Back when we were discussing Will Self’s impression of CERN as a place where scientists had no interest in the important philosophical questions, I commented that part of the trouble was Self’s expectation that scientists who were expecting to give him a technical tour should be prepared to have an ad hoc philosophical discussion instead. I also mentioned that many physicists can and will give interviews on broader topics. What I didn’t mention is that I included myself, because I had already done an interview in 2014 on the “existential” boundaries of physics knowledge. I didn’t know at the time that that interview had already been made part of an art installation! I ran across the installation by chance recently, and I think it’s worth taking a close look at because it provides a positive example of substantive engagement between art, philosophy, and science.
The installation is “sub specie aeternitatis”, by Rosalind McLachlan. It is described in a review for Axisweb by Matthew Hearn as “seek[ing] greater understanding not through belief in the knowable, but in asking scientists to address the limitations of their field and forcing them to consider the ‘existential horror’ – the problems of our existence in terms of what we can’t know.” It features five CERN physicists talking all at once on separate screens about questions that physics can’t necessarily answer. If I remember correctly, it looks like mine was “What happened before the Big Bang?”
I didn’t get to see the exhibit itself, but the review makes it clear that the installation went far beyond simply showing video of the interviewees. The artist made conscious decisions about how to weave our words and surroundings together:
Whilst at any one moment only a single voice plays, thinking aloud – struggling to find meaning – collectively all five characters appear to be working together, evolving a visual language of gesture and animated body movement, grasping to find some shared form of resolution. CERN has been celebrated for the way international communities collaborate, put individual agendas aside, and share knowledge and understanding, and the visual simultaneity within McLachlan’s installation captures this collegiate approach.
The piece thus presents the core values of international collaborative science in a novel way, beyond the mere words scientists usually use to explain it. But it isn’t a new allegory divorced from actual scientists at CERN and our work: it still uses our own words, mannerisms, and office whiteboards to build the impression. What a wonderful example of how art can add new dimensions to communicating about science!
Looking at my part of an excerpt from the installation video, it’s clear why I’m in it. Not so much because of what I’m saying – a lot of it is explained better on Sean Carroll’s blog, even if I do disagree with him sometimes on philosophical interpretations. But because of how I’m saying it: slowly, with long deliberate pauses that allow the other screens to speak and give the impression that I’m working things out as I go along. What I was really doing is working how best to communicate my ideas, but this installation isn’t replicating life as literally as a documentary would. It does replicate how some physicists think about science and philosophy, and how we work together, and I think that’s remarkable.