First Leaning Out of Windows TRIUMF Visit.

On September 28th I was present for the first meeting of the third phase of the Leaning Out of Windows project. I’m really excited about this project as I had previously been inspired by physics in my artistic work (“Engineered“) and have been looking to get back into that body of knowledge. I applied for a few COLLIDE residency awards at CERN over the last couple of years and made video submissions available here and here.

As part of this meeting we did a tour of TRIUMF and I’ll include additional photos from the tour below. The meeting (and tour) were overwhelming to say the least and I still need some time to integrate and reflect. This blog post is devoted my initial musings and some very preliminary project ideas.


The theme for this phase of the project is “emergence” and there were a few presentations from scientists working at TRIUMF in response. I’m particularly interested in this theme because of how it seems to challenge reductionist ways of thinking. Jess Brewer presented his point of view and discussed the challenge of emergence for a reductionist. He concluded that emergence exists as a temporary and personal state where a system’s components are understood, but all of the potential  interactions between components may not be well understood. In short, emergence may be appropriate to describe a state of partial understanding of a system. Other than a side comment about a lack of consistency in defining “levels” of abstraction, Brewer did not talk much about abstraction.

It seems clear to me that a clear sense of abstraction is key to a sense of emergence. The next few paragraphs follow from my thinking on abstraction available here. First, I would argue that a level of description (abstraction) is a particular granularity / fidelity of symbolic representation that describes the behaviour of a system (i.e. a theory) that can be validated. Second, I would argue that emergence is a scenario in which two theories describing the same system and operating at two different levels of abstraction may appear highly independent.

For example we have good theories of blood circulation in the human body, and that blood-flow is crucial to the function of the human body. We also have theories of human behaviour, for example a significant amount of crime happens on pathways between an offender’s home and locations that they frequent (such as work and recreation). Each of these  theories explain different points of view of a single system, the human being. We can’t calculate the locations of offenders’ crimes from a model of their blood-flow, so behaviour seems to be an emergent property. We also can’t easily explain or predict the behaviour of humans through chemistry or physics. One caveat is that we can model aspects of human behaviour treating humans as simple units, e.g. modelling crowds as fluid flows, but we can’t, or are unlikely to, consider intermediary levels of description (biological, cognitive, social).

A level of description provides a context of interpretation that allows us to determine correlations between symbols in the theory with (symbolic) measurements of the actual object of study. One could argue, consistent with Brewer, that we need a theory at a different level of description because a lower level of description would make a theory too cumbersome and violate Occam’s razor. Perhaps Brewer’s line of thinking is correct and emergence is due to complexity where interactions between components are not fully understood (e.g. the interactions of blood flow and social behaviour). Levels of abstraction then allow us to break phenomena into more manageable components to deal with complexity.

Responses to Facility Aesthetics

I was surprised by a few aesthetic aspects of the TRIUMF facility. I found the offices very interesting; they appear to tend to being particularly dense and chaotic with papers and hardware strewn about. The structure of the contents of offices are very complex and verge on mess and apparent disorder. I would find it interesting to photograph the offices and wonder if this has been done before.

The accelerator itself, the “beam lines”, and sensory apparatuses often have saturated pastel colours that apparently are chosen intuitively (e.g. the PI’s favourite colours) and to indicate risk and importance of components. The structure of these apparatuses also sit on this line between order and disorder. The density is extreme and the large scale means everything is made of many smaller components complicating much of the geometries. See images below for details. One initial project idea is to apply the colour fragmentation methods I used in Percepts from Watching series to photographs of these apparatuses.

Structural responses, such as the project idea above, could be the seed of new ideas, but I have to admit I’m much more enamoured by these structures than I expected. I generally work from a knowledge-oriented and conceptual point of view, but perhaps all my reading on Post-Painterly Abstraction is blurring those boundaries between concept and structure for me.

The physicist on our team, Sarah Dunsiger, works in the materials science area running experiments on magnetic materials. For her, emergence comes up in the context of the interactions of many small magnetic units in films that are bombarded by a beam of “positive muons” or “8Li”. This is interesting from a glitch perspective in thinking about the perturbation of the small magnetic fields in a film by electrons. I wonder if magnetic computer media (HDDs, floppy disks, etc) exposed to the electron beam could be an interesting source of corruption.

After looking over my notes and writing this post I feel like I’m still only just scratched the surface of my response and need more time to integrate and consider. I’ve included a few documentary images I captured during the TRIUMF tour below: