Saturday, 23 October 2010


Go hunting for crocodiles, and you will find mirrors in their eyes. Take a flash light in the dead of night, a fair am amount of your own good eye sight, and a great deal of courage, and as you track them down in the Amazon basin, you will discover a 100 glowing lamps in the water and gliding on the river banks. These are the mirrors at the back of the retina of the Amazonian crocodile – a peculiar evolution for these slip-slide navigators of the dark – which scoop up the luminosity of your flash light and reflect it back to you: the hunter turned prey. Inverted sight.

Such is the beauty of talking to a particle physicist, that narratives unfold before you in the course of what may appear to be a simple conversation. It’s like always being in Alice in Wonderland. There is one door open, but suddenly you find yourself falling through one in the floor. Or shooting up to a skylight as if propelled by wings. This narrative had started, like they all do, with what seemed like a simple question. Why is Alan working with neurobiologists investigating colour ? The story would take us to crocodiles, via Pablo and Paloma Picasso, the Salke Institute, Woody Allen, CERN, Louis Khan, Brooklyn and back again – and all the time at the centre of the narrative was the wonder of the human eye. How it receives images about the world and helps us navigate the world replete with matter.

Alan is baffled. For most of his career he worked in physics, constructing the silicon detectors which can see the invisible - detect and track particles which make up the universe. He was bemused when he discovered by looking at biology, that in fact all he was doing was constructing what already existed in nature. It's what drives him continuously to make the link between physics and neurobiology - against the grain of funding and silo-orientated science.

'Look at the detectors, and they are nothing but giant eyes,' he says. It reminds me of my first blog entry when I said just that. But it is more than that. Unwittingly, when building the great hexagons, physicists and engineers were mimicing the shape of the rods in our eyes which let light in - and out - and enable us to see. They are hexagonal too, in order to make sure they let in the most amount of light possible.
The unwitting symmetry between man and Nature is startling. And Alain is now on the quest of understanding Nature so as to improve science and technology.

'Do you know that when we see something, we actually see it in our eyes as 22 different images? But then our brain reorientates these images and collates them, giving us just one.' I didnt. And as ever, I feel inspired to think about how the arts can engage with this observation, as well as wonder what happens when the brain just cant manage this consilience and if there are people who see more than one image when they look at the world. Or whether that is what artists really are - because somewhere their brain is resounding with the memory of the discarded other ways of looking. Perhaps imagination is the ghost of the eye.

'Did you know that Woody Allen always tells physics jokes?' Another thing I didnt know. How we got to this seemingly random conversation is through discovering that Alan, like my father, is a Brooklyn boy, and Woody Allen is too, of course. All 3 are contemporaries - good jewish boys - and Alan turns out to have tried to gatecrash a Woody Allen concert in Geneva by telling a Woody Allen joke to a film crew. It won him the right to free entry. So I look up some of these jokes which have worked such magic:

Saying you know how to get around the universe is like going around China Town without a map

Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart

Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite. This is a very comforting thought - particularly for people who cannot remember where they left things. 

"She caught his eye, became his mistress, but was also the only woman ever to leave him' Alan again, now telling the story of Francoise Gilot, who was the mistress of Picasso when only 21, but left him, then later fell in love with the vaccine pioneer Jonas Salke, who founded the famous science institution in america, the Salke Institute, built by the extraordinary Louis Khan, who in turn inspired by father. It turns out Francoise's daughter by Picasso, Paloma, is now the fundraiser for the institute...

And so the connections continue and spin into the swirl of afternoon coffee at CERN. Picasso by way of Allen by way of Brooklyn and amazonian crocodiles - a cartography of a random conversation which revolves around the beauty of the eye.

For a detailed article about Alan Litke's pioneering work, see

Thursday, 7 October 2010


A dance piece, conversation, floor show, game show and a chance to meet big minds. That’s how MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ fellow and award-winning american choreographer, Liz Lerman bills her latest multi-media piece, ‘The Matter of Origins’. As the title playfully suggests, physics is the main partner for this new work, with dancers making equations with their bodies and pushing gravity to the limits.

