Big Bang Day: Physics Rocks
Wednesday 10th September 2008, 11.00am
Is particle physics the new rock n’ roll? It may seem the domain of nerdy science boffins, but the extraordinary questions that particle physics hopes to answer has attracted the attention of some very high profile, and unusual fans. Alan Alda, Ben Miller, Eddie Izzard, Dara O’Briain and John Barrowman all have interests in this branch of physics. Brian Cox, CERN physicist and former member of 90’s chart-toppers D:Ream, tracks down some very well known celebrity enthusiasts, and takes a light-hearted look at why this subject can really appeal to all of us, as it attempts to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it.
He takes comedian and former quantum physicist Ben Miller to CERN itself, to get a sense of the scale of the project. He visits Alan Alda and his friend, theoretical physicist and author, Brian Greene, to find out why they are both so fascinated by the search for the fundamental particles of nature. He argues the validity of the Big Bang with Eddie Izzard, and talks to cosmologist turned comedian Dara O'Briain about why so many comedians seem to start life wrestling with quarks and electrons. Having visited CERN for himself last year, John Barrowman tells us why CERN is more science fiction than anything the writers of Torchwood could ever dream up.
Behind the scenes with the series producer
Alexandra Feachem, the season producer for Big Bang Day and also producer of Big Bang Day – Physics Rocks, gives her unique insight into the making of the series.
As BBC Radio 4's Big Bang Day marks the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Geneva, on 10 September, season producer Alexandra Feachem explains to Programme Information what it's all about – and why she's been stalking celebrities...
One thing I never expected to be doing in my 10 years as a producer for the BBC Radio Science Unit was to be chasing a slightly startled Alan Alda down a corridor, begging him to talk to me about particle physics. It's just not what science producers do. We mainly call up bearded academics with oddly impenetrable titles, like Professor of Molecular Nanosystems, and invite them to explain to us in words of no more than two syllables, and in no longer than two minutes, work they have spent a lifetime getting to grips with. I like to think it's an immensely rewarding challenge for both parties. I hope so. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, glamorous and until now, has never involved any A-list celebrities. So who would have guessed that in taking on the challenge of persuading not only CERN, but also Radio 4, that devoting a day of programming to particle physics and work going on in an underground laboratory just a few miles outside Geneva would lead to me becoming some kind of weird, celebrity obsessed stalker who'd be more at home writing for the gossip pages of some Sunday tabloid or preferably incarcerated in the nearest lunatic asylum and out of harm's way. I'm sure Alan Alda would have agreed initially – especially with the loony-bin part. But, as is often the case with truly great people – scientists and A-listers alike – he was charm personified. And as is often the case, I like to think, there was method to my madness.
Particle physics may sound like a topic meant only for the truly giant of brain, or those loveable nerdy types who think a fun night out involves an anorak and a thermos of soup. But like any true convert to a greater good, I have seen the light; I know there is no other way. Physics is the be-all and end-all of science. I'm a born-again physicist. And it seems I'm not the only one. Those A-listers are way ahead of me. Alan Alda, despite his illustrious career as an actor and author, has been a life-long amateur enthusiast of science, and particle physics... and he is by no means alone. Comedian Ben Miller was a quantum physicist in a former life; Dara O'Briain a cosmologist; Eddie Izzard riffs about physics in his stand-up routine; and even John Barrowman, star of BBC TV's science-fiction drama Torchwood, visited CERN last year to see first-hand an endeavour that at first glance seems more science fiction than anything the Torchwood or Doctor Who writers could dream up ... there is even something called a time projection chamber at CERN.
So how come particle physics has such an illustrious and salubrious following? Well, you don't need a PhD to be engaged by the ideas that the scientists at CERN are setting out to explore. The sheer scale of the project alone will take your breath away, as I've discovered on my numerous visits to the 27km circular tunnel, deep below the Swiss/French countryside, that houses the largest, most ambitious and most expensive science experiment ever undertaken. Here, the very nature of our universe will be uncovered, and the moment just a billionth of a second after the big bang will be recreated – 400 million times per second – as tiny subatomic particles are smashed together at practically the speed of light. It's a place where you run out of superlatives: the biggest, fastest, strongest, coldest, hottest, mother of all particle smashers ever created – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), or Big Bang Machine as it has come to be known.
