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We’ve discovered the world’s largest drum – and it’s in space

We’ve discovered the world’s largest drum – and it’s in space

The Earth’s magnetosphere bangs like a drum.
E. Masongsong/UCLA, M. Archer/QMUL, H. Hietala/UTU

Martin Archer, Queen Mary University of London

Universities in the US have long wrangled over who owns the world’s largest drum. Unsubstantiated claims to the title have included the “Purdue Big Bass Drum” and “Big Bertha”, which interestingly was named after the German World War I cannon and ended up becoming radioactive during the Manhattan Project.

Unfortunately for the Americans, however, the Guinness Book of World Records says a traditional Korean “CheonGo” drum holds the true title. This is over 5.5 metres in diameter, some six metres tall and weighs over seven tonnes. But my latest scientific results, just published in Nature Communications, have blown all of the contenders away. That’s because the world’s largest drum is actually several tens of times larger than our planet – and it exists in space.

You may think this is nonsense. But the magnetic field (magnetosphere) that surrounds the Earth, protecting us by diverting the solar wind around the planet, is a gigantic and complicated musical instrument. We’ve known for 50 years or so that weak magnetic types of sound waves can bounce around and resonate within this environment, forming well defined notes in exactly the same way wind and stringed instruments do. But these notes form at frequencies tens of thousands of times lower than we can hear with our ears. And this drum-like instrument within our magnetosphere has long eluded us – until now.

Massive magnetic membrane

The key feature of a drum is its surface – technically referred to as a membrane (drums are also known as membranophones). When you hit this surface, ripples can spread across it and get reflected back at the fixed edges. The original and reflected waves can interfere by reinforcing or cancelling each other out. This leads to “standing wave patterns”, in which specific points appear to be standing still while others vibrate back and forth. The specific patterns and their associated frequencies are determined entirely by the shape of the drum’s surface. In fact, the question “Can one hear the shape of a drum?” has intrigued mathematicians from the 1960s until today.

The outer boundary of Earth’s magnetosphere, known as the magnetopause, behaves very much like an elastic membrane. It grows or shrinks depending on the varying strength of the solar wind, and these changes often trigger ripples or surface waves to spread out across the boundary. While scientists have often focused on how these waves travel down the sides of the magnetosphere, they should also travel towards the magnetic poles.

Physicists often take complicated problems and simplify them considerably to gain insight. This approach helped theorists 45 years ago first demonstrate that these surface waves might indeed get reflected back, making the magnetosphere vibrate just like a drum. But it wasn’t clear whether removing some of the simplifications in the theory might stop the drum from being possible.

It also turned out to be very difficult to find compelling observational evidence for this theory from satellite data. In space physics, unlike say astronomy, we’re usually dealing with the completely invisible. We can’t just take a picture of what’s going on everywhere, we have to send satellites out and measure it. But that means we only know what’s happening in the locations where there are satellites. The conundrum is often whether the satellites are in the right place at the right time to find what you’re looking for.

Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have been further developing the theory of this magnetic drum to give us testable signatures to search for in our data. We were able to come up with some strict criteria that we thought could provide evidence for these oscillations. It basically meant that we needed at least four satellites all in a row near the magnetopause.

Thankfully, NASA’s THEMIS mission gave us not four but five satellites to play with. All we had to do was find the right driving event, equivalent to the drum stick hitting the drum, and measure how the surface moved in response and what sounds it created. The event in question was a jet of high speed particles impulsively slamming into the magnetopause. Once we had that, everything fell into place almost perfectly. We have even recreated what the drum actually sounds like (see the video above).

This research really goes to show how tricky science can be in reality. Something which sounds relatively straightforward has taken us 45 years to demonstrate. And this journey is far from over, there’s plenty more work to do in order to find out how often these drum-like vibrations occur (both here at Earth and potentially at other planets, too) and what their consequences on our space environment are.

This will ultimately help us unravel what kind of rhythm the magnetosphere produces over time. As a former DJ, I can’t wait – I love a good beat.The Conversation

Martin Archer, Space Plasma Physicist, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Missing Mass

Carey Young: Missing Mass, 2010 (installation view) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Missing Mass (2010) is a sculptural work created with the scientific guidance of Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, an astrophysicist based at King’s College London. The piece ‘presents’ a specific number of dark matter particles alongside a legal disclaimer which proposes the particles as the only truly free entities in existence. The work centres on the idea of artistic freedom, suggesting that if dark matter particles are the only free entities in existence, by implication, art, the artist, and any other societal or cultural element held to be symbolic of freedom, are merely constrained, whether by gravity, bureaucracy, institutional ties, etc. The work also proposes links between sculptural works associated with Minimalism and Conceptual Art (such as the early work of Hans Haacke) and contemporary developments in astrophysics.

