(finally an) Accelerated p_ART_icle

LINAC radioactive art installation

Accelerated time. Almost a year has sped past. Spent many months working on a 20 metre x 3 metre ’synchrotron art’ mural commission. Created huge files (>60 GB PSD). Literally thousands of layers. Weeks without sleep. 10 variations. Redesigned whole fromt of Synchrotron complex. Had an argument with director about Marcel Duchamp. Then somehow everything crashed!

Six months later I’m back with variation 11, a modest 4 metre long image (a ‘Gicelle’ print done by PRISM imaging that came out very lovely). With the help of some ‘insider scientists’ I put up a ‘renegade’ mini-exhibition around the entry to the LINAC (the heart of the accelerator complex). Finally the world gets to see my “electron’s eye view synchrotron portrait” in situ. However, ironically the only people who are actually allowed to see it are those who have done the necessary radiation safety training courses and have clearance to enter the inner zone of the synchrotron complex!

LINAC radioactive art installation

LINAC radioactive art installation

Part 2 : The Project

I have returned to the Australian Synchrotron after a long break (which was invaluable in giving me a bit of time and space to take in all that I had experienced during the 3 month residency). Over that time I developed some unusual image-manipulation processes that kind of turn spatial images into frequency images (in a way that is visually analogous to the ‘Fourier Transform’ processes used in a lot of frequency analysis of the synchrotron light). I used the image sequences I recorded of the synchrotron ‘light’ (as described below), and after the processing, out came some unexpected images:

I showed the ‘fourier light experiments’ to a group of the physicists who suggested they get some prints of it… I suggested a 3 metre lightbox, but (perhaps surprisingly!) they wanted to push it a lot further. The synchrotron director had coincidentally wanted the front foyer area redesigned, and expressed the idea of a giant print covering the glass wall between the foyer and the synchrotron itself. I whipped up a proposal, got lots of quotes, test prints, bits of glass, etc, presented it, and (after a bit of “what the hell’s all that?!”) they liked it. So now I’ve been contracted, and now have to redesign the whole front end of the place, featuring a 15 metre x 3.5 metre translucent mural. The image will somehow collage together composite CAD models of the synchrotron, the invisible fields, the crazy energy that comes out of it, the atomic-scale interactions, and the data that is extracted from such processes, in a way that maps over the real synchhrotron behind it and expresses the ‘feel’ of it all. Below are some of the early experiments in such “accelerator expressionism”:



It has now been exactly a month since my residency at the Synchrotron. I have been doing various experiments with the visual and audio ‘data’ collected during my time there, as well as thinking about the place, the people, the ideas, theories, the processes involved - the distance has been very helpful in getting my head around it all, not that I have - it’s so complex it almost defies penetration - it’s the ‘neue unubersichlichkeit’ described by philosopher and scientist Jurgen Habermas (the state of total unsurveyability!). Yet somehow I have to extract from it a ’synchrotron essence’, using the experiences I have had and media I have collected. I think I’m on the verge of a breakthrough, but as it’s still evolving somewhere in my unconscious, I don’t want to try and pin it down yet… so I’m not going to talk about it! However, above is a sneek-preview of a possible angle (or 360!). And it seems I will be going back to do a few more experiments, but more on this later…

The final experiment

The idea for this experiment was developed over the last 2 months from discussions with the accelerator physicists, namely Martin Spencer and Mark Boland, about the delicate balance of extremely complex frequencies needed to make the synchrotron beam actually work, which they call the “synchrotron tune”, at a frequency of about 13.3 MHz. Wondering what this might sound like led me (electronically) to Dr. Andreas Wilde, at the Fraunhofer-Institut fuer Integrierte Schaltungen Aussenstelle Entwurfsautomatisierung, in Dresden. With his expertise in acoustic mathematics, we were able to ‘pitch shift’ the synchrotron tune down to a frequency range that is audible to the human ear (which was basically just a long tone). This also allowed me to put a sound into the synchrotron! Via Andreas, I transformed several sounds into data formats that could be literally put into the electron beam, but none of them seemed right… this included a chorus of the scientists all shouting the word ’synchrotron’ (which was a bit parochial); the ‘Attention Attention’ announcement made when an electron injection is about to occur (this seemed a bit too self referential); and the opening guitar riff of the song ‘Fire’ from my old band ‘Crank’ (a ‘heavy metalesque’ song about particle physics - see http://www.mp3.com.au/artist.asp?id=26883) (this basically turned the synchrotron into a $200 million effects pedal!!)