But despite these awe-inspiring facts, I realised from the beginning of my two-year journey putting together a Big Bang Day for Radio 4 that particle physics is not the easiest sell. My friend Brian Cox, CERN physicist and former member of Nineties chart toppers D:Ream (of Things Can Only Get Better fame) had told me some hilarious tales about celebrities he's encountered on his travels, from dinners with Dan Ackroyd to finding himself in a hotel suite with Cameron Diaz and Queen Noor of Jordan... all fans of particle physics apparently, and not just of Brian's rock-star good looks. Based on this priceless information, Brian and I decided Big Bang Day needed some celebrity followers of physics, and rather incredibly there turned out to be many – although some of them proved to be more elusive than the much-hunted Higgs Boson particle.
At one point our list included US actor and comedian Robin Williams, Mick Jagger (way up on this stuff, according to a friend of Brian), Queen guitarist Brian May, (now Dr Brian May and proud recipient of a PhD in astronomy), magician David Blaine and even Madonna – all rumoured to have an interest in the goings-on at CERN. Astonishingly, Dr Brian May turned us down as this wasn't his specific area of expertise. But I think the moment when I really came to believe in parallel universes was when I ended up having dinner with a Hollywood producer who claimed to be friends with Madonna. He thought she might be interested, and offered to email her on our behalf. I found myself dictating: "Dear Madonna, I understand that you may have an interest in particle physics..." – a phrase I could never have dreamt of writing when I first started out in this career. Funnily enough, we didn't hear back – I think Ms Ciccone had other fish to fry at the time.
But with the few nos came many resounding yeses. When we approached Ben Miller, who gave up life as quantum physicist for a life in comedy (a decision that completely baffled Brian Cox), his immediate response to our invitation to come and see the Big Bang Machine first hand was: "I'm so up for this, it's not true". Similarly, cosmology graduate Dara O'Briain spent a very lively afternoon with Brian and me, talking about the LHC and why so many comedians seem to start out in, as Brian put it, "a more noble profession". It turns out comedy and physics are not so dissimilar – it is all about analogies. Eddie Izzard forgave us for waking him up with an early morning phone call, after a late-night gig in Houston, and argued with Brian over the validity of the Big Bang. He said the reason he enjoyed physics so much was that it was basically a giant detective story trying to piece together the clues to discover how the universe was put together.
And, despite my ambush in the corridors of Broadcasting House (where he had come to talk to Radio 4 about his latest memoirs), we did get Alan Alda, star of hit Seventies comedy MASH. Note to self – next time you approach a big star, do not open with "Hello, I'm stalking you." ...although, luckily, instead of having me arrested, he replied, "Oh great! I haven't had a proper stalker in years!" I knew from previous visits to CERN that Alan had designed a T-shirt for their 50th anniversary celebrations, and for many years had presented a science TV series in the US. He is also, famously, good friends with theoretical physicist and great populariser of science, Brian Greene. The two, in fact, had been working on putting together a World Science Festival in New York and, following his initial alarm at my ambush, he invited Brian Cox and me to join him there to talk to the pair of them about their love of physics and their excitement at the work going on at CERN. It was genuinely one of the most engaging interviews I've ever produced during my time at the BBC; a profound, witty, intelligent ramble through the esoteric world of particles, parallel universes and the effect the knowledge that could emerge from CERN might have on humanity and our understanding of our place in the cosmos.
Critics might say that we're dumbing down by going for the celeb factor, when talking about serious matters like the nature of our universe. I would argue that CERN, and science in general, is so vitally important and with so much potential to inspire and excite a whole new generation of enthusiasts, we shouldn't just leave it to the scientists – although there will be plenty of those on Big Bang Day as well. One thing I probably should have re-thought, though, is the title of the programme on Big Bang Day in which many of these famous names appear, Physics Rocks – given the only rock star in the programme is Brian, and even then I'm not sure playing keyboards at a Labour Party convention counts. But Dara O'Briain was quick to point out that physics may not rock, but it is cool. Physics allows you write the secrets of the universe on a blackboard with some chalk – now what's not to love about that?