The work was developed through a research process which involved regular meetings with Dr. Fairbairn, plus an astrophysics reading list, which necessitated five months of study. From this process I derived the idea for the work, as well as others including Terminal Velocity.

Carey Young Missing Mass, 2010 (detail) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) Photo: Thierry Bal. © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

The text on the plinth says:

Carey Young
5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, 18 x 18 x 18 inches.*

* Disclaimer

  1. i) Dark matter particles are governed by their own laws and may circulate freely.ii)  The figure of 5461 dark matter particles represents an average according to current scientific thinking. Actual amounts may vary from time to time.iii)  Dark matter is transparent and undetectable to the human eye.iv)  Since dark matter may at any time pass through any surrounding man-made or natural structures, including the walls of this container, your body, and the whole material structure of the planet, any collector of this work should not expect to own the same 5,461 dark matter particles at any one time.

Carey Young Missing Mass, 2010 (detail) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) Photo: Steven Probert. © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York


Artist Statement

Since 2003, visual artist Carey Young has developed a number of artworks that are also functional legal instruments, and which have conceptualised and explored law as an artistic medium. Young collaborates with legal advisors to make artworks in installation, video, performance, print, sculpture and photography, which have been exhibited internationally. These works have embodied such diverse forms as contracts, disclaimers, offers, licenses, cautionary statements and a will, and addressed disparate legal fields including human rights, inheritance law, intellectual property and law relating to outer space. Experimenting with ideas of time, space and physicality, Young’s body of artistic work explores law as a separate kind of ‘reality’, one with its own inherent subjectivities and points of breakdown.



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Aura Satz: The Trembling Line. Film and multi-channel sound installation, 2015

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Aura Satz: I studied cultural studies and art history in Bologna (Italy) before coming to London to do a PhD by theory/practice at the Slade School of Fine Art. Initially I worked with sculpture and performance but over the last 20 years or so I have become more invested in film and sound. My works operate in constellations, I have a central theme which might manifest in multiple formats, as films, performances, sound works, and so on.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

AS: I was very much influenced by Lis Rhodes who taught me at the Slade, and whom I have since collaborated with. Intergenerational conversations are extremely important to me. I have been teaching for around 20 years now, and I get a lot of inspiration from my students. Teaching also keeps me attuned to practices outside of my own. In my undergraduate studies I was particularly fascinated by iconoclasm and theories of the image based on contact relics. I suppose this has carried through in my later works which attempt to look closely at technologies, prying the apparatus apart, as well as my interest in technologies of sound writing, such as the phonograph – where the groove is a trace and relic of the voice, so to speak. I have always been inspired by female voices, and there are a number of women composers who are key sources of inspiration. I often think of some of the more dialogic works I have made with people such as Lis Rhodes, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, as an opportunity to go deeper into the conversation, not just through the encounter, the film or the recording of a verbal exchange, but even later in the editing process, where I spend a lot of time listening and composing to the cadence of speech or a pause for breath.

Aura Satz: Her Marks a Measure

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

AS: I keep returning to the notion of a distributed, expanded and shared notion of voice. Works are made in conversation and use dialogue as both method and subject matter. In my works which draw on historical research I see myself in dialogic exchange with past voices, speaking backwards and forwards, being spoken through. When I have focussed on technologies of sound writing, recording and playback, it is precisely because I am interested in ways in which voices carry through, have been under-heard, and can be ‘listened into speech’. Many previous works focussed on minor histories, using archival research as a starting point, but in recent years I have shifted from the idea of notation of the past towards a logic that is more aligned with a visual or verbal score, an open invitation to think towards possible future manifestations. A score implies a non-hierarchical generosity, suggesting multiple future iterations and no singular privileged way of performing or enacting. Some scores simply suggest a shift in focus, such as Oliveros’ suggestion to listen with the soles of your feet. Many of my works could be read as an invitation to recalibrate attention, ways in which we give it, what is deemed worthy of it, how we might enact a different modality of attention, what we conceive of as foreground and what is background.

