Proposal: Neutrino flux

Note: This is a modified version of “Walking with neutrinos

Summary

Visitors will experience the ephemeral and mysterious nature of the subatomic particle called the neutrino as they move through this work, interacting with it occasionally and briefly. In the process, they will see the effects of their localized interactions spreading beyond their reach, with the ability to influence others.

The work will consist of 12 six-foot-tall ¼” acrylic tubes suspended with the bottom end about 2 feet from the floor. Each will be illuminated by an RGB LED so can glow any color desired. In the “quiet” state, each tube will glow a faint pale blue, reminiscent of the Antarctic ice in which the experiment that this installation replicates is buried. The tubes will be placed in a triangular array, referencing the layout of detectors in Antarctic ice.

As visitors pass close to or touch one of the tubes, there is a small chance of setting off an interaction, just as neutrinos passing through the ice have a small chance of interacting and creating a shower of visible light. The interaction looks like an explosion of color through the tube that is touched and spreading through the surrounding tubes. The exact pattern will be based on data from the Antarctic IceCube experiment.

Brief statements and questions about neutrinos and the IceCube experiment, will be laser engraved on the tubes, each lit only long enough to glance briefly during an interaction. This mirrors the process of science in that visitors will be collecting clues from each tube and piecing together a more coherent story about the work and the science that it references.

The piece is suitable for general adult audiences and will have an extra appeal for scientists as they deduce that the interaction conditions replicate the properties of the IceCube neutrino detector.

Context

As an ex-physicist (reformed physicist?), I am interested in the interplay between science and human behavior, especially in terms of the processes and culture of science, but using real data and examples from science as reference points for my work. As I have worked as a journalist for the past 15 years, I can’t help but want to communicate information in my work, but obviously don’t want to use such a blunt instrument as the AP-style inverted pyramid news story. Rather, I want viewers of my work to share something of the experience of science, which is always a mystery, a treasure hunt, and a detective story rolled together.

Approach and research

I approach this work as an exploration of both the science and of the artmaking process. I am new to working with acrylic in this form and there are significant electronics challenges to have this piece operating as desired. On the other hand, there is a wealth of scientific research to reference in the piece, without the piece becoming too didactic.

There is a long history of science communication projects arising from National Science Foundation-funded experiments, such as IceCube in Antartica, and others. This is because NSF funding requires investigators to present their work in a way that appeals to a broader public as part of their activities. Historically, this has meant that scientists stick to what they are comfortable with and either build a public-facing website or give public lectures. These activities have recently been criticized in a 2014 Master of Science thesis by Sarah L. Wiley at Iowa State University [1].

This piece is also an attempt to show that the communication of science can be done in a more artistic form than the one-way communication typically conducted by scientists, who commonly suffer under the illusion of the Deficit Model of Communication.

Presentation

The goal for this piece is to first exhibit it in the vestibule of the Dark Lab in the Digital Arts Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It requires a dark space that confines the visitors to reference the dark enclosed environment of deep ice, where no visible light reaches. The piece will be open to visitors during the Fall Quarter open labs period on December 12, 2014 initially.

MFA relevance

As part of my MFA work, I plan to investigate how art and science can become better integrated, escaping the purely representational form of science art that has become commonplace. It is my goal to produce works that are interesting to the art community and also credible to scientists, in the hope of showing that the stories of science can be explored in different ways to what science is used to doing. This project is a stepping stone into this way of working and potentially a step toward a larger scale installation on similar themes.

Conclusion

This piece explores a space overlapping science and art, allowing visitors to share a scientific experience, in that they reveal the “story” of the piece with repeated investigation of the works various parts. However, it also looks at the nature of people passing through space and having the chance, even if small, of influencing what is around them, and that influence sending ripples out into the wider world, either to be noticed by other visitors or to just fade away without consequence. In this case, those wider ripples are represented with the growing light explosion emanating from the point of contact between the visitor and the work.

Reference

[1] Wiley, S.L., “Doing broader impacts? The National Science Foundation (NSF) broader impacts criterion and communication-based activities”, Master of Science thesis, Iowa State University, 2014.