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Posts Tagged ‘art’

From accelerator to art

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

This article appeared in symmetry on July 23, 2013.

Fermilab physicist Todd Johnson spends his work and vacation hours with accelerators. What he produces during each are two very different things. Photo: Todd Johnson

Fermilab physicist Todd Johnson spends his work and vacation hours with accelerators. What he produces during each are two very different things. Photo: Todd Johnson

Twice a year, Todd Johnson drives 400 miles from the Fermilab campus in Illinois to a commercial polymer crosslinking facility in Ohio, which is generally used to prepare plastic tubing for uses like heating systems in houses. Johnson is there for its linear accelerator, something with which he is quite familiar, given his day job working in Fermilab’s Accelerator Division.

But on these two days a year, Johnson is not using the accelerator for science—although there is a lot of science involved. Johnson is making Lichtenberg figures, fractal patterns that result from the lightning-bolt-like movements of excited electrons. The hobby is a popular one among accelerator scientists, but Johnson says he and the friends he works with are working to explore the limits of the process.

“The end purpose is to do it as art,” Johnson says. “But we also do a lot of experiments to push it further. It’s a technical challenge involving physics and a little mad science, if you’ll pardon the expression. And you have art when you’re done.”

Every six months, Johnson arrives at the facility with stencils laser-cut from steel or handmade from sheet lead; clear acrylic hunks of varying sizes; and a lot of ideas. He sends his pieces of acrylic through the accelerator’s electron beam, which is designed to break chemical bonds in plastics. Because acrylic is an insulating material, the beam scatters through the material, losing momentum as it goes. Only areas of the acrylic not covered by a stencil are exposed to the beam, allowing Johnson to create shapes. Eventually the beam coalesces into a pool of electrons that desperately want to escape but can’t—an invisible puddle of potential energy.

Releasing that energy is a simple but arresting process. To do it, Johnson uses a hand-made tool reminiscent of a crude, oversized syringe. It works like a click pen—press on one end and the tip comes out the other with enough force to puncture the acrylic. The instant the tool punctures the surface, there’s a burst of white light as the pool of excited electrons escapes from the material, leaving trails of vaporized acrylic in its place.

On their way out of the acrylic, the electrons follow the same natural laws that govern all systems that flow—electricity snaking its way from a storm cloud to Earth, rivers branching into ever smaller creeks and streams, or the spidery web of veins that distributes blood throughout your body. Johnson used this property to his advantage when the husband of a pulmonologist contacted him to request a gift for his wife. He used his stencils to create the shape of a pair of lungs filled with electron trails that formed a lifelike system of capillaries.

Johnson, who has worked at Fermilab for three decades, first found out about Lichtenberg figures through a friend at the lab who builds Tesla coils. But the figures weren’t his first foray into the art world. In the 1990s, Johnson was interested in holography and built equipment in his basement to make three-dimensional photographs.

Johnson says he considers his current creative process vastly different from what most artists get to experience: bursts of inspiration, hours of freewheeling improvisation, the luxury of time. Instead, Johnson spends six months conceptualizing and preparing materials, all for the two days per year on which he can see his ideas come to fruition.

And, of course, sometimes they don’t. “We can’t just do something on a whim,” he says. “You really have to plan carefully and, the minute you shut the machine off at the end of the day, you think of things you want to do next time. You think, ‘Well that didn’t work at all, I was sure that was going to work. I’ll do it this way next time,’ but it’s time to go. It’s very frustrating. But it’s part of the excitement.”

Laura Dattaro

See more images of Johnson’s work in symmetry.


–by T.I. Meyer, TRIUMF’s Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

“So, did the 8 pieces of artwork actually generate any new insights for the physicists about neutrino oscillations,” asked the gentleman in the fifth row of the auditorium. I was on stage with my colleague Professor Ingrid Koenig from Emily Carr University of Art & Design. We were leading a 75 minute session at the Innovations: Intersection of Science & Art conference, curated by Liz Lerman and organized by Wesleyan University in central Connecticut.

The gentleman, chair of Wesleyan’s department of environmental science, repeated his question, “So you said this project was about seeing if you could have art influence physics rather than just the other way around. Well, did it work?”

Damn good question. I looked at Ingrid for a moment and then responded: “Nope.” But then I continued. No, we did not achieve success in using physics-inspired artwork to change the course of particle physics. But yes, in addition to learning that we posed the wrong hypothesis, we did achieve three other outcomes: (1) We constructed and executed one of the first research experiment at the intersection of art and science; (2) We documented a carefully controlled interaction of artists and particle physicists; and (3) We launched an inquiry that now has a national laboratory (TRIUMF) musing about how to exercise its influence in local and national culture for the advancement of society.

What was all this about? We were invited to lead a session at this conference because of the “RAW DATA” project for which TRIUMF and Emily Carr collaborated. For the full story on our “experimental research project,” please see this handsome website. One thing we discussed in the Q&A period (of course!) was the next step in the research. Perhaps rather than focusing on an experiment where the “work” of scientists was transferred to artists (whose “work” in turn was transferred to other artists and then back to scientists), we should construct an experiment where a “practice” or “process” of science (and art) was transferred. For instance, one thing scientists and artists both deal with is uncertainty and ambiguity. It was suggested that there might be something valuable uncovered if we had scientists and artists sharing their approaches to dealing with and communicating uncertainty.

