James Turner: This is James Turner with O'Reilly News. I'm talking today with Katherine McAlpine; she is the e-News Coordinator for the Atlas Project at CERN and is maybe better known these days as the author of the LHC Rap. We're going to talk to her today a little bit about both, so thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Katherine.
Katherine McAlpine: No problem.
JT: So why don't we begin; looking at your background you came out of the gate kind of wanting to be a science writer. You did a dual major in Physics and in Writing; did you like at an early age wake up one day and say I want to be a science writer or how did that come to be?
KM: It wasn't too early but I just had gotten these test scores back that you know they tell you, you know they analyze your interest and tell you what you should be. And my dad was like, you know most people don't have those jobs; most people have jobs they didn't imagine. So I was sitting and reading a copy of either Scientific America or Discover. It was about black holes and I was like well someone had to write this; I like science and I'm good at writing so why not.
JT: So you jumped fairly quickly straight into particle physics; your first position was at Fermilab from what I can see. What drew you to Particle Physics as a sub-specialty of the whole scientific genre?
KM: My first position well at CERN was through Fermilab but my first position was actually at the American Physical Society and I just thought that particle physics was really interesting because it was getting at you know some of the deepest questions like what is the universe made of and I thought antimatter was pretty interesting too. I didn't actually know that CERN existed when I read Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, so I was really excited to find out it was a real place, so--that's about it.
JT: So you're working with one of the sub-projects for the Large Hadron Collider that's spooling up there at CERN. What is the current status of the Collider? It's cooling down right now as I understand.
KM: Yeah; it's cooling down. They recently issued a press release saying that they're going to startup on September 10th.
JT: Now is this going to be some great pomp and circumstance with ribbon cuttings or giant switches thrown or is some guy just going to push a button and say yeah; it works?
KM: There is not really even a button to push. There's just a bunch of technicians who will be doing their thing with computers and getting it running.
JT: So what's the very first thing they're going to be doing? Is it just going to be like any scientific instrument where there's going to be some period of where they're just going to be checking it out and calibrating and all that good stuff?
KM: Yeah; I mean on September 10th they're really only going to have one beam going around, so they're not going to have collisions until they project about two months later after startup. So but with that first beam, they're going to be getting so much more data coming out from those protons running into things that are in the beam pipe than they're getting from cosmic rays coming in from outer space right now that the detector people will have a lot more information to work with calibrating.
JT: So they almost don't even need a target to begin with; they just--whatever happens to be lying in the way is going to be it?
KM: Yeah; but they're not going to get new physics out of there. That's not going to come until they get actual collisions.
JT: Right; so but so they'll be able to look--they'll be able to make sure that the detectors are all working and all that stuff because they'll--
JT: --have data. So when they've got it run up to speed, the--and the Holy Grail they're going after here is the Higgs Boson; why don't you describe briefly what the Higgs is and you know why people should care about it?
KM: The Higgs Boson is--it's said to be the last piece of the standard model and what it does is it gives all the particles mass, so they think there's a Higgs Field that just goes through everything and for some particles it just doesn't interact at all so it goes straight through and slower particles--sorry; more massive particles get slowed down and I think it was in Symmetry Magazine that compared it to something going through molasses for the particles that interact really heavily.
JT: So the more the field affects it the more massive an object is relatively?
JT: And this would explain why say a photon doesn't have mass but a neutron does?
JT: Now as I understand it, the results--it's not going to take long to get a yeah or nay out of the experiment from what I understand. Do they have any idea when--you know is it going to be like a green light going on that says you've got Higgs or I assume there's going to have be results and they're going to have to be analyzed and--. What's the feel for when they'll start to know one way or another?
KM: You know the last person I talked to I think said it would take at least six months after the first collision just to--first they have to understand the detector and make sure they really know where all the particles are coming from very precisely and then they have to start analyzing the data and that data gets distributed and analyzed by physicists all over the world, so they're already writing programs to look for the Higgs.
