Transient sand mandala
17 October 2018*
The sand mandala is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from coloured sand. The mandala is usually formed of traditional geometric shapes and a multitude of ancient spiritual symbols.
It took several days to create a sand painting of the Compact Muon Solenoid at CERN, laboriously piling grains of sand one on another. Then soon after completion it was destroyed. The sand was collected in a jar and taken to the River Rhône, where it was released back into nature.
One purpose of the process is the reconsecration of the earth and its inhabitants. Another is a call to meditation and awareness of something larger than their own small world. But its key message is in its destruction, symbolising the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of material life.
The Compact Muon Solenoid sits at one of the four collision points in the Large Hadron Collider. Its job is to detect muons, which are produced in copious quantities as other particles decay. And because the Higgs Boson decays into four muons, that muon smoke can hint at a Higgs Boson fire. The muon itself is relatively long-lived, decaying into one electron and two neutrinos after 2 x 10-6 seconds.
All is in flux.The beauty and wonder of the Large Hadron Collider and its mandala-form detectors are not everlasting. Even a 27km-long particle accelerator will be retired and recycled or rust away one day.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, the mandala is a ritual symbol representing the universe, and has a specified form of a square with four T-shaped gates containing a circle. It has been adopted in common usage to be any circular diagram that represents the cosmos.
The circle itself is a universal symbol of wholeness, perfection, and the infinite. In many traditions, the circle is used to establish a sacred space. The caim of Celtic Christianity then and now is a sanctuary prayer drawn around the body. Hermes Trismegistus: “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The circle transcends linear rationality; the ratio of its circumference to its diameter, PI, cannot be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers.
The striving after knowledge of the universe embodied at CERN transcends petty international boundaries. The great circle of the Large Hadron Collider lies under both Switzerland and France. The border between the two countries goes right across the CERN campus. More than 100 countries are collaborating in its construction and operation.
Understanding transcends knowledge, and wisdom transcends both.
- Z+ end of the Compact Muon Solenoid Tracker
- The Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider
- The CMS Tracker Outer Barrel
- The eight toroid magnets of the ATLAS detector
Many years ago, my father worked at CERN on the mathematical modelling of particle tracks in bubble chambers. One of my memories growing up is of a cartoon book about particle physics. I wish we still had it. Later I bought him a Higgs Boson from the Particle Zoo. On 17 October 2018 he would have been 80.
The name of the work was inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem.
* None of the above has actually happened. I hope it can one day, maybe as part of the Arts at CERN programme. But for the time being it is enough for me that the idea exists, and so the work is actually…
Digital images and text
The internet is my gallery
Mock-up published 6 December 2018