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  • Torchwood

    CERN in Science Fiction

    What does a place like CERN do when it finds itself turning up in works of fiction like Torchwood or Angels and Demons? James Gillies talks about how science plays a part in television dramas that adopt a more scientic approach.

CERN in Science-Fiction

James Gillies, a science writer based at CERN James Gillies

As one of the leading centres of scientific research, what does CERN do when it finds itself turning up in works of fiction like Torchwood or Angels and Demons? It has three choices: it can rail at the inaccuracy of the science in the fiction; it can bury its institutional head in a bucket of sand. Or, it can seize the opportunity to get physics on the public agenda - and this is what CERN has chosen to do. After all, nobody really believes that the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff is sitting on a rift in space-time, so there's no reason for people to think any differently of CERN.

The CERN of reality bears little resemblance to that of Joseph Lidster's Torchwood script. The geography is all wrong and there's no way that anyone could be in the accelerator tunnel while it's running. The cool down happens inside a long blue tube, so the tunnel itself does not get cold. I could go on, but that would be churlish. By ignoring reality, by rearranging geography and by playing with time in his own way, Lidster creates drama. "They'll be switching on in couple of hours," says Gwen at one point, as the visiting dignitaries assemble to witness the event, all hungry to see the very first Higgs bosons produced in the LHC. Wonderful though that would be, reality requires a little more patience. Switch on of the LHC began in January 2008, as the vast machine began the big chill towards its -271 degree operating temperature, and should be complete well before dignitaries are invited to the lab for an official inauguration. As for Higgs bosons, tune in again around 2009-2010.

Captain Jack displays a surprising knowledge of particle physics, though to call the Higgs 'the fundamental particle of existence' might bring a blush to Peter Higgs' cheeks. The basic technique of particle collisions, however, he describes well, and he even knows some of the more esoteric physics. Perhaps he learned it from the Doctor, or perhaps John Barrowman's visit to CERN had something to do with it? Gateways to parallel dimensions? Maybe. Create a microscopic black hole? Who knows? Turn the world inside out? Definitely not.

Let's start with the Higgs. First postulated in 1965 by British physicist Peter Higgs, and independently by Belgians Robert Brout and François Englert, the Higgs mechanism and its associated particle offer us an explanation of mass, the stuff that makes things heavy. Its discovery would be an important milestone in our quest to understand the Universe, but it won't be easy. Out of some 600 million proton-proton collisions per second at the LHC, one every few hours will produce a Higgs particle, if the theory is right. Needles in haystacks are child's play in comparison, and a good year of data will be needed before the global community of CERN scientists can shout a collective 'Eureka!'

David Tennant (The Doctor) and the TARDISThe Doctor (David Tennant) and the TARDIS

Gateways to parallel dimensions and black holes are all wrapped up in the same, extremely speculative, theory. It all starts with gravity, and why it is so weak compared to all the other forces of nature. So weak, in fact, that even with a whole planet pulling us down, we can still jump up in the air. According so some physicists, the reason gravity is so weak might be intimately linked with Jack's friend The Doctor's preferred mode of transport. Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, TARDIS for short, Doctor Who's spaceship is famously bigger on the inside than the outside, and surely you could only do that if you knew about extra dimensions of space?

Some theories explain away gravity's weakness by suggesting that it operates in more dimensions than the other forces, so we only feel a part of its strength. If we could access those extra dimensions and feel its full strength, we'd find that it is not so different from the others after all. How might we access those dimensions? By smashing protons together at very high energy in the LHC, so the argument goes, and if the theory is right, gravitational particles might be produced - microscopic black holes in other words, which would immediately disintegrate, leaving behind precious information about one of the greatest mysteries in physics, and who knows, perhaps the beginning of a recipe for a TARDIS. Time travel, however, will have to wait. The LHC will remain mute on that point.

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