Dance helps physicists to grasp the Higgs

by Sharon Ann Holgate
July 2013

Sharon Ann Holgate explores a project that links physics and dance.

        In a world where arts-science collaborations are almost becoming the norm, the Yale University-based project Discovering the Higgs through Physics, Dance and Photography, which began in January and concludes this month, really stands out. 

        The project is not only using dance and photography to help explain complex physics to the public. It will also feed back into physics teaching and dance research via videos and photographs of CERN particle physicists explaining their research, and the process of interpreting these ideas through a work of choreography. Interactive workshops and online publication of the films and images aim to bring the work to a wide audience.   

        Discovering the Higgs is the brainchild of Sarah Demers, an assistant professor of physics at Yale who studies tau polarisation at the LHC, and Emily Coates, a lecturer in theatre studies at Yale who spent six years as a ballerina with New York City Ballet.  

        Coates and Demers were previously paired as part of a drive to revitalize the Yale science curriculum for non-science majors, resulting in the 2011 Physics of Dance course. This teaches the principles of movement and dance technique before enabling students to use their bodies to help understand classical mechanics. It also investigates how movement can provide a metaphoric representation of modern physics concepts. This and the discovery of the Higgs boson provided the inspiration for Discovering the Higgs, funded by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven Reintegrate initiative.

        “When designing the Physics of Dance course, we both felt very strongly about advocating for the intellectual, creative, rigorous research potential of our two fields, and everything we’ve done since then is also based on that fundamental belief,” explains Coates,....(the full article can be found on page 9 of Interactions, July 2013). 

© Institute of Physics 2013. Reproduced with permission.


Particle physics stirs up some artists

by Sharon Ann Holgate
October 2012

Sharon Ann Holgate reports on an exhibition inspired by physics.

Judging by the interesting and diverse range of previous work that I’ve seen by the 25 artists exploring particle physics within the Jiggling Atoms science and illustration project, the forthcoming exhibition at The Rag Factory in East London from 1-7 October looks likely to offer broad appeal.

It will reveal how the artists – who work in media ranging from film and painting to sculpture and textiles - have interpreted the experiments and theories of particle physics that they were introduced to via a series of physics lectures given this spring in Imperial College’s Blackett Lab. Physics-related artistic workshops, lectures, debates, and performances will run alongside the exhibition, including workshops in which physics research associate Ben Still from Queen Mary, University of London, will use LEGO® to explain particle physics terms. 

Neutrino researcher Still gave one of the lectures, and answered questions at summer seminars hosted at Queen Mary and Imperial College where the artists brought along their preliminary ideas and discussed the science that inspired them. He became involved in Jiggling Atoms after the IOP – co-sponsors of the project alongside the Science and Technology Facilities Council - put him in touch with its instigator, Natalie Kay-Thatcher. 

“It broadens my horizons, hearing how people in the art world interpret scientific ideas and methods. Being able to look at my subject area from different viewpoints gives me a better handle on visualising theories in different ways. If I’m lucky enough to get an academic post I hope that will feed back into my teaching,” says Still. 

Imperial College PhD student Malte Oppermann, with project organising team member Jennifer Crouch, also gave physics lectures for the artists. “For a long time I’ve been fascinated by contemporary art and its capacity to open new ways of seeing and interpreting the world. I was amazed by the artists’ enthusiasm for getting the chance to study some physics, so I simply had to get involved,” he says.

Illustrator Kay-Thatcher, whose interest in physics was sparked by personal research conducted during her illustration degree, conceived Jiggling Atoms after watching a similarly entitled episode from the BBC’s Fun to Imagine series of interviews with Richard Feynman.  “We want to keep Jiggling Atoms as an ongoing project, and show this amazing work that’s being produced for longer,” she says. One aim is to produce a physics book written by Oppermann and illustrated by project artists, including herself. 

“I’m hoping the project will encourage more people to take an interest in particle physics, and realise the concepts behind it aren’t as daunting as they may first seem,” says Still. “You can understand very fundamental science if you have an amazing visual interpreter there to show you the way.”

Science writer Sharon Ann Holgate has been a member of The Art Fund for more than 20 years. The website for the project is at www.jigglingatoms.org

© Institute of Physics 2012. Reproduced with permission.


Artwork imagines an explosive future

by Sharon Ann Holgate
September 2012

Sharon Ann Holgate views an artwork linking time and technology.

When I first saw conceptual artwork The 300 Year Time Bomb, the final-year project of Diego Trujillo, MA graduate in Design Interactions from the Royal College of Art (RCA), I admit that I was slightly scared. But closer investigation showed that I needn’t have worried.

Trujillo’s project, exhibited in the RCA’s annual summer show in June, and now living on through his website, examines the relationship between time and technology via a mock-up of a working bomb.  The vast decreasing number on the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) timer display shows the countdown in seconds to the explosion set for 300 years’ time.  

In the fantasy scenario that Trujillo creates, this “time bomb” is mislaid then discovered a century into its countdown.  Fascinated by the device, in the way that we now find First World War ordnance historically interesting, our descendants house the time bomb in a blast-proof building so that the eventual explosion becomes a safe and spectacular display.

Considering this concept made me think about the different timescales measured in physics research, and exactly how much meaning vast or incredibly small numbers have in a more everyday context. This was exactly the sort of response movie buff Trujillo was hoping for.  

“I was really interested in how the way that we interact with time is connected with the technology that we use. For example, with electric light the idea of a day changes completely. So I wanted to present something that people are familiar with from action movies and generate philosophical debates around technology and time, [such as] why we might make a technology that would last for so long,” says Trujillo, who has a BSc in biology.  

