The day the world switched on to particle physics

31 August 2018

When the Large Hadron Collider circulated its first protons 10 years ago, it made headlines around the globe. What was it that drove one of the biggest media events science has ever seen, and is the LHC still able to capture the public imagination?

CERN Control Centre

When Lyn Evans, project leader of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), turned up for work at the CERN Control Centre (CCC) at 05:30 on 10 September 2008, he was surprised to find the car park full of satellite trucks. Normally a scene of calm, the facility had become the focus of global media attention, with journalists poised to capture the moment when the LHC switched on. Evans knew the media were coming, but not quite to this extent. A few hours later, as he counted down to the moment when the first beam had made its way through the last of the LHC’s eight sectors, the CCC erupted in cheers – and Evans wasn’t even aware that his impromptu commentary was being beamed live to millions of people. “I thought I was commenting to others on the CERN site,” he recalls. The following weekend, he was walking in the nearby ski town of Megève when a stranger recognised him in the street.

Of all human endeavours that have captured the world’s attention, the events of 10 September 2008 are surely among the most bizarre. After all, this wasn’t something as tangible as sending a person to the Moon. At 10:28 local time on that clear autumn Wednesday, a bunch of subatomic particles made its way around a 27 km-long subterranean tube, and the spectacle was estimated to have reached an audience of more than a billion people. There were record numbers of hits to the CERN homepage, overtaking visits to NASA’s site, in addition to some 2500 television broadcasts and 6000 press articles on the day. The event was dubbed “first-beam day” by CERN and “Big Bang day” by the BBC, which had taken over a room in the CCC and devoted a full day’s coverage on Radio 4. Google turned its logo into a cartoon of a collider – such “doodles” are now commonplace, but it was a coup for CERN back then. It is hard to think of a bigger media event in science in recent times, and it launched particle physics, the LHC and CERN into mainstream culture.

It is all the more incredible that no collision data, and therefore no physics results, were scheduled that day; it was “simply” part of the commissioning period that all new colliders go through. When CERN’s previous hadron collider, the Super Proton Synchrotron, fired up in the summer of 1981, says Evans, there was just him and Carlo Rubbia in the control room. Even the birth of the Large Electron Positron collider in 1989 was a muted affair. The LHC was a different machine in a different era, and its birth offers a crash course in the communication of big-science projects.

News values

Fears that the LHC would create a planet-eating black hole were a key factor behind the enormous media interest, says Roger Highfield, who was science editor of the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper at the time. “I have no doubt that the public loved all the stuff about the hunt for the secrets of the universe, the romance of the Peter Higgs story and the deluge of superlatives about energy, vacuum and all that,” says Highfield. “But the LHC narrative was taken to a whole new level by the potty claim by doomsayers that it could create a black hole to swallow the Earth. When ‘the biggest and most complex experiment ever devised’ was about to be turned on, it made front-page news, with headlines like, ‘Will the world end on Wednesday?’”.


The conspiracies were rooted in attempts by a handful of individuals to prevent the LHC from starting up in case its collisions would produce a microscopic black hole – one of the outlandish models that the LHC was built to test. That the protons injected into the LHC that day had an energy far lower than that of the then-operational Tevatron collider in the US, and that collisions were not scheduled for weeks afterwards, didn’t seem to get in the way of a good story. Nor, for that matter, did CERN’s efforts to issue scientific reassurances. Indeed, when science editor of The Guardian, Ian Sample, turned up at CERN on first-beam day, he expected to find protestors chained to the fence outside, or at least waving placards asking physicists not to destroy the planet. “I did not see a single protestor – and I looked for them,” he says. “And yet, inside the building, I remember one TV host doing a piece to camera on how the world might end when the machine switched on. It was a circus that the media played a massive part in creating. It was shameful and it made the media who seriously ran with those stories look like fools.”

The truth is the black-hole hype came long after the LHC had started to capture the public imagination. As the machine and its massive experiments progressed through construction in the early 2000s, the project’s scale and abstract scientific goals offered an appeal to wonder. Though designed to explore a range of phenomena at a new energy frontier, the LHC’s principal quarry, the Higgs boson, had a bite-sized description: the generator of mass. It also had a human angle – a real-life, white-haired Professor Higgs and a handful of other theorists waiting to see if their half-century-old prediction was right, and international teams of thousands working night and day to build the necessary equipment. Nobel laureate Leon Lederman’s 1993 book The God Particle, detailing the quest for the Higgs boson, added a supernatural dimension to the enterprise.

“I am confident that no editor-in-chief of any newspaper in the world truly understood the Higgs field, the meaning or significance of electroweak symmetry breaking, or how the Higgs boson fits into the picture,” continues Sample. “But what they did get was the appeal of hunting for a particle that in their minds explained the origin of mass. It is such an intriguing concept to imagine that we even need to explain the origin of mass. Isn’t it the case that matter just has mass, plain and simple? All of this, in addition to the sheer awe at the engineering and physics achievement, made for an enormously exotic and appealing story.”

