Art illuminates physics

February 13, 2004

The baffling world of quantum mechanics will flicker into life when a theoretical physicist and artist turn a physics department into a giant piece of public art.

The Mile End Road buildings of Queen Mary University of London will be randomly lit by 100 Geiger counters and flashbulbs strategically placed in offices and laboratories during February.

The installation - What the Eye Cannot See the Heart Cannot Grieve For - is the brainchild of physicist Fay Dowker and artist Matthew Tickle. It is the first such collaboration funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council partnership for public awareness scheme.

Each night, rooms along the road will flash into view up to 20 times a minute as the Geiger counters detect subatomic particles passing through the building.

By giving passers-by unexpected glimpses into the physics buildings, the artwork seeks to explore one of the most philosophically troubling aspects of quantum mechanics: the belief that the workings of the subatomic world can be thought to exist only when they are actively detected.

Dr Dowker is one of a growing number of physicists who reject this so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, drawn up by some of the 20th century's most celebrated physicists in a bid to explain phenomena at the smallest end of the scale.

"All physics undergraduates learn it in their first year, but it is tantamount to giving up hope of providing a direct description of what's going on at a subatomic level," she said. Her research explores possible alternative explanations that would, she admitted, involve a new physics.

The artistic collaboration aims to address this lack of agreement. Dr Dowker said: "If scientists lack a consensus, it is a problem, - but with art it is not. The fact that a person brings their own experiences and knowledge to the work and interprets it in their own way is welcomed."

Nevertheless, a 12m billboard with some words of explanation will offer passers-by hints about the art's deeper meaning.

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