Seeing Unthinkable – King’s Artists project combines quantum physics and art to explore the invisible


Written by Stephanie Reed, Student Digital Content Coordinator, King’s Culture and fourth-year dental student at the Department of Dentistry, Oral and Craniofacial Sciences

All objects contain information that we cannot access immediately. King’s Artist-in-Residence Steven Claydon and Dr. James Millen in the Physics Department of King’s School of Science, Mathematics and Engineering explore the concept of hidden information in objects. In their project Seeing the Undthinkable, they study the behavior of particles using objects of cultural significance by levitating the particles and then manipulating their motion.

Steven is an artist whose work examines the cultural histories and narratives that objects and artworks have acquired over time. His creative approach serves to look beyond the physical exterior of objects and their immediate appearance, to explore their culturally constructed meanings and properties. James’ work focuses on quantum physics and his interest in how quantum behavior can affect culture and technology.

In science you try to be disciplined rather than creative, but the best knowledge comes from mistakes or failures. The abstract thinking that the creative environment offers favors the exploration of new forms of science. James Millen, Lecturer in Physics and Science

In Seeing the Undthinkable, Steven and James analyze the behavior of floating objects. From this they gain new information about these objects and research “intelligence systems” that are encoded in their movement.

More specifically, James and Steven levitate nanoparticles and microparticles (tiny particles of matter) by using electric fields to isolate them from their surroundings and light to see them move. From the start, they looked for a way to perturb the behavior of these particles by introducing a series of information inputs. One option is music given Steven’s experience as a musician. Other options include climate data or information captured using sensors to detect viewer movement. In considering these options, consideration is given to how “the human observer” would contribute to and interpret the information affecting these particles.

The project has evolved from there, with Steven and James considering using noise from nature to affect particle motion. James explained how noise is intertwined with all aspects of life, down to the molecular level of the incessant movement of cells, with proteins moving and gaining energy from thermal noise.

Working prototype for Seeing the Undthinkable, with a diamond particle, visible as a tiny green dot, floating at the center of the experiment

Steven has taken the project further by focusing on the value of the cultural assets used. He chose 2,000-year-old ancient Chinese spade money made of metal through which electricity could flow. Steven and James are now levitating particles in this ancient ion trap, an object made out of material that was once of great value but is now being used in a much more functional way. They levitated diamond dust, fascinated by the fact that diamond is of high value but cheap in dust form.

I was very interested in learning how this project differs from other science projects James usually works on. James said that the key aspect that sets this experiment apart is the audience; ‘this project must be viewed’. Most of the time when working with quantum mechanics, there are devices that display the data, but the light used is not visible to the human eye. James and Steven’s project therefore makes the information available to everyone.

The project is still in development, and James and Steven see an opportunity to bring it to more people by livestreaming the experiment and allowing viewers to add their own noise to affect the movement of the particles .

“Seeing the Unthinkable” opens a whole new audience to quantum mechanics by making quantum data accessible to non-physicists. James Millen, Lecturer in Physics and Science

It’s not the first time Steven has worked on a project that breaks the boundaries between physics and the general public. He previously presented his work at the Science Gallery London in the Dark Matter 2019 exhibition with a piece drawing on his research into the material reality of the world at the atomic level. James has also expanded his portfolio in public engagement, teaching quantum mechanics to people without a scientific background.

Image of the tape lining the breadboard on which the physics devices are assembled
Image of the tape lining the breadboard on which the physics devices are assembled

I was particularly interested in how James and Steven focus on different aspects of the experiment. James looks at how and why things levitate and move, while Steven “will be interested in a wire, or the oscilloscope, or just the platform it’s all on” – things that a physicist wouldn’t think twice about. So while Steven would prefer to show the wires and ribbons that hold an experiment in place, it would be standard practice for a physicist to put them away. These different approaches show how complementary the pairing of art and science can be.

Seeing the Undthinkable will be on view at Science Gallery London this autumn as part of a presentation of King’s Artists projects as part of the gallery’s reopening programme.


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