Please tell us about your project called Interference

The project is an art exhibition which is meant to communicate aspects of physics and astronomy that have to do with waves. The exhibition consists of nine light and sound installations which I am creating in partnership with a sound and installation artist called Signe Heinfelt. The reason why we focus on waves and light and sound is because it is both the way humans gain information and communicate. We see and we hear things. Those might be our primary senses, and we communicate with sound. We communicate a lot online now with video calls, and the information is sent via radio waves. In particular as astrophysicists, the information we get is waves from the universe, light waves and gravitational waves, and in other parts of physics waves play a huge role too.

The reason why we are focusing on this is that human beings already have a lot of intuition about sound and light, and we particularly want the audience to gain intuition about these very abstract physical phenomena. There are different topics that we explore, like the electromagnetic spectrum, atomic physics, both emission and absorption, doppler shift, black holes, gravitational waves, sound in the early universe, the evolution of the universe etc. Those are some of the topics which we explore in these nine installations.

The project started officially in January, so we are just getting started, but we have been working together on this project for about 1,5 years before that, so a lot of the ideas are already very well defined. Most of the installations we have already defined in detail. We know how we want to produce them, or we know which outcome we want, even if we do not necessarily know exactly how to create it. So, there is a lot of experimentation going on right now, but most of it is already very well defined. We know these topics from physics, and we know how we want to communicate these aspects, so we have a clear idea about how the installations will end up. The exhibition will open in February of 2023. 

Signe Heinfelt and Jo Verwohlt Damm are collaborating on the art and science project Interference.

How did you get the idea for this project

I am not exactly sure when it started. I have known Signe for many years, as we used to work together about 8 years ago. We were talking a lot during the first lockdown, and the idea just came up. Her official title is electro-acoustic composer, and she was very interested in getting to know more about the science behind sound and incorporating that into her work. She has done different pieces where she has visualized sound waves before, and she asked me a bit about the physics behind these phenomena. So, we started talking more and more, and it just made sense to start collaborating.

What is the motivation for doing the project and what do you think can be achieved by showing physics in this different way?

I think there is a lot of science outreach and communication which is already really interesting, and it is usually focused on learning something, getting knowledge about something. But taking a different approach like this really speaks to me personally. In my research, I examine dark matter from different angles, different perspectives, and when I first learned about dark matter it was really weird and strange for me to think about this dark or invisible matter and how we observe it indirectly. One of the reasons why I want to work with physics is that I really enjoy when you start to visualize or gain an intuition about these very abstract concepts and starting to get an intuition about dark matter and about how things evolve around a black hole is something I find really interesting. 

However, I think that is not always present in science communication and outreach, this possibility to start getting an intuition about how things work, to be able to visualize the geometry. The focus is often on learning stuff but not always on having an intuition. So, I think that is my primary motivation – to do something that is not about learning or getting knowledge but more about experiencing and feeling things, understanding things in your body as well as in your brain. 

I think it is also about making people who are unfamiliar with physics understand that it is something that really affects our everyday experiences and that it is really interesting because it affects all these things. It is not just something that is interesting on a theoretical or scientific level, it is interesting and cool and produces very beautiful phenomena as well.

This exhibition could also be interesting for teachers to bring students to see. What is the target group for the exhibition?

I would really like if everyone could be the target group, if everyone could get something new out of this. It doesn’t matter if you are 5 years old or a professor in physics. Because we combine these two very different worlds of embodying art and the science behind it, I think everyone can get something out of it, depending on your level and depending on what you want to get out of it. So, the idea is that it is not a scientific exhibition. There is not a lot of information pushed in your face, there are no equations, but if you want to get this information It is available. I hope that even if you know about these things on a very theoretical level, when you attend the exhibition, you might still get a different feel for it or a different way of thinking about it. So, the target group is the general public, and I hope that everyone can get something out of it. I know that there will be tours specifically for students, but I don’t know if it’s going to be for high school or primary school yet, but hopefully a bit of both. That it is something which will be arranged later on.

Let’s talk about you personally. Would you introduce yourself and your background? 

I have my master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Copenhagen. I did both my bachelor thesis and my master thesis at DARK, and the things that interest me are things that we have to observe in a more creative or indirect way. That is why I have been looking at dark matter and am still very interested in that. I do not have a very straight path to studying physics, and It is not something I decided very early on that I was going to do. When I went to High School, my majors were in music and English and social studies, and I did not know that I wanted to do anything related to science. I was always very interested in science, but I was also very interested in art and literature, and I think that maybe my teachers were better at motivating me in that direction. So I have more of a creative background. Both of my parents are musicians, and I think for the most part I imagined myself being an author or a screenwriter; at least that was my idea when I started High School. I do not recall exactly how I chose to study physics, I just thought that it would be very interesting, so I decided to try it out. I didn’t even think about it for a very long time. I had to take a lot of extra courses to be able to study physics at the university, so I took all my high-level courses in four months, which was very stressful. My first idea was to study geophysics or climatology because I have been very involved in climate activism from a young age, so I thought this was something I could do, and maybe I could help change the world for the better. I stopped eating meat when I was 12 or 13, and that decision was based on hardcore facts, it was not very emotional. I realized it was something I could do to really change my carbon footprint, and it felt like the only thing that I was in control of as a 12-year-old. So, I think I decided in the last year of high school that I wanted to study geophysics, but I do not recall it as a very dramatic change. It was just something I did. Later on, I found out that astrophysics was really interesting and decided to pursue that. And now I am doing this art project and not thinking too much about what I am already able to do, I am just thinking that this will be really interesting to do, so I will figure out a way to do it.

The project got funding from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, is that correct?

Yes, we received a grant as part of the Novo Nordisk Foundation initiative Science communication and debate using novel communication platforms. So it is about being innovative and coming up with new ways to communicate science. We first applied a year ago when we had only worked on the project for a couple of months, and it was rejected, but then we spent another year working on it, and it was accepted. 

What role have mentors played for you on your path through physics?

I have had two mentors in my time of studying physics. One is Ian Bearden, whom I worked with when I started figuring out that I really like being part of outreach. I think it is really important and I enjoy it when people who might not have found physics interesting before have this moment when they realize that it is really interesting and cool. I think he played an important role in that and working with him is probably also one of the reasons why I thought I could do this project. Another really important mentor for me has been Jens Hjorth, who has supported me and believed in my more crazy ideas and made me feel that it was possible to do this. He really supports this project a lot, and this idea of combining art and science is now becoming an important part of DARK’s profile. So, his support has helped me believe that it is possible to have this different way of thinking about physics, not just in communicating physics this way, but also incorporating the idea that working with artists is actually something that can benefit our research. I think the reason why I ended up at DARK and also wanted to do the project here is that DARK has always had a focus on diversity. I think that is so important, and it is also one of the reasons why I wanted to do my master thesis here, because we have people like Jens, and also people like Christa Gall who are really involved in these issues.

How do you think we can improve diversity in this very quite male dominated field of physics?

I think it is really difficult, and I think it especially becomes difficult when we have to face our own biases. As a woman you have to face your own bias towards women and your bias a white woman in physics. I think one of the most important things to do is to go through your own biases.  It is important to really listen when people from other minorities talk about problems that we do not understand because it is not what we experience. I think that is something everyone can get better at. We might think that getting more women in physics is really important, but then we might forget that being a white woman is not the same as being a woman of color in physics. We might feel that we have made a big step ahead and that there are more women now, but it is still a lot of the same women we see. Maybe you still fit into a box of being the right woman in physics. So, I think that is really important, thinking about this intersectionality and those other biases.