Particle physics stirs up some artists

by Sharon Ann Holgate
October 2012

Sharon Ann Holgate reports on an exhibition inspired by physics.

Judging by the interesting and diverse range of previous work that I’ve seen by the 25 artists exploring particle physics within the Jiggling Atoms science and illustration project, the forthcoming exhibition at The Rag Factory in East London from 1-7 October looks likely to offer broad appeal.

It will reveal how the artists – who work in media ranging from film and painting to sculpture and textiles – have interpreted the experiments and theories of particle physics that they were introduced to via a series of physics lectures given this spring in Imperial College’s Blackett Lab. Physics-related artistic workshops, lectures, debates, and performances will run alongside the exhibition, including workshops in which physics research associate Ben Still from Queen Mary, University of London, will use LEGO® to explain particle physics terms. 

Neutrino researcher Still gave one of the lectures, and answered questions at summer seminars hosted at Queen Mary and Imperial College where the artists brought along their preliminary ideas and discussed the science that inspired them. He became involved in Jiggling Atoms after the IOP – co-sponsors of the project alongside the Science and Technology Facilities Council – put him in touch with its instigator, Natalie Kay-Thatcher. 

“It broadens my horizons, hearing how people in the art world interpret scientific ideas and methods. Being able to look at my subject area from different viewpoints gives me a better handle on visualising theories in different ways. If I’m lucky enough to get an academic post I hope that will feed back into my teaching,” says Still. 

Imperial College PhD student Malte Oppermann, with project organising team member Jennifer Crouch, also gave physics lectures for the artists. “For a long time I’ve been fascinated by contemporary art and its capacity to open new ways of seeing and interpreting the world. I was amazed by the artists’ enthusiasm for getting the chance to study some physics, so I simply had to get involved,” he says.

Illustrator Kay-Thatcher, whose interest in physics was sparked by personal research conducted during her illustration degree, conceived Jiggling Atoms after watching a similarly entitled episode from the BBC’s Fun to Imagine series of interviews with Richard Feynman.  “We want to keep Jiggling Atoms as an ongoing project, and show this amazing work that’s being produced for longer,” she says. One aim is to produce a physics book written by Oppermann and illustrated by project artists, including herself. 

“I’m hoping the project will encourage more people to take an interest in particle physics, and realise the concepts behind it aren’t as daunting as they may first seem,” says Still. “You can understand very fundamental science if you have an amazing visual interpreter there to show you the way.”

Science writer Sharon Ann Holgate has been a member of The Art Fund for more than 20 years. The website for the project is at

© Institute of Physics 2012. Reproduced with permission.