Putting the Higgs on paper

Toya's colourful portrait of Murray Gell-Mann. Image: Toya Walker

Physicist Lily Asquith recently wrote an interesting and accessible piece on quarks, which was featured on Jon Butterworth’s excellent Life and Physics blog. Included within the post was an interesting depiction of physicist Murray Gell-Mann, as provided by illustrator and artist Toya Walker. Toya also happens to be the individual behind the imaginative and colourful imagery associated with the LHCsound project  – many of which are used to help explain some of the complex concepts behind the process of sonification and particle physics.

When attempting to communicate complicated ideas and concepts we often turn to visual aids to help translate information into an easily digestible format. We perceive the world from a predominantly visual perspective, meaning that illustrations and diagrams are an often more effective mode of communication, especially when dealing with higher levels of complexity. For example, an annotated diagram of the heart is often much easier to understand than a detailed description of it’s anatomy. However such ‘diagrams’ can be uninspiring and do little to engage with those not already interested or familiar with the subject concerned.

Visual aid: Toya's images help to explain how the project works. Image: Toya Walker

The use of visual metaphor and analogy can thus be very helpful in reaching out to a wider audience; for example one of Toya’s images depicts the Higgs Boson as the ‘Golden Snitch’ (as found in Harry Potter) in a humorous and accessible reference to the elusive nature of the particle. As such visual imagery is tasked with the responsibility of translating specialist information into a language that is easily comprehendible but also appealing to non-specialist audiences. This is what I appreciate in Toya’s work. Even in a project that is primarily concerned with conveying information through sound, there is still significant emphasis dedicated to the use of visual imagery to explain key concepts. As a result, the project opens up the Large Hadron Collider (and the excitement associated with it), to those who may have once been alienated by it’s complexities (like me!).

I obviously really like the work Toya has produced for the project, so I got in touch with her to find out a little bit more about how she got involved and developed her illustrations. You can check out her website and blog to have a look at of her artwork, but in the mean time she was kind enough to answer some of my questions and provide some early sketches; you can read her responses below:

Do you have a background in science?

I always enjoyed science at school and took physics at A-level, but not beyond that.

How did you come to work on the LHCsound project?

I met the initiator of the project, physicist Dr. Lily Asquith. The project, of course, was fascinating but what really made me want to get involved was Lily’s passion for communicating the ideas of the project, and indeed the work going on at the LHC, with as large and diverse an audience as possible.

Early sketches toying with the idea of the ATLAS detector inside a music box. Image: Toya Walker

Did your perception and understanding of the LHC change as you developed this work?

Yes, definitely, I did quite a lot of reading to try and understand as fully as I could some of the concepts we were trying to communicate. Learning more really ignited my sense of wonder, its almost like magic, but real. I think physics is often seen as difficult and therefore dull, part of the reason for doing the project was to communicate how exciting it actually is.

A lot of the science and ideas associated with the LHC are quite abstract in nature; did this make it easier or more difficult to create a visual aesthetic? 

A great deal of my working practice involves images drawn from observation so the abstract nature is definitely challenging, but in some ways liberating too. With the project, there were so many approaches that sprang to mind, the real difficulty was choosing a direction. I felt my role was to realize the artwork in the way Lily would visualize it, as she has a very unique and approachable way of talking about particle physics.

In one of your images you’ve depicted the Higgs Boson as the ‘Golden Snitch’ (from Harry Potter), what was the reason for this?

The ATLAS detector is depicted as a music box with the Higgs Boson escaping as the Golden Snitch. Image: Toya Walker

To add humour, I guess, and a reference that might communicate the idea of the search for the elusive Higgs in an accessible way.

Your work in this project has been important in helping to communicate complex ideas in a simpler manner – how do you think art and illustration can help communicate complex ideas and allow people to engage with them?

