The bright yellow plastic tent is softly lit with multi-colored lanterns. With two red bean bags thrown in the middle, the tent seems to be a relaxing environment until you read the notes written on the index cards lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Childish scribbles are intermixed with the knowing hand of experience. Some complain about the state of hunger in America, some frankly tell their story, and some simply plea for food or a job.
Walking out of the tent, you see the rest of “Measure for Measure,” an exhibit that was on display at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts from November 3 to December 22, 2011. Two videos run next to patterned circles on the wall and rows of tiny salt shakers filled with slips of paper sit opposite a wall of mirrors.
You do not often see the phrases “curated by” and “globally renowned physicist” on the same page, but in the case of Professor Lisa Randall, art and science complement each other through her unique vision. In addition to teaching at Harvard, conducting research, and recently, releasing her new book, Professor Randall worked with co-curator, artist Lia Halloran, to put together the exhibit, which illustrates the different ways we view and understand scale. The works of contemporary art created by Los Angeles-based artists portray how patterns repeat themselves at different scales or how different scales represent completely different worlds.
This exhibit is not Professor Randall’s first foray into the arts. She wrote the libretto for the opera “Hypermusic Prologue: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes,” composed by Hector Parra, which premiered in Paris in 2009. In this project, Randall explained her theory of extra dimensions to the universe through the medium of music.
Her recent involvement in many projects that explore the intersection of art and science may seem to suggest a background in the arts. However, Randall has had little formal music or art training. Her coursework and activities during her time as a Harvard undergraduate were primarily focused on math and science. Even during her freshman fall, the classes she took reflected her future career: the universally required Expository Writing 20, the renowned Math 55, the hardest freshman physics course at the time (Physics 55), and a philosophy course. She ended up pursuing a career in physics rather than math, because she “wanted to pursue something more related to the external world.” Professor Randall does acknowledge, however, that her “passive interest in the arts,” including watching many classic films during her time as a Harvard undergraduate and frequently visiting museums, “had a much bigger impact than [she] had imagined.”
So when Randall was given an opportunity to co-curate “Measure for Measure” after meeting Peter Mays, the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Art Association, she enthusiastically accepted the task. The exhibit addresses scale in many different contexts and mediums, from videos to grand installments. Pieces seem to jump off of the walls. Some require a viewer to step back and look up, while others require one to squint at the intricate details of a piece. The yellow plastic emergency tent lined with notecards is actually the product of the The Cupcake Project, which explores scale in the context of socio-economic status. Elizabeth Tobias, the artist, baked over 500 cupcakes, which she distributed to people all across the Los Angeles area, from the most affluent to the most needy. In exchange, they would write what they thought when prompted with the word “hunger.” Let Them Eat Cupcakes takes viewers from the mindset of the richest of Los Angeles to the poorest as they move from index card to index card.
Coming into this project having been exposed to the concept of scale mainly from a scientific point of view, Randall stated, “One of the interesting ideas that arose during the art exhibit was emotions as they reflect on the theme of scale. When you remember things, they are condensed into a very short time. In other words, emotions might condense your thoughts.”When asked which of the pieces most resonated with her sense of scale from a scientific background, Professor Randall pointed out Katrina McElroy’s Migratory Micro-Rhythm. In this piece, thousands of circles are organized into a fluid pattern that wraps around one wall of the exhibit. However, on closer inspection, each circle contains a picture of various scenes that is at times both abstract and random. As a viewer moves in closer to inspect some of the circles, one literally feels the dichotomy of scale, where something that appears simple at a larger scale is complex or even random at a smaller scale. This pattern is often found in science: macroscopic objects that seem simple are found to be bewilderingly complex at the atomic scale and even more unfathomable at the subatomic scale.
It is just at these subatomic scales that Professor Randall’s research focuses on. Much of Randall’s work involves experiments that use CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), including the search for the Higgs Boson. As a theorist, Professor Randall has done significant work with using various models of particle physics to predict results that should emerge from the LHC. With such theories, experimenters can interpret the implications of what they find in the mess of particles that emerge from collisions at the LHC. This process is part of what attracted Randall to physics in the first place: “The idea that you can explain the universe and that you can actually test some of the ideas that you have is a wonderful thing.” Professor Randall’s research also involves physics at a very different scale from the Higgs Boson. She has investigated the invisible substance (or a substance that does not interact with light) that supposedly makes up roughly 70% of the universe: dark matter. Her research has looked both at predicting new types of dark matter and scrutinizing the particles and interactions that could make up dark matter.
In addition to teaching, conducting research and pursuing art-science connection projects, Lisa Randall also released her new book Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which not only explains much of the science behind the LHC to the layman but also seeks to describe the process of science to non-scientists, clearing up what Professor Randall sees as common misconceptions about science. For instance, she tries to explain that when a new underlying theory comes to light, the “old” theories are not discarded, but are simply limited in use. In other words, the “old” theory becomes useful only at certain scales. When relativity came around, Newton’s theory of gravity was not discarded but rather reserved for use at scales where the effects of the new theory are negligible.
In Katrina McElroy’s Migratory Micro-Rhythm, the observation that the work is orderly and fluid is applicable to the large scale, but is found to not apply to the piece at a smaller scale when individual circles are inspected. Nevertheless, the organization of the work on the large scale is not disregarded, as it is still true. In this way, Randall’s observation about how physics progresses with new theories is literalized in this piece in the exhibit “Measure for Measure.” As the exhibit illustrates, art and science may have more in common than is initially apparent. Leave it to Lisa Randall to uncover or even create more connections between the two worlds.