Aura Satz: Ventriloqua

RB: You began working with sound, with the piece Ventriloqua, in 2003 when you were pregnant. A number of your later works are to do with acoustic devices and vibration. Can you give some examples of these works?

AS: In Ventriloqua my pregnant belly became an instrument, a medium or antenna of sorts for a thereminist to play the electromagnetic waves. I wore a red outfit that covered all of my body, including my face, and the only visible part was the belly, which looked like an oracular eye or a breast of sorts. Through the trope of ventri-loquism (belly-speaking) I was able to explore the possibility of becoming a conduit for other voices. For me that performance was a powerful manifestation of speaking and being spoken through. In other works such as Automamusic (2008), Sound Seam (2010) Onomatopoeic Alphabet (2010), Vocal Flame (2011) and In and Out of Synch (2012) I focussed on devices such as orchestrions, mechanical music, phonographs, Chladni Plate, Ruben’s tube and optical sound on film as technologies of sound visualisation, some of which manifest sound patterns without quite constituting a notation system or code, and others which encrypt sound in order for it to be read back by a machine rather than a human. All of these enabled me to explore voices that align, interfere, interweave, synchronise, overlap, overwrite, hover between signal and noise, between decipherable meaning and the unfamiliar and as yet unencoded.

Aura Satz: Vocal Flame, 2012


Aura Satz: Sound Seam, 2010 (installation view)

In Sound Seam for example we worked with the surface noises of wax cylinders and vinyl glitch, as well as generating many layers of sounds by recording voices over each other.  At the same time there is something about seeing as informed by hearing, and vice versa, a listening that is in tension with the visible, that I find incredibly generative. This became central to In and Out of Synch, the 16mm film co-scripted and co-voiced with Lis Rhodes, where the optical sound on film patterns conveying our voices are ruptured by stroboscopic effects, due to a deliberate subtle misalignment of the monitoring eyepiece. You end up with a kind of Rorschach effect, certain sounds are punctuated or counteracted by the visual, and their respective rhythms generate a friction that is useful in unsettling standardized readings, making us hear or see differently.

Aura Satz: In and Out of Synch

RB: When did you begin to prioritise film-making and why?

AS: Initially I used film to document performances. When I made Automamusic in 2008 I realised that the only way to get inside these multiple mechanical music devices (which were housed in a museum in a small town in Switzerland), the best method of access to open them up and reconfigure them, was through the camera and the juxtaposition of sound patterns with visual rhythms. In other projects I found that there’s a kind of close-up looking and listening that can only be achieved through film. In my films I am keen to foreground sound, often it becomes the driving force, literally the engine driving the visuals or setting the rhythmic pace of the film. This is true of all of the sound visualisation films mentioned above, as well as a more recent project Preemptive Listening (2018), where the voice triggers an emergency rotating light. A film might feature moments of darkness or silence to allow for the senses to cross-pollinate, the eyes to take on the role of the ears or the other way around. I like the idea of an anagrammatic remapping of the senses, a disruption of hierarchies, a destabilizing of relations, of what is perceived, how, where, by who.

Aura Satz: Preemptive Listening (part 1 The Fork in the Road), 2018, installation view (photo Adam Reich)

RB: As well as exploring different techniques for visualizing sound, a number of your works focus on gender and women’s important contributions to technology. I’m thinking particularly of Oramics: Atlantis Anew (2011), Doorway for Natalie Kalmus (2013) and She Recalibrates (2018).  Can you say something about these works?

AS: Part of my commitment to the notion of a distributed voice is an unsettling of which voices are allowed, amplified within the range of the audible, who gets heard, who is written into the canon of history, and how can we destabilise these readings to allow for new voices to emerge. The film about Daphne Oram was central to my thinking on sound writing as a form of instantiating a new language or notation system, a new soundscape and in turn a new kind of listening.


Aura Satz: She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018 (photo Thierry Bal)

She Recalibrates follows on from this by focussing on women composers working with electronic music such as Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher and others, who are portrayed with their hands on a dial, engaged in an experimental type of listening, modulating electricity, recalibrating what is considered noise or signal, what is worthy of being heard, and what can be understood as music. Their hands and ears are literally partaking in the circuit, tuning and recalibrating the signal. I made series of pencil drawings of hands on dials, framed inside a Fresnel lens which generates a diffractive pattern from the centre. The drawings only appear at a certain angle, due to the silver effect of graphite pencil on black paper, but also because the lens incorporates the interference of light reflections. It’s like looking at a lenticular print, or, more accurately, a CD or vinyl record with a diffractive centre, the image is continually changing according to the position of the viewer and the angle of light.  This is emblematic of what I try to do in all my works, allowing for an entangled space between voices, between signal and noise, for both to appear as method and subject matter.

