Fermilab: Accelerating Inspiration

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I use my art to explore and explain how particle physics underpins all of life. So my workspace has some unusual supplies for an artist’s studio. Pinned to my idea board, I have a list of subatomic particles, quotes from popular physics books, the names of inspiring physicists, and a picture of Nobel Laureate Marie Curie. Using science and art together not only energizes my studio practice, but it also changes the way I see our universe.

The Standard Model

As Fermilab’s first artist in residence, I found making art about physics was an act of discovery. On my first day at the lab, someone handed me a book by Dr. Don Lincoln, senior scientist and co-discoverer of the Higgs Boson Particle: The Quantum Frontier. Lincoln explains the Standard Model of particle physics: a breathtakingly successful conceptual tool used to explain our universe. It tells how the cosmos in which we live can be explained as endless combinations of a few key building blocks, governed by a handful of scientific principles. This book was not only a doorway into understanding a completely different way for me to grasp physical reality, but Lincoln’s approach to explaining particle physics was perfectly pitched for someone like me, a non-scientist. In addition to receiving this book, many scientists at Fermilab generously spent time explaining various aspects of physics to me. I’ve been privileged to have some of the world’s greatest physicists teach me about their work and share their passions for physics.

The Standard Model of Particle Physics.[2]

This is not to say I did not struggle with the material. In fact, I’ve wrestled with these new concepts for quite some time. One of the biggest obstacles to learning about high-energy physics was accepting how particles behave in the quantum realm[1].

The behavior of fundamental particles is counter intuitive to the way in which we normally perceive reality. To better absorb this information, I had to make space for both versions of reality: the reality I experience through my senses on a daily basis and the reality physicists have discovered on the quantum scale. One example among many of this dual reality is that things that appear solid to us in day-to-day life are in fact made up of a field of wiggling, jiggling particles!

Most people are familiar with the Periodic Table, a series of rows and columns used to organize chemical elements. The Standard Model is another conceptual tool, but it is used to explain and organize subatomic particles (particles smaller than the protons and neutrons making up the atoms of elements) and the forces that govern them (the electromagnetic, strong and weak forces)[2].

What attracted me to the Standard Model are the deep implications embedded in its’ mathematics, but on the surface, it looks simple. It can be used to explain the basics of particle physics to junior high students and yet holds deep mysteries for scientists working at the top of their field.

Standard Model of Elementary Physics.[3]

When looking at the organization of particles in the Standard Model, the first column represents the particles that make up all visible matter. The second and third generations of particles appear to be carbon copies of the first generation particles but have an ever-increasing mass. Scientists do not yet know the reason for this repeating structure. But the particles existing in the second and third generations are very unstable and decay within fractions of a second, back to generation one particles. The only way to study these second- and third-generation particles is to build powerful particle accelerators housed at places like CERN and Fermilab’s Accelerator Complex[3].

The act of researching all this new information and creating images based on what I discovered taught me about the deeper relationship between generations of matter; the behavior of the various forces on matter (like gravity); and how a field of energy that is thought to exist in every region of the universe (The Higgs field) interacts with these tiny particles. I was intrigued by the visual and intellectual challenge of finding visual metaphors to express this exciting research and new understanding of reality.

Six Pieces of Acceleration Inspiration:

I created a total of 6 pieces inspired by the Standard Model. All of the 6 pieces have references to unfinished books that are still in the process of completion—raw edges, pages not quite sewn into finished book format. This is a way to visually express that science itself is unfinished. Scientific inquiry is designed to evolve as research and engineering prowess move us forward in our understanding of the universe.

X and Y Axis

Many artists use oil paint, watercolor, and other traditional materials. But when I work, I want to use media that reinforces the message in the art. The materials I use for each project are as much a part of the work as the subject matter. Science can be an intimidating subject for most people, but physics has the added challenge of being quite abstract. Whether a viewer is there to enjoy the physical and visual elements of the artwork or learn something new, I want to inspire curiosity about science. My goal for this project was to find a way to create artwork designed to invite viewers into the subject of high energy physics.

Everyone uses textiles in their daily lives and thus has become familiar with this media format, so creating with textiles felt like a natural choice to engage the audience. I’ve used silks, denim, and cottons. Part of the joy of using textiles in my work is that, unlike other media, all of us have a deeply personal relationship to textiles. Art made with textiles provides the opportunity for instant connections for viewers.