The day before the experiment was to be attempted (which had to be booked a month in advance), I was out the front of the complex in the hot sun, and the shrill cry of a cicada stopped me in my tracks. The cicada’s deafening high-pitched tune was not only geoacoustically appropriate, it also gave me a perfect ’synaesthetic’ picture of the energy beam whirling around the synchrotron ring. Thus I recorded it, sent it to Germany to be encoded, and gave it to the accelerator physicists.

The day of the experiment: The sound file was ‘pitch shifted’ up from a base frequency of 5 kHz to 1 MHz to make the ‘vibration’ fast enough to modulate the amplitude of the beam, in a way similar to how AM radio works. The image below is a photo of one of the control room screens showing the sound file ready to be put into the beam.


The physicist Martin Spencer put the data into the control system and tried to oscillate the beam around this frequency. But something went wrong (don’t ask me what exactly - I’m no scientist!), and the beam literally failed and stopped. I dumped the beam! (this is what they call it) Greg LeBlanc, the chief accelerator physicist, even shook my hand and congratulated me - not many people have managed to do that! The image below shows the main control screen with the poetically ominous ‘tune error’ warning.


But then they got the beam back up & running, tweaked the data a bit, pich shifted it higher and even put the maximum energy into the beamline. The data was ‘re-injected’, and this time it worked! The cicada frequency this time was in harmony with the ‘natural’ frequency of the synchrotron beam, and thus the beam vibrated with the sound of the cicada tune. It was a very exciting moment. Even though nothing was directly perceivable, just to know that the heart of the huge and incredibly complex facility around me was pulsating with the sound of the cicada that lived next to it somehow connected the synchrotron back to the world around it. The experiment revealed a relationship between sound and light and energy and matter, the cicada singing in the sunlight and the light in the synchrotron singing with the cicada’s tune. Below are images of the ‘cicada tune’ in the electron beam, detected on the control room screens.



Spectral and frequency data was recorded which will allow the ’synchrotron - cicada tune’ to be re-adjusted to audible frequencies. The experiment was a success! But then, just after I left the control room, accompanied by a roar of thunder and flashes of lightning, a huge storm hit! The wind and rain were ferocious within minutes. It was impossible to see outside, the wind blew trees over, and water started pouring into the entry, and was coming out of the lights. The whole facility had to be shut down. It’s infinitely unlikely this was caused by my experiment, but the timing was uncanny. There is the well-known ‘butterfly effect’, where a butterfly flapping its wings can in theory affect storms thousands of miles away - perhaps this was the ‘cicada effect’!



Virtual tomography tests

Here are some interactive quicktime vr objects derived from experiments done by ‘capturing’ different light sources from the synchrotron optical and infra-red beamlines. Grab and drag to rotate the lightbulbs (note - they may not actually work depending on software and downloadability)



Protein Crystallography images

The latest image from the protein crystallography beamline - an Xray image of the lightbulb (dark) against points of atomic-scale xray intereference of about 1 Angstrom (white spots). The image brings together the two very different realms of the directly perceptible macroscopic world, and the molecular universe of particles and energy interference patterns.

Infra-Red Illuminations

Images of the lightbulb specimen in the infra-red beam



These images show the effects of the synchrotron’s infra-red beam upon a transparent object, and from this otherwise invisible energy can be seen. The images above have not been digitally enhanced - the CCDs on the digital camera pick up a certain part of the infra-red (subvisible) part of the electromagnetic spectrum. By contrast, the image below has been taken using infra-red film with an infra-red filter on the lens so ONLY the infra-red can be seen (which is invisible to the human eye). This image has been artifically coloured, based upon the hue of the digital photographs above.


