Phil Owen might just be the envy of every geek on earth.
In November, the twenty-five-year-old will be flying from Australia to Geneva, Switzerland, courtesy of CERN. There he'll have a front-row seat to possibly the most anticipated event in scientific history—the startup of the Large Hadron Collider. And that's just the beginning. As the winner of a video contest held by the collaboration that works on ATLAS, the LHC's flagship detector, Owen will be the project's multimedia intern, with the opportunity to document those first moments in gorgeous 3D.
"I had some other plans for next year, but I think I'll put them off," he says. "It's an amazing opportunity."
Owen, who was born in the US, is finishing up his bachelor's degree in information technology at Monash University in Australia. While studying he's been working on medical visualization projects with the university's pharmacy faculty. "In the future I want to branch out and do material for all fields of science," he says.
In his winning video, "Origin of Mass," Owen explains the significance of the Higgs boson with voiceover and shimmering 3D images. Entering the contest, he says, was a lot like cramming for a very tough exam. "I spent a couple of weeks studying really hard, learning the particle physics, making sure I understood it myself before diving into it," he says.
As the ATLAS multimedia intern, Owen will be creating animations based on the very first collisions. "It's daunting," he says, but adds that he thinks visualization provides a much-needed dimension to communicating science.
"I think it's to put things in the context for people," he says, "You can tell people how big the sun is a thousand times, but they don't get it till you can show them an actual image comparing it to earth."
A screenshot from Richard Green's video, "Proton."
Forty-seven-year old Richard Green, a video game environment designer in Seattle, won the "Neutrino Prize" for fourth place with his charming video of a talking proton on its way to a collision.
"I just sort of tried to grab something a little off-kilter about [the LHC]," Green says. Since the LHC collides protons, he started to imagine the proton as a character. The resulting video, he says, "is the life of a proton. I thought he should just be a talking head, telling the story himself, like it's him going to work." Hence the inspiration for the proton's "working class" voice.
In third place with the "Electron Prize" was twenty-five-year-old Brit Simon Howells, a master's student in 3D animation at the University of Hertfordshire. His video "ATLAS" is an atmospheric tour of the behemoth detector, set almost entirely to music.
"When you're trying to get the public interested in science, I don't think ramming the technicalities down their throats is the way to go," he says. In one scene, a snow of electronics falls gently through ATLAS empty innards.
"I wanted to show the epicness of the scale, not just in the size, but in the hundred million components that go into making ATLAS, the vast numbers of densely packed components," he says.
While Howells was disappointed not to snag the grand prize, he's incorporated the video into his master's thesis. "I'm a big fan of what they're doing at CERN," says Howells, who also produced this video posted to YouTube earlier this year:
"I see it as my generation's space race, which was quite a simple thing to convey, get us to the moon and back, whereas the LHC is a bit more difficult to explain," he says. "I wanted to make a bit more of an artistic thing, get people more interested in the visuals."