After hours of training, I strapped on my dosimeter and stepped into the 4-mile-long particle accelerator that uses 1,000 superconducting magnets to steer and control mysterious particles called neutrinos. The dosimeter measures radiation exposure, and I was beginning my work day as Fermi National Accelerator Labortory’s first artist in residence.

Underground tunnel at Fermilab
Photo Credit Reidar Hahn

I make art about science, and my work takes me out of the studio to places like a cavernous ring of equipment designed to accelerate tiny bits of matter at near the speed of light. Here, scientists want to crack open the secrets of high energy physics. And I want to explain it—through art.

Fermilab has a long tradition of supporting collaborations with the arts, beginning with the lab’s founding director Dr. Robert Wilson who was himself both a physicist and a sculptor. The curator of the art gallery at the lab, Georgia Schwender, invited  me to help her establish the first artist residency. Today, the program is still going strong and has hired it’s seventh artist in the program. 

The Standard Model

I began my project at the lab with the Standard Model of particle physics. Most of us are familiar with the periodic chart of elements. All of the elements are organized by their atomic weight. The Standard Model is to physics what the periodic chart is to chemistry. But instead of dealing with atoms, the Standard Model mathematically defines life on the subatomic realm: the model describes life inside protons and neutrons, for those of us without mathematical training.

“X and Y Axis” (Detail)
22” w x 30l”
Cotton, denim, lace linen, acrylic on linen
Photo Credit Reidar Hahn

Many artists use oil paint, watercolor and other traditional materials. But to create my art, I want to figure out a way to have the least amount of distance between the viewer and the art. Everyone uses textiles in their daily lives so creating work with them felt like a natural choice. 

The study of physics is ancient, and I wanted to use colors that suggest antiquity. For my Standard Model artworks, I included a democratic use of high-end silks and laces with workman-like fabrics such as denim and canvas. I wanted to express the workplace diversity at Fermilab in the use of my materials. I also chose blackboard paint because blackboards are ubiquitous in the lab. 

“Nuts and Bolts”
22” w x 30” l
Cotton, denim, beads, linen, hardware on linen
Photo Credit Reidar Hahn

I also use a lot of time-consuming hand processes in making the pieces: beading, embroidery and hand sewing. Historically, beading and hand embroidery were used on luxury clothing. This piece, titled “Nuts and Bolts,” is a beaded timeline suggesting a royal road to the discovery of particles. By using luxury materials with labor intensive techniques, I’m expressing the value of  research that led to the discovery of the fundamental particles.  Using these sorts of processes and materials to create the art elevates the subject matter.

The standard model of particle physics has been hugely successful in predicting particles, including the Higgs Boson whose existence was experimentally confirmed in 2012. The Higgs particle is the fundamental particle associated with the Higgs field, a field that gives mass to other fundamental particles such as electrons and quarks. It makes reality as we know it possible. However, after years of correctly predicting particles, physicists know the standard model does not tell the complete story. 

22” w x 30” l
Cotton, denim, lace linen, acrylic on linen
Photo Credit Reidar Hahn

In this piece titled “Discoveries,” a short version of the Standard Model looks provisionally attached to the artwork. This artwork reflects the fact that the standard model may have to be substantially changed as new theories are developed. I’ve left room for the undiscovered particles. In the future, my work, like current theories, may prove to be obsolete.

A picture containing text, electronics

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“Discoveries” Detail
Photo Credit Reidar Hahn

The Higgs particle was predicted to exist theoretically for nearly 50 years before it was experimentally identified. I wanted the artwork to reflect how challenging it was to discover this particle, so I included small, embroidered “H’s” in the background that are camouflaged using a color of embroidery thread that matched the color of the linen on which they were stitched.

At Fermilab, scientists study another group of particles called neutrinos. Our universe is permeated with neutrinos — nearly massless, neutral particles that interact so rarely with other matter that trillions of them pass through our bodies each second.

“Neutrinos I”
45” x 50” 
Metallic embroidery thread, silk, wood and acrylic
Photo Credit Reidar Hahn

In “Neutrinos I”, I’ve constructed a curtain that suggests a sort of theatrical space, a way to present a set of these mysterious particles. Subtle shades of silver, steel, and gold represent the three flavors of neutrino particles. Scientists hope to one day discover why these particles oscillate between these three matter states. 

Neutrinos emanate from the earth, the sun, they arrive from the distant cosmos and neutrinos are manufactured at Fermilab with sophisticated technology that begins with a small bottle of hydrogen. In addition to the three types of neutrino states, this piece portrays the billions of neutrinos in the beam as an elegant cascade of metallic fibers. My scientific collaborator Dr. Don Lincoln calculated, in his head, that I used 3 miles of metallic embroidery floss for this piece and the next one. 

In both of the pieces, I am using the visual metaphor of nets to suggest how detectors capture images of these rarely interacting, elusive particles. The art borrows techniques used in high fashion to project an image of dark glamour.

