THE SMALL HADRON
Particle physics hasn’t changed much in my lifetime
so my Small Hadron Collider is retro, built from a 1970s
Japanese Pachinko machine. Pachinko machines aren’t normally coin operated. You buy the
balls from the attendant and return them when you’ve finished playing.
Pachinko parlours are still very popular in Japan, mainly as a form of
gambling. The parlours are secretive because of their dubious legality.
Today’s machines have video screens in the centre providing additional
games with Manga style graphics but I prefer the look of the old ones.
I imported my Pachinko machine from the US (lots were
imported from Japan for domestic ‘games rooms’, but they are no longer
in fashion). I had no idea what to expect. The mechanisms are charming
and ingenious but limited. We now expect so much electronic wizardry they
seem a bit feeble, so I decided to liven it up with extra graphics,
lights and sounds.
In the past I've occasionally
tried to read
articles about particle physics but I never remembered anything because the
no connection to my experience of the world. However I enjoy researching the subject
matter of all my arcade machines. My Hadron Collider is partly inspired by
the hype about the Higgs Boson, particularly the
journalists struggling with the
incomprehensible science. Online, I couldn’t find any practical
relevance of the result, or any other large hadron collider experiment.
It’s not like the 19th century when the scientific
discoveries about electromagnetism, light and chemistry were easy to
reproduce and had everyday relevance.
Until the 1980s particle experiments were much more
tangible, with beautiful bubble chambers images. (Particles vapourise the
liquid in the chamber, revealing the paths of particles as tracks of minute bubbles)
Today particle experiments use very elaborate
equipment (like the Cern detector above) and the results are computer
generated. All today’s science depends heavily on computers and maths. Results
are now never black and white, just shades of statistical significance.
Scientists’ theories about sub atomic particles are mathematical models
and results of the Cern experiments are impossible to reproduce in the home
or even any other lab.
Subjects like quantum dynamics are purely
mathematical models. Passionate scientists like Richard Feynman invented
analogies to make the maths more accessible. The counter-intuitive ideas
about particles in two places at once, the multiverse, black holes,
antimatter etc come from these well-intentioned analogies to explain the
Personally I’ve never found scientific analogies
helpful. Electricity is often compared to water to convey the idea of
pressure (volts) and volume (amps) but it quickly leads to confusion.
Water can put out fires, become steam or ice and cause floods and avalanches.
Electricity can cause fires, creates magnetism, is invisible and only flows in a circuit. My confidence about electricity comes from playing
with it a lot. I suspect scientists gain confidence with quantum dynamics
and quarks from playing with the maths, not from thinking about the
I've no idea if maths proves anything is real.
I’m tempted to think maths produces models and the value of the models
is how useful they are. I’m not even sure if quantum maths is useful. I
used to assume it was relevant for making tiny things like computer chips,
but apparently not. Quantum ‘tunnelling’ limits the theoretical
smallest transistor gate possible, but isn't relevant to the scale of current
chips. There is also a lot of hype about 'Quantum Computing' at the
moment. It could possibly be useful in the future, but it it hasn't
achieved anything useful yet.
I know physicists who are infectiously
passionate about their work but my world is the practical, not the
theoretical. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I'm puzzled why governments fund such
esoteric stuff. The only reasonable explanation I’ve ever read is John Carey’s
idea that the worlds of ‘pure’ science and ‘fine’ art’ create an
impression of progress that’s much cheaper than tackling hard stuff like
social inequality. Whatever the reason, particle physics is certainly bonkers and the
perfect subject for an irreverent arcade machine.
The old machine was not an ideal starting
point. It was cheaply made, mostly plastic parts, so I was constantly
nervous about breaking them and about their longevity. The machine had
doors to access every part of the ball run, suggesting that the balls quite
often jam. However, if it turns out to be unreliable, it won’t be hard to
rebuild because nothing is that complicated..
However the first problem was the background.
It was an abstract Japanese design that didn’t fit with my idea of a Hadron Collider. I knew I would have to take the whole machine to bits
to replace it, but after opening Novelty Automation I was exhausted so
it seemed a suitable relaxing task – it took nearly a week. I also
got to understand the mechanisms much better, so in retrospect it was time
I developed increasing respect for the Pachinko
machine. The little pocket 'tulip' wings that alternately open and close are so
ingenious, and make playing the game much more fun. There is also
considerable skill in flicking the ball with the exact force to land in
the Higgs Boson.
I added a couple of 'flip' signs from an old digital
clock to display the discoveries and their significance. Inside, I added four pneumatic rams to release the balls and
enable the accelerator trigger. I also added three long range inductive sensors to
detect a ‘win’ and a sensor to detect when you had run out of balls
and lost. This was all very fiddly. I didn’t want to damage the machine
by my additions, and they all had to be reliable.
It would have been simpler to re-circulate the balls
automatically but because the machine is destined to live close to the
arcade counter, I thought it would be more fun to return the balls to the
attendant to award your Nobel Prize. The attendant then tips the balls
into my ball lifter on the counter top and this takes them up to the
ceiling and returns them to the machine. As a child I was fascinated by
department stores which used cash railways (containers full of cash were
sprung along wires from the various counters to a central cashier's station) so this is a sort of
homage. The idea survives - some supermarkets now have vacuum tube systems
to take cash from the tills to a central safe.
Lamson was the major US cash railway manufacturer
Everything was almost finished but I couldn't make my
mind up about what to write as the discoveries and their significance on
the flap signs (which flip round every time you get a particle into a
pocket). My initial idea had been the significance would always be some
career advancement like - 'paper published in Nature' or 'tenured position
at Harvard'. But I increasingly felt this was boring so I went to visit my
friend Gary Alexander who I have often collaborated with. In a few hours
we had made it all very silly. I had made the mechanism so the two signs
rotated independently so you could get any combination, but this was
hopeless for jokes. So I joined the two shafts together so the
significance now always connects to the discovery: 'Shroedinger's cat was a
dog'....'Science banned as unethical' etc.
If you get 5 particles into pockets,
or get one into the Higgs Boson, you receive a Nobel Prize for
your outstanding work.