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At CERN, Art Collides with Science

BY Jenny Marder  December 1, 2010 at 4:27 PM EST

Artist Josef Kristofoletti created a mural of the innerworkings of the Atlas particle detector.

In October 2009, 30-year-old Josef Kristofoletti made his way through the high-security CERN physics research laboratory to the building that housed the largest particle detector ever constructed. Once there, he harnessed up, stepped onto a construction lift and flipped a lever to propel himself upwards. And from three stories high, with a view of the Swiss Alps to his right and the famous Large Hadron Collider underneath him, he began to paint… a really big picture of a really big experiment.

The Atlas detector is part of CERN’s Hadron Collider, which send protons and ions charging toward one another at near light speeds and then smashes them together in carefully orchestrated collisions.

The purpose? To mimic the conditions from a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, and to produce never-before-seen particles, such as the Higgs boson, thought to endow other particles with mass. Atlas records measurements and collects data on the particles created in these collisions.

As an artist, Kristofoletti was fascinated by the giant leap in scale: something so big searching for something so small. Particle colliders, he says, “are trying to ‘see’ some of the fundamental parts of physical matter – the primordial ooze of the universe and make it visible. ”

For an artist drawn to hard science, painting the walls of the Atlas detector at the Geneva institute was the ultimate gig. And it fits into a growing trend at CERN of science-inspired art.

Ariane Koek is a cultural specialist in charge of international arts development at CERN. She has developed an artist residency program, expected to launch in 2011. Artists and scientists are the perfect partners, she says.

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“Artists, like the scientists of CERN, are exploring the absolute boundaries of the known world…,” she says. “And the science is all about going into different dimensions and challenging the way we look at the world.”

It goes both ways. CERN scientists have become known for their creativity. A rap song on the LHC created at CERN scored more than 6 million hits on YouTube. And later this week, a group of the institution’s particle physicists are expected to release a musical album on the label, “Neutralino Records”, a nod to a particle predicted by a theory called supersymmetry that scientists hope to encounter.

“Scientists as a whole appreciate art a lot,” says Michael Barnett, senior physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an education coordinator with Atlas. “We end up in art museums probably more than science museums. And I know a lot of physicists married to artists.”

Kristofoletti first made himself known to CERN by painting a mural of the Atlas experiment at a contemporary art museum in Charleston, S.C. Not long after the paint had dried at the Charleston museum, he got a phone call from Claudia Marcelloni, an Atlas Outreach Officer, who had had seen a time-lapse video of the mural online. She wondered aloud whether it might be possible for him to paint such a mural at CERN. They discussed a possible meeting.

“I was just so excited,” he said later. “I probably sounded like a crazy person on the phone when I talked to her.”

Soon after, he found himself on the CERN campus, where he was given an inside tour of the Hadron Collider, the very machine he had painstakingly recreated from the other side of the world. The room smelled of metal. He felt about a millimeter tall. “So many wires and electrical parts,” he recalls. “You can just smell the thing.”

He pitched his proposal: to paint a three-story-tall mural of the Atlas experiment on walls of the building where the experiment is housed. That’s about a third the size of the detector itself. The proposal went to vote, and, eventually, was accepted.

What followed was a labyrinth of red tape and bureaucracy: Funding limitations. Safety clearances. Legal hurdles. Training courses. The project was nearly halted over concerns that Kristofoletti was working too close to transformers that supply power to the experiment.

Even finding the right paint in a foreign country was a struggle. He arrived in early September and didn’t start painting until October. He finished the first wall, but the harsh winter weather forced him to postpone the second wall until the following June.

He worked closely with scientists on the design, but took liberty with color, using saturated colors to convey the idea of high energy. And in October 2010, the mural was officially unveiled.

The mural, which stretches across two walls, is now visible from the nearest highway – vivid against the otherwise dull, gray buildings. On the main wall, it is 40 feet tall and twice as wide. With Atlas no longer public to visitors, the mural has become a stopping place on tours.

It was a long process, Kristofoletti said, but thrilling to have a subject so epic in both scale and concept, a “cathedral of science,” he calls it. “Some people,” he adds, “have called the Hadron Collider the largest contemporary art installation in the world.”

Time lapse video is courtesy of CERN. Visit our Science page for more coverage.