Superposition: physicists and artists in conversation

Covariance

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Covariance has been chosen as the name for this first artwork commissioned by the Institute of Physics in its Superposistion series which pairs physicists with artists.

The term covariance is itself mathematical but used in physics; it is the measure of the association between random mathematical variables. Put less technically, covariance is a measure of the degree to which a change in any number of unrelated things is unified when their environment changes around them.

Covariance is an apt name for the installation for many reasons. First it reflects the journey Lyndall and myself continue to take together, learning from each other and discovering new ideas. Secondly it speaks of the underlying symbiosis in the piece of the visualisation of experimental and design of particle physics detectors.

Most importantly, however, I feel are the links between the production and location of the installation and that of particle detectors around the World. Every aspect of the design, construction and installation of Covariance draws massive parallels between the design, construction and installation of a particle physics detector. Its home of the subterranean ice wells of the London Canal Museum also fits the homes of the massive detectors.

Come to the London Canal Museum to see for yourself; Covariance opens to the public at the end of this month, tickets and more info here.

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Parallels

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I have been lucky enough play my part in the construction of a cutting edge particle detector and I feel equally privileged to have played my part in the construction of the Covariance installation.

The other weekend I went to visit Lyndall in Ely to play my part in constructing on of the hundreds of elements involved. While there I was surprised to see how much in common the construction of the installation had with that of a particle detector. After some thought though the parallels made perfect sense because they are a very real reflection of the core inspiration behind the piece.

 

I tried my hand at constructing one of the hundreds of uniquely and intricately patterned  Perspex discs that comprise the main installation. I found the accuracy with which the diamantes must be placed quite tricky and instead realised my calling lie in preparing the brass rods for the glass beads to sit upon.

The micro industrial scale process Lyndall and her team of assistants are employing to create Covariance mimic that of my colleagues and myself when constructing the ND280 near detector for the T2K experiment. Thousands of individual elements are painstakingly hand assembled, over seen by an expert. Jigs and standardised methods ensure accuracy in the alignment of each piece.

Soon will come the stage when all on the intermediary elements will be packaged and shipped to site for installation. The ND280 particle detector comprised of elements constructed by groups all around the globe and came together in the village of Tokai-mura in Eastern Japan. The discs for Covariance are travelling in boxes from Lyndalls home in Ely to Kings Cross, while the support structure and lighting will arrive on site direct from engineers. It will be the coming together of all elements that will make Covariance complete much that same as it takes international elements to complete a particle detector.

I am extremely excited about Monday as I will be continuing this journey to completion when the main support structure arrives on site at the London Canal Museum. This is the most exciting part as the individual parts start to form the whole. It will take less time than installing a particle detector but the principle is the same – elements are passed down a hole and assembled underground into a complete piece.

It is happening!

Underground experiments

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Ever since I signed up for caving at Sheffield Uni during my PhD I have loved exploring underground - so I had great fun looking into possible underground locations for Lyndall's installation. The excitment of exploration, just like we flirted with at the Bargehouse, came right to the surface once again. We found so many exclusive, hidden spaces in London and we both wanted to explore them all - the same way Lyndall said she would love to explore the locations of all the experiments I had shown her. I explained how some were similar to underground experiments and why we go underground - to shield us from the showers of particles coming from cosmic rays all the time. Every second we have at least one heavy electron, called the muon, passing through us - more if we go up in a plane. To reduce all of these extra background particles we shield ourselves with 100's of metres of rock, so that we can be confident that the particles we see are not those from cosmic rays but instead the ones we want to see.

Ben

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Physics of patterns

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Lyndall brought some prototypes ideas with her - what she called 3D sketches - of clear plastic globes with diamante patterns lit by LEDs. I was really struck by how similar they looked to the photomultiplier (PMT) setups used by neutrino telescopes (Ice Cube, Antares). I really liked the different ways in which the experimental setups were echoed by the pattern of diamante and haberdashery items in the globes - and loved the idea of playing with light as it plays such a crucial role in our experiments.

When it came to my turn to talk I wanted to move away from the detectors and talk more on how we choose to represent the data we take. The individual data are quite basic but we combine and recognise patterns in the data to extract complex physics. I talked of how it is a case of distillation - from many 1000's of reading of basic energy, position and time to just a few numbers which determine the physics of the patterns seen in our detectors. From 'raw' data to reconstructing patterns to connecting the patterns into one physical meaning it all involves different representation of the data. Lyndall particularly liked a couple of ways in which I represented my own research - in rainbow spectrum of colour and a grid search in coloured dots.

Ben

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Drift dark matter detectors

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I thought that a trip to the science museum might help show up some historical imagery of the scientific process that I might be able to use to explain aspects of particle physics. To my disappointment there was very little to do with particle physics in the science museum - they have far more at the Museum Of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester! We did lay eyes on one of the Drift dark matter detectors which had been moved from its original home in the Boulby salt mines in Yorkshire. The historical 18th C gallery really caught Lyndalls attention - I too have always loved the handcraft orreries and lab equipment. In the surroundings of brass and hand blown glass we sat and I got my laptop out to show Lyndall some more particle detectors. We went into detail about the technologies involved in each detector and how they 'saw' particles. Lyndall showed me pictures of scintillating fibres and I talked about how certain materials produced wither light (scintillation) or electric charge (ionisation) to tell us of the presence of particles.

Ben

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