The purpose of the conference was to pull together scientists, artists, and teachers from across North America to compare emerging trends and look for common opportunities for teaching at the intersection of art and science as well as for performing research at the intersection of art and science. In many regards, universities are starting to respond to the teaching opportunity but are less organized in exploiting the research opportunity. For instance, a key thread at the conference was the distinction between “art working for science” and “science working for art” when the real question might be, “What can science and art do together?” Lofty goals, of course, especially when sometimes the first step of bringing the fields together might actually be some “service” for the other side.

Better yet, I was not the only particle physicist there! Sarah M. Demers, an ATLAS physicist from Yale of some fame, participated as well, based on her experience co-teaching a “Physics of Dance” course with famed choreographer Emily Coates. The duo gave a fascinating presentation that started out with an inquiry “How do I move?” or rather “Why can I move?” Starting from the observation that atoms are mostly empty space and gravity ultimately attracts everything, they discussed why we can stand up at all (electrostatic repulsion between the electrons orbiting the atoms of the floor and those orbiting the atoms in my shoe on my foot in my sock). Then the question became, “How can I actually move my body at all if everything is repulsive and forces are balanced?” The answer came next, articulated by the dancer/choreographer who talked about how we use friction to generate a net force on our center of mass and can then use electrical impulses to stimulate chemical reactions in our muscles to push against ourselves and the floor. And then the talk moved to how to present and experience the Higgs field and the Higgs boson…in the form of a dance. WOW.

Throughout the 36 hours of this intensive, multi-dimensional conference (yes, we did “dance movement” exercises between sessions to help reflect and internalize the key points of discussions), I took copious notes and expanded my brain ten-fold.

A few other comments from my notebook.

There are really only two things that humans do: experience or share. We are either experiencing reality or we are sharing some aspect of it via communication (and yes, one can argue that communication does occur within reality!). Doing something is an experience, making a discovery is an experience, listening to music is an experience. And teaching, publishing a scientific paper, or making art for someone else are more in the sharing category. So, there are aspects of science and art that are both in “experience” and the “share” category.

Furthermore, science and art do not actually exist as stand-alone constructs. They only exist in our minds as modalities for thinking. They are tools, or perhaps practices, that assist human beings in “dealing with” or “responding to” the world. From this perspective, they are just some of the several modalities for organizing our thinking about the world, just like mathematics or engineering are also modalities.

During some of the breakout discussions, we sometimes got excited and use the terms art, creativity, and self-expression interchangeably. Unpacking these terms, I think, sheds considerable light on the path forward. Self-expression is just that…the process of expressing one’s self. Creativity is about being generative and often includes powerful threads of synthesis and analysis. Art, however, transcends and includes both of these. Art is meant to be “seen” by others, if I can simplify to just one verb. An artist, when creating a piece of art, is considering some audience, some community, or maybe just one person and taking into account how they might react to or interact with the artwork. It’s like the distinction between having an insight (smoking is why I have poor health) and a breakthrough (I have stopped smoking and haven’t had a cigarette for 6 months). In a strange way, this is parallel to what we do in science. An experiment or theory is just a nice idea, but until I write it up and send it out and have it approved for publication, it is just in my head and doesn’t actually advance science. Granted, scientific publications are perhaps more targeted at scientific peers while art’s discussion and acceptance might be determined by some other audiences beyond just artistic peers. But in a way, art is meant to be out there and wrestled with by people. And so is science.

So, what random musings do YOU have about science & art? Are they different?  Are they the same expression of a similar human yearning or inquiry?  Can they be combined?


Art and Science: Both or Neither

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012


I don’t get it. I guess we just have different brains than them.” – two young science students, regarding a piece of art.

It’s a funny feeling, being an individual with a predominantly artistic mind working in a place dominated by science. I’m not saying I don’t have love for the sciences, but if we’re talking in terms of how my thought process lazily unfurls itself when faced with a problem, I’m definitely more of an artist than a scientist. The very fact that I have used the terms “scientist” and “artist” in a way that does nothing but reinforce the eternal dichotomy that exists between the two groups indicates that the problem is so widespread, indeed, that even the person trying to formulate an argument calling for a cessation of the “war” that exists between the two groups cannot avoid thinking of the two as incontrovertibly disparate.


A page from Leonardo da Vinci's famous notebooks. He remains one of the finest examples of an individual expanding his mind to take in both science and art.


The quote at the top is a real thing I heard. Aside from the disquieting use of “we” and “them,” the most troubling thing about the above assertion is the outright dismissal of the piece of art in question. The finality and hopelessness of the “Different Brain” argument does not seem ridiculous outright because it has been propagated by you (yes, you), me, and everyone else ever in the history of time when we don’t want to take the time to learn something new. Artists and scientists are two particular groups that use the Different Brain argument on one another all too often. In order to see the truly farcical nature that underlies the argument, picture two groups of early humans. One group has fire. The other group does not. One person from the fireless group is tasked with inventing fire for the group. The person in charge of making fire claps his hands; no fire is produced. He gives up, citing that he and his counterpart in the other group must have different brains. His group dies out because of their lack of fire.

