Jim Sanborn: Nonfiction Artist

The cover of a recent issue of the avant-garde art magazine Esopus features a beautiful black-and-white image of a Crockroft–Walton generator, a familiar sight, perhaps, to deep nerds, especially those who grew up in the “age of the atom.” This particular instance is from Japanese particle physics lab KEK, though the magazine also features old equipment from Fermilab. The generator was the workhorse of particle physics from the 1930s, when it was invented, into the 50s and 60s, creating the high voltages necessary to accelerate particles to high energies.

In his essay accompanying the images, photographer Stanley Greenberg quotes Art Institute of Chicago art historian James Elkins: “Particle physics images can easily be taken as art, provided they are interpreted wholly in the light of nonscientific art-world criteria.” With that in mind, Greenberg also includes actual bubble chamber film, the whimsically analogue “data storage mechanism” used in particle physics in the days before computers.

Bubble chambers weren’t much more than containers full of superheated (at a higher temperature than its boiling point, so that it was on the verge of boiling) liquid hydrogen, but they were the earliest particle detectors; it’s hard to believe they’re related to multi-story electornic monstrosities like the LHC’s ATLAS detector. The bubble chamber was simple—a high-energy particle would zoom in, collide with the liquid’s molecules and decay, sending of a spray of subatomic particles that caused the superheated liquid to boil as they flew through it, so that they left trails of bubbles like delicate strings of pearls. Greenberg also includes large prints of bubble-chamber images; in this new context, seem beautiful and mysterious, so much so that the images have appeared in popular culture—the Strokes’ first album has bubble chamber images on its cover (above).

It’s one thing to reappropriate or repurpose something that already exists. One might say it’s not so different—and arguably more pleasing—than what Marcel Duchamp did with a bicycle wheel or a urinal almost a century ago. But there’s another artist out there who takes the public fascination with particle physics, and its importance to the 20th and 21st century, much further than merely displaying its unappreciated relics and artifacts. Jim Sanborn takes it so far that he has split the atom—in the name of art. According to Washington Post reporter Blake Gopnik, the sculptor has established a scientific-compound-cum-studio on an island in the Potomac, and has built a real, live, working particle accelerator.

It’s no LHC; it accelerates particles to high energies the good, old-fashioned way. The brushes and rollers inside a twenty-eight-foot-tall Van de Graaff generator piles charge onto its metal mushroom cap until the air ionizes. The particles discharge through the vacuum chamber of the accelerator and into the bubble chamber, where subatomic particles leave traces of their passage.

Sanborn, a sculptor and artist, has a history of getting so involved in his art that he overreaches the bounds of his field. For instance, Kryptos, his sculpture for CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is an actual coded message carved in stone. Sanborn did so well that Kryptos has eluded decryption for twenty years.

I have two family members for whom a favorite topic of intellectual argument is, “But is it art?” Maybe it’s the fact that I spent the weekend at an art museum with them, but, to me, Sanborn’s latest work seems to raise that very question. Gopnik refers to Sanborn’s island laboratory as a “studio.” The Van de Graaff and accompanying vacuum components, ion gun, and bubble chamber are components of an exhibit, just as individual paintings might make up a show. But to the untrained eye it looks like a geek having some fun in his shed.

Sanborn’s hardly the only amateur to have ever tinkered with particle physics. In my very first post, I mentioned that Michio Kaku, the celebrity cosmologist, built a particle accelerator in his basement at the age of seventeen. Just google “Van de Graaff” and you’ll come upon the websites of amateur projects. So what makes Sanborn’s island a studio, his Van de Graaff-powered accelerator a work of art?

Does the artist’s intention make the work art? Sanborn’s intention is clear; as Gopnik explains, the project is a recreation, almost a performance of a a piece of physics history. In the late 1920s and 1930s, physicist Merle Tuve and his team at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C. were struggling to build a linear particle accelerator. By 1933, they were observing reactions at 600,000 volts, and in 1935, Tuve and company got the first results on proton-proton interactions. They were building the ground work for the atomic bomb:

A high point in scholarly exchange came in January 1939 when Niels Bohr told a conference of theoretical physicists of the discovery of uranium fission by Hahn and Meitner. Within a day the discovery was confirmed at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism by Richard Roberts and Hafstad. Soon thereafter Roberts observed that some uranium fission events are followed by delayed emission of neutrons.

In that sense, this artwork could be seen as a prologue to Sanborn’s earlier work, a set of installations inspired by the Manhattan Project. “Critical Assembly” recreated (and reimagined) experimental setups from Los Alamos in the 1940s; for “Atomic Time,” Sanborn exposed film to uranium over several days until the radiation created an image. He also exposed film to old radium-dial clocks over several weeks (radium was used in the 40s and 50s because it made the dials glow.)

Assembly for Determining Critical Mass, from “Critical Assembly”

“Critical Assembly” and “Atomic Time” belong firmly to the art realm; the recreations of Los Alamos are concretely scientific, but they seem molded by an artist’s hand, to have some quality of sculpture to them. But “Terrestrial Physics,” as Sanborn’s foray into “big science” is called, lacks to me what we might call an interpretation on the part of the artist; it would be equally at home in a particle physics lab or even a science museum.

A uranium “autoradiograph” from “Atomic Time”

Steve Brown, a NASA scientist who helped Sanborn with the delicate, finicky engineering of “Terrestrial Physics,” didn’t see it as art either, at first. Gopnik writes:

Brown didn’t know why Sanborn wanted to achieve even that: “My initial reaction was, ‘Sounds like a lot of work, and what are you going to get out of it in the end?'” Then Brown started thinking in fine-art terms, and changed his mind. “It sort of compares with an old Dutch master’s painting of a kitchen table… It’s a still life of something someone put a lot of energy into.”

But is Sanborn’s work really like the Dutch master’s painting of a kitchen table? Or is it more like the Dutch master making a kitchen table, performing the carpenter?

Sanborn performs science, but “Terrestrial Physics” is not science, by which I mean that a lot of scientific knowledge and rational thinking may be going into the construction of this, but Sanborn’s not going to be studying bubble-chamber film to understand the subatomic world. But at this point, it’s not exactly art, either; as far as I know, Sanborn has no takers for this particular piece, although he’s certainly an admired artist and sculptor. “Terrestrial Physics” is the set made real, a way of bringing us to a moment, a way of making visible not the secret world of particles but the secret world that science was in the 30s and 40s. And given how history has transpired since, those moments in front of the bubble chamber are as fundamental to who we are as the particles themselves.

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