How do you get a billion people
excited about a giant superconducting proton collider?
Thinking about how to
communicate the start-up of the LHC was the focus of
everything we were doing since 2004. We saw a huge
opportunity to put CERN and particle physics on the map. So
we started saying to journalists: “Wanna see this? Well
you’d better come soon because it’s going to be closed up —
and it’s impressive.” Until 2004 we’d have about 200 visits
per year, but in 2007 we had 600.
It’s now clear that 10
September was the only day the LHC was functioning long
enough to get protons around in both directions. Does it
unnerve you that so much luck was involved when the world
We took the decision to show
people the reality of doing science at this level, and that
carries risk. It could have gone wrong, but on the other
hand I know the people who run these machines and they're
just an amazing bunch.
How did you feel when you woke
up on 10 September?
Slightly terrified. Plan B was
for me to stand up in the Globe [where the media were
corralled] and tell 340 journalists who had come to CERN
that it ain’t going to happen today. As it was, a minor
cryogenic outage added a bit of drama, but that drove home
to people that the event was live. We hadn’t rehearsed it,
and that openness was appreciated.
And by the time you went to
Well, fantastic. It was just
the most amazing day. It was amazing to see how much emotion
there was in witnessing this big machine coming to life. The
event was huge. Eurovision [the broadcast service which
beamed footage to television networks and cost CERN about
50,000 CHF] estimated we had exposure to 1bn people. The
result now is that the LHC is mentioned without explanation
in contexts that have nothing to do with science.
Rumour was that the switch-on
date was arranged around BBC presenter Andrew Marr’s holiday
It’s hilarious. The BBC did ask
if we could put the date back if Andrew couldn’t make it,
and we said “no”. But on the other hand, BBC Radio 4 pulled
out all the stops and decided to do something unprecedented
in science by devoting a day to the event, so in return we
gave them a room just off the CERN Control Centre to use as
a studio. The fact that Radio 4 went so big on CERN drove it
out to the rest of the BBC, culminating in “Big Bang Day”,
and then out to the rest of the UK media and the world.
Did the black-hole Armageddon
frenzy aid or hinder your communication efforts?
Ultimately it helped us by
generating interest, but it also worried an awful lot of
people and that makes me somewhat angry. People were phoning
us up genuinely worried about the end of the world and
demanding to know who CERN is accountable to. Of course
we’re accountable — 20 countries have to say “yes” before we
do anything! We ran a strict press accreditation procedure
and there was heightened security on the day.
People were phoning us up
genuinely worried about the end of the world and
demanding to know who CERN is accountable to.
Did CERN handle the issue well?
With hindsight I would have
treated the black hole stuff in exactly the same way we
dealt with Angels
and Demons [the
Dan Brown novel in which antimatter is stolen from CERN to
destroy the Vatican]. We were very proactive with that — we
put up a webpage and had fun with it — but we didn’t
envisage the black hole story going as far as it did. On one
hand we didn’t want to engage with the scaremongers, but the
particle physics community worldwide was slow to pick up and
say “this is nonsense”. It’s one thing for CERN to say
everything is safe, but we needed other voices, which have
How did you feel when you
realized the full extent of the damage caused by the
electrical fault on 19 September?
I was genuinely sad, and I
think a lot of people at CERN felt the same. When you’ve
been so intimately involved with something for such a long
time, and when the start up went so well, the incident was a
huge shock. But there’s a story to tell here: mishaps like
this are part of life when working at the cutting edge of
technology and research.
Wouldn’t it have made more
sense to test all the LHC circuits before the media event on
I don’t think it would have
been any easier to live with what happened. In fact, it may
have been less easy because at least now we know that the
LHC works extremely well.
So the incident wasn’t the
result of pressure to switch on before the machine was
No. The timetable was driven by
[LHC project director] Lyn [Evans] and the machine
operators. The plan was to get some collision data at low
energies, then finish testing the hardware to run at higher
energies. Had an electrical transformer not broken down
three days after the 10th, we would have had that collision
data and the incident would have happened later.
We knew the warm up and
cool down would take two months minimum so we quickly
put that out in a statement, although with hindsight we
should have been more cautious.
CERN’s new director general
[Rolf-Dieter Heuer] told staff on 12 January, that from now
on people would hear about events first from him, not the
press. Was there a lack of communication internally
following the incident?
It wasn’t organized in a way
that it needs to be now that there is such a huge demand for
information. We knew the warm up and cool down would take
two months minimum so we quickly put that out in a
statement, although with hindsight we should have been more
cautious because we soon realized there was no way the LHC
was going to be back up that year. Internally, people from
the machine and management side were giving talks to the
experiments, but we could have used our intranet, website
and the CERN
Did CERN try to withhold
information from the media?
There’s a great quote in a
Salman Rushdie book: whenever information is tightly
controlled, rumour becomes a valued source of news. That was
happening at CERN. All the way through, the then
director-general [Robert Aymar] genuinely wanted to put out
factually accurate information as soon as it was available,
but CERN probably tried too hard to keep tight control.