The format and size of my creations are also important to me. I create art that is within the dimensions of the human body as another way to make the subject approachable and inviting. High-energy physics deals with scales that are both infinitesimal and cosmic. Either end of this scale is very hard for most of us to grasp. I want viewers to feel comfortable with the subject of High Energy Physics. Thus, most of the artwork is in the range of 22” x 30”.

Nuts and Bolts

I chose a grid format in all my Standard Model art pieces, not only to visually anchor the work but to hint at the graphs often used in analyzing scientific data. Graphs are also a powerful way for scientists to visualize data[4].

The Standard Model of particle physics has been hugely successful in predicting particles, including the Higgs Boson, whose existence was experimentally confirmed in 2012. In the world of high energy physics, the work of theoretical physicists (math based work) leads to the research conducted by experimentalists (scientists who invent machines to test theories). Nobel prize winner Peter Higgs theorized over 50 years ago that, based on the available information in the standard model, a particle that gave mass to all other particles had to exist. But it took 50 years for engineering skills, funding, and theory to unite in the creation of the world’s largest particle accelerator at CERN. Fifty years is a very long time to wait to test a theory and that’s why the 2012 discovery of the Higgs particle was such a big deal.

Hidden within the Standard Model artwork are references to the Higgs Boson (H), a master of disguise that eluded detection for decades. If you take a look at the pieces up close, you can have your own sort of “Where’s Waldo” experience trying to find where I represented the Higgs Particles within the art. (You can find them in: X and Y Axis, Nuts and Bolts, Discoveries)


After years of correctly predicting particles, physicists know that the Standard Model does not tell the complete story. In Discoveries, a short version of the Standard Model equation is provisionally attached to the artwork. Here I am expressing the idea that the Standard Model may need to be substantially updated due to recent discoveries. Because I don’t want my art to become obsolete, I’ve left room in the center of this piece in order to add in undiscovered particles with time.

Illuminated Books:

When creating art for a science project, I look for inspiration in art history, culture, and everyday life. As part of my residency at Fermilab, I was offered an opportunity to travel to CERN. While in Switzerland, I visited the Martin Bodmer Library in Geneva[5] and had a chance to see an exhibition of medieval manuscripts. These manuscripts were the powerpoint format of their time, used to express important ideas in both image and word. This particular combination of word/image opened my thinking to combine equations, symbols for particles with other visual elements to express the importance of researching fundamental particles and the origin of the universe. Back home in Chicago, I wanted to see examples of these beautiful manuscripts in person and visited the Newberry Library[6].

The study of these beautiful books inspired me to combine the concept of high-energy physics and the format of an illuminated manuscript to create my own version of a modern visual/ informational manuscript. My books illustrate the deep and fundamental connection between particle physics research and the origins of the universe.

Large Hadron Collider, CMS, CERN, Genf, Schweiz. By Michael Hoch.[4]

Particle physicists recreate the conditions that existed in the early universe with experiments on the Large Hadron Collider, by smashing protons together at high energies. The book format of Illuminated Book: CMS III suggests the circular shape of detectors like the Compact Muon Solenoid and Atlas located around the 27-kilometer accelerator ring of the Large Hadron Collider.

Illuminated Book: CMS III

Illuminated Book: CMS I

Looking at Illuminated Book Box I you can see I’ve folded paper printed with a Dark Matter map of the universe into an origami box and written questions relating to particle physics inside it. I’m connecting the infinitely large cosmic ideas with the infinitely small fundamental particles. I’ve included some of the questions that physicists would like to still answer:

Why do the forces have such disparate strengths and ranges?

Why is there more matter than antimatter in the universe?

Is there something smaller inside quarks and leptons?


Our universe is also permeated by neutrinos—nearly massless, neutral particles that interact so rarely with other matter even as trillions of them pass through our bodies each second.

Referring back to The Standard Model again, the lower row expresses a group of mysterious particles known as neutrinos: a tau neutrino, muon neutrino and electron neutrino. Neutrinos are formed in the sun, the distant cosmos, and in complex experiments at Fermilab. Fermilab lab is the world leader in neutrino research.

