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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Collision of Art & Science: A head above water

Art and science. They go together as well as general relativity and quantum mechanics, right? Or should that be Van Gogh and Rembrandt?

After reading that sentence, I’ll give you one guess as to which of the two categories I fall under – of course, ignoring the site the post is on! Yep, I’m a scientist and have been for almost 10 years. Life as a scientist is a focused tale of experiments, analysis and procrastination. I often ask myself – not just before a deadline – what else is going on in the world? Why not delve into the arts and see what’s new? I’ve been swimming (drowning) in science for longer than I can remember (that’s almost true, I have a terrible memory). It’ll be a breath of fresh air to see what the rest of the world is getting on with.

But how can I get a good experience? Sure, I’ve occasionally been to art galleries when they have their free open days, and both Google and Wikipedia provide satisfactory answers if you know for what to search, but I wanted something more engaging. Just like all good science solutions, an opportunity appeared when I least expected it.

A collaboration arose between the nearby Emily Carr University of Art + Design and TRIUMF in an attempt to collide the two disciplines into an incredible display of collaboration and creativity. And they needed help. My role in this collaboration was to bring the artists into our laboratory, show them our alchemy and schemes, and inspire them to take away from our tricks and sorcery something to entertain and brighten the world. In return, I connected with modern day art prodigies and experienced how they create art with inspiration from their surroundings. In my upbringing as a scientist, I also learned to appreciate the free cake and coffee on offer for everyone who took part!

We met and mingled for the first time on the tour of TRIUMF. Like Einstein showing up to a Turner prize ceremony (ignoring the obvious time impracticability), there was an air of confusion about how to interact amongst one another. As we gathered in the auditorium for the welcome talks, it was difficult to read the expressions on the faces of our artistic visitors. Were they confused or intrigued? Eager to learn or coerced into attending? The only way to find out was to jump in. Artists, welcome to my world of laser spectroscopy.

Off I start on explaining my work to the group, one moment speaking in too much detail, the next going too simple to overcompensate. The expressions start to change, but still I have no clue what they could mean. Proton-neutron interactions, angular momentum, electron energies, nuclear sizes, shapes; I throw out all of the good buzz words I know in an attempt to keep them interested. Sure the nods appear every now and then but as someone who’s been in more than enough conversations I’m not interested in, a nod can easily represent the deepest sign of disinterest. But then a hand pops up: “So, this is in relation to quantum mechanical behaviour?”…Yes, it is, but how do they know that? “Do you need to take into account any relativistic effects?” Erm…yes, we do, but I never thought about that until way into my work. “Does chaos theory come into any work here at TRIUMF?” Damn you artists! You’ve been playing me for a fool. You know way more about physics than you were letting on – well played. Ok, now we can start…


Engaging with the artists in the ISAC Experimental Hall at TRIUMF

Questions after questions fly in, all about the work we do at TRIUMF and almost anything under the sun they have read about science in their free time. They are putting me to shame; it is one-way traffic and I’m outnumbered. I barely know anything about the current state of affairs in the art world. Are they still showing animals chopped in half? Seriously, that’s all I’m aware of. And now they’re looking for ways to take what we’ve talked about and put them into projects they’re working on. Making sketches of equipment, taking photographs, recording ambient sounds and interviews.

It really was impressive to watch. Before we knew it the time had come for them to return to their world to create pieces born out of ideas created within our laboratory walls. I did not have the faintest idea of what to expect!

Was I satisfied with my venture into the art world? Had I ticked off artistic expression from my bucket list? Can I just return to solving physics questions that no one outside of physics is aware even exist? Of course not. This was my wake up call. Here are people moving forward with the work they are passionate about, but who also find time to take in the ripples of the world around them rather than hiding behind walls, unaware of theorizing tides until it overwhelms them. It will take a lot of work to observe and participate in the world around me, but I’m up for it, and no better time than to start than now. Or I could write a blog post about my experience and call it quits, tough call!

A few months after that project, I did in fact venture out again and found some of the pieces made by the group, showcased in a local exhibit at Science World (pictured below). I’ve included a selection of the pieces inspired by the artists’ trip to TRIUMF:


Science World, Vancouver BC




Full Moon by Richard Heikkilä-Sawan

“Full Moon is a multi-layered work that presents a dichotomy of chaos and order – a tension of opposites. Painted from the perspective of Earth, seven planets align themselves across the celestial sky amidst a storm of colour and black holes where every conceivable phenomenon appears to happen all at once. An undulating grid of iron strength brings a sense of calm as it gently rolls across the surface unaffected by the confusion that surrounds while appearing to collect a textured jumble of tangles and knots. Various shapes of colourful debris fly chaotically, bleeding off the edge of the linen on their frenzied journey through space – some visually represented by the mathematical implements that theoretically assisted in their creation. Full Moon explores the question, just where has that “giant leap” taken mankind?” – Richard Heikkilä-Sawan




The Lost Boy by Brigitta Kocsis

“Kocsis’ work investigates the shifting concepts of the human body and its environment. Contemporary discoveries in anatomical technologies have profoundly changed how one perceives the human body. The figures are like actors depicting a kind of abhorrent contemporary beauty where science fiction and artificial body parts are no longer fiction. The tension contained within the bodies of the characters due to pervasive technologies communicates the current environment in its fractured state.” – Brigitta Kocsis




All the flying saucers I have never seen by Glenda Bartosh

This is a typology that plays around with the “known” and the “unknowable” – both intrinsic qualities of scientific enquiry – and with ideas of verification and classification and their accepted limitations. I’ve used handwritten script and materials that echo old-fashioned field notes made by scientists years ago, especially during the 1950s and ‘60s when UFO sightings gripped the collective imagination. Personally, I haven’t seen any, so I couldn’t draw them, but flying saucers sightings are nonetheless organized into serious data banks. The typology is mounted impermanently on another organizing grid, reflecting how knowledge builds up in layers like a midden, sometimes burying and obscuring, sometimes building on previous knowledge – often based on the unknowable.” – Glenda Bartosh




The Snowflakes of Human Expression by Darren Andrychuk

“Through my work, I try to point out the brain’s potential errors in processing. This collage allows viewers to see those gaps in thinking. Most of my work can be interpreted in many different ways. There is no right message, but I always try to evoke emotion that open up the mind to other ways of thinking.” – Darren Andrychuk


–Tom, Postdoctoral Researcher at TRIUMF