Trujillo chose OLEDs for the timer as they require low amounts of power, so could theoretically work for a very long time. They were bespoke made by Sedgefield-based R&D and manufacturing company Polyphotonix, who sponsored the project. Its chief executive, Richard Kirk, got involved after meeting Trujillo at an event that aimed to connect RCA designers and artists with plastic electronics and photonics technologists. He was intrigued by the project concept and the artist.  

Kirk - a former professional artist – has experience of promoting emerging technologies via sponsoring and collaborating with artists and designers. Their use of your technology at international art or design fairs brings it to the attention of industry product designers who in turn are highly visual and adopt it in ways that scientists and engineers don’t normally envisage, he explains. “A lot of tech companies think people are seduced by technology and they never are. It’s all about the strength of the design and creativity that goes into high-tech products.” 

The 300 Year Time Bomb can be viewed at http://trujillodiego.com/work/300ytb.html

© Institute of Physics 2012. Reproduced with permission.


Sculpture exhibition gets physical

by Sharon Ann Holgate
September 2007

Sharon Ann Holgate finds a surprising amount of physics in Antony Gormley's sculptures.

If you visited London's Southbank over the summer, you might have noticed some unfamiliar additions to the city skyline - 31 life-size figures created by the sculptor Antony Gormley had taken up residence on walkways and rooftops. Gormley is probably most famous for Another Place, in which similar figures look out to sea from Crosby Beach near Liverpool, and for the gargantuan Angel of the North outside Gateshead.

Every figure was part of a work called Event Horizon and they faced Blind Light, the exhibition of Gormley's works taking place at The Hayward Gallery. As I approached, my childish delight at spotting these new guardians gave way to a worry that someone might call the police, terrified a weary Londoner had finally snapped after one tube delay too many.

I love the fact art can provoke responses like these. During my PhD I was secretary of the Young Friends of Pallant House - a centre for modern art in Chichester - and I've been an avid gallery-goer since. Visiting Blind Light was going to make me forget about writing my solid-state physics textbook, surely?

         Entering the exhibition I was confronted with Space Station - a collection of 480-odd cubic metres of steel plate boxes that make up the rough shape of a human body and which Gormley claims is a model for Stephen Hawking's vision of a habitat in space. It was imposing, overwhelming and scary. Shift II was a figure pinned to the wall "as if held by a centrifugal force", according to the exhibition guide. It also quoted Gormley explaining that he had taken the term "event horizon" from cosmology, the idea being that, just as we will never see parts of the universe, viewers of the rooftop figures - which were arranged over a 1.5 km2 area around the gallery - would question whether there were more figures beyond those visible on the horizon.

Science was the means by which the centrepiece of the exhibition, also called Blind Light, existed. Thanks to clever environmental control, it was effectively a cloud confined in a room, and made for a disorientating sensory experience. However, as a physicist I was more interested in Drawn, a room with each corner occupied by an iron figure made from a cast of Gormley's body. The pose struck was arms above the head and legs akimbo at 90°, so that the limbs could lie along the axes of the corners. In the exhibition book Gormley says that he wants this work to make the viewer "more uncertain about his or her position in space and gravitational value". Seeing human forms "sitting" quite happily on the ceiling certainly does give you a strong sense of not knowing which way is up, but for me the figures were like the atoms at the corners of a unit cell. Suddenly I found myself standing inside the very thing I was trying to get away from, but I was loving it. My fascination with the structure of solids had been reborn.

The forms within forms of the Matrices and Expansions collection of hanging works were, not surprisingly, inspired by geometry. Viewing from many different angles revealed a human figure trapped inside each stainless-steel doodle of polyhedral outlines, picked out by a denser arrangement of the wiring. Quantum Cloud, which is on permanent display at Greenwich, has the same idea. This and other works not featured in this exhibition, such as Meniscus, Critical Mass, Cell Cycle III and Chromosome, take titles or ideas from science. I will be interested to see what other links this multifaceted mind will produce in the future.

Another work in the exhibition with a physics connection was Capacitor - a figure made from thousands of steel tubes, some containing rods which protrude from the body, creating a voodoo-doll like structure. The body at the centre of the piece is, according to the exhibition guide, "a core at the centre of a field, but it is not clear whether this is expanding or contracting; a big bang or a black hole". I began to realise Gormley might have a large collection of popular science books.

        While laughing at the ludicrous but inspired Mother's Pride - a wall of slices of bread that reveal the shape of a curled up person via half-eaten slices - I also mused on the problems that art conservators are likely to have in the future. I later read that Mother's Pride was made at the height of the Cold War and is one of a range of pieces created from materials that we might use to protect ourselves from, or to survive, a nuclear attack - a much less palatable link to physics.

It was enjoyable clambering round and peering inside the works - so different from the passive gazing that we normally do. Outside the gallery I held the hand of one of the Event Horizon figures. It felt strange. All of these body forms are made from casts of the artist's own body, so I was, in a way, holding Anthony Gormley's hand - the hand of a man I'll probably never meet.

The works described here can be viewed at www.antonygormley.com

© Institute of Physics 2007. Reproduced with permission.


Colour vision to share

by Sharon Ann Holgate
April 2007

    Profile of Pete Vukusic, available to read online by following the link.


A professor to watch

by Sharon Ann Holgate
March 2007

Profile of Jim Al-Khalili, available to read online by following the link.


Spinning out physics

by Sharon Ann Holgate
February 2007

Profile of  John Hassard, available to read online by following the link.