JT: Right; beyond whether or not they're going to have to rewrite the standard model this other science that the LHC is going to be doing I think in your rap you mentioned is like five different detectors in it. What else are they looking for when they're not out Higgs hunting?
KM: One of the theories they're trying to prove is super-symmetry, which that's an idea that each particle has a super-partner that's a little heavier and no one has ever seen a super-particle, so they're hoping to find one of those. And there's dark matter that's kind of holding galaxies together but it doesn't interact with anything except through gravity and they're hoping to produce dark matter, or see something indicating an extra dimension.
JT: So yeah; just trivial little problems of science that really nobody really cares about there. [Laughs] One of the things that's probably irritated people who follow science is this--the world is going to end prophecy that's started to come out about once they--the LHC fired up similar to the predictions that were made about--that the atomic bomb was going to destroy the world by setting the atmosphere on fire and things like that, where do you think these predictions come out of?
KM: Well I think they're coming from--there were concerns with the RICH Collider which it accelerates heavy irons and smashes them together and there was a possibility of strangelets which could supposedly turn everything into kind of a gray-goop end of the world; everything becomes strange matter and just a blob. And it's you know when they work the physics--it's just not going to happen and then there's the black holes which a lot of scientists are really excited about because they're microscopic. I think that it would take them three--it would take three years to suck in just a proton and they're not even supposed to hold together. Hawking radiation will just kind of tear them apart immediately so it will just be long enough for the detector to see them, if they get created at all which Lisa Randall gave a talk in which she said no; it's not going to happen.
JT: Do you think there's--the people who were promoting these, once--because people are still out there saying these things and there's almost like a pop culture mentality of it now. It almost became a joke like; well let me you know--don't bother planning past September-whatever. Do you think that this reflects some fear of Big Science or do you think there are people out there who just get some you know self-promotion out of trying to push these types of ideas?
KM: Well I mean there are people who get self-promotion by pushing the ideas but I think there is a fair amount of fear, and I mean the idea of creating a black hole is scary but they're not going to stick around and they're not going to do any damage. And it's hard to prove that without really complicated mass which most people can't understand, so--.
JT: Right; so you just say you're created a black hole and--ah.
KM: Yeah. [Laughs]
JT: Not in my backyard.
JT: Was--do you know if the--I mean that's a fairly idyllic area that they built that accelerator in and when you go look at pictures, do the locals around there like having an accelerator in their backyard or--?
KM: You know CERN has been really good about making sure that the local people are aware of what's going on and making sure that they have cooperation from the politicians and at least in Switzerland they have referenda all the time where they put it to the people. So I think there's the same amount of support among the people who are living near Geneva and in the French countryside there.
JT: The US had their shot to have a Collider of this scale, the super-conducting super-Collider which is now just a big empty ring in the middle of Texas. Does--at this point does it really matter where you build one of these with high-speed internet and most experiments probably being you know mostly parameter tweaking and things like that? Do you need to--I mean other than just national pride does it really matter where these things get built?
KM: It matters a lot to the physicists that have to commute to the place. Let's see; also yeah there's national pride but I think it also brings money into the country so I think there's an economic stimulation that goes on where these Colliders are built.
JT: Is there going to be--
KM: That's why there's usually a fight for the Collider(s).
JT: Right; is there going to be a Collider past this one or is this the Uber Collider of all time?
KM: They're already planning other Colliders; there's an International Linear Collider and CERN has its own version called CLIC which is another Linear Collider and the reason you need a Linear Collider because they call the LHC a discovery machine and it's smashing big messy things that are protons--those are relatively large and messy and what you get out is they know that something is there at certain masses and then they can tune a Linear Collider to really study the properties of whatever is there at that mass. So for more detailed information you need a Linear Collider and that's what they hope to build but--you know with all the funding cuts that happened in the winter, people sometimes wonder if that's going to happen, if this is the last one or if they're going to get to go further and find out more.
