LAB3 work synergizes physics, scientists, arts

UW-Madison physics research has been transformed into art with the help of the Arts+Literature lab. Photo by Maggie Liu.

A scientific paper detailing detection methods of dark matter and words like electrons, neutrinos and muons thrown about—these are things expected in a physics lecture or in the office of a physics professor at UW-Madison, but perhaps not at all expected in a local Madison art gallery. However, thanks to a collaboration between the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC), the Arts+Literature Laboratory (ALL) and local artists, writers and high school students, UW-Madison IceCube physics research has been transformed with art, poetry, film and music to create the LAB3 project—a multidisciplinary effort that produced a gallery of artwork transporting visitors to galaxies far, far away and to emotions close and near to the human heart.

IceCube, completed in 2010, is a massive sensor located deep within Antarctic ice that detects neutrinos, tiny high energy particles formed by massive nuclear reactions in stars and galaxies. The project was developed and is still operated by UW-Madison researchers, along with an international host of institutions and universities. IceCube offers researchers a unique look into far off cosmic events and objects because of the nature of a neutrino—neutrinos can pass through nearly all matter and energy unimpeded, meaning they carry valuable and uninterfered information about their distant origins.

However, the very same properties that allow neutrinos to travel uninterrupted over light years has also made them historically difficult to detect and study. However, through detecting muons, charged particles that are released when neutrinos encounter atomic nuclei, IceCube has successfully detected the elusive neutrinos, making it a revolutionary and cutting-edge tool for viewing and understanding the universe.

While IceCube physically remains in Antarctica, it has nevertheless been making waves within the Madison community through various outreach efforts. This past summer, WIPAC and ALL brought together UW-Madison physicists working on IceCube and local writers, artists and high school students through the LAB3 project in order to bridge the gap between science and the arts. Sílvia Bravo and Jolynn Roorda from WIPAC and ALL, respectively, acted as co-directors of the LAB3 project.

“The guiding motivation was really to connect two worlds that are often disconnected… I think many of the thoughts and discussions about our society comes from our artists and writers. We as physicists also like to understand our world, just in a different way with a different language, but otherwise, we both have this same idea of trying to understand what’s going on around us,” Bravo said.

In a series of conversations, the UW-Madison physicists discussed and taught their research concerning IceCube and neutrinos to the artists and students in their groups. Through these discussions, the scientist and artist mentors then guided the students through brainstorming, planning and creating works of art that incorporated what they learned about physics and IceCube in creative and unique ways.

“I remember our first meeting so well. We were over at the offices with [John Kelley, a UW-Madison physicist], who was explaining the characteristics [of neutrinos]… and it was really interesting how even before we had any idea of what we were going to do, we were making all these connections, like whether the neutrino oscillations, the different flavors of a neutrino, were like a string instrument with vibrating strings… all these different ideas were flowing as we asked questions and tried to understand,” said Katherine Rosing, an artist who participated as a mentor in LAB3.

The gallery features a wide variety of artworks, including a dance video, 3D art and installations, interactive activities, huge paintings on fabric, murals, a laser projector and musical and auditory experiences. In one installation, multi-colored strings, representing the linear and uninterrupted paths of neutrinos, criss-crossed through a room and the objects within it, interspaced with written haikus on the walls ruminating upon cosmic particles, backed by a musical composition. Yet another installation consisted of a background wall featuring a published scientific paper on dark matter that was covered with drawings, poetry and wire sculptures. One painting depicted an archer shooting an arrow made of lasers to the starry constellations above. The broad collection of artistic mediums representing a range of scientific topics reflected the open-ended and creative nature of LAB3.

“Since the beginning, it was an experiment of sorts, so we didn’t want to have something very guided… every physicist would explain to their students what their work was about and invite them to their labs, and starting from there they could go anywhere,” Bravo said.

At its core though, LAB3 was designed to provide its young students an opportunity to find confidence in their own abilities, as well as to help them discover their own potential for and interest in subjects they otherwise may not have explored or found connections in.

“We wanted the students to feel that they could be the physicists or the artists in front of them, and that they have the talent, that they can do it if they want to…. they are really clever people full of energy, and sometimes we just need to give to them the time and environment to really grow, and I think that’s something the LAB3 project was trying to do,” said Bravo.

The LAB3 exhibit is open and free to the public through Sept. 29 at the Arts+Literature Laboratory located on 2021 Winnebago Street. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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