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Artist Uses Tubes and a Vacuum Cleaner to Show the Joy of Particle Physics

Artist and designer Niklas Roy loves particle physics but has a problem with its accessibility. “Let’s face it,” he says on his website, “most particle accelerators are toys for just a handful of geeks with very special interests, and far away from entering the mass entertainment market.” So when a foundation asked him if he’d like to build an art installation in Groningen, Netherlands, he saw it as an opportunity to bring particle physics to the people.

“I decided to construct a machine which would bring the tremendous joy of particle acceleration to everyone!”

The result of Roy’s effort is the “Pneumatic Sponge Ball Accelerator,” installed in a park pavilion and open to the public. In fact, the public is encouraged to interact with the contraption. “Visitors can operate the machine with a touch sensor mounted on the pavilion’s front glass: They can change the direction of the airflow and watch the balls speed up, slow down and reverse,” says Roy. He made a short video of the installation below:

With just the power of a household vacuum cleaner, Roy’s installation sends 1,000 black sponge balls through 150 meters (490 feet) of plastic tubing at around 4 meters per second (9 miles per hour). It’s an interesting way to bring particle physics closer to home, even if the visualization isn’t perfect.

But Roy is right about one thing: it’s hard to even imagine what goes on at the edge of scientific discovery.

The Large Hadron Collider, our largest particle accelerator and the most complicated machine on Earth, is a wonder of modern engineering. It’s made of gigantic detectors looking for the ghostly remains of particles obliterating each other at almost the speed of light. And all that happens in a 27-kilometer (16-mile) ring of superconducting magnets chilled to a temperature colder than empty space. Almost nothing about the machine is relatable, easily understood, or indeed easily accessed. Roy’s work lets park visitors at least see a simulacrum of what goes on 175 meters (574 feet) beneath Geneva, Switzerland.


Though Roy’s sponge ball installation doesn’t quite mimic what goes on inside a particle accelerator, it’s still a creative way for the average person to start thinking about the bleeding edge of science.

You can read much more about Niklas Roy’s project, how it works, and how it was made here.

Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

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