Broken Symmetries

Postcards from the Energy Frontier by Prof Jon Butterworth

What to focus on. Where to look for the science.

“Broken Symmetries” is an art exhibition at FACT in Liverpool. Spread over galleries on two levels, it provides an audio and visual immersion in a strange frontier of knowledge and its echoes and resonances in wider culture.

The artwork is born of interactions between the science and technology of particle physics, and a number of international artists.

As a particle physicist myself, I suppose my point of view differs from that of most visitors strolling through on a Liverpool lunchtime, to whom the CERN memorabilia and underlying concepts are unfamiliar. The first exhibit1 I encountered shows “random” numbers generated by environmental measurements, the temperature and the pressure in the room and also the background radioactivity. I found myself contemplating the difference between events which are truly random on the quantum level – such as radioactive decays – and events which appear random because we don’t know all the variables – the fluctuations in temperature, for example.

The urge to explain is innate in science, but perhaps not helpful to art. I spent some time discussing (and explaining) with one of the artists, Yu Chen Wang, whose piece dominates the soundscape of the lower gallery. I admire the way the artists can take the earnest desire of the scientists, and the purpose of the technology, and turn in into something other. In a fragment of words from Yu Chen’s work:

“What to focus on. Where to look for the science.”

That said, some of the pieces do trigger a desire for more contextual information, as might a complex tableau in any art gallery, and there are notes there if you want them.

I have not always felt this way, but I am of the possibly controversial opinion that we scientists could do with a bit more help from society and culture at present, in terms of art and even philosophy. (I am putting my time where my mouth is, and when this appears on Cosmic Shambles I will be at a meeting with philosophers in Edinburgh2.) We should be pleased with ourselves because we can have these ideas about how the universe works, build these machines to find out, do these calculations to test them. But we need to retain some humility, and be aware that on some scales we are small, with limited capacities, exploring the unknown.  Another quote3,

“Why should we be so lucky that in 50 years we discover everything?”

There is currently a lively discussion on the future of CERN and particle physics, instigated by a European, and eventually world-wide, process to develop a strategy. Proposals submitted to this process have lead to responses from the media, the public and from scientists in other fields. It has become clear that there is a gulf between the motivations of some groups of people who work on “fundamental physics”. There are deep differences in view on why we even build experiments in the first place, and on how success or failure is defined in terms of new information, new ideas, new knowledge. I think there is a need for the reflection, contemplation, and external connection which art can provide.

Some of the pieces in “Broken Symmetries” could look like romantic nostalgia or needless obfuscation to those immersed in a profession driven to relentlessly expand a frontier. But the hinterland that is established after the exploration is important. And how is the new knowledge assimilated into our culture, our world view? Is it?

In the upper gallery there is an installation called One1One, a mix of sound and video. I mean no disrespect (quite the reverse in fact) to the artists, HRM199, when I say the piece reminded me of “I before e except after c”, a track from the classic Yazoo album “Upstairs at Eric’s”. I left with its final quavering words looping in my head.

“I decided to use the tools available
Stop. Stop. The tools available
Stop. Stop. Upon me
Force the tools available
Yes, I’m all right”

Broken Symmetries at FACT, Liverpool until 19 March

1 “A State of Sin” by James Bridle.
3 from “A view from nowhere” by Semiconductor.

Pics by Jon Butterworth


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Professor Jon Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London and a researcher on the ATLAS experiment at CERN involved with, amongst other things, the discovery of the Higgs Boson. He is the author of two popular science books Smashing Physics and A Map of the Invisible. Postcards From the Energy Frontier is the successor to Jon’s hugely successful blog for The Guardian, Life and Physics. He is @jonmbutterworth on Twitter.

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