I think its fundamental, particularly if the goal is to communicate to as large an audience as possible. I’m involved in education work, including the Picture It project run by The House of Illustration. The aim of the project is to use illustration as a learning tool in the classroom for cross-curricular benefit. They’ve done some wonderful work including sessions where primary school children made their own books, with every page showing a different stage of the process of a volcano erupting. Or secondary students used collage to show the effects of different forces. I think it’s such a brilliant and effective way of learning.

In science information is often communicated graphically in visual form. Scientists would often see this as an objective representation of information – but as an artist do you think such representation can take on an additional expressive form?

I find data visualization really interesting and I often look at the work at http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/. There are brilliant ways of communicating vast amounts of information.  None of the imagery made for LHCsound was trying to communicate data, just ideas and we definitely made a conscious effort to develop the pictures in a different way, or a style not traditionally associated with science textbooks for instance.

Toya Walker is an illustrator and artist who lives and works in South London. A graduate of Edinburgh College of Art she has an eclectic approach to image making but drawing and painting form the basis for all her work. Her illustrations have been used by The  Viral Factory, Atlantic Records and the LHCsound project and work has been shortlisted for The Jerwood Drawing Prize, The Dulwich Picture Gallery Summer Exhibition and The Mall Galleries Royal Society shows. 


Playing in the Key of Science

An Interview With Jeff Oster

After discovering the LHC sound project last year I’ve been on the look out for artists who have taken these sounds and used them to make music. So recently I was very excited when I came across a track called “Particles of God” because not only did it feature these bizarre and abstract sounds but it also sounded awesome!

Jeff Oster in space?

The man behind the track is Jeff Oster, an American trumpet/flugelhorn player whose work frequently crosses over into electronic and ambient terrain. After hearing this track I delved deeper and found that this was not the first piece Jeff had created using audio samples from scientific sources. On another track entitled “Saturn Calling” he had sampled the eerie sounds of Saturn’s auroras (as captured by the NASA Cassini spacecraft) and it won him the ‘Best New Age Song’ at the 2008 Independent Music Awards.

I decided to get in touch with Jeff to find out a little bit more about how these cosmological and subatomic soundscapes had been influencing his work…

What was the inspiration behind these tracks? (Saturn Calling & Particles of God)

“I have always been interested in the cosmos, space exploration and mankind’s need to reach beyond this world. From watching the mars rovers landing on mars via NASA TV, or the space shuttle launches, even back to Apollo and the moon missions, I have always been amazed at what these scientists have accomplished.

I am always searching for new sounds as i create my music. For “Saturn Calling”, I was working on the music for a song, and had been watching the Cassini mission, and its amazing pictures of Saturn and its moons. The name of the song at that point was “Sounds of Saturn”, and I just typed that phrase into Google. Lo and behold, up came the recording of the auroras of Saturn, and I incorporated them into the song.

Eerie Sounds of Saturns Radio Emissions. Image: NASA.

One of the best things that has come from that music has been the way NASA and JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] have embraced it – they currently host a feature on the song on the NASA and JPL websites, and I was invited to perform the song at the Cassini “end of prime” celebration at JPL in 2009, for the scientists that worked to make that mission a success. It was quite moving, to be able to stand in front of these amazing scientists who make the seemingly impossible a reality.

The inspiration for ‘Particles of God” came from an article I was reading about the Large Hadron Collider, and of the way they are trying to capture the decay of the subatomic particles in sound. Since they can’t take a picture of these events (no camera can shoot that fast). They had posted some of these sounds, and I was inspired to choose a few of them and incorporate them into a new song, to which I added some beats and my trumpet using Apple’s Garageband program.

As it turned out, the scientists involved with these sounds (found here) were open to hearing music made from these sounds, so that’s how it came into the world. You gotta love the www….”

How did the sounds influence the way in which you composed the tracks?

“The way I create my songs is very much the way a painter paints a picture. Sounds are the colors on the palette, and I spend a lot of time building the bed tracks, mixing sound together and feeling which fit together best. In the case of “Saturn Calling”, I had a lot of the track already created, and the “wind” sound that the auroras made was a wonderful addition to the already created track.

