This past weekend, because I am, well, a nerd, I took the time I had off from working in my laboratory to travel to another laboratory — that of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN.
CERN houses the Large Hadron Collider, the highest-energy particle collider ever made. It is the birthplace of the World Wide Web, the location of both the hottest and the coldest places in the entire galaxy, and has been in the news most recently for its discovery of the notorious Higgs-Boson that won Peter Higgs and Francois Englert the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this year. In other words, it is the home to some of the most cutting-edge thought in the world. Their technology, they say, takes the rest of the world about a decade to catch up on.
So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that CERN is home, too, to some less-traditional laboratory inhabitants — world-renowned artists like British sculptor Anthony Gormley and German visual artist Andreas Gursky. Collide@CERN is described as CERN's "latest experiment in art and science ... [that] explores elements even more elusive than the Higgs-Boson: human ingenuity, creativity, and imagination."
Just as CERN has tapped into Einstein's famous interplay between matter and energy (see: E = mc^2) to learn more about what we are made of, so too it has begun to engage yet another fundamental equivalence — that art and science are really just two different ways of looking at the same thing.
I have a bit of a bias here. I'm an aspiring neuroscientist, but I also study poetry in the hopes of getting a different perspective into the investigation of who we are.
Despite its name, CERN is primarily a particle physics laboratory. Theirs is the stuff of, well, stuff — that is, they study what constitutes matter. Their immediate questions are ones concerning fundamental particles, but, as my tour guide emphasized to our group on Saturday, their biggest questions are even more basic than that: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
These are questions that we have been trying to answer since we discovered our own existence. Both science and art have been used as tools to address these questions for just as long, often in tandem; think, for example, of the work of Leonardo da Vinci, the famous archetypal Renaissance Man, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, celebrated German writer and politician whose work included treatises on botany and anatomy.
The compartmentalization of thought is a modern invention, but it is one that has come largely out of practicality. As science has increased in specificity, it has also increased in the focus necessary to understand even the most basic of problems. It's easy to get myopic. Even I, with only a very shallow understanding of the science I study, find myself struggling to think of less specific topics for this column, much less for poetry.
This poses a bit of a conundrum. As we zoom in on our science, we lose all of our periphery. But if we don't zoom in, we lose a whole lot of acuity.
As usual, CERN seems to have found a solution. There, some of the world's best artists are paired with some of the world's best scientists. The scientists' jobs are to inspire by going on with their daily work. The artists' work, though given no strict requirements, is simply to produce.
CERN is in the business of collision. They accelerate things and smash them together just to see what comes out. In this case, the answer is quite literally art — in paintings, photographs, sound sculptures, performances and even dances. More than that, they have managed to produce true collaboration — both sides of the coin at once, a glimpse at real understanding.
Let's hope it takes the rest of us less than 10 years to catch on.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at email@example.com.