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“Within that ordinary space were hidden the building blocks of the universe”: Susan Eyre on Laboratory of Dark Matters

“We crammed into a narrow container, descending the shaft for seven long minutes into blackness before arriving in a hot and dusty subterranean world.”  Photo taken of a particle trail from a test run by the Laboratory of Dark Matters.

Strap in for this one, as artist Susan Eyre takes us on a journey that wouldn’t sound out of place in the best Doctor Who episodes, but is in, fact, entirely factual.

The Laboratory of Dark Matters is a response by artists to scientific investigations into the unknown nature of the universe. Last May, Susan and the rest of the lab participants donned their orange boiler suits and descended 1100m below ground to explore the UK’s deepest working mine, beyond the reach of cosmic rays and background radiation.

The lab gained access to a world dedicated to understanding the mysteries of the universe, the findings of which have inspired Laboratory of Dark Matters’ programme at Guest Projects over the course of April.

You better leave your phones behind, we’re going under the sea…

Last spring a group of nine artists visited Boulby Underground Laboratory to meet scientists working on dark matter detection in a hidden environment 1100m below ground, beyond the reach of cosmic rays and background radiation.

Here we gained a glimpse into the dedicated world that the scientists inhabit and found we had common ground between us: we both seek to understand the mysteries of the universe and our role within it.

Our guide for the visit was particle astrophysicist Dr Chamkaur Ghag, who I met when he delivered a talk on dark matter organised by the creative agency super/collider at Second Home. During his explanations on the theories of what dark matter might be and the direct detection experiments he designed and worked on, we learned that this was taking place on the North East coast of England in the UK’s deepest working mine.

The experiments use the liquid form of the gas Xenon which glows with a very pure light. Should a dark matter particle hit the nucleus of a Xenon atom a scintillation in the crystals will give off light, a little heat and ionisation which would be detected. Only the dark matter particle will make it past the atom’s electrons to hit the nucleus. Other particles, such as gamma rays will hit the electrons first giving a faint flash that can identify them. The detector must be very sensitive which is why they need to go deep underground away from any background radiation.

I was intrigued to visit this extraordinary location where scientists spend their time in search of something so elusive. I’m interested in intangible ideas such as the dream of paradise and the aura of place, and have been researching the origins of paradise and how its meaning has shifted through history. I’d begun photographing prosaic places called paradise such as Paradise Road, Stockwell, looking for signs, symbols and patterns that might be clues to paradise. A week spent at the Princes School of Traditional Arts learning about geometry and biomorphic patterns in nature led me to think about what it was that I was seeing in the landscapes around me. Within that ordinary space were hidden the building blocks of the universe.

In my search to discover what matter was made of, I turned to particle physics and found the language to be quite like that of mythology. Inhabited with mysterious characters like the charm quark and strange quark, the muon neutrino and the tau; governed by fundamental forces that cannot be seen or explained other than by their attributes, just like the mythical gods. I also learnt that the matter we know, that which is visible to us and includes all the stars and galaxies is less than 5% of the content of the universe; that dark matter makes up about 25% and the remaining 70% is the even more mysterious dark energy.

This incredible discovery led me to think about how when I go to a location I can only see certain things. I began to make connections between the aura of place, the pursuit of paradise and the search for the origins of the universe, all intangible ephemeral things that are hard to grasp.

Joining with other artists whose research explores the structures that underpin our existence we planned the trip, hosted by lab director Prof. Sean Paling, that became the catalyst for our project.

Boulby Mine in September 1970

Visiting Boulby Underground Laboratory was a very surreal experience which began with a two hour health and safety induction and being alerted to the hazards of life underground. We were kitted out in orange boiler suits, heavy boots, shin pads, hard hats, ear defenders, goggles and flash lights.

Most alarming was the issue of the self-rescuer breathing apparatus that converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide with the instruction “better to use in doubt than die in error”. Only three breaths of deadly carbon monoxide and you are unconscious, possibly dead.

