A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Coming soon: First coffee-table book by a high-energy physics experiment

08/01/08

Exploring the Mystery of Matter started as an internal photodocumentary of the ATLAS experiment but is now in the hands of a London publisher. Heavy with illustrations and photographs, it may be a handy tool for high-energy physicists, says coordinator, creative director, and photographer Claudia Marcelloni: "If you're a particle physicist, and you're at a party and someone says, 'So what do you do?' you show them this book and that explains it."

ATLAS is an enormous detector experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, scheduled to start operating this fall on the Swiss-French border. Among other things, it will examine dark matter candidates and search for the elusive Higgs particle. The 168-page book does include a lot of facts (a proton in the LHC will make 11,245 circumnavigations of the collider ring per second!) and provides a plethora of illustrations and photographs (one chapter titled "Tunnel Vision" has some extraordinary shots of the tunnels being excavated and pieces of the accelerator being put together).  But what makes it a coffee-table book, rather than an information resource or a textbook, is that "the book is not about teaching the science," Marcelloni told me. "It's meant to educate people about the collaborators--these brilliant minds that are doing amazing experiments in a very creative fashion."

ATLAS hired Marcelloni to document the construction of the experiment and the 2200 physicists from 37 nations collaborating on it. Kerry-Jane Lowery, a writer from Geneva, provided the text. The book was meant for the scientists to take home and perhaps share with friends. But a year into the project, Marcelloni and her team realized it might also appeal to the general public. "We started showing the completed chapters to our friends, and the [ATLAS] collaborators were showing it to their friends, and people were getting interested and asking questions and saying, 'We want to see it when it's done.' I think in general physics is not a very popular topic. People can't relate to it. But I know people can relate to photography; they can relate to images."

At first, she says, the collaborators were a little confused.  "Physicists aren't used to being part of something like this. Here were two girls, who were not a part of the collaboration, running around saying things like 'So how does it feel to be a part of this?' They were surprised," she recalls, laughing. But soon the scientists were thrilled, she says: "We got so much help from the collaboration; we got at least two or three people to read every piece of text and then I got ten or more people to look at the pictures."

Offering the book to the general public has led Marcelloni and her team of writers, designers, three physicists, and an engineer to strike a new balance. "We still want the collaborators to enjoy it, but we don't want it to go over the heads of the public," she says.

Because ATLAS is an international collaboration the book is being printed in English. It will be available on October 4 at CERN, and via the publisher's Web site sometime before the end of the year.

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