CERN Art@CMS: Statement

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Presentation made by Xavier Cortada and Pete Markowitz at TEDxFIU Talk

I’m an artist and science is my muse.

Last year I was invited to see the largest science experiment on this planet – and what a muse that was.  I went to the CERN Laboratory in Geneva.  I went there to find inspiration and wound up depicting their search for the “God particle.”

Or the Higgs boson.

Let me tell you why this experiment was so important:

When physicists came up with a theory to describe the forces and particles of nature those particles had no mass.

Their Standard Model of Physics included electromagnetic forces,  strong forces, and weak forces.  The model described neutrinos, electron’s and quarks– but in their calculations they couldn’t figure out how to give those particles mass. This was quite a problem because if electrons had no mass, they would move at the speed of light and couldn’t slow down enough to form atoms.  Without atoms we couldn’t have molecules and without molecules we wouldn’t have life — in fact we would have a very different kind of universe.

So we needed to find a way to give mass to these particles.

A few weeks ago the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to theorists who came up with a theory in the 60s to help solve this problem. Their theory postulated that mass comes from a particle moving in a Higgs field; that everything in the universe occurred within this field and that particles moved in it just like fish move through water.

It was the properties of the particle as it travels through the field that gave them their mass — much like the properties of a fish would determine their speed as they move though water.  Some particles like electrons had very little mass, some like protons had a much larger mass as they move through the field.  Think of a barracuda and a manatee.  The sleeker barracuda is going to move faster through the water.

But this was simply a theory that needed to be proven.

Mathematically,  the theory required the existence of the Higgs boson, a new particle that had never been seen.

Last year, half a century after it was first postulated the Higgs particle was discovered in this machine at the CERN laboratory in Geneva. This is the detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.  It is the largest, densest, most complex machine humans have ever built.  It shoots protons at almost the speed of light along the 17 mile supercollider tunnel that straddles the borders of Switzerland and France.

Every second 40 million protons collide with one another. These high-energy collisions makes new particles, new mass.  We know we can do this because “E = MC2” tells us that mass and energy are interchangeable.

The detector has sophisticated sensors to determine what these new particles are:

  • Some components measure the energy from electrons or photons
  • Others the energy from particles make out of quarks
  • Other sensors measure how a charged particle bends at it as it crosses through a magnetic field

Scientist from 182 universities and institutes across 42 countries built the machine and looked through all this data and discovered that the Higgs boson was one of those particles produced in their collisions.

It’s discovery proved a theory that brought mass into the equation and helped us better understand our universe.

One of those physicists was my colleague here at FIU, Pete Markowitz.

He’s going to tell us about the art.

 [Here is physicist Pete Markowitz to talk about the art.]

Xavier and I started working together two years ago.  Based upon that work, Xavier created the art pieces behind me.

In our conversations, Xavier and I (an artist and a physicist) talked about how we learn about our universe, about what it is that physicists actually do, and about the accelerator in Geneva.  Xavier was convinced to come to Geneva, to see our experiment; to see the site and get the inspiration to create an art piece.

The artpiece captures the science but it also captures the people and the purpose of the experiment.

The 5 banners depict the 5 experiments that our collaboration used to discover the Higgs boson.  The experiments took place simultaneously and measured the Higgs decaying into subatomic particles such as particles of light – into the two photons you see in the 2nd banner, or into quarks as you see in the 3rd banner.

Our detector does not directly measure the Higgs.  It measures photons, or streams of quarks, or electrons.

[Zoom to event display]

We don’t do Hollywood special effects but here you can see how we physicists visualize the particles in our detector.  The curvature of the particle’s path tells us the charge and momentum, and the size of the signal tells us the energy.

The detector itself is intricate with many layers and so are the artworks.

[Zoom to stained glass]

If you look at the 1st banner closely you can see something that looks like stained glass, maybe in a cathedral.  That is on purpose – religion traditionally was the only thing we had to inform our world view, and tell us about our place in the universe.

Science now also tells us about what makes up our universe and our place in it.  Science has now told us the size of the universe, hold old it is and how we came into being.

