The Quirks of Quarks ~ Singapore ArtScience Museum

The Quirks of Quarks ~ Singapore ArtScience Museum

Bright and early one morning, I was off to Singapore, ostensibly, road tripping it down to fetch a second batch of Turkish tiles.  These we had joyfully discovered there a month earlier, after a futile and frustrating search of quite possibly every tile store in KL. 

Speeding down the North-South Expressway as acres of green oil palms whizzed by, tile-fetching was my purported mission but in fact, I had a hidden agenda.    

 Rainbows and Oil Palms flank the expressway to Singapore.

Rainbows and Oil Palms flank the expressway to Singapore.

I'd heard thru the geek-vine that the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands was hosting an exhibit on the Hadron Collider, and in my eagerness as a dedicated tile-hunter, we'd come one week too early last time. 


So instead of circling the Collider exhibit like a busy little proton, I circled the HERMÈS LEATHER FOREVER exhibit. 

It was a stunning, vibrant, and utterly decadent exhibit, but it's the mysteries of the universe and all our attempts to unravel it that fascinates me. So I plotted my way back to Singapore as soon as possible. 

There was only one hiccup. 

Normally, Singapore's a quick flight away - much like the skip from San Francisco to LA - but alas fetching tiles requires a car, and driving requires a license. 

Unfortunately, my license expired years ago. I'd happily given up car-ownership when I moved to Washington DC, and that preference for walking & public transport continued after my move to KL.  Normally that would mean I wouldn't be able to make the trip and would have to hire a lorry, but one of the perks of living in Malaysia is being able to hire a driver for a pretty reasonable rate.

So armed with a couple pillows, a line up of new podcasts, lattes and bag of pistachios, we dropped my husband off at work, and cruised southward. 


So...I've come to adore Singapore.  Initially, benignly loyal to Malaysia, I may have scoffed at Singapore's neat, well ordered island life as lacking some of the charm and authenticity of Kuala Lumpur.  But over the years, as a pedestrian living in a country sans sidewalks, the charms of Singapore have grown exponentially.

Mind you, I love Malaysia and choose our life there everyday, but Singapore is still a welcome mini-break.  It offers a chance to take in new art, museums, a richer offering of international shows, more contemporary designs, and for this Californian, the fresh scent of sea breezes and sunshine.

After a few hours drive, I arrived precisely at lunch time and headed straight to South Coast to meet up with a girlfriend. We fell into conversation and our dishes with equal rapaciousness.  South Coast has become one of our favorite haunts.  Perched overlooking Marina Bay, it's the perfect spot to grab lunch or a glass of wine before, and especially after, an evening show at one of Marina Bay Sand's theaters.   


After our gab-fest, I bade my friend farewell and made my way to the ArtScience Museum.  The building itself is quite spectacular, designed by Moshe Safdie to resemble the shape of a blossoming lotus.  The gentle curves of the lotus shape contrasts with the sharp edges and glass panels of its base, and is surrounded by its muse - a serene pond of lotus flowers.


Signs for the Collider exhibit beckons with "By the time you read this, a particle in the Large Hadron Collider could have traveled around the world 30 times", and adds a small hustle to your step.

As you enter the light flooded foyer of the museum, it seems somehow apropos that you need to journey downwards to reach the exhibit.   Thankfully it's merely a couple floors and not the 175 meter depths required to enter the CERN laboratory, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that straddles the Franco-Swiss border and houses the real Collider complex.


Perhaps you've been equally fascinated by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and daydream an alternate universe wherein you posses a greater aptitude for mathematics, particle physics and are on buddy-buddy basis with Noble Laureate Peter Higgs.  Or perhaps you're wondering what in the world is a Hadron, where does it collide and why so large? 

Most likely, you've heard of the LHC in the context of the relatively recent discovery of the elusive Higgs boson particle.  This discovery deepened our understanding (and in this case I use the very grand pronoun of 'our' to include all of us, even those of us who may still be stumbling on the practicalities!) of the fundamental laws of the universe.

 Ladies and gentle, these are the Hadrons

Ladies and gentle, these are the Hadrons

This exhibit seeks to reach us - lay(wo)men, and thus large chalk drawings thoughtfully greet us with reminders of the basic components and sub-components of the atom.   Or as I affectionately term it - the quirks of quarks!

Why does this matter?

Well besides the fact that every single thing is made of these particles, and their sub-particles, by delving into the nature of sub-atomic particles it helps to unlock the mysteries as to how the universe was created.  It provides insights into what the universe (and in typical anthropocentric curiosity what 'we') are made of, the necessary conditions for the universe, and how the Big Bang came about.  All very exciting stuff indeed!

The exhibit is structured around eight zones - first taking us from the past into the present by featuring notable moments in the history of Particle Physics.

