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Published on Monday, 12 August 2013

4 stars

Summerhall (venue website)
2-4, 6-11, 13-17 Aug, 8:20pm-9:40pm
Reviewed by Lizzie Bell

 Recommended for age 16+ only.

The Higgs Boson is not your typical particle, and Higgs is not your typical show. Don't let the old lecture theatre and its wooden desks fool you: this is no dry seminar filled with facts and equations, but a tale of people, and their search for the unknown. Part lecture, part film, part interview and filled with anecdotes, Jan van den Berg's infectiously enthusiastic show will take you on a journey to the edge of our understanding. His life and experiences intertwine with scientific progress towards the elusive particle.

Jan is man with a deep interest: a powerful love of quantum particles, which started with a simple newspaper article, became a film about the search for the Higgs boson and now comes to life in this exposition. Jan himself is not a physicist, and he doesn't expect the audience to be either – so he makes the subject approachable by using analogies for intricate concepts. Atoms are villages or streets, protons become families, and these can be broken down into quarks or individual people respectively. It’s nature made up of "little, little parts".

We travel from Papua New Guinea to CERN, via Japan and Edinburgh, on the quest to find out about these ever-smaller pieces and particularly the eponymous boson. Overall the informal narrative style worked very well, although an awkward story involving his school teacher and a car did lose me for a while. I think the show is very accessible to those with interest but little knowledge, and Jan's storytelling ability – together with his wide travels and experience – makes it so very watchable.

Constantly drawing parallels with the visible world gives the audience the sense of the immense scale of what has been achieved. It is a tribute to Jan's skill that he makes the invisible tangible, a billion protons become a human hair the length of his finger, crossing the border between France and Switzerland 11,000 times a second - the comparison only heightens the wonder.

A guest interview every night concludes the show, each day a different person, and we were lucky enough to meet Victoria Crowe painter of a recent portrait of Professor Higgs. It was wonderful to hear her talk about her work, the symbolism she included and how she studied him for so long. What I was particularly interested in was how after four days painting she repainted his eyes to fully capture his pensive gaze.

Whatever I had been expecting from this show (and I am not even sure what that was), it was much more. I was very pleased with the mix of story and fact, of legend and science, and the gentle humour that combined with the pure enthusiasm to deeply engage us. Do not shy away from this because you imagine you don't know enough; follow your curiosity and let yourself experience the pure wonder of discovery at the edge of our knowledge.

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