The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN, image by Image Editor

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN, image by Image Editor

(Shane Crerar received a BSc. in chemistry in 2000, and a BFA in sculpture in 2010.  He lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada and is employed by the city where he works as an arts administrator, dealing with public art, collections, film, and community arts organizations.)

Dance and theater make no sense to me.  I was formerly a chemist, and I cannot count how many times I watched someone’s expression go blank  and heard back “I hate chemistry” or some other adverse reaction to math and science when I told them what I do.  I imagine that dance and theater are as incomprehensible to me as chemistry is to, well…everyone else.  It can be a matter of taste: some people love pineapple.  I hate it.  Some people hate licorice.  I love it.  Some people love dance, and maybe I just miss the reference point.  Some people find it hard to relate mathematics to “real world” examples, while I find the relationship between dance and reality overly strained and contrived.  But on the other hand, I’m fascinated by “Dance Your Ph.D.

Dance Your Ph.D. works for me. I’m not sure if the original intent was to market science through dance, or to market art to scientists, or maybe it is based on a meme of ridiculous interpretive dance. But it works. A Ph.D. thesis represents a huge investment of time and energy, but it also represents an incomprehensible tome that is rarely read, in full, by more than a handful of people. “Dance Your Ph.D.” provides an alternate way to present years of work as a “real world” phenomenon.

I think there is a common perception that science and art shall not mix. Having been involved in the culture of both, it seems to me that the general attitude is that the other is incomprehensible mumbo jumbo. Dance Your Ph.D., however, flies in the face of that idea.  The winning entry from 2011 uses a stylized video technique created by stitching together thousands of still images. Perhaps it works for me because although it is literally interpretative dance, it is derived from a thoroughly explored concept. The concept is intimately familiar to the artist, if not the audience.

Art and science have a longstanding relationship, and it does a disservice to both to pretend that isolation from one another is the best approach. For example, there is a long history of illustration in biology. Chemistry uses pictograms with specific rules to convey structures and arrangements of atoms and molecules. Many of these traditional methods have specific rules to most accurately represent ideas, or particular aspects of an idea. These methods of visualization are developed to work within the scientific community, frequently to the exclusion of the lay person. But interesting things begin to happen once those strict rules of representation are relaxed. Most specifically, in Dance Your Ph.D. we see scientists imagine their works through dance.

It is my firm belief that art can be an aid to science. One may often find that a concept cannot be understood clearly until that concept can be communicated. Not only do others benefit from the dissemination of knowledge, but working out how to discuss and communicate an idea can solidify it for oneself. Explaining the concepts in a Ph.D. thesis through dance may actually be of great benefit, not only to people who may become interested in the topics danced, but also to the scientist who is finding a new avenue to communicate her idea.

I think that one of the most significant scientific projects currently in progress is in desperate need of such communication. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the most extensive and expensive scientific project in history. It is close to answering a problem that has been at the heart of particle physics research for the past 50 years. It seems to me that the magnitude of the project and the public funds dedicated to this international facility demand that its importance be recognized, if not understood.

Since the conception of the Standard Model of physics, physicists have been trying to find every particle and force it predicts, and the Higgs boson is the missing piece of the puzzle. The Higgs boson is incredibly important because it is the particle that (theoretically) gives matter mass, and the Large Hadron Collider is trying to find it. But how often does one encounter references to the LHC in arts writing? The LHC is not a breakthrough technology. It is one more step along a path that started with the first particle collider in the 1950s. Alongside other scientific achievements like atomic energy, space travel, or even relativity (and its time travel implications), the LHC seems like a little ‘c’ concept. The closest the LHC has come to stirring the collective interest of the world was the discovery of time-traveling neutrinos, which turned out to be an error in data caused by a loose cable.

Despite the relative obscurity of the LHC in popular culture, it has managed to capture the imagination of some artists. Kate Findlay has created a series of quilts based on photographs of the Large Hadron Collider. The development of her project appears to be based on images released in 2008, and the article indicates that she is working towards projects that incorporate aspects of the LHC beyond recreating photographs in quilts. I find this rather poignant. The images of the object inspired her to learn more about it, and as she’s developed her quilts, she’s developed an interest not simply in the imagery, but in the concepts the LHC is exploring. I believe this is important. The interest is not drawn by the fact that it is science, or physics, or technology, but instead starts from imagery.

I feel that science can provide inspiration for art, as the above example demonstrates. I also believe that science shouldn’t be afraid to get involved with art. The Collide@CERN project gives me hope that scientists can engage in the development of artwork. The project is a partnership between CERN (the organization behind the LHC) and Ars Electronica, which is an international festival celebrating art, science and technology. This should be a fantastic partnership because CERN is at the forefront of science, and Ars Electronica is a forum for science-based art. The project involves a two-month residency at CERN followed by a one month residency at Ars Electronica Linz. Throughout the residency, the artist (Julius von Bismark) will have mentors from both CERN and Ars Electronica.  The goal is to develop and create works in the second half of the residency.

It seems rare, indeed, for science to seek out the arts. Projects like Dance Your Ph.D. and Collide@CERN are the exception, not the rule.  To me this seems like a failure of both art and science, as there is ample opportunity for each to enrich the other.

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  • Ellen Chenoweth

    The LHC is also featured in Liz Lerman’s latest stage work, The Matter of Origins. The piece was a really fascinating collaboration between physicists, Lerman, and other dancers. See here for more about the work or here for a video excerpt, The stage production has some great video of a dancer (Benjamin Wegman) improvising within some of the machines at CERN. Thanks for this post, here’s to fruitful art/science collaborations!

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  • Dr. Krishna kumari C

    Yes! We are on the same wavelength! Nice one.

  • Pingback: Art and Science and Dance Your PhD « Mapping the Next 10 Years()

  • Amy L. Rawson

    Thank you for this article! It tickles me no end to see science and art mingling. Glad I’m not the only one letting the day job bleed over into art projects. :)