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A movie set amongst the machines of CERN, the world’s largest particle physics facility, considers how both art and science strive to understand the universe, and what it is to be human. Symmetry, a “dance and opera film,” premiered last month at the Amsterdam Cinedans festival, following a scientist who transforms into a dancer, and celebrating both roles as portals for contemplating the particle components of existence.
“Dance, like music, can speak a universal language,” Symmetry director Ruben van Leer told Hyperallergic. “I discovered in the making of this project that the science at CERN is basically looking for the same answers, but in a completely different way. The methodologies of understanding humanism and the universe around us are expressed in a scientific language. Modern physics is an abstract language not readable to many, but still we humans made this language, as an extension of our intellect.”
The film, which is just under a half hour long, is part of the Arts@CERN program that selects up to 12 visiting artists each year. “I think this is exactly what art is about, it’s putting us in contact with reality, with ourselves, with imagination, and I think it only adds to the significance of the discoveries that we make,” Robbert Dijkgraaf, a theoretical physicist and director at IAS Princeton, says in the Symmetry Unravelled short documentary on the filming process.
When the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson particle in 2012, a key to the very mass of our universe, it got huge media attention, but the significance of the invisible particle is hard to grasp for non-physicists, which is most of us. Symmetry expresses the two sides of our understanding, one rational, the other emotional, and sets the opera in CERN and a Bolivian salt flat to contrast the human-made machines with the vastness of nature. In the short arc of the film, a physicist played by dancer and choreographer Lukas Timulak is interrupted from his routine by the voice of soprano Claron McFadden, which eventually transports him to an interior world, an expression of how our drive for rational knowledge of the universe is rooted in a deeper, more emotional desire inside ourselves. The operatic and choral music by Joep Franssens and Henry Vega gives Symmetry its grand weight, while the setting of the LHC, the ALICE heavy-ion detector, and the laboratories of CERN ground the narrative in these mechanical tools we have constructed to reach into the limits of understanding.
The Arts@CERN program as well as other recent projects, like the 2014 Particle Fever documentary, are essential in making the intimidating scale of the scientific experiments at CERN approachable, along with fostering the long collaboration between art and science. Both are ways of expressing the importance of things we often can’t see or don’t notice, and as science continues to reach for a greater grasp of the imperceptible building blocks of our reality, art expresses what this means on a human scale.
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