Co.Design

An App That Lets You Watch CERN's Particle Collider -- Live

LHSee, a free Android app, can stream actual particle-collision events to your phone in 3-D.

You may have heard about the hunt for the Higgs boson (or "God particle," as it’s sometimes called) going on at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. Some think the elusive particle may never turn up, but now you can pitch in on the search yourself using an Android app called LHSee. Designed and built by scientists at CERN, it streams live 3-D visualizations of actual particle collisions that happen at the detector. Take that, iOS users!

The prime selling point of LHSee is that you’re seeing the same data that actual scientists are poring over at CERN, and the 3-D visuals are indeed eye-popping. You can call up a wireframe diagram of the enormous atom smasher and pinch and zoom and rotate it in any direction you like, which the app handles effortlessly. You can even configure it to stream bona fide particle collisions right to your phone, live. Let me say that again: Subatomic particles traveling at near-lightspeed around a 17-mile-long circular tunnel underneath the Swiss-French border collide in a detector the size of an airplane hangar, and you can see it all happen on your Droid in between Facebook updates. Technology. Is. Amazing.

But here’s the thing: LHSee could (and should) be so, so, so much better. It’s no surprise that such a nerdtacular citizen-science app should end up on the Android instead of iOS, but its interaction design is about what you’d expect from that platform: spartan and functional but about as intuitive and immersive as a stack of technical white papers. LHSee is stuffed to the gills with fascinating lessons about the inner workings of the LHC, but outside of the aforementioned 3-D visualizations, the barebones design (little more than monochrome schematics at certain points) and intimidating text-matter make it a tough slog to stick with. That’s nothing against Chris Boddy, the University of Oxford PhD physics student who created the whole app from scratch on a small grant from the U.K.'s Science and Technology Facilities Council. But Boddy isn’t an interface designer, and it shows.

Which is a shame--not that Boddy et al. haven’t created something really cool, but that they had to do it on a shoestring budget with no support for designing a proper piece of science outreach with the potential to entrance millions of curious laypeople. "The picture we had in our minds during the development was a school pupil being able to receive these live-streamed events from CERN absolutely anywhere--even on the school bus," Dr. Alan Barr, another physicist who worked on the app, tells Co.Design. Yes, it’s technically true that LHSee can do exactly that. But that school pupil would need the IQ of Doogie Howser and the focus of Rain Man to lose him- or herself in this app.

I’m not saying that science-education apps should be dumbed down to create mass appeal, and the team behind LHSee has created something damned impressive given the resources they had. But if scientists--and their government funding organs--really want schoolchildren to be crowding around each other’s phones on the bus to learn about sophisticated science, providing adequate design resources should be a no-brainer. Barr says that an iOS port of LHSee is in the works, so let’s hope that the momentum from the Android release can drum up some more funding to really make this potentially awesome piece of outreach truly shine. (Kickstarter, anyone?)

[Read more about LHSee]

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