Although we were quick off the mark with releasing official
statements there were long gaps in between. Even though
there wasn’t very much to say, there was stuff that could
have been said which would have capped those rumours.
Why was the LHC logbook
modified retrospectively on the day of the incident?
There’s nothing sinister about
it. The person on shift that morning just wrote down what
had happened, then someone came along and said: “Everybody
can see that, let’s take it away!” It was a wrong decision
made in the heat of the moment, but it was naivety rather
than anything systematic. It’s an issue we’re probably going
to look at. A logbook should be somewhere people can write
down whatever they feel, but that’s not necessarily
something that should be visible to the whole world.
[Modifying the log book]
was a wrong decision made in the heat of the moment, but
it was naivety rather than anything systematic.
Were the long awaited official
photos of the damage chosen because they were taken after
the tunnel had been cleaned up?
No. They were specifically
chosen because they showed where the damage was worse, at
the end of the helium-induced pressure wave. I think the
rumours had led people to expect something more dramatic.
Who ordered links to photos and
some presentations to be password protected after they
appeared on blogs?
[Aymar] wanted the CERN
community to receive the news from him before it was made
more widely available, so access to slides was temporarily
restricted. People just hadn’t realized how much in the
spotlight we are now.
Is it true that people were
being threatened with disciplinary action if they circulated
pictures of the tunnel before they had been officially
It’s true that the former DG
wanted to be the one issuing the information. Look, we have
to be more effective in the way that we communicate at CERN
both internally and externally. The world is watching this.
We’ve created what we’ve created, there is a demand for
information and we need to provide it. That’s something that
the new management is very aware of.
How are the repairs going?
They’re going well, but there’s
a lot to do. We need to increase the LHC’s capacity to vent
helium in the event of another leak, so already on all the
sectors that are warmed up (half the machine) we are
changing the valves on all the quadrupole magnets and
putting new ones on the dipoles.
Where’s the logic in making
only half of the machine safer?
What we’re doing is about as
conservative as you can get. The LHC will now be able to
vent ten times as much helium as before, and on top of that
we’ve got lots of extra monitoring which will allow us to
see a similar electrical fault coming.
CERN has a history of overly
optimistic LHC timetables. Isn’t the current schedule of
first-beam in July/August rather aggressive?
I’m pretty confident there will
be collisions this year. There’s a great determination, but
caution is the guiding principle. There will be a meeting in
Chamonix in early February after which a realistic schedule
will be announced.
Does the world have the
appetite for “Big Bang Day II”?
It won’t be as big as 10
September. We’re not going to be inviting anyone back for
first-beam this year. Journalists are keen to see first
collisions even though it may involve camping out with us
for a week. The whole process will be webcast. CERN was
unwilling to invest in bandwidth before the 10th so the
webcast fell over very early in the morning, but we’ve since
had companies offering us bandwidth in exchange for having
their logo displayed.
This year CERN won’t be
chasing the media or the blogs. We’ll be the primary
source of news about [the lab].
What do you think the LHC will
find and when?
Well, you should probably ask
the people who are working on it.
Come on, you’ve got a PhD in
We’re going to find the Higgs
particle if it exists, and I can’t think of any reason why
it doesn’t. But that will take a year’s worth of good data.
What I would really like to see, although it would be a
nightmare from a communications point of view, is a flood of
supersymmetric particles as soon as we switch on. Some
models say that could happen, and if so we’ll have a group
of people saying “wait!” and another group saying “look,
this is a signal!”
How are you going to manage
information when data arrive and rumours spread?
We’ve got protocols in place
for the experiments so that if they really feel they are
ready to make an announcement then we move very fast and
organize a seminar here very quickly. One thing you’ll see
this year is that CERN’s official communications won’t be
chasing the media or the blogs. We’ll be the primary source
of news about CERN.
Is that realistic, given that
bloggers can brain-dump a post in a matter of minutes?
I think we’ve got to try. If
there’s someone who’s blogging about a “three sigma” effect
[meaning there is less than 1% chance it is a statistical
fluke] that’s been verified, then there’s no reason why we
wouldn’t talk about it as well. But if someone is blogging
about a three sigma effect in their own particular analysis
which hasn’t gone through the official verification process
in their experiment then we will deny it, which may come to
releasing a statement.
Are you planning to implement
rules on blogging, as the CDF collaboration at Fermilab has
done in response to rumours about Higgs sightings?
Yes. Some of the experiments
have them already as a result of what happened there.
Isn’t that an attempt to censor
It’s an attempt to stop blogs
fuelling rumour. Nobody wants to clamp down on people
releasing information about results that have passed through
official quality control in an experiment.
What’s the best question you’ve
ever been asked about the LHC?
Visitors often ask first
whether they can ask a really stupid question, and then come
out with something profound and unanswerable that goes
straight to the core of what we’re doing here.