[Zoom to brushstrokes]

Although the banners are made digitally, in them you can see oil brush strokes which evoke the painting tradition of the works of artists like da Vinci and Caravaggio.  In the same way, science today builds upon the works of Aristotle and Linnaeus.  Galileo and Newton and Einstein and Bohr.  Dirac and Feynman and Oppenheimer, to give us the theory of Higgs , Englert and Brout which was awarded the Nobel Prize last month based upon our discovery of the Higgs boson.

[Zoom to pages]

The background for the banners, in a very real sense, honors the collaboration.  It is composed of words; pages from 383 publications by our collaboration.   I literally have many hundred scientific publications, results of all the experiments I have taken part in.  And now I also have one art show to my credit!

The human eye is incredibly good at pattern recognition.  Although you cannot quite read the words, my colleagues have recognized their figures in these images: the plots of our scientific results.

The pages also include the complete author list from our discovery of the Higgs boson – more than 4000 scientists, engineers, and technicians.  Every person, including FIU students, staff and faculty who were essential in building the detector and making this discovery, are in the art itself.

My own name is there.  I have been working on this experiment for almost 15 years.  My involvement has been in calibrating the energy of the streams of quarks we measure.

[Now let’s go back to artist Xavier Cortada to talk more about the science.]

10:14  Science matters.

10:23  Like art it allows us to see

10:28  in ourselves. Like art,

10:32  it allows us to see through ourselves;

10:36  but, most importantly, it allows us to see

10:42  beyond ourselves.  It allows us to see

10:46  the interconnectedness things.  It allows us to

10:51  better understand not just our place in this world,

10:55  but this world.  And this universe.

10:58  The 4,000 people whose names

11:03  we put on these banners have dedicated

11:06  their entire life purpose to developing knowledge.

11:11  Their whole lives are consumed with this

11:15  passion; to learn, to grow,

11:20  to teach.  And as

11:25  I looked for a way of honoring them

11:29  for the research that they had conducted,

11:33  I had to approach this with incredible amount of humility.

11:36  I wasn’t just going to do a sculpture

11:40  of what I thought the God particle looked like.

11:43  I wasn’t going to create a painting of two protons colliding into one another.

11:49  Instead, I wanted to create an art piece

11:52  made with the science.  With the very words,

11:57  the charts, the graphs, the ideas that this coalition

12:01  of thinkers have put together.  And that’s what these five banners represent;

12:07  that’s what these five banners mark.  And it’s not just about

12:12  what they discovered now,

12:15  but what it means to humanity.  It’s about the mantle

12:20  of innovation being passed from one generation physicist

12:26  to another so can they can discover new things:

12:30  like supersymmetric particles, on new dimensions

12:33  or microscopic black holes inside that collider.

12:37  It was a really important moment in humanity.

12:41  And I wanted to mark that moment because I thought it deserved it.

12:45  When a we get to the South Pole,

12:49  with a bunch of dogs moving our sled,

12:54  we put a flag there and say: we arrived.

12:58o  We go on a tin can

13:01  across space and land on our moon, we put a flag to mark that event.

13:07  To mark that moment.  When we scale Mount Everest, when we accomplish things,

13:12  we mark those events and those moments. I wanted to mark

13:17  that event at that location with these banners.

13:21  These banners hang

13:24  at the very location

13:28  where the Higgs boson was discovered.  I’m standing on a platform

13:31  that platform opens and closes. A hundred meters below

13:35  is that collider.  That is where

13:39  this science theory was proved

13:43  as truth. And these banners

13:46  mark a moment in history that will hopefully inspire future generations of

13:51  physicists

13:52  to continue to move humanity

13:56  forward.  Thank you so much.

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) is one of the four experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The Higgs boson was postulated to explain why particles have mass and therefore why gravity acts. In July 2012, two of the LHC experiments (CMS and ATLAS) announced the discovery of a new, Higgs-like particle.

Xavier Cortada is Artist-in-Residence at Florida International University College of Architecture + The Arts and a professional artist in the Miami area. Pete Markowitz is a Professor of Physics and Fellow of the Honors College working on the CMS experiment.