This article is one in a series linking art and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).
Doris Colbert Kennedy is excited. For years, Kennedy's oil paintings have depicted her intuitions of how the universe holds together. Inspired by the other-worldly speculations of theoretical physicists, her imaginative canvases have captured realms ranging in size from tiny subatomic particles to the full span of interstellar space. Now, scientists operating the gigantic $10 billion Large Hadron Collider have moved much closer to verifying speculations Kennedy knew in her soul to be true all along.
On July 4, 2012, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) scientists in Geneva, Switzerland, announced they'd found evidence of the existence of a new particle that supports the theory that elementary particles gain mass by moving through a field.
This elusive entity, the Higgs boson, and the Higgs field, had been theorized in 1964, but had not been confirmed by experiment.
"The articles I've seen refer to it as the God particle," says Kennedy, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. "I am thrilled by the fact that they are actually throwing that term around, because I've always felt that it was, in a way, God. You get to God having created us within himself, which is a concept that goes back to Egyptian cosmogony. Netter Nu is that dark primordial water within which all is differentiated -- that is the Higgs Field. It's all the same. I'm so glad that it's getting out there in terms of common knowledge. It feels like it might be the beginning of another kind of understanding of our reality, getting close to what it actually is."
The Quantum Mechanical Paintbrush," an article about Kennedy's work, appeared in print in Vol. 23, No. 3 of the International Review of African American Art. That special issue is devoted to connections between science and art.
HER ART MAY NOW BE BETTER UNDERSTOOD
The excitement surrounding the Higgs discovery will give Kennedy a boost not so much as inspiration to create new paintings, but because the public will have a better understanding of what her works are all about.
"I've always maintained that excitement with my work," Kennedy says. "As I start another piece, I'm real excited because I don't know how it's going to cohere. I don't know what form all of that energy is going to take on the canvas. I'm not going to get a bump in my work, because it continues on that level. But there might be a bump in connecting to the rest of the world, because there are very few people until now who have a clue about what I do. I can talk to them all day, and it just goes right on by them. There might be people now who have read the articles, who are aware of the God particle, who are now connected with those kinds of possibilities who can now see what's happening in some of my works."
The weekend following Independence Day, Kennedy particpated in a local "Open Studio", where the public was able to visit artists' work spaces. "That went really well," says Kennedy.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR SCIENTISTS
The Higgs boson news is inspiration not only for science-aware artists like Doris Kennedy, of course. It is a huge development for people whose professional careers revolve around science.
The recent findings at CERN "could be a pivotal moment in the life of elementary particle physics," says Arlene Maclin, a physicist specializing in nanoscience. Maclin currently runs a center at Morgan State University for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
She explains that finding the particle is a key to understanding the creation of the universe. The Higgs boson was postulated 48 years ago as an undiscovered entity that would account for the origin of mass in the Standard Model of physics theory. Mass − what gives objects "weight" when acted upon by gravity − is fundamental to everything that exists. "Finding this Higgs particle is another indication that we are on the frontier of science," says Maclin. "This is a very exciting time to be interested in becoming scientists as well as being involved in the sciences. I congratulate the people at CERN."
Between 2005 and 2009, Maclin sent a series of her Norfolk State University physics students to CERN for 10-week summer internships at end of their junior years. Five students participated with a group of elementary-particle physicists, doing data analysis at CERN, where lots of data is generated every day. "It was very exciting for them. It changed their lives. All those students now are in graduate programs, finishing up masters degrees or Ph.Ds. They are making excellent progress in their graduate programs," says Maclin.
Higgs research ultimately will lead to practical discoveries, Maclin believes. "It always has. Sixty years ago, nobody thought the laser was very important. Now we could not live without the ways we use lasers. I think the same is true for elementary particle physics, as well as nanoscience," Maclin says.
AN ARTIST'S RELIGION
"Objectively, they're saying that the Higgs boson is no longer theoretical, that this is now confirmed," says Doris Kennedy.
"For me, theoretical physics has never been theoretical, because I've always known or had one of those kind of religious experiences that Gnostics have, where direct information is given to you," says Doris Kennedy. "I've kind of always known it, and that's always what I've been painting in the last ten years. Winston, my husband, says that theoretical physics is my religion, because when it was theoretical, you couldn't see it, you had to believe it. You based your principles and morality, the way you lived your life, on it." Winston Kennedy, also an artist, is a former chair of the art department at Howard University.
So how does Doris Kennedy imagine the so-called "God particle"? "The particle itself is infinitesimally small to the point where it may not exist as a particle or wave. It might just exist as energy. That's the significance of it being a boson, which is an energy particle. I believe that the Higgs boson itself makes up the Higgs field, which is huge beyond our comprehension. It is so small that it's nonexistent as energy, but it's also so huge that it is absolutely everything, and everything is within it," believes Kennedy.