The popular appeal of science is broadening. Television show The Big Bang Theory is one of the highest rated sitcoms in the United States attracting millions of viewers each episode, science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Brian Cox are developing guru status.
When New York brought its World Science Festival to Brisbane for the first time in 2016, the city went mad for it. When it returned in March 2017 one of its guests was Dr Harry Cliff, a particle physicist at the University of Cambridge.
Why do you think science has become so popular and would you classify it as "cool"?
I think it’s probably down to a load of different factors coming together at the same time – for starters scientists are increasingly recognising the importance of communicating what they do to the public. Superstars like the ones you mentioned have led the charge, but more and more scientists in general are getting out there and giving talks to the public, running science festivals and even doing science-comedy. At the same time, we’re living through an unprecedented period of discovery; from spectacular international projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the Square Kilometer Array that offer the potential to answer some of the deepest questions it’s possible to ask about our universe, to attempts to understand the workings of the human brain. It’s hard to not be excited by what’s happening in science at the moment!
Why do you think there’s been such a public interest in particle physics and discoveries like the Higgs particle (one of the 17 particles in Standard Model of physics)?
That’s an interesting question actually. Back in 1983 an earlier giant accelerator at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) discovered two new fundamental particles called the W and Z bosons, arguably more significant than the discovery of the Higgs but there wasn’t nearly so much public interest. So what’s different today? Well for one, CERN are much cannier at getting their message out and we have a range of charismatic spokespeople to talk to the public about the discovery.
The Large Hadron Collider itself has also captured the public’s imagination thanks to its sheer size, the ambition of its scientific program and just the fact that it looks so damn sexy on camera. I sometimes wonder whether the detectors like ATLAS and CMS were designed deliberately to look like something out of a sci-fi film. You also have the rather moving story of Peter Higgs and his colleagues, who were all relatively young men back in 1964 when they first came up with the idea of the Higgs mechanism, and then waited their entire lives to see their idea vindicated. It was hard not to be moved by the site of Peter Higgs, now an old man in his 80s, wiping away a tear at the discovery announcement.
Who are some notable figures in science you’re influenced by and why?
Like a lot of my colleagues I was hugely inspired by reading about the life of Richard Feynman, one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the twentieth century. It’s not just that he was a brilliant scientist, but he embodied that spirit of pure and joyous curiosity.
Feynman was someone who found fascination and pleasure in the world around him – one of his greatest contributions of quantum theory was inspired by watching a dinner plate wobbling as it was thrown across the cafeteria at CalTech. He wanted to understand why a blue line painted on the plate moved in the way it did, and he worked out the maths of it just for fun.
But that work then went on to help him develop one of the cornerstones of modern physics, describing how particles of light and matter interact. More than that he was also a very human person, far from the dusty intellectual that people might imagine a theoretician to be, he was a safe-cracker, prankster, played the bongos, became a pretty accomplished painter and generally squeezed whatever he could out of life.
What’s your take on the connection between science and art?
I think it depends on the scientist/artist, but I think the two fields have a lot to learn from each other. Ultimately, science and art are both practiced by people and they both ask questions about the human condition, our place in the universe. Artists are increasingly being inspired by developments in science, and new technologies are creating new art forms that wouldn’t have been possible in the past. At the same time, scientists can benefit hugely from collaborating with artists and designers, particularly when it comes to communicating with the public. The main reason that the Collider exhibition that I worked on at the Science Museum has been so successful was because it was created in collaboration with playwrights, artists and theatre designers to create a world which the visitor feels immersed in. The ability that art has to transport you to a different time or place can be hugely powerful when you’re trying to tell a scientific story.
Do sci-fi movies help or hinder real science? What is your favourite science movie and why?
I think for the most part science fiction plays an important role in inspiring people to take an interest in science. Even if movies often get the science wrong, they do often capture the essential curiosity and ambition that drives scientific endeavour as well as imagining what kind of worlds science might allow us to create one day. I came out of seeing The Martian feeling absolutely inspired by the possibility that people might get to walk on Mars in my lifetime, and I’m sure that film will have inspired a few future astronauts.
I think my favourite all-time sci-fi film is probably 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it for the first time in a while recently and apart from being reminded just how weird a film it is, I was really impressed by the vision and the imagination of what life in space would be like, considering it was made a year before the 1969 moon landings. It’s also one of the few films that really captures the vastness and bleakness of space in a way that feels far more real and visceral than a film like Star Wars, much as I am a massive fan of those films too. Well, maybe not the prequels.
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Dr Harry Cliff is a particle physicist from the University of Cambridge who works on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest scientific experiment, at CERN near Geneva. Harry’s research involves searching for signs of new particles and forces of nature in high-energy particle collisions in an attempt to improve our understanding of the fundamental laws of nature. He is also a Fellow of Modern Science at the Science Museum in London, where he co-curated the critically acclaimed "Collider" exhibition, which is now touring internationally and has been seen by over half a million visitors. He is currently leading the development of a new exhibition telling the story of humankind’s changing relationship with the Sun, our nearest star.