Fluidic Data installation, evening view. Photo by Julien Marius Ordan. Courtesy of CERN

Agnes Chavez’s Big Bang

The artist is making atomic data-visualization art of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, working in collaboration with physicists at the Swiss research hub.

by Allegra Huston
Mar 22 2020, 9:30am

Fluidic Data installation, evening view. Photo by Julien Marius Ordan. Courtesy of CERN

When you smash an atom, what do you see? The answer is… nothing, because subatomic particles are too small to be visible. But for the scientists in the control room of ATLAS—one of the four major experiments placed around the circular, 27-kilometer-long tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland—the answer is different. They see colorful kaleidoscopic diagrams—visual representations of a gigantic deluge of data. As it turns out, art may make the world better, but for particle scientists, it makes their work possible.

The link between art and science is something that the Cuban-American artist Agnes Chavez understands well. Chavez works with data visualization. She is also in love with particle physics. After a research stay at CERN, she created Origination Point, a generative interactive projection installation—meaning that she created images of “self-generating rocks” who transformed in real time onto a wall of hanging fabric strips, which were accompanies by a soundtrack of field recordings from outer space—which explored concepts researched at the institution like how matter was created after the Big Bang. She was invited to exhibit it at the Havana Biennale.

So when CERN’s IT department decided to partner with an artist to conceive an artwork to fill a 40-foot-high stairwell at their Data Center, Chavez was an obvious choice. The resulting installation, Fluidic Data, was inaugurated on March 13, and marked the first time an artist has collaborated with CERN’s physicists and engineers to co-create a permanent installation that dramatizes the experiments of the Large Hadron Collider.

CERN is an international organization with 23 member states dedicated to particle physics research; the World Wide Web was invented here, as was the technology that led to the touch screen. The Data Center is, in effect, CERN’s heart and brain. All the collected data from the four detectors is sent to this multistory squadron of whirring computer stacks, which distribute it for processing and store it on endlessly replicating drives. This data flow is the lifeblood of particle physics. “Unlike with a telescope, where you’re seeing the actual supernova, even billions of years later,” Chavez says, “all you’re seeing are the traces and remnants of the particles after their collisions.”

A look inside the CERN facility. Photo by Maximillien Brice; Anna Pantella.

For the project, Chavez focused her imagination on the data flow itself, visualizing it as a vital fluid. Globules of colored water, representing the chunks of data known as “luminosity packets,” rise like sap through reedlike tubes to nourish podlike structures scattered among the tubes and “quantum flowers” at the apex. Color-coded fiber optics in the pods seem to breathe light when various subatomic particles are detected. The rarest particles, such as the famously elusive Higgs boson (seen for the first time through CERN experiments), light up the flowers. Data, here, is the elixir of life. It animates, it flowers into knowledge, it sprouts seeds from which new knowledge and new technology will germinate. The installation an extraordinary synthesis of science and art, of computational analysis and imaginative understanding.

“Data is alive,” said one of the core contributors, Johan Bonilla, a Costa Rican-American physicist at the University of Oregon. “It’s not dull; it’s not static. It behaves like an organism.” As such, the goal of Fluidic Data is to help visitors understand particle physics in a more experiential way. “I wanted to create an ‘aha!’ experience that encourages people to imagine,” says Chavez. “I designed this artwork as much for physicists as for visitors.”

The artwork itself, too, has taken shape organically. Many of its components have actually been used in experiments at CERN, and an international team of engineers and computer scientists collaborated to make the project a reality. Expertise in plastic scintillating fibers, gained from CERN’s Neutrino Platform, was harnessed to make the lights visible in bright daylight. The complex pump system was designed by CERN engineers, and is controlled by an algorithm that reads the data flow from each of the four experiments sited around the Large Hadron Collider.

As you circle Fluidic Data, climbing or descending the four stories of the staircase that surrounds it, you see movements capturing the constantly changing distortions of visible reality: The fabric of the universe seems to bend, just as Einstein proposed in his theories of space-time.

“My work is all about dematerialization,” says Chavez, noting that even the concept of “real time” dissolves at the extreme edges of science. Astrophysicists are seeing events that happened billions of years ago, while the physicists at CERN are seeing patterns in data after it has been combed and processed by the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, a network of more than 170 data centers around the world. “This is the century I’ve been waiting for,” she says with a grin. “Now we are living in a world of technologies all based on quantum physics.”

One basic question drives every experiment at CERN: Why are we here? Matter and antimatter cancel each other out, so what caused the slight imbalance in favor of matter, the stuff of which we, the world we know, and the entire universe are made? “I have always been fascinated by the invisible realms in nature,” Chavez says. “That’s what drives my art—probing into how we can expand our understanding and connection to nature and the universe. That’s why, even as an artist in a sea of physicists, I feel at home at CERN.”

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Large Hadron Collider