September 3, 2004  


Meson Visualizations: A Collaboration of Art and Physics

By Shawne Neeper

How would neutron decay look at human scale and in full Technicolor? From September 9 to October 1, the halls of the Research Office Building (ROB, Bldg. 48) will come alive with visualizations of quantum phenomena from standard-model collisions to particle-wave duality.

Dawn Meson’s painting entitled Collision II is based on the standard model description of a two-particle collision. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Meson)

The exhibit marks the debut of artist Dawn Meson’s body of work entitled Sum over Histories. In these paintings, Meson uses color, translucency, texture and shape to represent the tiny, invisible interactions that pervade our everyday world.

“One of the things that attracted me to quantum physics in particular,” Meson said, “was that our instruments can only see things down to a certain granularity and then it becomes a theoretical exercise. As an artist, that’s interesting because these are part of our natural world that can’t be captured by photography.”

In the painting entitled Particle Wave, different colors and opacities symbolize the levels of probability for ‘where’ in quantum dimensions a particle lies. Another piece, called Collision, visualizes the interactions of subatomic particles from a two-particle collision as described in the standard model.

Time-lapse videos will appear alongside the paintings. Each stop-action sequence—often including the artist, brush in hand—shows steps in a painting’s evolution that reflect Meson’s interpretation of stages in her quantum subject over time.

The Sum over Histories exhibit is an adventure away from more literal paintings and drawings Meson has done in recent years. She said the work doesn’t try for realism, but instead aims to engage the visual imagination. “Imagination has a very large role in the discovery and advancement of particle physics,” Meson said, “and I think that’s something that art can speak to in some small way.”

Meson at work in her studio. The Sum of Histories Exhibit will run from September 9 to October 1 in the ROB, Bldg. 48. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Meson)

Cosmologist Influences Artistic Mind

Meson said her own imaginings of quantum events were influenced in great part by conversations with SLAC cosmologist Stephon Alexander (THP). Shortly after she began work on Sum over Histories, Meson met Alexander at Farley’s coffee shop in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco. “I was doing some kind of calculation or something and [Meson] noticed it,” Alexander said. “We got into a conversation and a couple hours later… we established a working friendship.” Over the months to come, Alexander and Meson would meet to discuss the exercises in math and visualization that define Alexander’s work process. “We got very far into the physics,” Alexander said. “She has an exceptional ability to assimilate the mathematical concepts that I can’t really explain with words.”

Public Reception on September 9

Meson’s take on those concepts will debut in a public reception September 9 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., in the ROB, which seems the ideal setting to showcase images of quantum physics. Its corridors and galleries provide appropriate viewing space, while its offices house a ready audience of particle physicists. Building manager Harvey Lynch (BaBar) toured ROB’s hallways with Meson to plan the exhibit. Meson took photos of the best sites, then used Photoshop to paste in the paintings. “I’ve taken that to the craft shop, to come up with a scheme to hang them,” Lynch said. “We’re set to move ahead.”

Meson’s Web site previews Sum over Histories and other collections. Visit:



The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Wednesday September 01, 2004 by Emily Ball