Flying Undulators

Another action packed week… This one saw the delivery of 70 odd gigiabytes of 360 degree video, courtesy of Volker Kuchelmeister from iCinema, who flew down from Sydney with his Point Grey ‘Ladybug’ camera and took hours of footage in the linear accelerator, accelerator ring & storage ring (and then I had to fly up to Sydney to get the rendered video files (as they were so big!)) There was also a visit from Melinda Rackham of ANAT fame & Linda Lucas of Arts Victoria Arts Innovation, who seemed to both enjoy the ’show’; a ’show & tell’ with the accelerator physicists and a few of the beamline scientists, who seemed to enjoy the artshow; and finally the delivery and lifting into place of two X-Large Undulators, which stole the show!
See the images below for the ’sci-fi-sight’ of an 8 ton undulator ‘floating’ 10 metres above the ground, and a ‘gathering’ of intra-vacuum devices..

The Flying Undulator

Above: ‘The Flying Undualtor’

2 Undulators and a Wiggler zone
Above: ‘2 undulators & a Wiggler’

The 1st ‘experiment’

I have been using the optical beamline of the Synchrotron to illuminate objects, via an array of filters, lenses and prisms mounted on an ‘optical workbench’. In particular, I have been using the filtered optical frequencies to illuminate an old incandescent lightbulb from my childhood.. Here is an example of my first ‘experiment’ directly using synchrotron energy to re-illuminate the old light.



Communicating across the specialization barriers…

The Australian Synchrotron is a facility of immense theoretical and technical complexity, which requires scientists and engineers from a wide range of ultra-specialized areas to work together in pursuit of a common yet multifaceted goal. It would be impossible for any one individual to fully understand all the workings and details of such an enterprise. To understand the current states and uses of synchrotrons would require years of study in disciplines ranging from pure and applied mathematics to particle and optical physics, inorganic chemistry to cellular biology, computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering, and so on - even the specialized notations and languages alone would take years to learn, let alone master. How then, is it possible to communicate such concepts across the different scientific disciplines, let alone to the layperson?

One way to gain insight into such a complex meeting-point of scientific disciplines is through the observation and communication with the people that have created and developed the synchrotron. Through discussions with different individuals, an evolving picture can be developed that shows not only the synchrotron itself, but also the theories and ideas behind the technologies being used, and how the different disciplines and people offer different interpretations of both the processes and results. When paired with an historical survey of the theories and technologies, and the people that have developed the theories and practices being used, and their ideas, philosophies, and passions, the human face of synchrotron science is revealed. By looking at the philosophies behind the theories behind the technology also reveals the nature of scientific development itself. Such an epistemological view can show aspects of the ideas and processes that are rarely addressed in empirical terms or texts, namely, the aspects of science that aren’t strictly logical or scientific, and thus reveals the intuitive or ‘artistic’ elements of science in general, and the synchrotron in particular.

Through the use of digital technologies, many of the processes in contemporary media art share many properties with those of scientific research - in particular, many methods used to visualize data are common across both disciplines. Thus data from the synchrotron can be ‘aesthetically analyzed’ to produce artworks that use fundamental forms of synchrotron technologies and ideas in their composition. Conversely, using scientific tools such as fourier analysis for the production of art ‘embeds’ the processes of science within the artworks, and although the results are very different, the shared elements and methods point to a fundamental form of visualization common to both disciplines.

Historically, such ideas of ‘trans-disciplinary visualization’ have been explored by both artists such as Marcel Duchamp, and by scientists. One figure in 20th century physics stands out in this area, the “father of the atom”, Niels Bohr. During his quest to unify the theories of Quantum mechanics in the 1920s, Bohr came to the conclusion of the primacy of visual thought in both science and art. Bohr was also inspired by art movements such as cubism and surrealism, which arguably aided the development of his theory of complementarity - as discussed in previous posts, a subatomic entity (and a work of art!) can appear to be different things depending on how you look at it.

Through the creation of art that is inspired by science new ways of communication are developed. Such methods can transcend the languages of the specialist and allow communication across different fields, but also give scientists a glimpse of how non-scientists see their work. Perhaps more importantly, ’synchrotron art’ can also give the layperson a ‘feel’ of the ideas, technologies and processes involved at such facilities as the Australian Synchrotron, and allow an insight into a very different world to that of the everyday.