Aura Satz: Tuning Interference on a Dark Matter Radio, 2019

RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’, with a sound work Tuning Interference: Dark Matter Radio. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

AS: The curator Sandra Ross commissioned me to make a sound work responding to the theme of dark matter, under the guidance of the astrophysicist Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, who invited Prof. David (Doddy) J.E. Marsh into the collaboration. I was really inspired by the way some of the experiments have been described as listening out for a signal that has not yet appeared. In particular I was drawn to the description of ADMX, one of many dark matter research initiatives (and a number of related experiments operating in Korea, Europe, and the USA), as “a radio that looks for a radio station, but we don’t know its frequency. We turn the knob slowly while listening. Ideally we will hear a tone when the frequency is right.[1] I wanted to work with this notion of experimental listening by making a sonic diagram of sorts, which would evoke a tuning experience. Together with Malcom and Doddy, as well as audio engineer/music AI specialist Dr. David Ronan who sonified the data, we made a 10 channel sound installation which renders a current hypothetical simulation of dark matter into sound. Essentially the sound patterns are a set of relations between the data, and we mapped it in such a way so as to generate intense psychoacoustic effects in the listeners, exploring sonic equivalents of interference and collision through beat frequencies and other diffractive qualities which shift according to the listener’s location. The listener becomes a radio dial of sorts, as the ears move through the soundscape, micro-tuning with each adjustment. It’s not dissimilar to the effect I described with the Fresnel lens framed drawings. There is no ideal vantage point or listening sweet spot, the listener is embedded within the sound, effectively generating the sound according to their orientation within the speaker ring.

Doddy showed me some visualisations of the simulation of dark matter in a hypothetical galaxy, and it looked like ripples of water or waves diffracting. This particular model of dark matter simulated contains waves[2], and we used speed and density to generate the shape of the harmonic structure. We chose the spacing of the speakers around the ring to be close to one wavelength, so that the coherence between speakers is audible, and yet varies in an interesting way around the ring. I wanted to create a soundscape that felt like a field of vibration and flux, with clusters of density, moments of tension and relief. Close frequency alignment and interference became a compositional principle, much like a kind of acoustic moiré. The arrangement of the speakers reflects the distribution of dark matter, so what you are hearing is not the sound of dark matter per se, but the hypothetical flux and motion of dark matter as rendered through sound. Each speaker is one point of data in the simulation, and if you listen close-up you will hear a singular slow-changing drone rather than all the beat frequencies that occur in the centre of the ring where the sounds interact with each other. Sometimes the wave shape of one point of data is extremely close to another, changing at a variable rate, and this alignment generates a sense of dense patterning, a pulse which gradually accelerates, intensifies, shifts focus and recedes. The sound is sculpted into a rippling flux which gathers and dissipates in such a way that is hard to hold onto or memorise. You can’t possibly internalise the rhythm of the piece, and each listening session will sound quite different from the previous one as your ears fabricate new acoustic illusions, adjust to the sounds, are de-sensitized or fatigued. I spent months tweaking the composition and by the end of a long session I wasn’t sure what I was hearing anymore, what was in between the speakers and what was between my ears.

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

AS: I am interested in the ways in which scientific research activates or distorts a certain intuitive understanding of the world, and I try to find a way to make this come across on a very physical level, as visual or sonic experience. I wanted people to feel enmeshed within a dynamic rotational flow or current, something that can be sensed but which we don’t necessarily have the theoretical frameworks to account for. I find it fascinating that in current research on dark matter we are at a point of knowing unknowing, so to speak – we don’t know what exactly we are looking for and we haven’t yet identified what it is, all we know for certain is that its presence is somehow implied through the way it interacts or interferes with matter. Without dark matter many previously accepted theories are untenable, and as such it both disrupts and holds together different hypothetical theories.

I think the piece also conveys some of my previous concerns around modes of attention, a continuous retuning and recalibrating of what is heard and where one is positioned in relation to the signal or the noise (or what is understood as which). The idea of acoustic moiré – a morphing non-hierarchical, almost untethered grid – resonates with my interest in a multiplicity of voices which align and interfere with each other, activating the spaces in between. This is the reason I am drawn to work with sound – already at a very basic level it is doing the work as a vibratory in-between, as inherently relational, unsettling boundaries.