JT: That kind of leads to the question of are there--with NASA for example people will say well yeah; maybe yeah some of the basic Science stuff we do doesn't have immediate practical research benefits but there are spin-off technologies and other benefits to doing work that aren't just theoretical. Do you get a lot of spin-off technology off of building a massive Collider or is it all pretty much just application of existing science?
KM: You know I'm not really sure about all the spin-offs that happened but they have to make advances with super-conducting magnets and with their electronics to get them small and radiation safe and there are other areas where those technologies can be applied, but I'm not an expert in those.
JT: Sure; so let's move onto the interesting topic. So how did you come to decide that the LHC needed to have a rap song?
KM: I pretty much came in deciding that yeah; I'm going to CERN. I should really write a rap because when I was working for the American Physical Society I wrote this neurochip rap that was just sort of a silly project that I did in the morning writing the rhymes and I just sent it over to my boss and he was like good. Well make an MP3; so I did that and he was like all right. Now we need a video, so--. So then once I knew that I could do a rap video, even if it's terrible and low-quality [Laughs] I don't know; I think physics rap is a funny idea.
JT: So are you a fan of rap as a genre itself?
JT: Do you enjoy rap as a genre itself? Do you listen to it?
KM: Um, I do sometimes. I really don't like it when it just treats women like dirt pretty much.
JT: So yeah; so I was going to say so you probably--are there any particular artists you like?
KM: [Laughs] Kind of ashamed to say it but I like Eminem even though he's kind of a misogynist but his rhymes are pretty clever.
JT: Sounds like a guilty pleasure.
KM: Yeah; it is.
JT: So when you came onsite at CERN did they know that this was kind of percolating in the background?
KM: No; I think I might have mentioned it to--well no. Judy Jackson and Katie Yurkewicz who were kind of in charge of hiring me, they had seen the neurochip rap video that I had done for the American--at the American Physical Society so they probably had an idea that I might do it again.
JT: Now the things I've seen say that you wrote this in the morning like driving into work.
KM: Yeah; this took more than one morning but--and maybe some afternoons coming back. I don't drive; I take the buses and trams.
JT: Yeah; I was going to say it would be a little hard to take notes and drive at the same time, so--.
JT: Where--will you try to strike a balance between making it accessible to people who don't have two post-docs in Physics and still making it scientifically accurate?
KM: Yeah; I don't have two post-docs in Physics or even a doctorate in Physics so I don't think [Laughs] I could rap at that level. But what I wanted was something that you know someone could understand. It goes kind of fast and there's a lot of information so most people are like no; I don't get it at all but I think if someone took the time to read through the lyrics then they would have a better idea than they think about what's really going on at CERN.
JT: Well I think the subtitles help a lot.
KM: Yeah; I knew I shouldn't put it up without subtitles so there they are.
JT: So I assume what you did is you went and laid down the audio and then you went onsite and you basically--lip-syncing would be what I assumed you did.
JT: Now how much time did you have to actually shoot?
KM: Let's see; you know we probably spent an hour in each location. So in the tunnel, we were in Atlas, we were in CMS, and then took maybe half an hour of the stuff out in what we called the detector graveyard. But then it takes you know half an hour to get from Morin to CMS so we probably spent at least seven hours total. Not everybody was there for all the filming but that's probably how long the filming took.
JT: So this was probably fairly guerilla-film-making right; you get there and set it up, you shoot, and you leave?
KM: Yeah; and you know borrow a camera and everything, so--.
JT: Now obviously being in those sites doing that, you had permission.
KM: Yes; I had permission. [Laughs]
JT: Had they heard when you went to do this had they heard the audio already and knew what they were getting into?
KM: You know the Atlas people had heard the audio I think, or at least they had seen the lyrics because I had previously been a press contact so I was taking people into the cavern and when I said that I wanted to film a rap video they thought I was bringing rappers in and they weren't so sure about that but--.
JT: Yeah; all you need is like you know a fire-fight going down in the middle of a detector and--.
KM: Yeah. [Laughs] But then yeah, the head of the Press Office asked for the lyrics and I sent those. And once he'd seen it he was for the project and with him onboard it was pretty easy to get access.
