Superposition: physicists and artists in conversation

First meeting with Ben

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First meeting with Ben, I was very excited by the unknown but also a little nervous, could my non-scientific brain get to grips, even a little bit, with particle physics? I needn’t have worried, Ben’s enthusiasm and passion for his subject shone through and I was hooked straight away! He introduced me to particle detectors; the physical locations where experiments and research occur.

One in Japan, called Super-Kamiokande, is amazing, a visual feast for the eye; I was captivated. It’s a huge underground cylindrical drum and the walls are lined with glass domes which are hand blown by men in the mountains of Japan where the air is cleanest. The men also refrain from smoking and drinking alcohol, to ensure their breath is pure. All I wanted to do when I left was to find an underground lake and silently row across it, floating clear glass balls on the surface behind me. My preconception that particle physics might be a tad dry and abstract was shattered, replaced by the promise of poetry and rich sensory experiences – can hardly wait!

©Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research), The University of Tokyo. Source


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Welcome to Superposition

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This year has been a momentous year for me. I got a new job (editor of which is AWESOME) and I completed my first long distance cycle ride of just shy of 100 miles. But I was also lucky enough to be part of the biggest public engagement with physics event ever. Not the Big Bang Fair, nor the World Science Festival, but the Paralympics opening ceremony. I was there in the Olympic stadium, dancing, as millions watched on TV.

At the first rehearsal we discovered that our contribution was to be about gravity – about the great scientist Isaac Newton and his falling apple. But how do you reflect the beauty and relevance of Newtonian ideas through dance? What can dance say about the force that causes things fall to the ground but also causes the moon to stay in the sky? And that was one of the most exciting things about it: taking a scientific idea and conveying some essence of it using just the movements of my body and music.

(can you see me - I’m 167 in the red t-shirt).

The end result was an entertaining show for the millions watching, but maybe some people were able to appreciate physics, and dance, in a subtly different way by the end of the ceremony.

And that’s the hope for our new project Superposition, enabling people to access and engage with physics through art and getting people to think (perhaps just for a minute) about the role physics plays in their lives and the world at large.
This pilot project pairs a physicist (Ben Still) with an artist (Lyndall Phelps) and challenges them to explore physics through the visual arts. The conversations that they have, the ideas that are sparked, and the experiences that they have, will be documented on this blog while the artwork that is conceived between them will be exhibited during the summer of 2013.
I talked to both of them about the project.
Henry Lau: What got you interested in the project?
Ben Still: I’ve been lucky to have worked with designers and illustrators but never with an installation artist such as Lyndall. It’s a new challenge, a new way of showing and describing particle physics and talking generally to new and interesting people – and Lyndall is very interesting so I kinda got sucked in the way I always do with these projects! I just want to talk about my science to new people and new audiences.

Lyndall Phelps: It’s that chance to experience how other people think and how other people see the world, and particle physics in particular is something quite alien to most people, it is extremely abstract, even though if you pare it back to its most basic principles it’s integral to everything in the world. These things are often at arms’ length to the everyday person, which is the excitement of this project; making physics, particularly abstract physics, much more accessible to people.

HL: Have you found any similarities in the ways you work?
BS: Creativity has to be the biggest one, creativity is rife in both. The analyses that we use to squeeze information out of the data we get from our particle detectors involves a lot of creativity. It’s a lot of programming and number crunching too, but a lot of creativity in the methods we employ day to day. You can always see a picture of the world through a physics analysis, and I think the process is the same working with Lyndall. I have seen her start with past experiences, past knowledge and past tools to work through a similar creative journey to the pieces of art that she produces.

LP: I think there’s a lot of similarity in the way scientists and artist think. Ben has level of curiosity about world in general and a thirst for experiencing things outside his world, and that’s a trait of an artist.

HL: And any differences?
LP: Scientists, by their own admission, work towards a particular outcome which is quite set and have a very structured way of getting to that outcome whereas artists don’t want to know the outcome at the beginning: you want the process to dictate that, and the process can be quite meandering and go down all different sorts of avenues and doesn’t necessarily have a structure.

BS: One difference is in the abstraction. We’re trying to go from essentially abstract data and filter it down into well understood science and physics; we’re going from these complicated photographs of particle interactions and boiling it down to a few pieces of physics. And, in a way, art is taking the elegance and beauty of that and showing the complication from whence it came. It’s coming from different sides of the coin.

HL: What do you hope to get out of the project, personally?
LP: I want to know I’ve learnt something and had experiences I haven’t had before. For me it’s important that people appreciate the process, I want to know that Ben has really enjoyed it, that the IOP have enjoyed it and are proud and pleased with what has happened, and those are things that live longer than the work and are more important in a way.

BS: I’ve already been learning a lot through this about physical and visual analogies and how they can be abstracted to day to day items, but generally increasing public understanding and interest in physics, showing that physics is extremely interesting and exciting. And hopefully as the public engage with the installation then it will be something they find a lot more accessible. Also trying to raise awareness in the community in physics and in art that the other is extremely interesting and that collaboration on things like this are very fruitful and they can be extremely exciting as each side learns something new and gains a new found respect for the other profession.


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