In addition to the speaker ring, I wanted a visual marker to provide a distinct sense of oscillation, that you are entering a vibratory sound field, so between each speaker there is a VU metre driven by the sound. The needle trembles to echo the volatile, dynamic and ever-changing frequency fields, though what exactly is being measured remains uncertain (the metres are blank and have no numbers).

Aura Satz, ‘Vera Rubin’s Irrefutable Evidence’, 2019

Nearby hangs a photo of Vera Rubin (1928-2016). Rubin was an American astronomer who discovered the galaxy rotation problem, providing evidence of the existence of dark matter. In the photo she is seen looking through a spectrograph mounted on the end of the telescope, recording an image of the spectrum (colours) of a small section of a galaxy. It’s quite an obscure image, in that she is wearing a hooded coat, so hardly any parts of her face or body are identifiable. Like the series She Recalibrates mentioned earlier, the image is framed inside a Fresnel lens, generating a diffractive pattern emanating from the centre, the point between her eye and the eyepiece of the telescope. The viewer has to somehow tune into the image for it to surface in amidst all the diffractive interferences and light play. It’s not central to the main piece, but I wanted to include Rubin as I think of the artwork as a space for naming, reconfiguring the canon, putting an underacknowledged female scientist into the conversation.

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

AS: I don’t think I could ever provide a definitive answer. The part that interests me from my recent experiences is the way in which both science and art ask questions and destabilise our current understanding of the world. Both are a response to curiosity and uncertainty, and can give us some orientation towards the future. Recalibration is key, an openness to change and a resistance to standardization.

Aura Satz: ‘Listen, Recalibrate’, solo show installation view, Fridman Gallery (photo Adam Reich)

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

AS: For some years now I have been working on a project entitled Preemptive Listening, which looks at emergency signals and siren sounds. I read the siren as a specific kind of sound, one that requires attention, and demands an action or response. Citizens respond to its call, demonstrating obedience to its authority – it is a sound that commands submission, deflection, dispersion. It attracts in order to dispel, unsettles and resettles. It demands localized attention, and is the sonic architect of social order. It is a sonic marker that structures urban spaces in an emergency, a marker between future danger and dangers past, projecting a trajectory and expelling obstacles along the way. As the primary vocalization of the state, it articulates our relationship to power and civil order. All of which makes it fascinating, complex and in dire need of a re-wiring. My invitation is to pry it apart and recompose the siren, to think of it as a sound signal that requires recalibration. I am attempting to reimagine the siren sound: how can we open and destabilize this overly codified, prescriptive and stable semantic sound by taking a compositional approach, remapping new readings onto new sounds, how can we unlearn the existing code, find ways to listen differently, resist the hypervigilant, predetermined, automated call to obedience and set the intention to be curious, open, receptive, imaginative. If one remaps the sound, explores the possibility of different emotional registers, one can in turn generate distinct affective responses, more varied strategies for crisis management, and attend to a spectrum of different voices in need of our attention. And in our multiple modes of response, we might in turn enact an altered relationships to power.


[2]  Simulations performed at the University of Goettingen by Mr Jan Veltmaat, Dr Bodo Schwabe, and Prof Jens Niemeyer.


All images copyright and courtesy of Aura Satz


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There’s more to this than meets the eye

Yu-Chen Wang at CCCB 2019 Arts at CERN

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Yu-Chen Wang: I’m originally from Taiwan and I’ve lived and worked in the UK for quite some time… actually next week, it would be 19 years exactly. I was trained as a designer, specialising in visual communication. When I moved to London, by chance I went on to study art at Goldsmiths and I’ve worked as a practicing artist ever since.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

Y-CW: One of the major influences is my life experience in and between Taiwan and the UK. For a long time, I try to understand Britain/Britishness – I treat it almost like an ongoing research project. I have travelled extensively and actively undertaken artist-in-residence in different regions as a way to explore local histories and meeting new people. In a way, I’m taking the opportunity to learn more about the country and trying to make up what I don’t know or I haven’t had a chance to experience previously.

Funny enough, I start to think there’s an urge for me to do similar things in Taiwan. Not only I feel like there’s a lot I need to catch up, but also to discover something completely different – because I’ve been away for so long, I would approach things quite differently now. Also with Taiwan’s colonial past and the dictatorship, only in recent years a lot of untold histories begin to merge and being talked about. It’s like getting to know Taiwan in a new way.