That track was inspired by the Cassini program, and it was a lovely accident that these sounds added so much to the song. The fact that NASA and JPL took such a keen interest in the music because of those sounds was just the icing on the cake.

“Particles of God” was a bit more intentional – I chose the sounds I thought would work well in a song from the various sounds they have posted, and then built the music around them. These sounds actually have tone to them, so that drove the choice of instrumentation and then I added the beats, and of course the horn part. I usually create the horn part last, after the bed track has been established.”

When you heard the sounds of the Large Hadron Collider what went through your mind – how did they make you feel?

“The concept of the work is brilliant. It’s almost the opposite of reaching out into the universe in search of the unknown – it’s reaching in with the same goal – discovery of the unknown (or the search for what we think can be known)

It is amazing that sound can be used in an attempt to “see” these particles. For me, sound has always represented the embodiment of our inner selves, and it’s no accident that sound will be the tool to represent the smallest most fundamental particles of matter.

The feeling around the sounds is always a subjective thing – what’s beautiful to me might not be so for someone else. When I create music, first and foremost I please myself. If I love it, then that’s all that matters. The world will come to its own conclusion!”

A simulated Higgs Boson event at the LHC. Image: Wikimedia

Writing a song inspired by particle physics is slightly different to say writing a piece inspired by love or a romantic relationship – do you think a track like “Particles of God” can still have a similar emotive impact on the listener?

“I think that there’s a “coolness factor” in this song, partially because it actually includes these sounds. Songs resonate emotionally with the listener for various reasons, and in this case, the basics of song structure still need to be there. A cool beat, some kind of melody, a certain overall experience of the music as a song has to be there, some familiarity. Just the random collection of the sounds wouldn’t have the same level of impact on the listener in my opinion.”

Do you think science can be emotive or invoke emotion in others? – Should scientists be encouraged to share their passion with non-scientists / members of the public?

“Scientists need to know how important their work is, and the impact that it has on the layman. I was a science major in school before I turned to music, and I spent many hours in the lab, taking notes, running experiments, creating research papers and helping with presentations of the findings. It is very meticulous work, and it is very easy to get lost in the work itself.

One of the most moving aspects of my performance at JPL was when I was able to speak to the scientists assembled there. I told them that the impact of their work was massive, the inspiration for some little kid that experiences the results of their very technical work (it is rocket science after all) is an emotional one, not cerebral.

Every scientist needs to remember that there is a real world emotional impact in what they are doing – that science reveals deep truths that resonate in all of us. It is noble work”

Do you think music and art are an effective way of sharing some of the excitement and wonder in science to an audience who might otherwise not be interested?

“I think that it is the bridge between the brain and the soul.”

Do you think it’s beneficial for scientists to work with artists; or do you think they should be left to get on with their work?

“It takes a special scientist, and a special artist, to bridge the gap between those worlds. It is very easy to get lost in the specifics of each environment, and they sometimes seem mutually exclusive.

And yet, both are involved in creating something out of nothing, aren’t they?

Music is “captured”, and turned into song. Science takes a hypothesis, and endeavours to prove it, for all of us to taste, feel, see, hear, touch. They both make the unreal real, and that commonality can only lead to greater knowledge and understanding.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it…”

If you could pick one sound which represented something in the scientific world that has inspired or interested you what would it be and why?

“When the SETI project picks up the sound of another world, that will truly be inspirational. I tend to be inspired by the sounds in the world – water, animal sounds, a child laughing. And of course, the sound of a well played horn 🙂

The scientific world is really the exploration of the entire world, and beyond. And what we discover will forever be inspirational to me.


Jeff’s is currently putting the finishing touches on his latest album ‘Surrender’ which will be released later this year – check out his website for more information! 

You can check out ‘Saturn Calling’ here and I highly recommend listening to the original NASA recordings here.