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What Does A Quantum Explosion Look Like?

No one knows–because neither the human eye or brain is equipped to see it. That’s where art comes in.

There’s an invisible world that operates all around us, but we can’t see it. It’s a world composed of particles smaller than an atom, like protons, neutrons, and electrons. The way in which it operates defies the laws of conventional physics.

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The physicists trying to understand this world may study its laws–called quantum mechanics–but they can’t directly observe such tiny pieces of matter, or even create faithful visual representations of them. It’s technically impossible, and students studying particle physics are often forbidden from visualizing them at all.

For the designer Markos Kay, who’s worked in science communications for the last 10 years, it was the impossible nature of visualizing quantum mechanics that tempted him to try an artistic representation grounded in science. Working with scientists at the CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, Kay created a video that serves as a conceptual visualization to help laypeople understand some of the complex theory behind subatomic particle collisions. It will be featured in a documentary on the scientific institute, which will be released in late April. But the video itself, dubbed Quantum Fluctuations, stands on its own.

After doing extensive research on quantum theory and confirming his understanding with the CERN’s scientists, Kay decided to focus on six stages of a proton collision. Colliding particles like protons in the CERN’s particle accelerators is a way to study subatomic particles and the laws that govern them by examining what happens when they slam into each other. The measurements from the actual collisions then help inform the scientists’ computer models.

To create each conceptual visualization, Kay used computer software that simulates particles moving in space, using the same principle as the actual simulations the scientists use to study quantum physics. Both simulations use complex equations that generate interactions that mimic real-life natural processes, though Kay says that his version of the simulation creates visual output, while the scientists’ creates graphs.

Thematically, the project is grounded in this process of interpreting data and updating models. This is the primary way for scientists to study how these particles act–but there are many interpretations, or theories, of quantum mechanics, that offer different explanations about why subatomic particles act the way they do. Similarly, Kay’s visualizations are an interpretation of their own. “The point is to use simulations to visualize this stuff, just as scientists use simulations to observe this stuff,” Kay says.

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[Painting: Markos Kay]
To create the visualizations, Kay put different parameters into the simulation software that would provide a metaphorical representation of what it might look like when two subatomic particles collide, and then added color to create a dramatic effect.

The first step, called “the underlying event,” represents the quantum particles that aren’t participating in the collision–the background, if you will. Next is a representation of the proton beam, a concentrated beam that contains trillions of protons. Scientists at the CERN direct two proton beams at each other in order to collide protons. “In the images, I wanted to show how these particles exist in a dual state. It’s both a particle and wave at the same time,” Kay says. “That’s part of the reason we can’t visualize them.”

To create this visualization, Kay programmed the particles to erupt from a single point, but he has no control over how the overall visualization ends up looking. “You press play, and it happens on its own,” he says. “The way I think about it is kind of like abstract expressionism, like Jackson Pollock throwing paint on a canvas. You don’t know how it will land, so you keep doing these variations.”

The final stages depict the collision itself–where the visualization looks appropriately like an explosion. Then the radiation that’s emitted forms, combines, and decays.

[Painting: Markos Kay]
Of course, this is all hugely simplified–and these six phases happen in milliseconds. But there was more theory to explore. In a final film also based on quantum theory, Kay superimposed the six stages of the proton collision from Quantum Fluctuations in order to illustrate the idea of superposition and quantum entanglement, which means that quantum particles can overlap and entangle with each other, even across great distances. He explains that one elementary particle could be connected to another located on the other end of the universe–something that’s incredibly difficult to imagine. “All these theories are so impossible to visualize or even explain,” Kay says.

This is where art can act as an imaginative aid in making complex physics more understandable to laypeople. Even the CERN’s scientists, trained to never visualize their area of study, believed in that aim.

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“They were open to artistic interpretations, but I would imagine scientists out there who would say, that’s impossible,” Kay says. “But that’s not really the point. It’s to engage people with complex theory and raise awareness of what happens at the CERN. It’s a subject that’s so beyond our understanding that we can only have interpretations of it.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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