But that’s not all. Physics also provides the intellectual framework on which the whole piece hangs. For one hour, in a fusion of dance and physics, dancers both old and young, spin, leap, fall, balance and re-balance through critical moments of atomic and sub-atomic history: Marie Curie and the discovery of radium, the Manhatten project, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Hubble telescope.

These historical moments also provide the stunning visuals for the scenery too – with the vast swathes of the New Mexico desert surrounding Los Alamos and a video tour of the LHC at CERN projected into the dance space. ‘The Matter of Origins’ is a fusion between the ideas of physics with the physical possibilities - and impossibilities - of dance. The normally reticent Washington Post critically acclaimed the world premiere at the University of Maryland, USA, this September as ‘a work of expansive range, emotional depth and singular beauty.’

The story of how this partnership between dance and physics happened was a total surprise, even to the choreographer. It began with a chance encounter between Liz Lerman, who has run her own dance company Dance Exchange since 1976, with Gordy Kane, a physicist at the University of Michigan and director of the Michigan Centre for Theoretical Physics. He knew that she was interested in science and the impact it has on the way people think about themselves, having seen her previous work ‘Ferocious Beauty: Genome’ which examined the nature of discovery and the implications of research into genetics.

He captivated her interest this time in physics, by telling her about the search for the origins of the universe at CERN, and the mysteries of dark matter. So she came with her company of dancers to CERN for a few weeks in 2007 and then in 2008 to explore making a piece, speaking to the scientists about their ideas, and even dancing in the LHC tunnels and work spaces. And so the beginning of ‘The Matter of Origins’ project was born, and in the process she started discovering many unusual and quirky facts of the history of physics, which appear insignificant but which also nevertheless find their way into her piece.

For example, the extraordinary story of Edith Warner who has hired by Robert Oppenheimer when he was director of Los Alamos to feed the physicists. She ran the Los Alamos tea house, serving her special chocolate cake to amongst others, a scientist she knew as Doctor Baker, but who was in fact Niels Bohr. The audience at the ‘Matter of Origins’ is literally invited to chew over this fact – and many others, including Warner’s secret chocolate cake recipe – because when the dance has finished in Act One, in Act Two they are all unexpectedly swept into a room full of tea, tables and chocolate cake and asked to sit down. At each table is a host – or provacateur as Liz calls them, who is more often than not a physicist – who invites the audience to discuss what they experienced watching the dance piece, as well as the big science and its relation to society and the uncertainty principle and future possibilities. It is an extraordinary and exceptional bravura move which Liz easily explains:

“Act one is in the European terms a multi-media piece, with a video artist and animator as well as the dancers and the science. It is a lot for an audience to take in. In my last science-dance piece, I noticed that the audience lingered and stayed to discuss the piece far more than normal. They didn’t want a post performance discussion: they wanted to be the discussion.

So my idea was to make this happen, giving individuals the change to re-experience what they had just witnessed and to deepen their experience even further.”

Thus, between tea and talk, dancers weave between the tables too, adding yet more dimensions to this piece, including discussions about the uncertainty principle, which Liz says, in many ways, is where every artist stands. ‘For an artist it is always a question of finding momentum and of poise whilst in uncertainty.’

For all the discussion about the uncertainty principle, Liz is also adamant about another aspect of the dance and physics partnership which shows how they share common ground. It isn’t just in the intellectual footwork:

“The arts are the place which can help people find the place where they intersect with science. Awe, imagination and the grit to be relentless to make something work – that’s what scientists and artists both do. What is fascinating in both cases, is the relationships scientists and artists have to making mistakes - how we puzzle over them, and the obsession and passion which ensures that we get it right in the end.”

But as Liz’s piece shows, we may be merely at the beginning. Act Two ends with the beginning of Act One. The end has become a new beginning. Or perhaps it is just the beginning is never ending.

Note: This piece is being published in the next edition of the CERN Courier in November