Manchester Science Festival fans go faster than the speed of light with Super K Sonic show

By Ben Miller | 20 October 2010
A black and white photo of men in a boat going through a silver tunnel
Installation: Super K Sonic Boooum 2 Gold, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, October 23-27 2010

"I arrived in an unusually dry Manchester carrying my box of 50 Tyvek suits and rucksack of clothes," reported Dr Ben Still last week, announcing his first sighting of his installation at Manchester Metropolitan University’s John Dalton building.

"The water pool and boat rails were in place and the net tunnel had been constructed in three days of hard work. After a quick video conference I spent the rest of the afternoon with a group of brilliant volunteers who helped us blow up 800 balloons."

As you might have guessed from that, Still's contribution to the Manchester Science Festival is something to behold. The University of London physicist has made a 23-metre long river of water running through a tunnel lined with thousands of gold balloons, recreating the experience of a sonic boom at Japan’s Super Kamiokande neutrino observatory.

Visitors will be dressed in Still's collection of white boiler suits, protective hats and wellies before sailing down the tunnel on a small rowing boat guided by academic experts, witnessing loud booms and bright flashes of blue light as they go.

The illuminations represent Cherenkov Radiation, shaking and shuddering the Photomultiplier Tubes held in the gold balloons in a replication of the interactions between neutrinos and atoms of pure water, outrunning the speed of light.

"It is tremendous fun for the scientists involved, and the people who visited clearly had a great time as well," said Dave Wark, a Professor of Physics at Imperial College London's Department of High Energy Physics, when the first incarnation of this stratospheric adventure emerged in a nightspot under London Bridge station this time last year.

"The installation produces the most direct connection between scientists and the public I have ever experienced."

The designer behind the spectacle is Nelly Ben Hayoun, a French artist from the Royal College of Arts known for her collaborations with scientists to forge "surreal interactions" on subjects such as brain plasticity in snails, space rocket lift-offs and dark matter in sinks.

"I could never have believed that she could have made so many people excited about neutrino physics," says Wark.

Dr Matthew Malek, a Senior Research Assistant from Wark's department, reckons the audience will fall for their voyage of discovery. "I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it," he adds.

"If you had bet me a drink that I would have been explaining particle physics from within an underground boat in a nightclub…well, I would have been buying the next round."

Admission £5. Visit the ticket and information page to book and for information on accompanying events.

Read the project blog
for more from the team. The Manchester Science Festival runs October 23-31 2010, visit for full details.
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