Behind the machines

One of the first things we think about when someone mentions physics is the machines. But behind the machines, there are the men and women who design, build and operate them. In an exhibition at the Thinktank planetarium’s art gallery in Birmingham (UK), Claudia Marcelloni and her husband Neal Hartman—she is a photographer and Outreach Officer for ATLAS, while he is an engineer working on the ATLAS pixel detector—explore the human side of scientists.

The exhibition at the Thinktank Planetarium art gallery, Birmingham (UK).

It all began two years ago with the publication of Exploring the mystery of matter, a book about ATLAS. “A Norwegian physicist friend, Heidi Sandaker, saw my photographs and suggested that I display them in a museum. I thought this was an interesting idea, except that the photos consisted entirely of depictions of machinery, with human beings completely absent. For me, showing the people who are behind the machines and the fascination that they experience in their work in a scientific environment is absolutely crucial," says Claudia. “So my husband and I thought about the best way to do this, and about how to link the science to the art, using a montage of photography and film."

The installation at Birmingham's science museum Thinktank consists of four giant screens set up side by side (see photo). Each screen is used to project a different video. The first shows portraits of ATLAS: physicists explaining what working on the collaboration means to them. The next is a close-up of a particular physicist who remains immobile for a few minutes, seemingly observing the visitors, before unexpectedly launching into some everyday activity that he or she finds particularly rewarding: dancing, cooking a meal, or playing a musical instrument. Photographs of CERN detectors make up the third video, the soundtrack to which is a cavernous rumbling. On the last video, the painter who did the ATLAS mural, Joseph Kristofoletti, explains how to paint a physics event.

In its first week, the exhibition had close to 7,000 visitors. It will remain in the museum until January 2011. More information on the museum and the exhibition can be found here and here.

by Laëtitia Pedroso