I'm continually struck by the sheer ingenuity and creative effort that people put into adapting these multi-colored bricks into all manner of thematically inspired shapes (including elaborate Star Wars dioramas). Indeed, LEGO encourages this sort of thing: the site offers free digital designer software so people can adapt photos of their planned creation into 3D renderings. How cool is that?
I also (duh) write a lot about particle physics. So when the Internet gives me a LEGO creation inspired by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), it's like wallowing in rich milk chocolate and creamy peanut butter. Toss in the Muppets, and it's like adding a hefty dollop of fresh whipped cream to the confection — and just in time for the holidays, too.
So Symmetry Breaking made my day with this story about Sascha Mehlhause, a physicist at the Neils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, who decided to design and build a LEGO version of the LHC's ATLAS detector for an upcoming public event.
It took 10,000 pieces and 33 hours of painstaking labor over several weeks — he missed the deadline for the public event — but he finished the model, complete with tiny LEGO technicians scaled to size. It's now on display in a glass case just outside his office.
Even more amazing is that Mehlhase did it despite abandoning the massive official LEGO instruction manual created by the design software — mostly because he needed to build his model from the inside out, a strategy the computer simply didn't recognize.
Of course, there were issues: not everything scaled exactly, given the limited selection of block sizes and shapes. And some of the challenges mirrored those faced in the construction of the actual LHC: "For example, the outer magnets in both structures are much heavier than some internal pieces, yet they need to support themselves without breaking."
But Mehlhase persevered, and ultimately triumphed. Perhaps one day he'll get his wish, and his beautiful LEGO model of the ATLAS detector will find its way to CERN.
The LHC is all the rage in popular culture, these days, especially when it comes to film. First there was Angels and Demons (antimatter bomb! Good times!) And now there's the new Muppets movie, which opened over Thanksgiving weekend.
Apparently one scene featured the "bespectacled scientist Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his harried assistant, Beaker," hard at work on the LHC's ATLAS experiment. Muses Symmetry Breaking: "Perhaps Beaker finally finished his post-doc." If so, things aren't going much better for the hapless Beaker, who gets "sucked into a pneumatic tube system and shrunk small enough to fit in Dr. Honeydew’s pocket."
ATLAS physicist Steve Goldfarb confessed that he has "a lot of empathy for Beaker, especially since I’ve worked on hardware.”
Not bad for a machine people once thought would destroy the world. Personally, I love to see big physics experiments like the LHC capture the public's imagination, and become practically iconic. They're a vital part of our cultural history, after all, beyond the cutting-edge science they support. I eagerly await a LEGO reproduction of the James Webb Space Telescope. Who's with me?
Image credit: Sascha Mehlhause/Symmetry Breaking