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Wednesday
Aug242011

Seven days

In a few years maybe I’ll struggle to remember how I spent my time at Imperial. Maybe you’re wondering. I'll paint a picture of this last week.

It is after the London riots. The media is full of questions, a period of national soul searching.  The FTSE is diving, driven by fitful concerns and fear about the failure to return to economic growth.  Things look bleak here and much worse in Afghanistan, Libya...

I’ll start with last (sunny) Wednesday; I have a lunchtime conversation with an experimentalist.  It’s a continuation of a dialogue to answer a previous question.  He is part of a team measuring the shape of the electron, which we imagine as a little cloud of bustling particles, coming and going.  We expect it to be an egg shape.  The expected shape is deeply linked to the ideas of symmetry.  Symmetry he says ‘is the most important thing in physics’.  We believe that we are here due to a violation of symmetry, an asymmetry and that this in turn means that the electron must be an egg shape and not round.  He carefully takes me through the flow of thought.  I am struck by how this logical chain of careful thought and experimentation can lead us to understand these seemingly abstract pre-requisites for our existence.  

We talk about how the universe seems to have a preference for a certain helicity or handedness over another.   And I think of how most artists would never produce a completely symmetrical image - there are always deviations or the result would be dull.  Nature seems to work with the same aesthetic.

I walk over to the Quantum Information team in the sky, on the 12th floor of the engineering building.  Before I get to the lift, Terry comes out with a friend from Washington DC.  Sophia is a quantum information theorist, here for the week to work through some problems.  After tea downstairs, we go up for more tea in the office and she tries to explain what she’s working on......quantum dots.  She has a quantum bit, a qubit (in this case a spin up/down electron) in a semiconductor.  I think of it as a kind of chaotic situation.  And like a party of little magnets, the electron interacts with the atoms in the semi conductor.  The scale strikes me as amazing, like a mosquito over the ocean.  This is Sophia’s system for controlling the qubit, she is seeking ways to put a potential across the semi conductor so she can do this better.  This is a step towards quantum computing and a reason to explore interesting problems.

As the sun gives way to rain, I have a drink in the pub with two physicists.  We talk about the wonder of handling original scientific publications, their new teaching assignments and the prospect of having the students back in October. As I cycle home in the rain, I reflect on one of the scientists.  He’s travelling around the world, working on astrophysics and has moved out of his bedsit for a while.  Everything he owns is piled up in his office: 600 books in boxes and a few cases.  I’m struck by the poetic notion of a nearly mass-less man who is the force of his wonder and ideas.

On Thursday I bike five miles to the house of a theoretical physicist.  He has a particular interest in philosophy, so we create more questions than we answer:  We ask if we are evolved to be de-sensitised to reality, so as not to be overwhelmed, to be stable.......we are remarkably stable.   We wonder if time unfolds from events rather than events unfolding in time.  We wonder how books affect us.  We lose the details, but each changes us a little.   We talk about the gift of ‘summoning’ information from our minds.  We wonder how the power and limitation of our language affects the way we experience and think about the world.  And we ask, what can we call the process of learning and revisiting with new eyes? 

I'm wondering about doing some animation.  So on Friday, I go see ‘Watch me move’ at the Barbican.  I fall in love with the work of Yuri Norstein and discover Leger’s film ‘Symphonie Mecanique’.

And with animation in mind, I start drawing on the Ipad – this is interesting – I can replay the creation of my own drawings, investigate and share the unconscious process of development, track my attention.

And all week, I am dipping in to James Gleick’s ‘The Information’.  It is a treasure trove of ideas about this elusive, transforming thing that flows through our world.  It can be heavy and mechanical, stored in Babbage’s difference engine or it can be light and ethereal, carried on the air by African drums.  And it can be hidden or maybe just imagined, like the algorithms for the laws of physics or the correlation of entangled particles or light. 

There’s another project underway:   I am writing haikus about an electromagnetic wave, others are doing the same about this absolutely real phenomenon (that is visible light, heat, radio, microwaves...) that is only abstractly understood.  The haiku format bears resemblance to an equation with its compact and formal structure capable of capturing an infinite world of experience (Terry's words).   Maybe once every few days I receive one from someone at Imperial or elsewhere around the world, each one takes a different angle and is another way of envisaging.  I wonder about using their voices.

The weekend and Monday, I’m cleaning out the studio.  This is a good time to do this, sunny days – with a head full of ideas.  There is an autumnal sense in the air, I can’t put my finger on it, how do I know? -  The diffuse light or the slight coolness in the morning.  It is great to throw stuff out, paint the walls and re-energise enthusiasms for a painting left midway and looking like it’s lost its way.

And today is Tuesday.  It rains all day, so I leave the bicycle at home and take the bus and tube.  I meet someone who’s writing an article about the residency and we talk about my project.  She asks what I think about an often used comment that journalists make about ‘science looking for answers and artists looking for questions’.  Good physicists are the masters of question creation – this is part of the art. Most seem, comfortable with not knowing, disappointed when nature reveals something expected and bored at the unlikely prospect of knowing everything.