LHC? Of course we’ve heard of the LHC!

Well, more or less. After its first outing in Meyrin (see last Bulletin issue), our street poll hits the streets of Divonne-les-Bains and the corridors of the University of Geneva. While many have heard of the LHC, the raison d’être of this "scientific whatsit" often remains a mystery.

On first questioning, the "man-in-the-street" always pleads ignorance. "Lausanne Hockey Club?" The acronym LHC is not yet imprinted on people’s minds. "Erm, Left-Handed thingamajig?" But as soon as we mention the word "CERN", the accelerator pops straight into people’s minds. Variously referred to as "the circle" or "the ring", it makes you wonder whether people would have been so aware of the LHC if it had been shaped like a square.

Size is another thing people remember: "It’s the world’s biggest. Up to now…"

As for its purpose, well that’s another kettle of fish. "Weird stuff!" Everyone seems to know it has something to do with science. And here, it’s the students who seem best informed - even those doing literary studies. Many are familiar with the term "particle accelerator" and know there are collisions involved. "It’s to find the Higgs boson," one ventures. "It’s to make mini-big bangs," suggests another. "To find new laws of physics", "To better understand the creation of the world".

In addition to the information circulated by the media, many of these young people learned about CERN and the LHC thanks to the "Accelerating Science" exhibition held in Geneva for the University’s 450th anniversary, the aim of which was to explain CERN’s work to the general public. Back in Divonne-les-Bains, a couple expressed interest but was sorry about how little information was available on the LHC’s goals. According to them, ignorance about what goes on in the tunnels can risk fuelling the fear the LHC sometimes arouses. This is especially true as words like "antimatter" and "black holes" are currently on everyone’s lips without being necessarily understood. "You never know what might happen, so it’s a bit worrying. Nuclear science started out with good intentions but we’ve seen where it can lead. It can be dangerous."

No-one asked the question: "Could the LHC have military applications?" Even so, ideas about the possible benefits of the LHC remain vague. But people are generally quite positive: "There must be some benefit, given all the money they spend on it." "Perhaps they’ll discover a parallel universe," one lady surmised. Back in Geneva, one of the students was regrettably convinced that CERN’s research would not change anything in everyday life. But when reminded of examples like the Worldwide Web or medical applications, he did recall having seen these at "Accelerating Science".

So although, on balance, fundamental research is viewed favourably, people are generally not very familiar with its applications. So it’s a good thing that, for some, knowledge alone constitutes a benefit.

Antoine Cappelle