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RCA Students Peek Behind the Quantum Curtain in Collaborative Project

In a darkened crypt near Euston Station in London, Royal College of Art students have been wrestling with the mysteries of the universe.

Twenty students from across the School of Communication spent this term exploring the relationships between art and science as part of the Information Experience Design (IED) elective, Space Program, with particular focus on the complex, and to the uninitiated, completely bewildering, worlds of quantum physics and quantum biology. 

Caroline Claisse, visiting lecturer in IED, explained how participating students began their voyages of discovery at the University of Oxford, where physicist Vlatko Vedral introduced the theoretical underpinnings of quantum physics and, during a session in a lab, his colleague Tristan Farrow demonstrated scientific practice in action.

This day workshop was framed, not as a lecture, but as a conversation between disciplines, reflecting the dual expertise of one of the project’s co-conveners, Libby Heaney, who is both an artist and quantum physicist. Caroline commented on the surprise students felt that the scientists put creativity and beauty absolutely at the heart of their own practice, being particularly struck by the notion that ‘one single equation that summed up the universe would be considered incomparably beautiful’.

In fulfilling the project brief and developing abstract concepts into designed objects, participants engaged in reflective writing, a practice informed by scientific method, and prototyping their works as ‘tabletop experiments’ (also on display at the exhibition), before scaling up and refining their concepts to fit the very particular needs of the space: the atmospheric low-lit Crypt Gallery, beneath the St Pancras Parish Church on Euston Road.

A month of reflection, research and experimentation culminated in a five-day exhibition, ‘The Cat is Alive!’, its memorable title alluding to the famous thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat. 

After descending into darkness, visitors were immediately met by Onn/Off. Composed of a series of spherical bulbs and switches, this strikingly simple exhibit provided a hands-on, analogue articulation of the principal of entanglement: the notion that particles, even those separated by huge distances, can change one another, described in Einstein’s evocative phrase as ‘spooky action at a distance’.

The exhibition that followed continued in this spirit, using interactivity, embodied experiences, a finely calibrated mix of high- and low-tech, and sensitivity to space and lighting, to elucidate even the most recondite scientific theories.

ctrl+see’s interactive headsets meditated on the multiverse, the concept that multiple universes exist, some similar to our own, most different from it, by allowing visitors the disconcerting experience of seeing themselves from the perspective of others.

Elsewhere, tucked away in one of the gallery’s quieter corners, Chasing Particles articulated the concept of quantum superposition – the idea that a particle can exist as a combination of multiple states until observed or interacted with by an outside entity – by means of a series of elegant steel tripods arranged into a circle. Each, equipped with a proximity motor and mirrored ‘face’, was designed to respond to movement, with the presence of the visitor – and her disruption of the circle – performing the impact of outside interference on objects in simultaneous states.

Quantum superposition also provided a jumping-off point for Supermirror, an installation that used an oscillating mirror and blue and red lights to transform the gallery space into an embodied demonstration of the effects of outside observation, as well as the challenges of bringing microscopic quantum mechanics into the macroscopic world.

Collected Excitations, two lines of copper chimes, invited gallery-goers to play a beautifully crafted instrument as a way of understanding how atoms act – and react – at a quantum level by creating delicate patterns of light and shadow on the gallery walls.

Framed as an experiment in progress, The Quantum Curtain tackled the paradox at the core of quantum physics – that it provides the most accurate description of the natural world, while many of these effects cannot be directly observed – a paradox played out by means of a series of pulleys, lights and mirrors that allowed visitors to catch a glimpse of the secrets of the universe.

In combination, each installation showed how creativity can bring together the seemingly disparate worlds of art and science, when allied with dialogue, research and experimentation. In thinking about her experiences during the project, participating student Yan Lu encapsulated this, explaining that her aim had been ‘to demystify unwieldy abstract concepts by creating experiences that communicate between scientists and non-scientists’.

Libby Heaney confirmed the success of the endeavour, commending both the work and ‘the students' take on quantum physics as non-experts’. Summing up the project, she concluded, ‘They all took one aspect of this conceptually difficult theory and made creative and thoughtful articulations of the ideas without ever risking mistranslation’.

The Cat is Alive! Articulating Quantum Physics Through Art was at the Crypt Gallery, London, 23–27 February 2015.