanks to it arriving in a storm of media interest, twitter trending and hype that just didn’t exist when JJ Thompson discovered the electron back at the end of the 19th century.  And a bit like a new reality TV celeb, there’s a lot of fuss being made about this particle despite the fact that no-one really understands the point of it.

With an ever diminishing memory of my physics degree, I can’t pretend that I understood every last word of what was said at today’s announcement, but watching it, I knew it was a momentous occasion and what it represents for humanity at large makes my knees tingle.  And I don’t just mean the scientific implications. The next steps in terms of what this means for physics and our understanding of the universe are immensely exciting, but probably mostly only for physicists and those of us already interested in such things. For everyone else, what difference will it make if the Higgs Boson is known to exist, rather than not? Will it pay the bills or, as a friend tweeted a while back, will it immediately provide us all with Back to the Future style hover boards to get around on? The answer is no. For now. Although I reckon there’s nothing wrong with keeping our imaginations ticking over on this…..


But meantime, in response to the inevitable question of why the Higgs Boson discovery is important, I think there’s a better answer. It is important because even if we only consider it for a second or two, it is the trigger to allow ourselves a fleeting sense of wonder that lifts us from the well trodden grooves of our daily lives, to think beyond ourselves, to the big questions that unite all of us living on this planet. And unlike art and music and love and other things that also inject us with wonder, the difference here is that it is borne of a reality that exists beyond our human imagination and interpretation. It is the fundamental, testable reality that underlies all the fizz and nonsense of life, and it is the thing that unites all of us, because by being here, made up of atoms, we are very much a part of it. I believe that the more often we all connect with this, at whatever level is meaningful to us, the better we relate to each other and the world around us.

That’s all very well, but what if the science is just too dense and difficult for the idea of the Higgs Boson to spark off that bit of wonder in your mind the first place? There are two things here. One is that there is a responsibility to explain the science as best we can, and two, is that the odd thing I’ve been observing so far today, and also since the switch on of the LHC a few years ago, is that even without deeply understanding the science, there’s a general sense of something magic going on over there in physics that is keeping people interested. What was once the realm of intensely niche and geeky scientific investigation, has now hit the mainstream in a big way. #Higgs and associated hashtags are trending globally on twitter, and references are being made in pretty much every media outlet you can imagine.  More interestingly, the ‘real’ academic science conference, not the press announcement, was made available to the general public online. And I’m very glad it was there, even if it was gibberish to most. I think it’s important and valuable to show what science looks and sounds like, as long as there’s then immediate backup to explain it to the non scientific population.  If we keep using scientific language out of earshot of everyone else, it will maintain a stigma of aloofness, of us and them. And I hope that much like when I watch the West Wing, although I only understand half of the dense political wranglings being discussed, the shape and sound of the language is what draws us in to want to find out more.  5 sigma, decay channels, giga electronvolts, gamma gamma, ZZ - it all sounds like a magical incantation, and there is an undeniable theatre to this mystical world that I remember entrancing me as a teenager - back then there were bubble chambers called Gargamelle, images of curling tracks revealing previous invisible particle visitors from space, tables of particle properties including improbable words like flavour and spin, compelling sci fi style diagrams - all of those things made me want to know more when I first discovered particle physics, and still do today.


Just over a decade ago, thanks to the world’s most energetic and inspirational teacher, I was lucky enough to be standing in the particle accelerator that pre-dated the LHC at CERN and asking a particle physicist if they thought the Higgs Boson would ever be discovered. Like most good scientists, his answer was that we’d have to wait and see what experiments could tell us. And so we have. We’ve waited til today, although that phrase doesn’t do justice to the incredible hard work and ingenuity of thousands of scientists across the planet to get us this far. The story has reached a major plot point, and while it is far from over, I feel a bit like the kids who’ve grown up along with Harry Potter, watching the blockbuster final film where we discover the final horcrux that makes sense of the whole long running plot. Except this science stuff is not fiction. And that blows the top off my mind. And blowing tops off minds is back to what I think the answer to the importance of the Higgs is all about. It opens up a little window on the extraordinary nature of the universe, which whether we are professional scientists or not, is surely is the ultimate thing for all of us to engage with in the time that we have on this planet. That is the point.

And if you want to look through the window and know a bit more about the science answer to why the Higgs is important, read on….

