Review of Broken Symmetries from New Scientist, by Douglas Heaven (paywall).
Patches in the ocean structures
show show shows on the Earth
Doctors endorse bones bones bones for archaeologists
Sound-tracked by the taut techno clicks of machines from the future, the woman works through the incantation wearing a hard hat. On the video screen, the speaker’s features morph between human and not-so-human. More elfin, eyes screwed shut – a human two thousand years from now?
Trying to make sense of the weirdness, I bounce to the brilliant beat. Like most of the works on display at Liverpool’s FACT gallery, one1one by hrm199 (a collective that includes UK artists Haroon Mirza and Jack Jelfs) explores the uneasy relationship between language and science. The installation is part of an exhibition called Broken Symmetries, which runs until 3 March 2019 before heading to Spain and France. The show brings together the work of 10 artists from around the world who have taken part in CERN’s Collide International Residency in the last three years.
Since 2011, CERN has invited artists to spend time in its theoretical physics labs. There they talk to researchers, check out the experiments, and go through the archives. “They can basically do whatever they want,” says Charlotte Horn, the exhibitions coordinator at FACT.
In one1one, which has also been performed live, hrm199 zeroes in on the difficulty of describing in words what scientists are learning about the fundamental nature of reality. The year is 4250 and language has broken down. Stretched to encompass the ineffable, sentences snap. The speaker’s words are a hodgepodge of corporate speak, scientific jargon and sentimentality, spliced together with copy-paste and autocomplete.
Proceed with your company as not the intended addressee please do not hesitate
Illustrations in chapter pictures
Light always travels through ghost
Language speaks exactly to ghost
Ludwig Wittgenstein had a pithy phrase: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” His contemporary, Frank Ramsey, added: “What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.”
Wittgenstein and Ramsey were members of the Vienna Circle, a supergroup of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists in the 1930s who argued that only descriptions of the world that can be observed and verified have any meaning. Thus claims about the arrangement of electrons in an atom made sense, while claims about the arrangement of angels in heaven did not.
The Vienna Circle has influenced much of our thinking about science. However, the deeper we delve, the more clear-cut ideas about observation and verification become fuzzy. This year has brought us doubts about gravitational waves and unconfirmed signs in Antarctica that hint at a new realm of physics.
And long-running disagreements about what does and does not count as a proof suggest that even mathematicians are losing their grip on what is and isn’t real.