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Art and physics collide for Annihilation Event

Annihilation Event, AEgIS collaboration, CERN
Annihilation Event, AEgIS collaboration, CERN
Annihilation Event, AEgIS collaboration, CERN
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Published date
17 March 2017

Annihilation Event, a week-long collection of art projects and events, lands in the Lethaby Gallery this week. As part of the series, Michael Doser, a particle physicist working at CERN, will be speaking on 24 March, so it’s the perfect opportunity to ask him what exactly is an annihilation event?

Doser is involved in the art programme at CERN, which places artists in residence within a science context. “I’ve been working with artists for many years,” he says, “I realise again and again that artists and scientists talk about the same things just with a different language… and yet from both sides there can still be resistance to dialogue.”

For Annihilation Event, artists, historians, scientists and theorists will converge for a series of experiments and exchanges that will undoubtedly have unexpected results.

“I want to address the misconception that science is a dry, boring activity, in fact we’re poets, we’re experimental philosophers, we’re painters, we’re artists. We use different tools: we don’t use brushes and we don’t use words, we use detectors and imagery but we’re also sensitive to the aesthetic component.”

In the spirit of crossing disciplinary boundaries, the title of the exhibition comes from a scientific term. The annihilation process is at the heart of Doser’s research: “In our case, ‘annihilation event’ has a very specific meaning and it applies to the meeting of anti-matter and matter. The annihilation means that both disappear in this interaction. But, because disappearance is impossible, they actually transform into energy which can then re-transform into something new – new particles and anti-particles… This annihilation is so energetic it blows apart the nucleus.”

This process can be captured in a grainy image of fragments, a rather modest representation of something so profound. “It’s the most violent process that you can imagine,” he explains, “there’s nothing more violent than the annihilation of anti-matter and matter. In a nuclear bomb you’re only transforming a small fraction of the mass into energy and yet those are pretty violent. But this is a thousand times more so.”

The annihilation event goes back to the origins of the universe. In fact, Doser says, it is part of the mystery at the heart of the Big Bang: “There was an annihilation event right after the formation event. What we don’t understand at all is why it didn’t remove everything, it should have destroyed everything again. But in fact, it was lopsided and we ended up having only matter in the universe, so we owe our existence to an imperfection.”

Engaging with destruction and creation as well as the constructive nature of failure, the process is the perfect metaphor for an arts practice:

“Failure is an extremely important point. Without that failure in that symmetry, the breaking in that mirror, we wouldn’t be here, but it’s also a very important aspect in the work that we do because like artists, scientists spend their time failing. Failing to get the measurement, failing to discover something, failing to challenge the status quo, failing to have a good idea. There are many similarities in the communities. I’m trying to bridge this.”

Through decades of connection between the two spheres, how does arts practice impact on Doser’s own work? “Well, that’s the hardest question to answer. I can’t say whether it has been beneficial or distracting! My tendency is to say that it has been beneficial because I have been watching how artists work, allowing random connections to happen and then sometimes pursue them. That’s one of the things I’ve learned – to let myself be caught up in the beauty of meandering.”

Michael Doser will be talking at Annihilation Event, Lethaby Gallery, 1.00–2.00pm 24 March 2017.

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