A world of particles

From lab-bench experiments to gigantic machines built and run by people from all over the world, this journey through our collection explores the history of particle physics.

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Science Museum Group

Cloud chamber photograph of disintegration of a nitrogen atom (1930s) by Patrick BlackettScience Museum

“Tapestries are made by many artisans working together. The contributions of separate workers cannot be discerned in the completed work, and the loose and false threads have been covered over. So it is in our picture of particle physics.” —Sheldon Lee Glashow, 1979

Thomson's cathode ray tube (1896) by Sir Joseph John ThomsonScience Museum

Exploring the subatomic world

In 1897, J.J. Thomson and his assistant Ebenezer Everett used this delicate piece of glassware to investigate cathode rays. Scientists around Europe were debating the cause of these mysterious glowing beams, created by passing an electric current through a vacuum tube.

In focus: Thomson's cathode ray tube, Science Museum Group, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Medal, the Nobel Prize for Physics, Erik Lindberg, 1906, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Thomson showed that cathode rays were made up of negatively charged particles, much smaller than atoms. The electron, as it came to be known, was the first subatomic particle to be discovered.

Thomson later won a Nobel Prize for his research on electricity in gases.

Model of helium atom by Lawrence BraggScience Museum

Imagining the atom

Manchester, 1911: Ernest Rutherford and his team discovered another subatomic particle, later named the ‘nucleus’. This model depicts the atomic theory of Rutherford and Niels Bohr, with rings of electrons orbiting a nucleus. This structure became the classic image of the atom in popular culture.

First photograph of a V particle (1946)Science Museum

The particle zoo

In 1946, the V-shaped track in this cloud chamber made by George Rochester and Clifford Butler in Manchester indicated an unexpected type of particle. First called the ‘strange particle’, it’s now known as the K-meson. There are now hundreds of known particles; most are only produced fleetingly in high-energy particle accelerators or by cosmic rays.

Cloud chamber photograph of antipositron (1932-08-02) by Carl David AndersonScience Museum

When Paul Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter – a ‘mirror image’ of ordinary matter – in 1928, few scientists took him seriously. But this photograph, taken by Carl Anderson in 1932, proved him right. The faint track crossing the chamber shows a positron, the anti-particle of the electron.

What is antimatter?, Science Museum Group, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Max and Tangle Do Particle Physics, Brothers McLeod, From the collection of: Science Museum
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All the different particles and antiparticles fit together in what’s called the Standard Model of particle physics. Here’s a handy guide from our friends Max the demon and Tangle the cat.

Peter Higgs at the Science Museum (2013)Science Museum

Hunting the Higgs

In 1964, Robert Brout, François Englert, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Richard Hagen, Tom Kibble and Peter Higgs put forward a bold new idea to explain how fundamental particles acquire mass. Higgs suggested that if they were right, a new particle should exist.

What is the Higgs boson?, Science Museum Group, From the collection of: Science Museum
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Champagne bottle from Higgs boson discovery celebrations, 2012-07-03, From the collection of: Science Museum
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On the evening of 3 July 2012, Higgs shared this bottle of champagne with theoretical physicist John Ellis and Chris Llewellyn Smith, former director of CERN, the European particle physics laboratory. The next day, CERN announced the discovery of the particle Higgs had proposed in 1964: the Higgs boson.

Photograph showing atomic bomb test in New Mexico (1945)Science Museum

Competition and collaboration

During the 20th century, particle physics was a key tool of Cold War strategy: it was a symbol of economic prowess and had applications in weapons research. But the shadow of the atomic bomb also inspired physicists to develop international research collaborations as a means of building peace.

The world’s greatest experiment

Today, with particle physics facilities requiring vast resources, Europe, the US and Russia are all among the collaborators on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Around 3,000 people are based at CERN’s campus at any given time, with more than 10,000 scientists globally working on LHC data.

CERN bicycle, Renault, 2002/2012, From the collection of: Science Museum
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The Large Hadron Collider is housed in an underground tunnel 27km in circumference. It’s so huge that one of the most efficient ways to get around is by bike! This one was used by Roberto Saban, the LHC’s Head of Hardware Commissioning, during construction.

Tim Berners-Lee, pioneer of the World Wide Web (1990) by CERNScience Museum

Shaping society

Particle physics and industry have always had close links, exchanging equipment and expertise. Thomson’s discovery gave rise to the electronics industry, sparking a consumer revolution in technology – prominent today in the devices we use to browse the World Wide Web, which was invented at CERN.

Credits: Story

All images © Science Museum Group except where stated.

Find out more about the history of particle physics in our online collection.

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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