Quantum In Search of the Invisible catalogue, 2019 CCCB

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

Y-CW: I see my work very much focuses on research and process, experience and relationship. There’s a particular way for developing my work, which often involves a period of time spent in a specific place. I would then undertake extensive research the contextual histories and engage with a group of locally-based people or specialists who would assist my research. Two major components I’d like to explore generally: the archives and archaeology, which form the main source of inspiration for developing my work.

I have spent a lot of time in various archives going through documents, photos and footage. Often I find myself working like a historian trying to interpret documentations – it’s a form of storytelling. I am fascinated by the archival materials, as they are of the past, from another period of time, not now not my time, someone else’s memory… often in this context, the use of technology for documentation becomes particularly interesting.

Sometimes I think I work like an archaeologist exploring various heritage sites (historic landmarks, abandoned places, ruins or sites for regeneration projects…) and objects (remains in historic sites, artifacts in the museum collections, at abandoned places or junk yards…). Not necessary taking part in physical digging or excavations, but I would look for tangible evidence to further expand the missing narratives from interpreting archives.

Often I would engage with a group of people helping with my research. They’re the catalysts for me to connect to places and to unfold stories. It is important to form a relationship with the group; through repeated meetings, a lot of rich materials would naturally come out, they’re original and potentially very inspirational. I guess that’s a very important part of my practice – knowledge exchange. Through this exchange, a new network is formed for connecting people and places and telling (new) stories – that’s how I make work.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (detail) pencil on paper 2100 x 1310mm

RB: Drawing is central to your practice. How would you define your approach to drawing and its process?

Y-CW: For me, making drawing is very much about the process, various acts of accumulating, rendering, processing and reflecting. Before I make drawings, I collect a lot of images related to whatever project I’m working on, often from the archives, sometimes from my own camera. I don’t make sketches or preparatory drawings – I would just draw as if the pencil lines organically growing and spraying out on the paper. I make drawings on the table, often some part of the paper is rolled up due to the limited studio space and the size of my table. In a way it’s problematic as I’m very close to the paper and I don’t get a chance to see the entire drawing until I finish the work or when the drawing is being exhibited in the gallery. It’s a deliberate decision, as I try to condition the way I work and in the hope of opening up something that is more intuitive and less controlled.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at CCCB.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at CCCB.

RB: Can you say something about your work We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there?

Y-CW: As part of Collide International Awards (2016-18), a partnership between Arts at CERN and FACT, the piece is a direct response to my visit to CERN, conversations I had with physicists there and also the ones in Liverpool.

Inspired by 60’s Bubble Chamber experiment, my work develops a poetic narrative of the histories of recent science: establishing parallel lines between my drawing of apparatus, meetings with physicists and scientific documents found in the archives. Comprising multilayered imageries and voices, We aren’t able to prove that just yet… is a collage of history and fiction, documentation and interpretation.

Over the 2-year EU touring, the work is evolving and has been developed into multiple versions with different languages and spatial arrangements for each venue. The piece have been shown at FACT, Liverpool last year and is currently on show at CCCB, Barcelona and will later travel to iMAL, Brussels and le lieu unique, Nantes.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at FACT

RB: You’re taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

Y-CW: The experience of developing CERN-inspired project worked as a foundation for creating this new commission. I was very excited about further expanding what I was researching from quantum to cosmic, from particle physics to astrophysics, a more multi-disciplinary approach.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019

I also took part in a panel discussion together with the exhibition adviser and physicist Malcolm Fairbairn (who is also one of the scientists I have interviewed), philosopher Eleanor Knox, chaired by science presenter Helen Arney (also my collaborator, who has delivered the voice over for my piece). It was brilliant that the speakers are from very different fields and to have conversation about scientific truth and the limitation of human knowledge. When we don’t know how to answer the question, turning ourselves to thinking philosophical seems necessary and perhaps helpful.

