When the Worlds of Art and Physics Collide

by Cass Art

They are dream partnerships that, alas, never happened: Michael Faraday never paired with John Constable in the 18th century, nor did Pablo Picasso work with Albert Einstein 100 years later.

Indeed, the clash of art and science might seem a strange idea – aren’t they opposites? Isn’t one objective and concrete, the other subjective, fluid and unknowable? Perhaps. But the Institute of Physics (IOP) is harnessing the mouth-watering potential of a fusion between physics and art this weekend after commissioning a new piece to be opened to the public on Saturday (August 24).

Covariance, a subterranean physics-inspired art installation, is going on show in a Victorian ice well beneath the London Canal Museum.

It is the first in the IOP's ‘Superposition’ artists-in-residence series which pairs physicists with artists.

Physicist Ben Still and artist Lyndall Phelps have been in an evolving nine-month dialogue, exploring particle detection and detectors, data capture and visualisation.

Through this dialogue, Phelps became fascinated with particle detectors. She was drawn to their inherent beauty, the sense of awe they inspire and how they are complete, immersive environments in their own right.

Still, a particle physicist at Queen Mary, University London, explained: “The term covariance is itself mathematical but used in physics; it is the measure of the association between random mathematical variables. Put less technically, covariance is a measure of the degree to which a change in any number of unrelated things is unified when their environment changes around them.”

Phelps, an installation artist who loves science, said: “As you descend the ladder, the environment changes - it's darker, cooler, sounds are different; you do feel like you're entering a true subterranean world.”

Covariance consists of 1 km (3,280ft) of brass rods, 28,000 glass beads, hundreds of acrylic discs and 36,000 diamantes. It is suspended in a circular brick space - about 30 feet (9.1 metres) in diameter - around 42ft (12.8 metres) underneath the museum.

Canal Museum chiefs say Covariance works on several levels, offering an amazing, unique and immersive visitor experience, while emotionally and intellectually making new connections and suggestions. 

Creating the hand-made work was a laborious task, reflecting the intense labour effort and intricate logistics needed to create a particle detector.

Still added: “The installation sneaks up on you, you feel like you have discovered your own active particle detector. The surroundings, regular structure, and colour palette reflect the role of particle detectors and the data they record in the most visually grasping way.”

Phelps said the closer she got to completing Covariance's installation, the more excited she became; as each section of disks were added the spectacle intensified.

Phelps added: “The finished work is everything I had hoped for and more. The sheer beauty and magic of Covariance has made the months of intricate hand-made construction worthwhile.”

The installation is also inspired by the way the data from the detectors has been read by physicists - from the coloured dot diagrams that physicists such as Still use now to the women who were employed in bygone days.

Phelps said: “Many of my past works have dealt with the physical labour undertaken by women, especially the repetition of specific tasks. I was keen for the production of the work to encompass this work ethic and to use materials that reflected women's craft, hence the use of glass beads and diamantes.”

Still and Phelps' chats and thoughts exposing the artistic processes and their interplay with the science have been captured on their blog.

Caitlin Watson, head of public engagement at IOP, said: “Lyndall's artwork is truly awesome and captures the elegance and allure of physics in a way that will inspire visitors to have their own conversations about physics.”

The ice wells were built in the mid-19th century for caterer Carlo Gatti, an immigrant from Switzerland, who came to London to make his fortune by supplying ice.

* Covariance is open until October 20 at the London Canal Museum in King's Cross. The museum is open from 10am-4.30pm Tuesdays to Sundays inclusive. Suitable footwear that gives reasonable protection and grip is essential when seeing Covariance

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