Web Informant #338, 10 August 2003: Signatures of the Invisible, where art and physics meet




It has been almost a month since my last column, and I apologize for the delay: I do like to write these things weekly, but sometimes they just come out weakly. I did use the time well and managed to sneak in a week off -- and no, I didn't take a laptop, use a cyber cafe or a cell phone the entire time. It was quite restorative and relaxing, to say the least. I was going to write a column about leaving the laptop at home for those of you tempted to tote it along, but let's just leave that admonishment for now and move on to my missive for today.


Back in New York, I took some time today to visit PS1. The place is an old school (hence the name) that has been converted into a modern art museum in Queens, NY. The place is quirky, and the art can be boorish to bland, and sometimes quite exciting. The show that really turned me on, and captured my imagination was one called Signatures of the Invisible, a collection of collaborative efforts between artists and physicists.


I have always been interested in physics; indeed, it was my first major in college until I got more attracted to mathematics and computers. I was one of those geeky kids that memorized (most of) the periodic table of the elements and knew all the subatomic particles by their various characteristics. Well, I didn't do sports, so I had a lot of time on my hands. Most of that knowledge is long gone from my cranium, but I still remember that Uranium has an atomic weight of 238.


Anyway, what was on display at the museum (and only for the rest of this month, so act fast if you want to see it) is a wide variety of media and approaches that combine the two fields in new and very unusual ways. One of my favorites was a piece from Paola Pivi that looks like a bunch of wires suspended between two very thick metal plates about 7 feet tall. Upon closer inspection, the wires have small pieces of metal that are attracted to the static electricity of your body. When you get closer to the piece, the metal pieces eerily pivot and point towards you, and the pointers will follow your hand (or whatever body part you can get close to the thing) as you move around it.  When I first saw the piece I went looking for the power cord, and then enjoyed the explanation that was in the video loft about it.


Speaking of videos, here are several that I found fascinating, including a couple of documentaries featuring some of the physicists that are searching for new subatomic particles at CERN (outside of Geneva) and Fermilab (outside of Chicago).  The film makers were able to capture their passion about their search -- which can be very mundane and monotonous -- and still make an engaging movie. Well, maybe engaging to someone who actually knows the difference between a neutrino and a quark, but many of you would also enjoy these short films.


Mel Chin had a display that looked like an indoor cultivated garden. He was showing what "hyperaccumulating" plants could do to remove toxins from the soil, and the museum promises that the metals removed from the dirt will be formed into a pencil at the end of the exhibit. There was a video that was part of the art installation that just featured a woman slinging a lantern on the end of a rope around her: it didn't strike my fancy much until I saw an explanation in the video loft about the underlying physics. And then there are the dissembled parts of the atom-smashers (they are called particle accelerators) themselves, on display as high art. Anything with a couple of circuit boards was bound to get my juices flowing, and these pieces of scientific gear were just beautiful by themselves.


So what does this have to do with the Web? Astute readers will recall that Tim Berners-Lee got started at the CERN laboratory (he is now at MIT), where he built the first Web browser and put together the rudiments of the HTML language and HTTP protocols that are part and parcel to every Web site today. A nice way to wrap things up for me, and to show that the guys that are so concerned with understanding these ultra-small pieces of matter can work together with artists to produce such beautiful and thought-provoking pieces of art.


If you would like more information about the exhibit, ps1.org's site does a mediocre job explaining things. A better place to start is the British site that started this group of artists. But better yet, get over to the museum before the end of August and see for yourself.


Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

Web Informant is (r) registered trademark with the

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 

ISSN #1524-6353 registered with U.S. Library of Congress


If you'd like to subscribe (issues are sent via email), please send an email to: