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 subject has 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 well spent.
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.
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.