A couple highlights resonated with me in particular, as I recently read a fantastic short story titled "A Gleaming in the Darkness" by Kim Edwards that brought to life Marie Curie's discovery of radium.


Another exciting highlight was the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.  This precise moment was captured in a massive video installation that took you into the heart of the Higgs boson announcement.  It folded you into the excitement as if you too had toiled in the depth of the earth helping to smash hadrons together for years on end, in temperatures of 271 degrees below zero (for the particles, not you of course) and hoping beyond hope for a breakthrough.

I may have rewatched this loop twice just to sit in the joy of this moment and watch as a silent tear streamed down Peter Higgs' face alongside thunderous applause. 

As the exhibit progressed, the structure and workings of the Large Hadron Collider itself is revealed.

While the kiddies donned construction garb as part of the inter-activeness of the exhibit, I on the other hand paid appropriate attention to the clearly critical role of bubbles in the festive toasting and abetting of universal discoveries.   A keen eye spots and appreciates the glamour of scientific life.

The visuals are pretty remarkable.  I had idly wondered how an exhibit like this would appeal to the young and old, how it would balance between those deeply knowledgeable and those of us who inhabit more of a curious observer/fan-girl role.  A look around at other museum go-ers, of whom by mid afternoon were just a handful, found a boisterous, happy group of kids clustered around the more interactive components of the exhibits, and captivated by the graphics.  Clearly the exhibit was working on many levels.

Models and photographs of the Collider provided a glimpse into the complicated workings of a machine that contains super powerful dipole magnets; these magnets create magnetic fields that bend proton beams as they move in a circle almost as fast as the speed of light.   Additional smaller magnets squeeze and focus the proton beams to bring them into collusion. 


All the while superfluid liquid Helium is moving throughout the magnets to maintain a consistent temperate of -271 degrees, or -271.3 degrees if you want to be extra precise. 

And you do get the feeling that precision matters when dealing with the subtleties of hadrons and quarks!


And so what of it?  Why unite 10,000 people together to build a $9 billion dollar complex to house a machine 17km long to slam itty bitty protons against each other?

Because E = mc2

Because 1. Protons collide

               2. Protons are destroyed

               3. New Particles from the Collision are created!


Hello Universe!  Hello 5.5 trillion degrees celsius generated in the collusion aka 100,000 times hotter then the center of the Sun aka replicating the red hot conditions of the universe after the Big Bang!

But the fun doesn't stop there; next you get to peer voyeuristically into almost life size dioramas of the offices of some of the particle physicists working at the Collider complex.  If you are like me, you quickly thought of how a few hardy indoor plants & a dab of paint might spruce up working conditions and speed along future discovery. 


As the exhibit ends and you wistfully wish you had an extra hour or two to re-read captions and examine the models more closely because lets just say, there are still a few gray areas in your knowledge bank, you are given one final surprise. 

A gift. 


When I first entered the final room there were a few people sitting, resting it seemed, on benches at the back. I found myself staring at these massive screens that fuzzed like visual white noise. 

The room was pitch dark aside from these crackling screens. 


I waited a bit, wondered, and then slowly walked towards it trying to interpret what it could be.  With each step towards the screen, the seemingly random, crackling points of lights came together and condensed, so that the closer I got the screen the more solid this mass, resembling me, became.

It was the perfect synthesis of the ideas of the Collider exhibit brought to life in an accessible, engaging way.  Art and Science indeed, Bravo!


The Gift of Mass. 

The museum explains that months after the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics conceived of an art installation to popularize the importance of this achievement. 

They collaborated with the collective and Paolo Scoppola to create an "...immersive audio-visual installation [that] invites the visitors to live the impossible experience of acquiring their own mass. The visitor goes virtually from a Universe in which particles having no mass move without distinguishing themselves, to a Universe where mass is formed through an invisible sea, the Higgs Field."

Just as I readied to depart for the second time, a stream of kids entered the exhibit, and so I paused. 

Watching them discover the Gift of Mass - jumping, running and interacting with the installation - made me absurdly happy.  Grinning like a cheshire cat in that gleaming darkness, I walked away from the Gift of Mass and the Collider exhibit.

- Yiga

Culture Vultures - If you're keen to experience The Collider Exhibit yourself, RUN don't walk to the ArtScience center as it'll close on Valentines day - breaking many a nerdy heart! 

Happily for those inclined towards the uber glam, there will be a new exhibit on Van Cleef & Arpels, the Art and Science of Gems” starting up in late April.  If you are coming from KL, or elsewhere, I'd recommend staying at least a night in Singapore and catching both an exhibit & a show at MBS.   Two upcoming shows look particularly tempting - Cirque Eloize opening late February and Superstars of Ballet opening in April. 

And who knows, perhaps if our stars align, I'll see you toasting some bubbly at South Coast before the SuperStars of Ballet performance!