JT: Was--were there like normal scientists and engineers around when you were doing this? Did you get any strange looks?
KM: Yeah; we [Laughs] got some strange looks. I mean you get a strange look just walking around CERN in a lab coat. Nobody wears lab coats.
JT: Yeah; I was going to say I assume that the stereotype of the tweed jacket with the leather patches and the pipe is probably 30 years out of date but I assume it's a fairly laid back environment there these days.
KM: Yeah; it is laid back although there are some physicists who have been there 30 years and you might see them in tweed jackets with pipes.
JT: So as far as the post-production there is a big difference if you go look between your neurochip video and this one. This has I would say much higher production value. You got a lot of stock footage obviously out of--I assume out of their archives.
JT: Did you do the post or who did the post on that?
KM: The post?
JT: The post-production?
KM: Oh like editing the video?
JT: Editing; yeah.
KM: [Laughs] Yeah; that was me. I think getting someone who actually knew about beats helped a lot and that was Will Barras at the University of Edinburg. And I mean when I did the Neurochip that--that's meet doing the beat-boxing [Laughs] and it's just awful.
JT: Yeah; it sounds a lot better, although I have to say the first time through from YouTube they kind of mangled your audio but--.
KM: Yeah; that was--we were trying to fix that and Adam Yurkewicz found it and put it on the US LHC Blog and then things just took off from there. And you know it was either by that evening or the next evening we realized that what I think Tom said it would be locking the stable door after the horses escaped or something to try to put up a new video.
JT: Right; because everyone has got the link to the old URL at that point.
JT: So what's the reaction been inside of CERN to the video?
KM: Inside of CERN I haven't gotten any--well yeah I don't think I've gotten any negative reactions directly from people at CERN. But I know some science people are not too happy and they think it kind of cheapens it and dumbs it down too much and you know science shouldn't be that easy to understand or I mean it's not really that easy to understand but it looks easier. But then there's a lot of people who say well if it doesn't look easy at all then people might not even try, so--. I think mostly people are excited to have this rap out there. And a lot of young people at CERN just think it's great, so that's exciting.
JT: Rap kind of has a mixed heritage as a teaching tool. When most people think about rap being used for other than entertainment purposes it's like now kids we're going to have a special rap from our--this group here today about the dangers of the choking game or something like that. Most people consider like educational rap to usually be pretty lame. What do you think the keys are to making one that's effective without making it embarrassing?
KM: Well there are a lot of people that would argue that this is embarrassing [Laughs] which I mean I'm not really sure what the keys are. I guess try to come out with rhymes that are you know somewhat clever, use syncopation but yeah it wasn't like we're going to make a cool educational rap. It was just like we're going to make an educational rap as best we can, so--.
JT: So are there any--do you have any thoughts for future rap that might come out here, something out of--I mean frankly you know that given that you have interest as a general science writer are we going to see just occasional raps on whatever subject catches your fancy?
KM: That's pretty likely. Yeah; I--the first rap I wrote was during a summer research program but that one is pretty technical and it was in nuclear physics, so I'm thinking that's probably the next thing I'll do is just record that. I don't know if it will be a video.
JT: Has anybody approached you since the video came out?
KM: To do a rap?
KM: Let's see; I got an email forwarded to me about people from the CERN Linear Collider Group and they were like hey could we do something like this for CLIC? But I haven't heard anything back from them.
JT: All right; well it's been a pleasure speaking to you and learning a little bit about the process behind the video and what's going on at CERN at the moment. I've been speaking with Katherine McAlpine, Atlas e-Web Coordinator at CERN and is also a general science writer whose work can be seen in magazines such as Discover. Thank you for speaking--taking time to spend with us Katherine.
KM: Just to be clear, I just do the e-News Web Coordination. There is an Atlas Web Coordination that's definitely not me, so--.
JT: All right; thanks for the--
KM: Thank you.
JT: All right; thank you.