There were also more practical reasons for LHC’s media extravaganza, notes Geoff Brumfiel, a reporter at Nature at the time and now a senior editor at National Public Radio in the US. The fact that pretty much every country and region on Earth had somebody working on the LHC meant that there was a local story for thousands of news outlets, he says, plus CERN’s status as a publicly funded institution made it possible for the lab to open up to the world. “There was also great visual appeal: the enormous, colourful detectors, deep underground, teeming with little scientists in hard hats – it just looked cool. That was hugely important for cable news, television documentary producers, etc.” In addition, says Brumfiel, something actually happened on first-beam day – there was something for journalists to see. “That’s always big in the news business. A big new machine was turning on and might or might not work. And when it worked there were lots of happy people to look at and hear.”

Strategy first

Despite the many external factors influencing LHC communications, the switch-on would never have had the huge reach that it did were it not for a dedicated communication strategy, says James Gillies, CERN’s head of communications at the time. It started as far back as 2000, when Dan Brown’s science-fiction novel Angels & Demons, about a plot to blow up the Vatican using antimatter stolen from CERN, was published. “Luckily for us, it didn’t sell, but it alerted us to the fact that the notion that CERN could be dangerous was bubbling up into popular culture,” says Gillies. A few years later, the BBC made a drama documentary called End Day, which examined a range of ways that humanity might not last the century – including a black hole being created at a particle accelerator. Then, when Dan Brown’s next book, The Da Vinci Code, became a bestseller, CERN realised that Angels & Demons would be next on people’s reading list – so it had better act. “That led to one of the most peculiar conversations that I’ve ever had with a CERN director general, and resulted in us featuring fact and fiction in Angels & Demons on the CERN website,” says Gillies. “Our traffic jumped by an order of magnitude overnight and we never looked back.” CERN later played a significant role in the screen adaption of the book, and Sony Pictures included a short film about CERN in its Blu-ray release.

Scenes from first-beam day

The first dedicated LHC communications strategy was put in place in 2006. The perception of CERN as portrayed in End Day and Angels & Demons was so wide off the mark that is was laughable, says Gillies, so he took it as opportunity to lead the conversation about CERN and be transparent and timely. In addition to actions such as working with science communicators in CERN Member States and beyond, to organise national media visits for key journalists, he says, “the big idea is that we took a conscious decision to do our science in the public eye, to involve people in the adventure of research at the forefront of human knowledge”. Publicly fixing the date for first beam was a high-risk strategy, but it paid off. The scheduled LHC start-up exceeded the expectations of everyone involved. Both proton beams made a full turn around the machine and one beam was captured by the radio-frequency system, showing that it could be accelerated. For the thousands of people working on the LHC and its experiments, it marked the transition from 25 years of preparation to a new era of scientific discovery. But the terrain was about to get tougher.

Once the journalists had departed and the champagne bottles were stacked away, the LHC teams continued with the task of commissioning away from the spotlight, with a view to obtaining collisions as soon as possible. Then, a couple of days after first-beam day, a transformer powering part of the LHC’s cryogenic system failed, forcing a pause in commissioning during which the teams decided to test the last octant of the machine for high-current operations. While ramping the magnets towards 9.3 kA on 19 September, one of the LHC’s 10,000 superconducting-dipole interconnects failed, ultimately damaging roughly 400 m of the machine. Evans described the event, which set operations back by 14 months, as “a kick in the teeth”. But CERN recovered quickly (see “Lessons from the accelerator frontier“) and, today, Evans says that he is glad that the fault was discovered when it was. “It would have been a disaster had it happened five years in. As it was, we didn’t come under criticism. We were pushing the limits of technology.”

The timing of the incident was doubly fortuitous: the same week it took place, US investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in history, with other banks looking set to follow suit. The world might not have been consumed by a black hole, but the prospect of a distinctly more real financial Armageddon dominated the headlines that week.

To collisions and beyond

The coming to life of the LHC is a thrilling story, a scientific fairy-tale. From its long-awaited completion, to the tense sector-by-sector threading of its first beam in front of millions of people and the incident nine days later that temporarily ruined the party, the LHC finally arrived at a new energy frontier in November 2009 (achieving 1.18 TeV per beam). Its physics programme began in earnest a few months later, on 30 March 2010, at a collision energy of 7 and then 8 TeV. Barely two years later, the LHC produced its first major discovery – the Higgs boson, announced to a packed CERN auditorium on 4 July 2012 by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations and webcast around the world. The discovery was followed by the award of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics to Peter Higgs and François Englert. The CERN seminar was the first time that the pair had met, with cameras capturing Higgs wiping a tear from his eye as the significance of the event sunk in. Since 2015, the LHC has been operating at 13 TeV while notching up record levels of performance, and the machine is now being prepared for its high-luminosity upgrade (HL-LHC).


