Chasing Time Machines: A Photographer Turns High Energy Physics Into Art
Stanley Greenberg takes pictures of giant structures used to study tiny particles.
In 2008, photographer Stanley Greenberg donned full mining gear—including a borrowed suit a few sizes too big—and trudged through a rocky tunnel coursing under Ontario, Canada. The trek eventually led him more than a mile down to SNOLAB, an astroparticle physics research facility located in the bowels of Vale Creighton Mine. There, he changed into clean room clothing in preparation for his final destination—the SNO detector, a contraption originally built to hold 1,000 tons of heavy water used to identify neutrinos produced by fusion reactions in the sun. Equipped with a geodesic sphere spanning about 60 feet in diameter, the detector slumbers in a manmade cavern 6,800 feet within the mine’s trenches.
At the precipice to the detector, Greenberg strapped into a harness and then lowered into darkness, his camera in an accompanying basket. A few safety lights gave him the illumination he needed to snap long exposures of the majestic structure. One of those images is was part of Stanley Greenberg: Time Machines, a series of physics-themed black-and-white photographs that was on exhibit at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2013 and 2014.
Greenberg—who had previously shot New York’s most remote recesses, such as valve chambers in water tunnels 300 feet below the city—spent more than three years crisscrossing the globe to photograph the often enigmatic and inaccessible world of nuclear and high energy physics research. Fascinated by the massive machines and power required to investigate the tiniest of particles, he was also struck by how little other people seemed to know about these experiments. Friends who were connoisseurs of great novels, music, and art were typically unaware of facilities such as SNOLAB, CERN in Switzerland, and the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica. He found himself wondering: “How can you not be interested in something as elemental as this? This is how the universe works.”
Greenberg’s curiosity impressed Janet Conrad, a professor of physics at MIT who helped him plan a visit to Fermilab in Illinois. Conrad, who often gives public talks about physics, finds that lay audiences typically associate the discipline with three things: E=mc2, bombs, and the notion that it’s hard to understand. “I find this very disconcerting, especially the ‘bombs’ answer,” she says. “When I think of physics, I think of music, and auroras, soap bubbles, and tiny universes that we make in our particle interactions.”
By focusing on the “architecture of science”—that is, the structure and design of giant machines like the SNO detector—Greenberg makes the world of minute particles more comprehensible to the public, says Gary Van Zante, curator of architecture and design at the MIT Museum and the exhibit’s curator. Indeed, while international teams of scientists work at these physics facilities, the design of each reflects the aesthetics of the country in which it’s based, says Greenberg. He describes how the Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati in Italy “looked Italian, the ones in the U.S. looked less stylistic, and [the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Japan] had beautiful concrete.”
Greenberg’s photographs—printed in the traditional way, on silver gelatin—stand out for their craftsmanship, says Van Zante. But they’re also an “important historical record of these experiments,” says Conrad. For his part, Greenberg says that each composition “is as much about art as it is science,” adding that, “Hopefully people from both fields will want to look at them.”