Once the big performance has worn off, to maintain popular momentum, even the most famous of celebrities need people to know a bit more about them, drip feeding drama over time, otherwise they lose the column inches. So I think the physics of the Higgs does need a bit of explaining.  There will be lots of people who can do this better than me - Prof Brian Cox is a good place to start… but in case he’s a bit tied up today and you can’t get through to him on the phone, I’ll try and answer some of the questions that have come my way on twitter and facebook today - I’ll keep updating this post as people ask stuff….

Tell me again about what the Higgs Boson is supposed to do?

It is thought to give mass to particles of matter.

So - stepping back a moment just to be clear and make sure everyone’s on board - what’s ‘matter’?

It’s everything that the universe is made of. You, me, a table, a milkshake, a star, a tree.  You might have got as far as thinking about matter being made up of atoms and that’s right, but you can break things down even further. There are subatomic particles inside an atom - electrons orbit a central nucleus, which is made of neutrons and protons. And ‘inside’ the neutrons and protons there are up and down quarks. These are a few of the fundamental particles, the ones you can’t break down any further, which are part of a theory in physics called the Standard Model. The Standard Model describes what the observable universe is made of and how it all interacts. (I say ‘observable’ here, because in fact the model is incomplete - we don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of. It could be dark matter or something as yet unimagined. But that’s another story)

And what exactly IS mass?

This is a tricky one to explain, because it’s one of those fundamental properties that is so fundamental, it’s hard to explain in terms of anything else. It’s like asking what time is. We sort of know, but we’re hard pushed to put it into a simple sentence.

Mass is not a discrete “thing” that you can point to or put separately into a bag and give to someone as a present, labelled ‘mass’. It is a property that can be assigned to describe how something behaves. One way of thinking about it is as a dimensionless quantity that tells us how much energy you need to apply to either get something to move in spacetime, or to get it to stop. That’s all to do with Newton’s laws, which we won’t go into now. But what you need to know about mass is that it isn’t just everywhere as a matter of fact. It seems that way, and I think that’s why people get stuck trying to work out why the mass -giving function of the Higgs Boson is at all amazing.  It is everywhere in everything we encounter in our daily lives, and is so obvious a part of life that we never think to ask the questions, where does it come from, and why? But that’s exactly what science is here to ask, which is why the idea of the Higgs Boson came up in the first place.  The Standard Model, actually predicts that all particles should be massless. But that’s not what we observe in experiment - we find that almost all the particles DO have mass, and they are all very different. This is in direct conflict with the laws of symmetry that describe everything else in physics, so we needed to come up with a way to get the Standard Model to fit in. What could be causing the wildly varied masses of particles to exist, instead of a nice symmetric massless world predicted by the maths? The Higgs Boson is the solution. It is the particle that breaks the symmetry and explains the observed properties of particles.

So if you remember one thing about all this, it’s that without the presence of the Higgs Boson and the associated Higgs Field in the universe, nothing would have mass. And without mass, everything just flies around at the speed of light. A universe without mass would  be pretty hard to pin down. Nothing would stick around long enough to create matter and the reality we know around us.  That’s how important the Higgs is to absolutely everything as we know it.

So how does the Higgs Boson actually do the mass-giving thing?

We don’t know the full answer to this yet - the data from CERN is pointing to the existence of a Higgs-type particle, but we will need much more analysis and experimental exploration before the mechanism by which it operates will become clear. But now we’ve found it, we can start to make measurements on it, find out how it behaves and interacts and start to answer this question.

The theory is as follows:  The ‘boson’ bit of the Higgs Boson tells us that it is a particular type of particle - a force carrying particle. For example, gravity is one of the forces in the universe, and so is the electromagnetic force. More accurately, when dealing with what we call forces, physicists will talk about ‘fields’ - the Higgs mechanism involves a Higgs Field that permeates all of space, and the Higgs Boson is an excitation of that field. The idea is that when other particles move through the field, they gain mass. The way in which they interact with the field determines just how much mass they get. So the photon doesn’t interact with it at all, and is massless, hence it can travel at the speed of light. But in comparison, the top quark or the W and Z bosons gain a lot of mass from the Higgs Field.