I hope you followed the cautionary tale of our dismissive early human closely, for he is the rock I will build this post on. The reason one group died and the other thrived is quite obvious. It is not because they simply lacked fire; it is that they lacked the ability to extend their minds beyond their current knowledge in order to solve a problem. Moreover, they not only lacked the ability, they lacked the drive—a troubling trend that is becoming more pronounced as the misguided “war” between artists and scientists rages on, insofar as an intellectual war can rage.

If you were to ask a scientist what he or she would do when posed with a problem, the answer will invariably be something along the lines of, “I would wrestle it to the ground with my considerable intellect until it yields its secrets.” During my time at TRIUMF, I have noticed a deep, well-deserved pride in every scientist in their ability to solve problems. Therefore, it is truly a sad state of affairs when our scientists look at something that puzzles them and then look away. To me, that’s no scientist. That is someone who has grown too complacent, too comfortable, in the vastness of their knowledge that they begin to shy away from things that challenge them in a way they aren’t used to. What’s more is that no one (artists or scientists) sees this as a defeat. As soon as you’ve said, “Oh well, different brain,” you’ve lost.

Any person familiar with rhetoric will tell you that in order to build a strong argument and persuade people, you have to be honest. Be sneaky and fail to address something potentially damning and your credibility is shot and the argument is void. Since it works so well in politics (snark), I figure I should give is a shot here. The problem of the Different Brain argument does not just lay with the scientists; if I’ve excoriated them, it’s out of fear that soon, a generation of scientists will stop growing and thinking. The artists are guilty of invoking the Different Brain argument as well whenever faced with math, science, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do. The only difference between the two is that I heard a scientist use the different brain argument in a place of science, in a place where knowledge is the point.

Different Brain is a spurious concept, which is obvious to anyone with more grey matter than pride, but it’s not just wrong because I say it is. It’s wrong because look around you.

I was standing in the middle of Whistler Village with my fiancé, when we spied a poster for a band called Art vs. Science (you’re doing it wrong, guys!). She immediately said, “Science would win.” No question. No pondering. No soul-searching. Gut reaction, like flinching from a feigned punch. She’s a statistics major and biology minor, so she has a “science” brain and her response didn’t necessarily surprise me. I was a little sad, though, because she wasn’t seeing the world like I was seeing it. We debated the problem for a few minutes until I told her to look around.

The shape of the buildings: Architecture

The pleasant configuration of the shrubbery: Horticulture

The signage on the buildings and lampposts: Design

The food in the bag in my hand: Cooking

The phone in her hand: Technology

I asked her to picture a world where science had “won”. What’s architecture without art? A shape. What’s horticulture without art? A forest. Design? A grid. Cooking? Paste. Technology? Sufficient. It’s a tough world to imagine. Look at the next thing you see and try to separate the science and art of it and imagine what it would look like, whether it would function at all. It’s absolutely dystopian.

It was then that my argument became clear: science and art are inextricable. There can be no dismissing, no deigning, no sighing in the face of it. There can only be and has only ever been unity between the two. The problem is that the two warring sides are too preoccupied with the connotations the words “art” and “science” seem to realize it’s not a question of either/or, but both/neither.

I was worried about whether this war of the different brains would always rage between the two sides, but three things lent me hope and I hope they will lend you hope, too.

1.)  These two quotes from Bertholt Brecht (20th century German playwright and poet, whose work I don’t much care for):

“Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. … In my view, the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding.”


“Art and science coincide insofar as both aim to improve the lives of men and women.”

2.) I was feeling discouraged about my argument for this post and had taken to turning it over in my mind even when I was otherwise occupied, but when I heard Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN, say, only a handful of feet from my face, “Science and Art belong together,” I felt a renewed sense of vigor course through my brain, spurring me on. If one of the foremost scientific experts of our age can see it, I wonder why many of us turn away from it, when it is clearly there.

3.) In case one thinks that I’ve gone too soft on the artists, imagine a world without science. Think of our society as a book of fiction or a painting. Unequivocal works of art. Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.

Keeping these points in mind, I am calling for the abolition of the concepts underpinning the Different Brain argument. The war between art and science is one of mutually assured destruction and will turn us into a lopsided simulacrum of a culture if we are not careful.

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)


Is it art or science ?

Monday, May 12th, 2008

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.


ATLAS vs. Photoshop

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

My brother-in-law just sent me a link to this contest on Fark.com: “Photoshop this super-collider“. I’ve tried to highlight the least silly (thus most quasi-highbrow) although that’s a tough contest in itself.

OK so the ATLAS magnets aren’t exactly a collider, or even a working detector at the time the photo was taken (but you can see the calorimeters in the distance!). Nor is the LHC officially called a “super collider”. Quibbles aside, good signs that the LHC is lodging itself in our collective brain — imagine what will happen when there are actually results to talk about?