Deep underground, over 330 feet (100 meters) below the Earth’s surface, a tunnel runs for 16.7 miles in an unbroken circle. Giant machinery dwarfs the figures of humans in jumpsuits and hard hats as they work. It could be a scene from a Bond movie, with the construction created by some evil genius out to destroy the world. But the aim of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is, of course, not destruction, but discovery – and discovery on a grand scale.
“At the ‘cavern’ the atmosphere is something between a lab and a factory; there is no noise, even if there are big cranes moving,” says photographer Antonio Saba, describing the site. “Everything needs to be so precise, it’s like a giant lab with super skilled workers.” The site is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where experiments being carried out are aimed at finding out about the nature of the universe.
CERN has been running LHC experiments in this manmade cavern beneath Geneva since 2008. And the specific project Antonio Saba has come to photograph is CERN’s A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE), which focuses on the collision of heavy ions and what we can learn from those collisions.
The science is truly groundbreaking. In August 2012, ALICE managed to get two lead nuclei to collide, producing ‘fluid’ matter known as quark-gluon plasma. The heat generated by the collision was around 10 trillion degrees Fahrenheit, which is both the highest temperature mass any experiment has ever reached and the highest recorded manmade temperature in history. The heat of the experiment also created conditions similar to those of the universe moments after the Big Bang.
Mind-boggling scientific insights in themselves are not the main draw for Saba, however. “My approach is not a scientific one. I am not a physicist, I am an artist,” he says. “I try to capture the beauty of the machine. My aim is not to reproduce the reality, instead I interpret.” And as we can see, little has been lost in the visual translation. Saba’s photographs are, quite simply, stunning.
This is not a new assignment for Antonio Saba. His initial encounter with the LHC came in 2005, when it was still under construction. “I first shot the ALICE experiment facilities as part of my exhibition ‘The Beauty of Physics’, fascinated by the complexity and size of the machines involved in the experiment,” he explains. “The first three years I came here about six or seven times a year. The experiment was developing and I had to take pictures of the major steps.”
Since Saba has been photographing ALICE, he has seen many changes. “The first time I shot ALICE the red magnet was empty,” he says. “In five years I have seen the facility growing like a living creature.” On this particular visit, he focused on the new Electro-Magnetic Calorimeter (EM-Cal) and the trapezoidal prisms known as Transition Radiation Detectors (TRD).
The bright lighting you see in the photographs comes from the strip lights of the machinery; it was originally white but was tinted blue by Saba. “In industrial [spaces] you have a lot of freedom. I can transform what I see into something else. I don’t have to reproduce reality like in architecture or something, so it’s a lot of fun,” he says. However, he also adds, “I’m not doing a lot of corrections, just using [blue] lights. It’s already beautiful.”
Saba is pretty much an official photographer for the ALICE project, so gaining access to the facility is no problem for him. “I have been assigned to shoot the experiment by the ALICE board,” he says. “So everything has always been prepared every time in order to give me the possibility to work at my best.”
Saba is also never likely to be lonely during his assignments at CERN. Over 2,400 people work there permanently, with another 1,500 working part time. In addition, around 10,000 scientists and engineers visit the site from all over the world. After all, it is the biggest particle physics experimental lab there is. Recently, the facility made headlines around the world when scientists claimed they had discovered the Higgs boson sub-atomic particle.
But not all of the attention given to CERN has been positive. Some members of the public, spurred on by certain sections of the media, were concerned that experiments conducted using the LHC would lead to “mini black holes”, or other potentially dangerous particles. It was even given the nickname “The Doomsday Machine” by some theorists, who speculated that the LHC might bring about the end of the world.
These panic-inducing rumors led to CERN releasing a reassuring press release. “The LHC will enable us to study in detail what nature is doing all around us,” said CERN director general Robert Aymar in the release. “The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction.” So far, at least, it seems the world has survived the colliding particles.
Although Antonio Saba makes it clear that he’s an artist and not a scientist, we asked him if knowledge of the experiments being performed by CERN influences the way he takes his photographs of the apparatus. “It’s hard to say,” he replies. “I surely am influenced in my subconscious, then I use my imagination to picture in my mind how the machines would look like, then I use all my technique to have my mental picture come through.”
And Saba says he’s inspired more by artists like Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock than by other industrial photographers. “Also sometimes I’m inspired by the movies,” he adds. “Even commercial ones like The Matrix. Some of the previous shots I took at ALICE were of fiber optics and they have this shape.” He waves his hands to demonstrate. “I thought they looked like the jelly things from The Matrix. I don’t have any clue about science, so I just take inspiration from somewhere to make a form and give it something nice.”
Describing the ALICE project, Saba says, “When this level of effort and creativity is dedicated to something, this something is for me a masterpiece of art in some way.” And after looking at these photographs of the facility, we can’t help but agree. On that note, thanks to Antonio Saba for allowing us to use his photographs and for sharing some of his thoughts with us.