AIphysicsQuantum Mechanics

AI: Practical Art

Ever seen the image above? If you’re a particle physicist or have ever been in a college dorm, the answer is definitely yes. The rest of you who don’t fit into my false dichotomy (a good number I’m sure) probably have seen one of these and probably even know what it is. Don’t worry if you don’t because I’m going to explain.

Due to the difficulty in observing subatomic particles, scientists choose to instead observe how they react in a way that they can see. Behold the bubble chamber, which traces the paths of these subatomic particles into pictures like you see now. They do this passing particles through a medium that is prepared in such a way that the slightest electrical charge—such as that caused by a alpha particle—will cause it to vaporize, forming bubbles (other types of detectors may go the opposite direction, by causing a gas to condense). The bubble paths are then recorded for later viewing.

Usurped only by the Madelbrot set or the sun as seen in the ultraviolet wavelength, in dorm room posters and album art, the bubble chamber belongs to a long line of beautiful/trippy/fascinating images produced by scientists.

What sort of science-based images do you find most beautiful? Difficulty: No Hubble. Too easy. Too pretty.  


The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Bubble chambers are just one type of detector out there. More information about them can be found all over the web, including instructions on how to build your own. There are also tons of videos of the chambers in action on Youtube. Note that in the videos, the paths are straight, while the image above makes all sorts of loops and spirals. This is because most large chambers utilize huge magnetic fields that deflect the particles. The scientists can infer the energy and type of the particle based on the tightness of the spiral it makes. Neato!



Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner. He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.

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  1. I love images from electron microscopes. The fact that we can see a mite that lives on a tick (or whatever), the scale, has marveled me since I first saw them as a kid.
    In the same vein, the new images that we have of a carbon chain molecule shows just how far we have come in resolving the teeny tiny parts that make up our Universe.

  2. Do they have to be still images? I LOOOOVE time lapses of sprouting seeds.

    If they have to be still images, then I’ll have to go with photos of bio-luminescent undersea creatures. They are so eerie and alien and still beautiful.

  3. No I suppose they can be video too. The youtube clips of the various vapor/bubble chambers are really neat in their own right. Something about being able to see the motion of a subatomic particle 🙂

  4. Big scale projects like the LHC:

    I love the thought that somewhere someone knows exactly what each of those wires is for. I also love this physical manifestation of our search for knowledge, the cerebral made visceral in an overwhelming way through sheer scale and complexity.

    Neutrino detectors too:

  5. One of our physicists created some amazing digital art based on quantum effects and electron interactions back in 2009 and galleried it. It’s beautiful stuff and he donated several pieces to the department. I have one in my office (it’s approx. 4′ x 5′!). If anyone’s interested, have a look at:

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