Debate Geneva

Art and Science: Encounter into unknown territory

The panel discussion with Ruth Durrer (Professor for physics at the University of Geneva) and the Geneva artist Christian Gonzenbach on Wednesday December 10, 2014 promised to be passionate and insightful. It kept this promise. The talk was moderated by Elisabeth Chardon, journalist with the daily newspaper ‘Le temps’.

Journalist Elisabeth Chardon ('Le Temps') moderated the diskussion.
Image: M. Turiault

Ruth Durrer opened the event with a short talk on the topic of dark matter, followed by a video portrait showing Christian Gonzenbach at work in his studio. This 20 minute introduction successfully sparked the audiences´ curiosity in the 'Bâtiment d’art contemporain' in Geneva. They were about to partake in an encounter of Art and Science, a meeting of not only of two very different worlds, but also of two languages that were going to be deciphered by the panel.

Both Art and Science transcend the familiar

Art and Science are both based in the fascination of the unknown. Each tries to explore the same basic questions about the Why and the How of our existence and the Universe. For Ruth Durrer the great unknown is the composition of dark matter that fills 25 percent of our Universe. We know that this dark matter exists because of its proven gravitational force. However, its essence is still unknown to us. The physicist´s eyes glow with excitement while she imagines how one day she might discover the particle or the many particles that form this dark matter.

It is the same fascination with the Unknown that makes artist Christian Gonzenbach experiment with a different kind of matter. He is thrilled by the shapes that a hot piece of metal form when it is funneled through a block of styrofoam. He uses the technique to create many of his sculptures. “Art and Science” are seeking to transcend the known. Each is driven by the same excitement as the search for the monster of Loch Ness, something humanity has never seen except for waves and shadows. I am interested in exploring the unknown in our well known world, in finding new forms in places that we believe to know through and through”, the artist says.

Artists and scientist don´t speak the same language: the existence of a creative misunderstanding

What is known to one person can still contain a part of the Unknown for the other. Even though CERN has done a lot in recent years to enable encounters between physicists and artists there still remains a lack of understanding between art and science. Christian Gonzenbach sees a creative aspect in the effort to overcome this misunderstanding. The opening of CERN’s doors has allowed many contemporary artists to get to know the work of the physicists at the particle accelerator LHC from a close.

In his words the encounters at CERN resemble a dialogue between strangers who do not speak the same language. The words of the one do not possess the same meaning for the other. However, terms of the physicists like ‘Wimpzilla’ or ‘Gravitos’ - both particles are discussed as potential components of dark matter – do possess a poetic quality, says Christian Gonzenbach. They spark curiosity and creative interest. By speaking them out loud they bring up images.

Whenever I see an equation I see particles

The individual perception of knowledge by the laymen is different from the knowledge itself. Christian Gonzenbach confessed his disappointment during his visit at CERN: none of the objects that were studied at the LHC were in fact visible. With a smile he said: “When I arrived at the laboratories I hoped to find refrigerators filled with dark matter to form a sculpture from it.”

“But all I found in the refrigerators was beer, as well as numbers and equations on the computer screens.” These equations carried no meaning for the artist whereas for Ruth Durrer they form into an image: “Whenever I look at an equation I immediately see the particle that this equation describes. This is like a musician who hears music when he looks at a sheet of music. Christian Gonzenbach added: “For that same reason you hear so much lack of comprehension about modern Art – because it does not come with the codes to understand it.”

Easier access to emotions and sentiment with artistic means

Science is a source of inspiration for the artist, but the exchange with artists is also inspiring for scientists, said Ruth Durrer. “Artists, as well as physicists, ask stupid questions that are not as trivial as they seem. These questions have the potential to extend our framework. My husband is an artist and he often asks me very simple questions that get me to rethink the well known. Every now and then I have difficulties to explain things. This means that that they were not clear to me either.” Beyond posing these naïve questions, art can deliver answers where science is not in charge. “It is easier to gain access to emotions and feelings with artistic means. However, in other fields physicists do give appropriate answers.”

Physics and music are part of our culture

In the end of the discussion Elisabeth Chardon wanted to know what physics and art are actually good for in the end. Christian Gonzenbach answered with a quote from Robert Filiou. “Art makes life more interesting than Art itself.” He adapted that quote during his time at CERN. “Physics makes life more interesting than physics itself.”

For Ruth Durrer “Like music, physics is a fundamental need of humans. It is part of our culture. It is the difference between humans and the animal that just wants to ensure its survival.”

Marc Turiault (published 12.12.2014)

The experimental physicist Martin Pohl is Professor at the University of Geneva and works at CERN. Christian Gonzenbach works as an artist in Geneva. In a discussion moderated by Susanne Steiger they discussed in a hangout the phenomena of dark matter and the question how physics and art inspire one another.

  • Ruth Durrer, physicist.
  • Christian Gonzenbach, aertist.
  • An attentive audience actively participated in the debate.
  • Ruth Durrer, physicist.Image: M. Turiault1/3
  • Christian Gonzenbach, aertist.Image: M. Turiault2/3
  • An attentive audience actively participated in the debate.Image: M. Turiault3/3
7me hangout de physique des particules: "Matière noire", Idée et direction: Christine Plass (publié le 3. 12. 2014)


  • Elementary particles
  • Particle Physics