The Future Laboratory - LSN Global

March 2010

Nelly Ben Hayoun, Bringing Big Science in your Kitchen Sink

An article for Future Laboratory on LSN Global

The idea: Bring Big Science to your kitchen sink

The woman: Nelly Ben Hayoun, designer

Words: Steve Tooze

On November 12, 2001, so the story goes, a man took a swim in a man-made cavern 1km below a mountain in Japan. He created a splash that cost at least $19,800,000 and stopped an experiment into some of the most mysterious particles in the universe in its tracks.The cavern is the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory, a 41.4m by 39.3m steel cylinder, filled with 50,000 tons of super-pure water and lined with 13,000 specialist detection devices, buried 1000m down a mine shaft beneath the Japanese city of Hida.

It's sole purpose is to detect the presence and activity of neutrinos, sub-atomic particles, often from exploding stars, that have proved incredibly elusive to physicists despite passing right through the planet at close to the speed of light in their untold trillions every second.

 Things were going well. By 1998, the scientific team behind the Super-K were able to announce the first experimental observation that supported the theory that neutrinos have a non-zero mass, a long-time bone of contention among particle theorists.

 Then, in 2001, disaster struck.

 'A man, a scientist or a technician, went into the water in the cylinder and somehow broke one of the photomultipliers, the detection devices on the walls of the cavern,' says designer Nelly Ben Hayoun. 'That was the story I was told by someone who was connected to the project at the time.'

 Containing a vacuum, the $3000 device imploded, setting up a concussive chain reaction that shattered 6,600 of its fellows. It was five years before the Super-K was fully operational again.

 It's a story that hugely appeals to Nelly, a graduate of the Royal College of Art's Design Interactions MA. To her impish sense of humour, her taste for the surreal, but mostly to her fascination with the interface between people and technology that informs and inspires her growing and intriguing body of work.

 'I like to think he got into the water on purpose, that he was overcome by the sheer, incredible beauty of the place and just wanted to climb in and physically experience it,' she says. 'That's definitely how Super-K makes me feel.'

 So much so, in fact, that her most high-profile project to date, Super-K Sonic Booooum, was a scaled down recreation of the experiment in a 15m tunnel in the SHUNT lounge beneath London Bridge in November last year.

 The half-Jewish, half-Armenian painstakingly hand-pumped thousands of silver balloons and fixed them all over the walls of the tunnel to mimic the Super-K's photomultipliers, flooded the bottom with water and then pulled pairs of visitors through the eerily-beautiful space in a boat controlled by an ingenious hidden pulley system.

Hundreds of people queued for hours over 14 days to be ushered into the installation by Nelly playing the part of the white-coated scientist, clip-board in hand, full of stern admonitions not to touch the experiment. Intriguingly, Professor Dave Wark, of Imperial College, a spokesman for the Special K project, agreed to advise her on making the experience as realistic as possible and even provide teams of students to advise her bemused visitors on the finer points of particle physics.

 'I use my work to look at new technology and how we react to it,' she says. 'I want to make that reaction as interesting and exciting as impossible.

 'It's about making science satisfy our creative needs and urges as well as finding answers to the big questions all around us.'

 Nelly admits that the first reaction to her projects is often laughter. 'Humour is good, I like to be funny and a bit surreal,' she says.

 'But it can't be just a joke. There has to be a tangibility at the core, a sense that you are attempting to realistically recreate a proper scientific experiment in an everyday environment.

 'That's why I try to get scientists and experts involved, to ensure that the science is as accurate and real as possible.'

 Nelly has a track record of trying to make Big Science ideas accessible by re-imagining them in a prosaic or domestic setting.

 In 2009, she completed both the Soyuz Chair and And From 2 Pigeons' eggs, Dark Energy will be Born.

 In the former, she consulted with French astronaut Jean Pierre Haignere to recreate the experience of lift-off in a Soyuz space rocket using a specially-customised living room chair.

 'It was my fantasy to be able to come home from a terrible day at work and then get blasted into earth orbit without leaving your favourite chair,' says Nelly.

 The second project was a singular re-make of a 50-year-old experiment by Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir. He proved the existence of a previously unknown universal force, the dark energy that generations of physicists have since devoted their careers to understanding.

But whereas Casimir used two Chromium plates in a near-perfect vacuum at -273.15 °C, Nelly's attempt at replication on a human scale involved two gold-plated pigeons' eggs, a bowl of salt water and a magnetron, the working guts of a household microwave.

'My approach was scientifically correct and could have replicated Casimir's results,' says Nelly. 'But exhibition spaces were a bit nervous about having an unshielded magnetron blasting microwaves all over the place.'

Nelly, the younger of two sisters from Valence, near Lyon, says her maternal grandmother must take the most of the blame for her obsession with getting hands-on with cutting edge science. 'She went through the War, mending and fixing things, showing me how to get a signal on a radio with two bits of old wire,' Nelly says.

'It gave me a particular relationship with technology. I don't want to watch it from outside. I want to get my hands on it, stick my fingers in it. And that's what I want to help other people to do too.'

Nelly is thinking big for the future. 'My next project will be to build a working volcano,' she says. 'In someone's living room.'

To that end, she is consulting with geologists to ensure that her volcanic cone is realistic and that the lava it contains has the right viscosity.

'Ideally, I want this monster of nature inside an otherwise normal family home,' she says. 'I want it to be big enough to let you jump inside the vent and swim around in the lava.

'I'm curious to find out how people deal with it when I cause this thing to explode and spew lava all over their their carpet and furniture.'

Five take outs

  1. Don't be over-awed by experts. 'I wrote to the team at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern and asked whether I might be able to reproduce some of their experiments using a domestic vacuum cleaner,' says Nelly. 'Most of them replied and their replies were mostly positive and helpful.'

  2. There's no such thing as an inaccessible topic. You simply need to find a way to link your subject to the everyday.

  3. Every catastrophe contains the seeds of an idea. 'Obviously what happened at Special K was a disaster for them,' says Nelly. 'But it left me with an image in my head that helped me create my installation.'