Particle physics experiments

The beauty of experiences matters

We are used to the idea that beauty and elegance are valued in scientific theories. But what about the beautiful experimental setups and results? We should not overlook the importance of the aesthetics of experiences, writes Milena Ivanova.

While scientific products, such as theories, models, and experiments, are created in our attempt to understand and manipulate the world around us, they are also often praised for their beauty and beauty.

From scientific theories, such as Einstein’s relativity and Darwin’s evolution, to experiments that led to the discovery of electrons, DNA replication or the decay of light, scientific products are praised no only to discover truths about the world, but also to do so in an elegant way. , appropriate and beautiful way.

In addition to praising the products of science engagement as having aesthetic value, we also give artistic and creative credit to scientists, just as we do to artists, acknowledging their use of the imagination and their ability to create something something new and valuable. Experimental practice has an interesting artistic dimension that is too often overlooked. However, as we will see later, experiences can be appreciated for their aesthetic characteristics, can be seen as works of art, as a form of public spectacle, and can evoke aesthetic experiences in us.

The aesthetics of historical experiences

That experiments have an artistic dimension becomes clear when one thinks of the origins of experimental practice and the fact that natural philosophers in the 17and century often performed experiments in front of the public, making the experiment a public spectacle. Experience, as a privileged way of revealing and intervening in nature, was already recognized in the work of Francis Bacon, who in his Novum Organumpublished in 1620, emphasizes the importance of experience in forming hypotheses about the world and testing their accuracy.

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Experience became central to the empirical method of scientific investigation, and through repeated demonstrations and interventions with newly invented instruments, natural philosophers began to explore nature in areas that no one had not previously achieved. It was the time when natural philosophers studied vacuum using the newly invented air pump, Newton discovered the decomposition of sunlight using prisms, and advances in optics and lenses allowed the construction of new instruments that allowed us to go further than ever. Experiments have become the focal point for appreciating new inventions and what experimenters have discovered by using them.

Picture 5

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

The famous painting “An Experiment on a Bird with the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby perfectly portrays the performative nature of experiments and the variety of ways an experiment can evoke an aesthetic response in the audience. The experimenter in the middle of the painting looks like a performer who aims not only to demonstrate the phenomenon to the audience under specific experimental conditions, but also to cause the audience’s fascination, awe and amusement. The painting depicts the various audience responses, fascination, awe, delight, even mystery and fear, all experienced as the air pump extracts air from the cylinder, creating uninhabitable conditions for the hapless living creature. These experiments, which go beyond teaching the public about the demonstrated phenomenon, have been clearly stated by Joseph Priestley, who, in his notes on experiments on electric currents, describes the experiment as “the most delightful spectacle “, generating experiences of admiration in the audience. , delight, pleasure.

What is remarkable in these experiments is that they are performative and that the public perceives their results with immediacy. In experiments with the air pump, for example, the public saw the effect of pulling air out of the cylinder using the air pump. The experience, as a public spectacle, offered features immediately perceptible and appreciated by the public, just as a theatrical performance would. It is noteworthy of experiments from this period that their aesthetic value is readily accessible for appreciation, the experiment has visually pleasing characteristics, from the use of visually pleasing instruments to the display of beautiful phenomena, such as rainbows through Newton’s prisms. But are these aesthetic aspects of experimentation characteristics of bygone experimental traditions, or can modern experiments also be appreciated for their aesthetic value?


Can modern experiences also be appreciated for their aesthetic value?


The aesthetics of modern experimentation

Despite the significant evolution of experimental practices over the past centuries, some experiments can still today be considered public spectacles. Take for example the falling height experiment, presented at the Department of Physics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. It is the oldest experiment, originally designed by Thomas Parnell in 1927 to demonstrate the behavior of highly viscous liquids that appear solid, with droplets falling through the glass funnel over a period of a decade or more. This experience features many of the characteristics of the early experiences, including a simple setup, visually pleasing replicas, and its display outside of lecture halls makes it a public spectacle. Its display in a public place invites people to engage with the experiment and what it is intended to demonstrate, evoking in the viewer the fascination with understanding the phenomenon being studied as well as the elegance of the experimental design.

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The University of Queensland Height Drop Experiment, demonstrating the viscosity of bitumen.

But the height-falling experiment, while resembling early Royal Society experiments, is rather unusual these days. Today, the experiences look quite different and are rarely accessible to the public in the same way. Large experiments, such as the experiments carried out at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, are very complex and the result of collaborative work between thousands of scientists. The frontiers of experience go beyond the borders of countries, and the experimental results are obtained after a painstaking process of analysis, devoid of the immediacy of the first experiences.

Detecting particles in the LHC is certainly not as simple as the first experiments in which scientists could immediately perceive experimental results; rather, the result of a measurement involves a process of statistical analysis and deliberation before scientists reach a consensus on whether they have detected an “event”. Unlike the discovery of the behavior of bodies in a vacuum using the air pump, an experiment that yielded immediate and perceptually accessible results, big science experiments today lack such features. The discovery of the Higgs boson was not an immediate event; it included lengthy analyzes and deliberations. But does that mean there was nothing aesthetic about the experience? Far from there. Although the complexity of the experimental design and the meaningful results are not immediately given to us for appreciation, there are other features of the experiment that can still be visually appreciated and generate aesthetic responses. Visitors to CERN can see the collider and experience the enormous size and complexity of this amazing experiment. Audiences can engage with this experience by viewing the experimental set-up and appreciating its size and complexity, reflecting on the fact that the experiment is not designed by one individual or small group, but rather the product of a great collaborative initiative that encapsulates the creative ingenuity of a great community.


The discovery of the Higgs boson was not an immediate event; it included lengthy analyzes and deliberations. But does that mean there was nothing aesthetic about the experience?


beauty and meaning

The aesthetic responses we have to experiments can be diverse, they can be the product of appreciating the creative thinking behind the experimental design, they can be due to our appreciation of the experimental design’s relevance, elegance and the beauty of its implementation to obtain its results. The results of an experiment can themselves be beautiful, like seeing rainbows through a prism and the formation of crystals under a microscope. Another way experiences can generate aesthetic responses is through their visual placement and display, experiences can be spectacles of aesthetic appreciation.

As a public spectacle, the experience engages us to explore what lies behind the pleasurable features, to learn more about what the experience aims to do, and how it is set up to achieve its goals. So while the perceptible visual characteristics are what might first prompt us to engage with the experience, by experiencing the visual characteristics we might find a much deeper beauty in the experience, the beauty that comes from the understanding of experimental design and meaning and how experimenters set up the experiment to tell us something about the world. I have argued that it is in the interplay between design and meaning that we find the most significant aesthetic value of experiences. Their visual and performative characteristics, however, can motivate us to engage in the experience in the first place.