Explaining Particle Accelerators With a Vacuum and 1,000 Foam Balls

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

If you know what a "Time Projection Chamber" or "Proton Synchrotron Booster" is, you're probably a physicist. And if you can explain them to non-physicists, you're a hero. This complicated glass model attempts to make understanding particle physics a little bit easier—with the help of a vacuum cleaner and 500 feet of tubing.

Niklas Roy, an installation artist Gizmodo's followed for years, is back this summer with an awesome new piece in Groningen, in the Netherlands. There, in a sunny park, Roy has constructed a massive, super-low-tech particle accelerator using the simplest materials possible: 500 feet of plastic tubing, a standard vacuum cleaner to "accelerate" the particles, and a few other bells and whistles like a motion-activated sensor that controls the whole shebang. The most important role—the particles—is played by 1,000 black sponge balls.

"As I'm a fan of science and physics in particular, I find it a pity that the current particle accelerators make the observation of the little speedy particles so complicated," Roy writes on his website. "This should be something that a broader audience can enjoy." All anyone needs to do to see the machine in action is walk up to it and put their hand over the motion sensor. That triggers the vacuum, which sucks and pushes air through the warren of tubes thanks to a switching mechanism that alternates the direction of the air.

In fact, a former CERN scientist even stopped by, says Roy:

One of the first random visitors (a neighbour of the Pavilion) turned out to be a theoretical physicist who even used to work at CERN on the LHC. With him I had an insightful discussion about particle accelerators. He told me that the particles inside the LHC move in both directions as well, at the same time, just separated by magnetic fields.

Sure, Roy's installation doesn't quite cover the particulars of CERN—but it's a hell of a lot more fun to look at. [Niklas Roy]