When Energy Becomes Form

I’m back in Cardiff, exhausted but, at the same time, rather exhilirated by the past few days in Geneva. Before I crash out I thought I’d update the post I filed a couple of days ago.

On Friday we visited CERN, the highlight of which visit was, for me, seeing the facility where they test the superconducting magnets used in the Large Hadron Collider. We also saw the surface buildings of the ATLAS experiment, but since the LHC was getting ready to rumble again after its winter break we weren’t allowed to see the thing itself, 100 metres below ground. Coincidentally, I learned today that the LHC is now back making collisions once more. Obviously, the practical tips I passed on while I was there did the trick. One likes to help where one can.

The rest of Friday, back in downtown Geneva, was bizarre to say the least. We had the obligatory Swiss dinner of fondue, which is basically a big bowl of melted cheese into which you dip bits of bread repeatedly while hoping that at some point they’re going to bring some proper food. They don’t. To make matters worse we were serenaded by Swiss folk music:  cowbells, alphorns, yodelling – the works. One of the musicians was the spitting image of Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies but at least there was no sign of Mini-me. I was traumatised by the thought that the world might be brought to a premature end, not by the LHC creating black holes but by excessive yodelling.

After that, as midnight approached, all 24 of us – 8 scientists, 8 artists and 8 architects – gave very short presentations about our work to the others in the hotel lobby area.  I couldn’t do justice to the range of ideas and forms presented there in a short blog like this so I’ll just say it was totally fascinating to listen to these people, see examples of their work, and have the chance to ask questions.

Saturday was the most intense and also the most interesting day. We were housed in a beautiful 19th Century house in the old part of Geneva that used to be the French ambassador’s residence the whole day. Split into various groups we thought, discussed, sketched, scribbled and generally brainstormed our way towards ideas for something to exhibit on our allocated theme. We got together at the end so each group could exchange their ideas with the others. It seemed every group had great fun and there seemed to be some great concepts floating around.

The artist I’m collaborating with is Carlos Garaicoa, who was born in Cuba and who has exhibited his work all over the world. He now shares his time between Havana and Madrid. He showed us examples of his work encompassing a huge range of materials and technologies: video, photography, sculpture – you name it. One of the themes he has been interested in is the idea of documentary matter, meaning objects of various kinds that bear testimony to events or forces acting on them.  Eyal Weizman is the architect Carlos and I will be working with.  He’s a research architect who has, amongst other things, recently completed a long project looking at the construction of the wall that the Israeli government has built in the west bank

And then there was me, like a fish out of water. I had looked at the title of the programme, Beyond Entropy: How Energy Becomes Form and decided that it might be interesting to get across the central idea in general relativity, i.e. that gravitational forces can be described in terms of the curvature of space. In my presentation I took this to an extreme and tried to explain how the large-scale structure of the Universe is shaped by small ripples in space in the early Universe that evolve under the action of gravity to produce the structures we see on scales as large as 100 million light years. It seemed to be a good example of gravitational energy becoming form. I summed it up with a quote from John Archibald Wheeler:

Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move

Taking cue from these perspectives we had a wide-ranging conversation that took the idea of gravity as an effect of space, and explored this in more general contexts and from different angles. Space is often understood through its boundaries or through the surfaces constraining it and these edges take on a form that represents a sort of diagram of the forces that have acted on it. On a human scale we thought about walls and how the path they follow is shaped not only by topographical constraints but also by socioeconomic considerations. Walls and buildings generally suffer decay or damage too, including catastrophics events like explosions or earthquakes.

We also talked about the relationship between surfaces and the spaces they enclose or divide. The path of a wall such as the west bank barrier is extremely complicated because of the interplay between such factors. It curves in and out seemingly at random, but its shape makes it a document that contains information about the forces that have shaped it. It is a document in itself, not just because it happens to have things written on it in some places!

This thread of discussion got us interested in the possibility of using material objects to reconstruct the history of the processes that formed them: the Moon’s surface offers an example wherein the sequence of impacts can be inferred from the pattern of overlying and underlying craters. This led on to discussions about the relationship between surfaces and volumes generally, taking in holography as a specific example where  two-dimensional object contains three-dimensional volumes.

This all took us quite a long way from the initial riff, but I’m glad of that. My main worry about getting involved in this was that we might end up producing something that was merely didactic, just a fancy metaphorical treatment of basic physics. I wanted to avoid that because I think it would be very boring. I think I shouldn’t have worried that we might head in such a dull direction.

Some of the other groups managed to work up concrete ideas for prototypes to be exhibited. We didn’t really get that far. We were much keener to explore as many concepts as possible before settling on one. For myself, I was just really enjoying the discussion! There are no real constraints on what we can make – within reason of course. Sculptures, plans, buildings, installations, videos, photographs, and even books are all possibilities. It’s quite scary having such a blank canvas. We discussed a number of ways we might develop our discussion into material that can be exhibited but they all need a lot of work to develop, so we’ll carry on our collaboration remotely. I’m quite keen to bring some sort of holographic element into it, and promised to investigate the possibility of making some prototypes.

For the meantime, however,  it’s back to reality for me. A lecture to prepare and give, problem sets to get ready and an exercise class to run, an examination paper to finish writing, and a whole afternoon at the School’s research committee. I wonder if what I’ve been doing over the weekend will count as having “impact”?

2 Responses to “When Energy Becomes Form”

  1. Bruce Etherington Says:

    Hi Peter,

    it sounds like you had a great and interesting time over the weekend. It would be good to hear about how you got involved with this project to share with other academics.

    Remember that impact looks beyond economic to the social and cultural impact of your research.


  2. telescoper Says:


    I’m not sure how I got involved with it other than that they phoned me up and asked me if I wanted to take part! I participated in a thing called the Experiment Marathon in Reykjavik a couple of years ago and then last year Olafur Eliasson invited me to Berlin to talk about science to the students at a new venture he had just set up. I think they must have picked up those connections.

    I have to admit that I’m much more interested in actually doing the project than thinking about writing an impact statement for it. But then that goes for science too.


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