There are lots of analogies flying around to try and explain how the Higgs field works, but as with all analogies they are ultimately flawed in that none of our human senses actually give us direct access to experiencing the Higgs field, and so the best description is always mathematical. But given that the maths means something to such a small fraction of the population, analogy is our best substitute and this is still one of the best. [youtube=]

If you get stuck halfway through this, it’s because it is hard. Really hard. And we don’t really know the proper way to explain it yet. That’s why the Higgs discovery is so exciting. It is like stumbling across the searchlight in a dark city and finally switching it on and being able to point it at stuff. It will hopefully show us the way to understanding the mechanism fully.

What’s all this 5 sigma data they keep talking about?

5 sigma is a statistical term that tells us how confident physicists are in their data. By comparing results across different experiments and calculating the potential error in measurements, they can determine how likely it is for a particular result to occur.

In the tweeted words of Prof Brian Cox, a 5 sigma result roughly means they are 99.9999% sure. It is the benchmark needed to be able to claim something a discovery.

What does it mean when the reports say the Higgs Boson was found at 126 GeV?

GeV stands for giga electron volt.  It is a measure of energy, and, since mass and energy are interchangeable, it is also a measure of mass. An electron volt is the amount of energy the charge of electron gains when it moves through an electric potential difference of 1 volt. That probably doesn’t help much, but the important thing to know is that when experiments are done in particle accelerators, it involves particles being whizzed round at nearly the speed of light before being smashed into each other. The higher the energy we can get the collisions to happen at, the more massive the particles we can produce in the crash debris. The 126GeV describes the energy at which the Higgs Boson type particle was found.

OK, so what’s all this Higgs Boson-type particle about? Has it been found or not?

I said at the top of this post that they’ve found the Higgs Boson, or at least a Higgs Boson. The thing is, the theory predicts different signature patterns for detecting the Higgs, and it sort of depends on which ones give the strongest results. The LHC data announced today shows strong evidence for the Higgs in two particular decay channels. What’s a decay channel? It is the process by which a particle decays, or breaks down into different particles. Some particles are very stable, and take a long time to decay, others are barely in existence before they break down into something else. We detect particles not by ‘seeing’ them directly, but by observing their tracks, their energy deposits, or the characteristic pattern of particles that they decay into. For a more detailed discussion on particle decay, check out this article by the excellent Lily Asquith.

There are beautiful diagrams invented by the charismatic physicist Richard Feynman that represent the behaviour of subatomic particles and these below show routes for a Standard Model Higgs decaying into two photons, denoted by the gamma signs. The other strong decay pattern detected was a Higgs decaying to two Z bosons. There are more expected decay patterns that haven’t yet shown up in the data, but these more complicated to analyse, so we don’t yet know if the Higgs signals seen in the LHC will produce the full set of particle pairs that are expected from the mathematics of the Standard Model. If these other two decay channels DON’T show up, it means the data gives evidence for a Higgs-type particle, but not one that sits happily in the Standard Model. This would be exciting, in that it would open up a whole new physics game, as a particle physicist friend on Facebook told me. Either way, the implications are enormously interesting.


Those Feynman diagrams are representational - here’s an image of data taken from one of the LHC experiments, showing what a Higgs to photon pair decay very possibly looks like.


So when we all get excited about the implications of this discovery, what sort of thing are we talking about? It’s less to do with immediate material developments and more to do with the range of possibilities that open up when we are able to cut such a deep new path into the fabric of reality. If we understand the mechanism that gives everything mass, we might then get to grips with gravity, which is to do with general relativity, which is resolutely not yet meshing in with quantum mechanics. Another step towards a grand unified theory.  We also won’t have a fully working Standard Model, because neutrinos are still a bit of a puzzle with their tiny masses, and the embarrassing fact is that the Higgs mechanism will only account for about 1 % of the mass in the universe. Most of the universe is still missing, in the form of dark matter or something else.  And beyond that, I suspect that the Higgs Boson will lead us to developments far beyond our current models of science. When JJ Thompson discovered the electron, he wondered what it could possibly be good for. There’s no way anyone back in the 19th Century could have imagined the impossible gadgetry of the 21st century, that would not exist without an understanding of the electron. What is the equivalent, as yet unimagined, outcome of the Higgs? I can’t wait to find out.

Thanks to the friends and colleagues on twitter and elsewhere whose thoughts and capacity for discussion have inspired and improved this post. Please keep asking questions and crossly pointing out when things don’t make sense. We have a responsibility to make this stuff as accessible as we can. It’s as vital as doing the science itself, and it’s almost as hard!