“Neutrinos II”
36” x 40”
Velvet, seed beads, metallic thread, wood and acrylic 
Photo Credit Reidar Hahn

In “Neutrinos II,” the detector is represented by velvet squares joined by lines of beads in three subtle colors. I’m again using three colors of seed beads to express the dynamic nature of neutrinos.

Cindy Joe at the Muon g-2 experiment 
Author photo

Concepts are one thing, but experimental physicists test theorists’ ideas and this is where theory becomes reality. Experimentalists custom build and engineer the hardware necessary to move theory into reality. I was interested in learning about the science of high energy physics, but I was also curious about the actual experiments. I was given permission to undertake rigorous radiation safety training in order to accompany operators into the guts of the experiments. I had a privileged view of not only the hardware used in these experiments but the people who maintain and operate them. Cindy Joe, an engineering physicist at Fermilab was kind enough to give me an extensive tour of several neutrino experiments. 

Accelerator science is all about riding a bucking bronco of particles. Because the particles in this beam all have the same charge, they want to spread out. More than 1,000 superconducting magnets strategically placed around the ring steer and compress the particles while they travel near the speed of light. Then they are shot into a target where the collisions can ideally be studied. Sometimes, but rarely, neutrinos collide with other particles and scientists can use that information to study their behavior. Without this complex machinery, neutrinos interact so rarely that it would be almost impossible to study them in one person’s lifetime. 

I created a series of drawings titled “Accelerator Division: Riding the Ring a and b” that  represent the powerful magnetic forces that steer and control the neutrino beam. 

I’ve used wet on wet ink (which is difficult to control) to express the magnetic forces used to control particles. I wanted these drawings to look slightly out of control. Someone seeing this drawing at an opening asked me why I represented the particles in a spread-out way. It takes a tremendous amount of engineering to compress all these positively charged particles. Controlling nature is not easy. 

Art Exhibition at P5 CERN
Author photo

As a result of the work with the residency, I have had dozens of opportunities to exhibit work, participate in science outreach events, write articles and speak about using fine art to connect people with high energy physics.

Elmhurst College Art Opening 
Photo Credit Georgia Schwender

One of the most powerful lessons I learned with this residency is that I am not afraid to learn any kind of science… even high energy physics. In my career as a science artist, I have had the opportunity to work side by side with ocean acousticians at sea for three weeks, visit farm test plots to learn about nutrient reduction and shadow microbiologists and engineers at a wastewater treatment plant. These sorts of immersive experiences, like the experience of entering the accelerator ring wearing a dosimeter both inspire my studio practice and are integral to my learning process. Both science and art are expressions of our humanity and it’s time to spread the word about what scientists are learning about our universe. It’s time to invite poets, novelists, playwrights, singers, artists and others to amplify the message that science is an elegant necessity of modern life. I want everyone to know that I’ve learned that you don’t need a Ph.D to fall in love with physics.  

This body of work will be shown artwork in a three person show with Georgia Schwener and Jim Jenkins in a show opening August 5th at The Aurora Public Art Commission. The show, “Accelerated Art From Fermilab”. Closing talk, September 25 at 1PM.

  • This body of work will be shown artwork in a three person show with Georgia Schwener and Jim Jenkins in a show opening August 5th at The Aurora Public Art Commission. The show, “Accelerated Art From Fermilab”. Closing talk, September 25 at 1PM. Here you can find the Facebook Invitation and the Event Link.
  • Information about Lindsay’s scientific collaborator, Dr. Don Lincoln, and a co-authored article with Dr. Lincoln in Physics Teacher Magazine
  • Information about Fermilab’s Artist Residency Program


  • Lindsay Olson

    Lindsay’s artistic practice grows out of an intense curiosity about the ways our society is supported by science and technology. She has worked as Fermi National Accelerator’s first artist in residence, with the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at CERN in Switzerland, with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the Field Museum, the Chicago Botanic Garden and with the Center for Acoustics Research and Education at the University of New Hampshire. Her work is currently touring in Europe, and has been shown at Woman Made Gallery, Zhou Brothers Art Gallery, the Field Museum, Illinois Institute of Technology, and the University of New Hampshire. She is represented by Beauty and Brawn Art Gallery. She speaks about her projects widely including the Textile Society of America 2020 symposium, the University of Illinois Saturday Physics for Everyone, the Field Museum’s Women in Science lecture series, The Chicago Council of Science and Technology, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and many other venues. Her work has been featured in Scientific American, Physics Teacher Magazine, Sci/Art Magazine, Surface Design Journal and Textile Lindsay is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and taught in the Fashion Studies Department for over 20 years. When not visiting a lab or working in the studio, she can be found canoeing with her husband on one of Chicago’s many area waterways. Find Lindsay on Instagram @lindsayolson816 & on Facebook: @lindsayolsonart

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