Cutting edge

May 21, 1999

Art and physics appear unlikely partners, but a collaboration between the two is set to provide a glimpse of an unseen world

In the 19th century the invention of photography brought dramatic developments in painting; for example, the impressionists' use of light. In our own century non-narrative film and electronic arts have proposed new uses of the time element. A research programme that draws on a collaboration between physicists at Cern and artists at the London Institute, called "Signatures of the invisible", is preparing to advance this tradition.

High-energy physics often deals with events so small they are known only by their mathematical signatures. It might at first seem that art has no way of approaching this field. Yet these events come close to telling us how the universe works and have changed our understanding of nature. It is therefore imperative for art to confront this if it is to have meaning beyond taste values and fairground displays.

The laws of physics are not going to go away. Relativity, antimatter, quantum mechanics are how nature works. Art can take us into areas of perception through visual encounters and through artists' talents to lose themselves in the interplay between concept and medium. Artists will be able to do this in parts of the natural world that have previously been invisible.

The programme's first objective will be an exhibition to open simultaneously in three European locations next year. Six artists will exhibit works resulting from encounters with high-energy physics experiments at Cern.

The Holy Grail of physics is to try to understand the concept of mass. Related are the mysteries of dark matter and anti-matter. All the matter we see accounts for only 10 per cent of the universe's total mass and we do not yet know what most of the universe is made of. Anti-matter is routinely created at Cern. A sculptor could look at these questions with fresh eyes and ask: what is taking place in the negative space of a work?

The reality of energy transforming into matter is one of the most remarkable effects in physics. A painter could confront some of these possibilities by asking how much of the mass of the canvas and its hidden structure are necessary for the pure design exhibited on the surface? Since the surface of the painting is the uppermost layer of the mass beneath it, can this mass be disposed of and can the pure design be interchanged with pure energy or pure colour?

Since the 1920s it has been understood that time is not a constant but is flexible. A film-maker could well ask whether accelerated narrative action could produce extended moments and time inverses. Does the chronological order of events offer the most coherent narrative or could layers of simultaneous actions reflect our perceptions of time more closely? Conventional approaches to zooming use linear magnification, where the aspect ratio is held constant, but this severely restricts the fields of vision and reduces three-dimensional space. Could more dimensions to space be shown and how?

High-energy physics poses problems for data visualisation and much research has been carried out at Cern under Hans Dreverman into integrating findings from colour science, visual psychophysics and cognitive psychology. Dreverman's extraordinary visualisations of particle collisions are remarkable works in themselves. The aim would be to produce readable diagrams and pure designs using Cern's possibilities for observing the invisible world of particle collisions. This offers great possibilities for computer graphic design, not only for illustration but as the eye prying deep into nature to regions never seen before.

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