Fellow, National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (2004 to 2007)
Three year Senior Fellowship awarded by closed nomination for research exploring observational practice across scientific disciplines — astronomy, particle physics, spectroscopy, ophthalmology — and identifying potential methodological alignments between these practices and artistic practices.
The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts was set up through an endowment from the UK National Lottery in 1998, and has been through several ideological and corporate incarnations. In the beginning under Jeremy Newton, and through the time that I was a Fellow, it was clearly focused on nurturing UK creativity across the arts, sciences, design and technology — its brand was ‘creative investor’.
The complex application procedure began with a closed nomination: my name had been put forward to them by a senior advisor, which meant that I received a call from NESTA inviting me to apply for a Fellowship. Following that, there were two sets of interviews at NESTA, a formal written application with a research plan and budget for three years’ work, letters from three referees, and an external evaluation interview — with Jim Al-Kahlili.
My main activities included a residency period of over a year at the Institute of Astronomy of Cambridge University. This was both formative and productive, and led to my curating the COSMOS section of James Peto’s exhibition You Are Here: The Design of Information at the Design Museum. I was also able to formulate a brief history of plate-measuring and scanning machines in astrophysics — Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime — which became a contribution to the History of Scientific Observation project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
Of course, the overarching common interest between astronomers and artists is light: and I learned how much more to light there is than the visible spectrum, as well as the co-extensiveness of light with all other matter by dint of its particulate nature. The fact that it is possible to ascertain the elementary makeup of matter by measuring its radiation — often light itself — is profoundly exciting. Spectroscopy is one of the techniques I explored during this period.
Researchers at the IoA and also at the Cavendish Laboratory across the Madingley Road were generous with their time, and I received both formal and informal mentoring from Dr Robin Catchpole and Dr Jon Zwart. The Institute’s Librarian, Mark Hurn, shared his history of astronomy knowledge and more, and I attended conferences and classes as an observer. Professors Craig McKay and Alexander Boksenberg, alongside Dr Mike Irwin, were especially helpful in illuminating the links — both theoretical and technological — between photons and data sets, via detectors and photomultipliers.
Understanding how data is collected is one thing; grasping how it is analysed is another. The evolution of mathematical understanding from probability and statistics to computed algorithms is also a move from human to computer calculations. I was lucky enough to have Professor Marcus du Sautoy as a maths mentor during my Fellowship, and my comprehension of mathematical concepts has been greatly increased. Sadly, the ability to actually apply any of these concepts to sets of numbers, or express them mathematically rather than in words, is still lacking.
I became captivated by the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine, an instrument which Mike Irwin had spent most of his career cajoling into creating vast accurate numerical representations of the near universe. The APM, now decommissioned, existed to scan All-Sky-Survey photographs in the interregnum before all astronomical data came routinely from particle detectors. It is essentially the history of this unique machine — designed in the 1970s by Ed Kibblewhite — that I outlined in Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime.
Not all those astrophysical particle detectors are out in the sky on satellite telescopes, either. Several are deep underground, where the mantle of the earth protects them from interference. One such instrument is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which I visited in the framework of my NESTA Fellowship in March of 2006. It was a complex period for SNO; they were in the middle of a major building programme above ground, and were planning a second phase of experiments for the huge instrument, SNO+ — a phase that was at that time not assured of funding. It is one of the most important astrophysics instruments ever created, and I was very honoured to be so well received at such a critical moment.
The perfect little model you see here is of the heavy-water Cherenkov detector that is the core of the facility. The real thing is so big it requires a cavity in the rock the size of a ten story building, and it is installed two kilometers below the surface. They carefully prepared me for the trip down the mineshaft and into the observatory; I was so excited that I hardly noticed the fear. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever willingly done.
I was also given a tour of the new research building being constructed to replace the series of sheds and portacabins that had housed the project’s researchers from the beginning. I was able to return in some small way the knowledge exchange by advising Director of Operations Dr Fraser Duncan with a list of the material culture items that it would be advisable to preserve and exhibit in the new building’s ‘trophy case’ once the move was complete. It is so often the case in these moves that things get thrown out that in 30 years’ time would be vital clues to an historian — or indeed to a later astrophysicist. The smallest thing on my list was a mousetrap, and the largest was the iconic silver workshop formed from an old railway car: Shed P31. The history of physics is littered with sheds and their mousetraps, and it’s a history that remains to be told.
Some of the most important and productive areas of creativity are those which overlap between NESTA’s areas of arts, sciences and technology. This can be the case in the practice of individuals as well as in the practice of teams. Though the research and projects that I effected during the Fellowship were mainly self-directed, they intersected with a range of team-based institutions.
A big plus to being a NESTA Fellow for me was the opportunity to meet and exchange with colleagues working in science fields that were new to me. The Science Crucible Laboratories organised by Nicola Turner and later by Alan Morton — whom I had first met whilst working at the Science Museum — are a case in point. Groups of early-career researchers and those interested in interdisciplinary work and science communication were awarded for a year-long period that included regular meetings and mentoring.
On some of those occasions, other NESTA awardees were invited to be part of weekend retreats. I spoke to the 2005 Crucible Meeting at Dartington College of Arts, alongside Mark Miodownik of the Materials Library, on the subject of Creativity. Among many other things I spoke about, I outlined the friendship that sprang up in 1950s Berkeley between the great American composer Harry Partch and the physicist Lauriston C Marshall, then Director of High Voltage Engineering at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory:
These two different men saw something in each other that was about the fundamentals of waves and resonance. Larry learned to play Harry’s instruments and was one of the few who understood the mathematical underpinnings of his ‘just intonation’ and the physics behind his music theory. In 1950 they applied jointly and successfully for a Guggenheim grant to develop an electronic organ. In a short two years a great body of work was produced by this pair, ranging from musical compositions to early software and even shared MSc students: William Max Muller’s successful thesis was entitled “A Cathode Ray Tube Harmonic Generator for Musical Tone Production” — Glass and Gas!
At the latter end of my Fellowship, I returned to questions of the visible light spectrum, and had a closer look at ophthalmology with a view to understanding the physiology behind phenomenological experiences of light. NESTA’s Alan Morton arranged for several Fellows to spend the day at the UCL/Wellcome Institute of Ophthalmology with Professor Fred Fitzke. I was also mentored by optometrist Andrew Field.
I became interested in the possibility of the reuse and repurposing of ophthalmological examination instruments and astronomical observation instruments — both optical and particle detection. The great advantage to having a period of time on such a research Fellowship is that hunches and interests become focused into frameworks for study and, ultimately, long-term projects. As I wrote in 2005:
One sphere is the finite laws of physics which govern light, another sphere is the finite physiology of seeing — receiving light — and a third intersecting sphere in this Venn diagram would be the manmade instruments which manipulate light. I believe that somewhere in the intersection of these three spheres is a core of consciousness, and I also believe that we need as many phenomenologists as we do neurologists to explore this issue. We need as many artists as we need physicists. We need historians and we need historiographers. In short, we need to forge whole new methodologies.
Looking Back Towards the Light: An Artist in the Observatory, lecture delivered University of Oxford, University of Copenhagen, University of Calgary (2005)
[Image References: Institute of Astronomy Coradi Plate Measuring Table, in the shadow of Isaac Newton; Model of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory instrument showing the disposition of photomultipliers; Shed P31 workshop from Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; NESTA Fellows away-day meeting in 2006 at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, with l-r the then Director Michael Harrison, Brian Duffy (legs only!), Allan McRobie, Tom Shakespeare, Jane Prophet, Lise Autogena and Alan Morton]