Neutrinos I

In 1961, Dr. Davis designed an experiment to capture these elusive particles, but his experiment yielded some very odd results. Davis was only able to account for 1/3 the number of theorized particles in his detector. For years, he had to contend with colleagues who thought perhaps his math was off or the design of his experiment was flawed. In the 1970’s with the refinement of detectors, it was discovered that neutrinos oscillate between flavors (different matter states) as they travel through space. In 2002, Ray Davis’s meticulous work was honored with a Nobel Prize. No other fundamental particle to date has this unique ability to change matter states. Scientists do not yet understand why these particles oscillate between these three states. Experiments at Fermilab and around the world are hoping to understand this phenomenon.

In Neutrinos I, I’ve constructed a curtain that suggests a theatrical space: a sort of stage for the presentation of a set of these mysterious particles. Subtle shades of silver, steel, and gold represent the three states of neutrino particles. Fermilab sends particles through a series of accelerators, creating a beam dense in particles that, when shot at targets of ultra pure graphite, generate these rare collisions in greater numbers than can be studied in nature. Using three miles of metallic embroidery floss, I’m portraying the billions of particles in the beam created at Fermilab that fall as an elegant cascade of metallic fibers.

I’ve deliberately chosen colors that are sophisticated..Especially the black velvet and silk paired with gold, silver, and steel for the neutrino pieces. The art borrows techniques used in high fashion to project an image of dark glamor[7].

Neutrinos II

In Neutrinos II, the visual metaphor of a square net suggests how detectors capture images of these rarely interacting, elusive particles. The neutrino detector is represented by velvet squares joined by lines of beads in three subtle colors. I’m again using three colors of seed beads to express the dynamic nature of neutrinos.


This residency has taken two years to complete. I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing scientists and other staff at the lab, touring the lab experiments, and taking courses. Among the many classes I took was a class for radiation safety training. This was a challenging class to pass, but taking this training allowed me to have a privileged view into the guts of the neutrino experiments. Accompanied by operators, I was able to learn how these engineers maintained the experiments that made the research possible at the lab. Being in the presence of both engineering and knowledgeable operators helped me to create art that connects viewers with high-energy physics and the very smallest bits of nature: fundamental particles. It has been a great privilege to be inspired by so many dedicated researchers and staff at Fermilab.

My goal is to design projects as a full immersion experience. By creating an intellectual scaffold of scientific learning, I was able to create accessible art to help explain what scientists are learning about particle behavior. One of the most powerful lessons I learned with this residency is that I am unafraid to learn any kind of science…even High-Energy Physics! This residency offered me an opportunity to create a space where art and science can work together to communicate the mysteries of the universe. I hope my artwork inspires others to explore their own scientific questions, and to discover for themselves that you don’t need to have a Ph.D. to fall in love with science.

Photo Credits:
[1] All images of the artist’s work by Reidar Hahn for Fermilab
[2] The Standard Model of Particle Physics, use permission granted by The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
[3] Standard Model of Elementary Physics, PBS NOVA [1]Fermilab, Office of Science, United States Department of EnergyParticle Data Group. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.
[4] Large Hadron Collider, CMS, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland by Michael Hoch. Permission granted by Michael Hoch founder of Art@CMS group. https://www.facebook.com/michael.hoch.3551

[1] https://scienceexchange.caltech.edu/topics/quantum-science-explained/quantum-physics#:~:text=Quantum%20physics%20is%20the%20study,us%2C%20acting%20on%20every%20scale.
[2] https://home.cern/science/physics/standard-model.
[3] https://home.cern/https://www.fnal.gov/.
[4] https://physicscatalyst.com/article/graph-in-physics/.
[5] https://fondationbodmer.ch/en/.
[6] https://www.newberry.org/.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Illuminated_manuscripts#/media/File:Bruges_Public_Library_MS767_v.jpg.
[7] https://artsandculture.google.com/story/gothic-dark-glamour-the-museum-at-fit/9gVxLtCkP9dwJw?hl=en.

  • Lindsay Olson

    Lindsay's artistic practice grew out of an intense curiosity about the ways our society is supported by science and technology. Lindsay uses textile techniques borrowed from high fashion to connect with viewers and create art that is deeply rooted in science. She has partnered with: Fermi National Accelerator, as their first artist in residence, the CMS experiment at CERN in Switzerland, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, The Wetland Initiative and other labs.

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