In the event of always falling back down again

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

In the event of always falling back down again is the title of a new work for the public foyer of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews. I had hoped to be able to complete it in the Spring of 2020 but, like so much else in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has stepped in the way and the installation of the finished work will have to wait for another day. The work has already come a long way though and here's some background as to how it came to be.

In 2019 I was loaned an extraordinary book from the university's astronomy collection by the director of the observatory Aleks Scholz. The large and heavy book is a representation of the spectrum of the Sun and its title is A Photometric Atlas of the Solar Spectrum. Published in 1940 and attributed to the work of M. Minneart, G F W Mulders and J Houtgast, it traces an unbroken spectral graph from the ultraviolet wavelength of 361 nm all the way up to 877 nm - well into the infrared portion of the spectrum. The book is the most complete description of the sun but without the use of words or images. From front to back it is a single, jagged and meandering line which manages to describe the sun in great detail and, if let loose from the constraints of the printed page, would run out to over 120 metres.

With the fascination and familiarity that I already had with the wavelengths of the four hydrogen lines, it was a real pleasure to be able to seek out and locate their respective positions in the tell-tale dips in the continuous line of the spectrum (in this case representing the absorption of the corresponding emission line wavelengths). What the book also offered me though was a new graphical reference to our relationship with and understanding of light - specifically the light of the Sun.

Using the same machining and anodising techniques that I had developed on my earlier work with hydrogen (Once again with Rob Hunter’s help) I was able to re-make these key portions of the line of the spectrum into meeting points of great contrast. I've experimented with contrasts between materials (different metals) and colour (in the process of anodising) and each meeting point for each wavelength can be resolved as a different kind of boundary. These boundaries all take on different possibilities such as water's edge, horizons or even the edge of our knowledge but they all start out as being informed by the inner structure of light.

These are the materials and treatments that I plan to use for the new work in the School of Physics and Astronomy but I should probably also try to explain the title: In the event of always falling back down again.

My background is not in physics or astronomy - or any field of science. In past projects a lot of my work has been characterised by collaboration: I like to think that the point of origin of the new material is actually from somewhere in the space in between the collaborators. My collaboration on the Shine project has brought me to the world of physics for the first time and, as an artist, I like to make the most of the freedom that comes with it - no expectations on the part of my collaborators in terms of what I might be expected to know or understand. The kind of freedom that lends itself to enormous possibilities.

In any study of light and spectroscopy you will fairly quickly come into contact with the world of quantum physics: daunting and possibly confounding but very easily exhillerating all at the same time. It seems to me that the entire realm of physics is well known for its two principal domains of classical physics and quantum physics - the big and the very, very small - and that, as far as we know, no system seems to successfully combine the two.

In trying to find my own way into quantum physics I am struck by the fact that not only does this world not square with the world of classical physics but it also doesn't very readily square with language either. Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise as language is surely a product of our relationship with the world as it behaves and as it appears.

So the title of the work is an attempt to address the idea of venturing into an unfamiliar landscape but also of being unable to properly describe what you find there. For me the key word in the title is falling. Many written references can be found to the moment when a photon of light is produced due to the action of an electron in an atom (to put it most simply). A term that I have often read is that an electron "falls back down". The electron receives a packet of energy, it jumps to a higher energy level and once at the higher level it will fall back down again to the level it came from: the level where it normally belongs. My understanding is that all of this is true but somehow it is just as equally not true: there is no "receiving" no "jumping" and no "falling". These are all highly demonstrable actions in the world of classical physics - we can see things jump and fall and know precisely how to describe this. But here is another kind of landscape where process seems to be absent - there are only conditions or potential conditions with no stages in between. In a very strange sense nothing actually "happens".

The intention is that the title acts as a simple description but, in doing so, it manages to invalidate itself and somehow amount to the sum of zero. We begin with an event but an event which appears to have a permanent state: something is always falling. And yet the falling is a return to a place at which we could not possibly have come from.

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