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

Y-CW: I wrote the script using a first person’s voice as a reflection of my journey of exploring science – visiting labs, speaking to various physicists, investing scientific images and documentations. The voiceover is delivered by Helen Arney, whose performance was brilliant and humorous, absolutely animates my inner thoughts. Using wireless headphones with music and surround sound effect designed by Capitol K, I’m trying to create an intimate experience of one-to-one moment between the audience and my work. This way of storytelling also shows my approach to science: I almost become a researcher myself adapting certain scientific methods, collecting, analysing and trying to build new experiments and run tests in order to understand more and to make sense of everything.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

Y-CW: Both fields are about asking questions, exploring some unknown territories and looking for something new. These are places where no one has been to or no one knows how to get there. They definitely involve certain level of risk-taking and overcoming endless failures, and most importantly they need to be able to communicate, not just within the community, but to the general public.

In the case of art and physics, it’s interesting that both are trying to make the invisible visible and trying to see differently.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

Y-CW: I’m continuing to develop the work for Collide International Awards’ touring programme. For the exhibition in Brussels, this evolving piece will have a new life and will be presented in response to the gallery space and local audiences.

I’m working on a couple of projects inspired by the industrial heritage, such as canals in Birmingham and railway in Doncaster. I will work with local community to produce new work in response to the future urban regeneration. Another project in Taipei I will explore the relationship between art and the increasing information-driven technology and the influences on our day to day life.


All images copyright and courtesy of Yu-Chen Wang

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95% of the Universe is missing

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Malcom Fairbairn: I am originally from Wigan in the northwest of England, I did my UG and PhD at Birmingham, Cambridge and Sussex then I did postdocs in Brussels, Stockholm and at CERN before coming to King’s College London just over a decade ago. I am a theoretical physicist (so I do calculations rather than experiments), and I work at the intersection of Particle Physics, Astrophysics and Cosmology. I spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of dark matter and how we might learn more about it or even better, discover what it is precisely.

RB: You are involved in a season of events, ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’, taking place at the Science Gallery, London. Can you say more about your involvement in this and what this season is hoping to achieve?

MF: I had two main roles.  The first was as curatorial advisor to the curators who were putting the exhibition together. The team has evolved a lot because of maternity leave and changes in personnel. When we started the core was myself, Jen Wong, and the main curator Sandra Ross. The old director of Science Gallery London, Daniel Glaser, was also involved in the motivation for this season. There was also a bigger advisory pool of artists but in the early days, Sandra and myself formed the core of putting the exhibition together under moderation by Jen. My main job, the guess the role my personality drove me towards, was to be open minded to the different kinds of artistic interpretations that Sandra would try to discuss and develop, the different threads and kinds of ideas she wanted to develop. However, when I felt she was moving too far away from anything even remotely related to the science that we do, I expressed myself quite clearly. Sometimes we had quite deep differences of opinion. It was not easy for me to work with Sandra and it was not easy for her to work with me, but I am proud of what emerged and I am proud to now call Sandra a friend.

RB: What is dark matter and how is its existence and properties inferred?

MF: We think Dark Matter is some mysterious particle which we think is zooming around, through the earth, through rooms, through the air, through whatever environment you are reading this. I say “zooming” because we think it is moving at several hundred kilometres per second. We think it is there because when we look at the motion of objects such as stars and galaxies, we can only explain how fast they are moving due to some extra gravitational acceleration created by some matter which must be there but which we cannot see.

From a physicist’s point of view, dark matter is rather simple, actually much simpler than normal matter. Normal matter is governed by several forces, gravitational force, electromagnetic forces and the nuclear forces, so it sticks together to form different elements and molecules and emits radiation to cool down and stuff like that.

The only force that dark matter appears to obey is gravity. In particular, it doesn’t emit any light and you can’t bounce light off it, so it’s transparent. Perhaps we should have called it invisible matter, but because we deduced its existence by looking into the night sky and because it doesn’t emit any light, we ended up calling it dark matter.

We can tell it doesn’t stick together or emit any invisible light or even collide with itself by mapping out its distribution in space due to its gravitational effects.

RB: Are there differing theories that aim to provide an explanation for dark matter?

MF: There are lots of different kinds of ideas as to what kind of particle the dark matter could be, and lots of different experiments trying to find the dark matter. Some of physicists favourite theories are the kinds of particles that explain some other complicated problems in physics, such as why there is more matter than anti-matter, but there isn’t really any reason why dark matter should do this. Some physicists think that there is no particle at all, but rather that we have misunderstood the force of gravity on huge scales, but most physicists, including myself, think that some particle which emits no light is the culprit.

RB: Dark Energy is pushing the universe to expand faster and faster. What is dark energy?