Has the success of LHC communications set the bar too high? The CERN press office tracked a steady increase in the number of LHC-related articles in the period leading up to the switch-on, in addition to an increasing number of visits by the media and the public. Coverage peaked around September 2008, died down a little, then picked up again four years later as the drama of the Higgs-boson discovery started to unfold. When ATLAS and CMS announced the discovery, press coverage exceeded even that of first-beam day. Of the top 10-read items on The Guardian website, says Sample, stories about the Higgs made up eight or nine of them, when there were plenty of other big news stories around that day. Why? “The absolute competence and dedication and hard work of those scientists and engineers was so refreshing compared to the crooks, bullies, liars and murderers that we write about every day,” he says. “Perhaps people enjoyed reading about something positive, about people doing astounding work, about something far bigger than the world they normally encounter in the news.”

Today, press coverage of the LHC remains higher than it was before the switch-on, with an average of 200 clippings per day worldwide. The number of media visits to CERN, having peaked in around 2008 and 2012, is now at the level that it was before the switch-on, corresponding to around 300 media outlets per year. The LHC’s life so far has also coincided with the explosion of social-media tools. CERN’s first ever tweet, on 7 August 2008, announced the date for first-beam day, and today the lab has more than two million Twitter followers – rising at a rate of around 1000 per day. During the announcement of the Higgs-boson discovery in 2012, CERN’s live tweets reached journalists faster than the press release and helped contribute to worldwide coverage of the news.

Framing the search for the Higgs boson as the LHC’s only physics goal was never the message that CERN intended to put out, but it’s the one that the media latched on to. Echoing others working in the media who were interviewed for this article, Brumfiel thinks that the LHC has largely left the public eye. In terms of the media, he says, “It’s a victim of its own success: it was designed to do one thing, and it’s done it.”

The challenge facing communications at CERN today is how to capitalise on the existing interest while constructing a new or updated narrative of exploration and discovery. After all, in terms of physics measurements, the LHC is only getting into its stride – having collected just 5% of its expected total dataset and with up to two decades of operations still to go. Although the LHC has not yet found any conclusive signs of physics beyond the Standard Model, it is clear from astronomical and other observations that such phenomena are out there, somewhere. In the absence of direct discoveries, identifying the new physics will be a hard slog involving ever more precise measurements of known particles – a much tougher sell to the public, even if it is all part of the same effort to uncover the basic laws of the universe.

Angels & Demons

“CERN has managed to build upon previous communication successes as the public is already interested, so they can simply strap a camera onto a drone, fly it around and a lot of people will happily watch!” says David Eggleton of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in the UK, who studies leadership and governance in major scientific projects such as the LHC. “But, just like with the scientists, the public is going to need something new and exciting to focus on – even if the pay-off is 10 years in the future, so it depends on how the laboratory wants to strategise – do they want to pitch HL-LHC as the next big machine or is it just going to be articulated as an upgrade with the FCC (Future Circular Collider) becoming the thing to capture the public’s imagination?”

Theoretical physicist and science populariser Sabine Hossenfelder of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany thinks the excitement surrounding the switch-on of the LHC has come back to haunt the field, going so far as to label the current situation in particle physics a “PR disaster”. Before the LHC’s launch in 2008, she says, some theorists expressed themselves confident that the collider would produce new particles besides the Higgs boson. “That hasn’t happened. The big proclamations came almost exclusively from theoretical physicists; CERN didn’t promise anything that they didn’t deliver. That is an important distinction, but I am afraid in the public perception the subtler differences won’t matter.”

Cultural icon

At least for now, and in some countries, the LHC has become embedded in popular culture. The term “hadron collider” is the new “rocket science” – a term dropped into commentary and public discourse to denote the pinnacle of human ingenuity. The LHC has inspired books, films, plays, art and, crucially, adverts – in which firms have used high-production visuals to associate their brands with the standards of the LHC. The number of applications for physics degrees, in the UK at least, soared around the time that the LHC switched on, and the event also launched the television career of ATLAS physicist Brian Cox, who went on to further engage a primed public. Annually, around 300,000 people apply to visit CERN, less than half of whom can be accommodated.

Press conference

If the communications surrounding the LHC have proved one thing, it is that there is an inherent interest among huge swathes of the global population in the substance of particle physics. Highfield, who is now director of external affairs at the Science Museum in the London, sees this on a daily basis. “Although I think physicists would have liked to have seen more surprises, I know from my work at the Science Museum that the public has a huge appetite for smashing physics,” he says. In November 2013, the Science Museum launched Collider, an immersive exhibition that blended theatre, video and sound art with real artefacts from CERN to recreate a visit to the laboratory. The exhibition went on international tour, finishing in Australia in April 2017, having pulled in an audience of more than 600,000 people. “Yes, the public still cares about the quest to reveal the deepest secrets of the cosmos,” says Highfield.

From a communications perspective, the switch-on of the LHC proves the importance of a clear strategy, the rewards from taking risks, and the difficulty in keeping control of a narrative. For Evans, the LHC changed everything. “Of all the machines that I’ve worked on, never before has there been such interest,” he says. “Before the LHC, no one knew what you were talking about. Now, I can get into a cab in New York or speak to an immigration officer in Japan, and they say: oh, cool, you work at CERN?”.

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