We crammed into a narrow container, descending the shaft for seven long minutes into blackness before arriving in a hot and dusty subterranean world. Ears popping, we stepped through a series of airlock doors, adding to the feeling that we had arrived on another planet, to enter the vast network of tunnels that stretch out under the sea.

With our headlamps dimmed here is total darkness. It was a 20 minute walk to the original research laboratory, now being ripped diagonally in half by the slow liquid like movement of the salt tunnel walls sliding against a fault line. The floor and ceiling are ruptured and so the highly sensitive equipment has been moved to a new purpose built reinforced steel clad lab.

From the abandoned clutter of past experiments, we crossed another murky passage to enter the cavernous and blinding pristine white space of the new laboratories. Behind the blank face of the technology in large metal containers, sprouting untold wires and screens with data passing across in repeating wavering lines, is the ongoing hope of witnessing a tiny scintillation of light that can be identified as the result of a collision of a dark matter particle with the Xenon atom nucleus. The three hours we spent underground passed very quickly- we were in constant awe at what we saw and heard about the extraordinary past and present projects that take place in this hidden arena.

"At 1100m deep the Boulby Underground Laboratory is a special place for science - ‘a quiet place in the Universe’ - where studies can be carried out almost entirely free of interference from natural background radiation."

Prohibited from taking anything battery powered below, we relied on borrowing a lab camera to take a few snaps before returning to the lift shaft to be hauled back to the surface (this time tightly packed amongst the silent salt dusted mine workers). We returned to the surface exhausted and full of information to assimilate. We were all struck by the faith of the scientists who spend many years designing and building experiments, waiting for data, searching for clues, hoping for outcomes.

Throughout Laboratory of Dark Matters we aim to echo the ethos of the scientists, testing ideas and embracing unexpected outcomes. The workshops we are running offer some unique hands-on experiments led by artists.

The science behind the phenomena is explained and the outcomes are also creative. It’s a chance for visitors to Guest Projects to experience new things such as activating phosphorescence with lasers, deconstructing and drawing particles, witnessing unseen cosmic particle trails made visible in a cloud chamber.

The new artworks being created are informed by our underground experience in the extreme environment of Boulby Laboratory, the unswerving quest for knowledge and the unique detection methods employed, the reliance on the interpretation of data and the difficulties of visualising the invisible. We also look at how this search to discover what the universe is made of might relate to our notions of humanity, our myths and beliefs.

We have learnt that dark matter is dark because it does not reflect or emit light or interact with any of the fundamental forces except gravity. It was theorized through the pioneering research of Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s and Vera Rubin in the 1950s who looked at galaxy rotation curves and decided there was more going on than could be accounted for by the mass of the matter we could see. 

Something mysterious was holding the galaxies together. It is dark matter that allows structures in the universe to form by pulling matter into the gravitational field of pools of dark matter.

Susan Eyre with work in progress

Plato describes a primitive chaos from which the universe took shape, where the four elements of fire, earth, water and air formed from a turbulent mix of ‘being’, ‘space’ and ‘becoming’ to be assigned by their solid or fluid characteristics to the tetrahedron, cube, icosahedron and octahedron. He goes on to add; ‘There still remained a fifth construction, which the god used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven’.

This fifth construction is the dodecahedron, holding the stars in the heavens, just as dark matter is now believed to do. Plato offers no further explanation and even today we are still trying to discover the nature of this mysterious phenomenon and are left in the space of the unknown which is also the place of possibilities.

Laboratory of Dark Matters is a response by artists to scientific investigations into the unknown nature of the universe. Through a programme of exhibitions, workshops, talks and discussions it invites everyone driven by curiosity to explore fundamental questions about matter and consciousness. Throughout April, Laboratory of Dark Matters will be holding open lab days, Phosphorescence Workshops, Cloud Chamber Workshops, discussions and talks at Guest Projects, Hackney. See the full programme here.

Laboratory of Dark Matters is supported by Arts Council England.