MF: Haha! What is dark energy? Well, this is the trillion dollar question. In some sense dark matter is quite boring in comparison, dark matter is just like normal matter that you can’t see, and as the Universe expands it gets spread out. Dark energy is an energy field which doesn’t get spread more thinly as the Universe expands, as if it is being constantly created from nothing. This sounds impossible but we think such exotic forms of matter and energy could exist in the Universe. It turns out we seem to require both dark matter and dark energy to explain the Universe, which is very unsatisfactory for science, but honestly, if you try to live without either it is very difficult to explain the observations.

RB: You collaborated with artists, Carey Young, Agnieszka Kurant and Aura Satz, who are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition. Can you say something about your involvement in these collaborations?

MF: So, mainly I spent time with the artists, many happy hours, listening to their thoughts and explaining about dark matter and dark energy. They often generated analogies and asked me if this is a good fit to what I am describing. They wanted to describe things in terms of things they were familiar with. In some sense this is something we don’t need to do so much as physicists since we describe things in terms of mathematics. Sometimes there are analogies which are pretty exact, and sometimes this kind of exercise fails completely.

Agnieszka Kurant was extremely challenging since she tried to make a lot of connections between many different areas with a freedom I hadn’t experienced before working with artists. It was pretty vertiginous trying to keep up with her train of thought sometimes and the logical jumps that she took in using one issue to mirror another one were quite stretching for me, but in a fun way. She was trying to understand the link between invisible structure emerging from randomness both in society and in the Universe in dark matter. The link is less obvious than in other pieces and also contains elements which are based upon the transformation of energy from one form to another, which is very important in cosmology.

Aura Satz was perhaps more measured in her approach to the piece which she developed. I facilitated a collaboration between herself and some of my colleagues from Goettingen who had performed simulations of dark matter in galaxy. The piece is ten simultaneous pieces of sound which are representations of ten different positions in the galaxy and the interference between them as you move around gives rise to interesting effects. The idea was based upon the idea that you need to tune into the dark matter to detect it in certain models of dark matter referred to a axions.

RB: What questions do you want to address in these collaborations that could not be addressed before?

MF: Each artist had a different set of ideas they wanted to explore. The work with Carey Young, for example, was created nearly a decade ago, with me, and it explores ideas of ownership.  A vessel will have dark matter inside it but it isn’t trapped there – it is constantly flyting through it so if you were to sell the vessel you would be selling dark matter too, although not always the same dark matter.

Many of the pieces in the exhibition question the nature of scientific belief. I guess it takes a great deal of trust in the scientific method to convince oneself that dark matter should exist especially because you can’t see it. We try not to use the word “belief” as scientists but it regularly pops out of our mouths by accident. The word means something different for us though, I think the way physicists believe in things is somewhat different.

RB: What have you personally learnt from working in these collaborations and has this approach thrown up any surprises for you?

MF: It is surprisingly difficult to try to explain why you have come to the conclusions that you have about the Universe to someone who is coming from such a different perspective. I think some of the logical steps that you take about various things are shown to be slightly weaker than you expected.  Ultimately, I think explaining this stuff over and over again to different artists has at least explained to me what I am comfortable with and where my uncertainties lie.

RB: In terms of ‘ways of seeing’ what do regard as the main meeting points between artists and scientists? And what are the differences?

MF: I think artists and scientists are trying to represent things they observe around them in different ways, a scientist will take a thing and only record certain characteristics (position, mass, velocity etc.) and interpret it in a certain way. An artist will record an event using totally different information (feelings, colours) which may transmit equivalent data, with perhaps gross features explained less precisely but detailed features pointed out more clearly.

Obviously the biggest differences is the fact that scientists use mathematics to deduce things, and some things are discovered unexpectedly through calculations and simulations, which often we are not clever enough to predict until they fall out of the mathematical equations. So that is something that doesn’t follow over too well.

RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?

MF: I think that working deeply with artists is a healthy exercise for a scientist and will always help them to question their own ideas and practise. There are things that I learnt and new techniques that I picked up which are not immediately useful for my research, but I am a theoretical physicist, so it is quite difficult to come up with stuff that directly affects the day to day work I do. However, I do think it has led me to analyse the kind of ways I present arguments in papers. I think it has affected the way I write introductions and conclusions, and the kind of statistical analyses that I use to prove a point. I think that these changes are subtle, but the kind of self-questioning of practice that you can only get by literally spending hours with someone who is almost trying to understand an alien culture is deep and remains with you.

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