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Rene Bellwied | USLHC | USA

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Is it art or science ?

Over the past few decades heavy ion and high energy accelerators have inspired not only scientists but also artists to look at the amazing machinery and images we have generated from alternate points of view.

The immediate connection to the art world is obvious in science fiction novels that were inspired by experiments at large collider facilities. The trend was probably started by John Cramer, a physics professor and RHIC colleague of mine from the University of Washington, who also writes sci-fi novels in his free time. His 1997 novel, Einstein’s Bridge, plays at a completed (hence sci-fi) Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), where an experiment generates a ‘bridge’ to another universe inhabited by lots of bad guys.

RHIC was used prominently in Gregory Benford’s 1999 novel, Cosm, where a scientist creates a false vacuum, i.e. a fast evolving miniature universe, during RHIC’s heavy ion collisions.A final example is an early novel of the omnipresent Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, which starts at CERN with the death of a famous physicist and then goes off into Brown’s land of conspiracy and religious evil-doers. As expected, any doomsday scenario will also inadvertently be picked up by Hollywood, and ‘The Void’, an atrocious B-movie from 2001, is playing very poorly on the famous Black Hole scenario, albeit with a cast that includes one the kings of B-movies, Malcolm McDowell.

Now sci-fi novels or movies might be good examples, but they are all too obvious, because the same geeks (myself included) that actually conduct the experiments will also read these books or watch these movies with great pleasure.

But what about ‘real art’ ? Let me state two quite remarkable incidences, which exemplify the value of visualization and imaging conducted at relativistic heavy ion experiments. The STAR event display was probably the most cited science image of 2005. It popped up in every article about RHIC and its physics, made it onto the cover of text books (Tipler and Llewellyn: Modern Physics) and popular science books (Seife: From Alpha to Omega), and it signalled a fact that many scientists often tend to forget, namely that ‘a picture tells a thousand (literally) stories’. But how did it affect the art world ?The first example comes from an artist, named Steve Miller, who approached BNL in 2000 in order to integrate RHIC images in his art. His work culminated in a 2001 exhibition in New York, named Neolithic Quark. You can still see the exhibition on the web, and although art is as always in the eye of the beholder, I think it is fascinating to see how our work inspires artists to look at nature’s art.

The second example, probably slightly more mundane, but nevertheless deeply rooted in pop culture, and therefore probably more timely than any of the others, comes courtesy of the New York Garage Rock Band, The Strokes. The Strokes were the buzz of 2001, when everybody anticipated their debut album, Is This It, to hit stores in the summer of that year. The record came out in international distribution in July, and it featured a provocative album cover showing a naked female body and a shiny black glove. For most music aficionados this was outrageously funny because it pretty much spoofed the famous fictitious Spinal Tap Album, Smell the Glove. But as expected some big chains in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe threatened to boycott the sale of the album, and the record company in the U.S. feared censorship and so decided to ask the group for an alternate cover for the U.S. distribution. In a now famous interview, Julian Casablanca, the Strokes’ lead singer, said that the group was truly inspired by the new cover they chose, which is an event display from the Big European Bubble Chamber (BEBC), a device that was operational at CERN during the 70′s. And although the ‘Smell the Glove’ cover is still a collector’s item, the BEBC cover generated more discussion and hype on the internet and on blogs than most other album covers.

In that sense any press is good press, and although it is sometimes amusing to read explanations of the BEBC cover on the web, the moral of the story is that every penny spent on a good event display at the LHC, will be a good investment in the future and in the eternal preservation of our field for generations to come. As soon as science creates or inspires art we have achieved a level of immortality that transcends the fundamental scientific findings of our field.

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2 Responses to “Is it art or science ?”

  1. Bill Rathborne says:

    I like the movie “The Quiet Earth”. The nature of the “experiment” was always rather vague – of course!

    Looking forward to the real thing this year from the LHC and the “experiments”…….

  2. Sook Hwang says:

    I bought ‘Is This It’ as soon as it was released.. I was always intrigued by the cover art because it reminded me of something celestial – now I know why!

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