[CMS Stories] A life between Art and Science

By Marta Tornago


“Well, I suppose she’s not going to enroll Maths or Physics at University, as she’s attending a Humanities High School”

“No, definitely not”

“Does she want to study something like Medicine? Or Law?”

“No Professor, she’s enrolling Fine Arts”

My Physics teacher was really surprised by hearing these words from my mum, he never thought I could be so fond of Art. Drawing has always been my favorite activity. Since I first held a pencil in my hand, I couldn’t think of my life without art. When I was at school I was dedicating all my spare time to improving my artistic skills. My Physics teacher, instead of starting a battle trying to convince me to study something else decided to encourage me. He asked me to help him with preparing some experiments for the school open days, by decorating the setup with my drawings. While doing that, he also explained the Physics behind the experiment to me, it was something regarding optics and waves, if I  recall: very basic, but the explanation seemed fascinating to me. I think this is what really made me start gaining more and more curiosity about Physics, which was a subject I already liked, even if I was dreaming of becoming an artist or at least a restorer. 

Logos, posters, portraits
Logos, posters and portraits I created in my collaboration with the Italian Association of Physics Students (AISF) for many different events they organised (where we also had the chance to host very important scientists!)

During my last year of High School the Higgs Boson was finally discovered. I really didn’t have a clue of what it actually meant but in that moment, in which I was approaching the world of Physics, this discovery was like a bomb exploding in my head. That year I also had the chance to visit CERN for the first time: hearing about all those theories on incredibly tiny fundamental particles and on the number of possible dimensions in the Universe made me get goose bumps. Then I realized I couldn’t abandon Physics, there were still so many wonderful things to study, it would have been a real pity not to keep this subject in my life. So I decided to give it a try, even if most people thought I wouldn’t have managed to complete even the first year of University. I felt a bit like I was betraying my beloved Art, but in the end Physics has been a winning choice. Surprisingly, I managed to pass all the exams at first attempt and I kept drawing in my spare time and defining my own style. My brain was trying to develop a strategy to balance all the science that suddenly filled my days, my creations became mostly drawings of lots of objects put together in an apparent random way, and often among them you could see an equation, some code lines or parts of experiments. 

Cartoon CMS
Cartoon of myself during my first underground visit at CMS

A further important moment in the definition of my future has been my second visit at CERN during my Bachelor degree, when I had the chance to go underground for the first time and see the CMS experiment. I think I suffered from a Stendhal syndrome episode there, the detector was a real work of art, a gothic cathedral of Particle Physics. It was incredible, I was speechless. There I told myself that I absolutely had to get to CERN somehow in my career, I wanted to work for that experiment. But I also felt the need to create an artistic tribute to that wonder and the stunning Physics behind it. Drawing inspiration by a sentence of my Particle Physics Professor, that described the result of proton-proton collisions as a blooming flower, I created “Bunch (of flowers or particles?)”, a picture in colored pencils in which I merged together the CMS experiment section, an event display and a flower: art became the means to express the will of Particle Physics to discover the fundamental components of nature. 

CMS flowers
"Bunch (of flowers or particles?)", the CMS sectioned together with a flower and an event display to represent the will of Particle Physics to study the fundamental components of nature

With this drawing I started seeking ways to combine Art and Science. At first I managed doing this by drawing posters and portraits for scientific dissemination events, collaborating with Physics students’ associations. While I was focusing on this, I also started working on my Master thesis, that really was the thesis I had always dreamt of (at least from my engagement with Physics). I had the chance to start working in a group that was developing brand new Silicon Detectors called Ultra-Fast Silicon Detectors (UFSD), based on the Low-Gain Avalanche Detector (LGAD) technology and optimized for timing measurements, chosen to be installed in the minimum ionizing particles (MIP) Endcap Timing Layer of CMS for the High Luminosity LHC. In the end it was happening: I was becoming a member of the CMS collaboration. And to do so I just had to spend my time in a lab, performing exciting R&D studies on some of the most interesting pieces of hardware I had ever touched, real and innovative particle detectors. 


Cartoon of myself in the lab after Covid19

And that wasn’t all: when my supervisor found out about my creative skills, he asked me to draw a logo for the research project. All the group members contributed by sharing their ideas and opinions to obtain a final result that could be powerful, that everyone liked in its aesthetics, but that could also represent the physics behind the project through every single detail of its design. The “UFSD” letters have been then transformed in the section of one of our silicon detectors (the F), crossed by a particle (S) which produces small charges in the sensor which are going to be multiplied by a sparkling pink gain layer, a peculiar feature of these devices. All drawn next to the Mole Antonelliana, symbol of Torino, our city, adapted to the shape of the letter U. I can’t tell you how happy I was when  this drawing was complete, finally it made me feel like I could apply creativity in my work while doing something that I enjoyed the most during my studies at University, lab life. It was the demonstration that Art and Science could really live together and how I could keep both of them in my life. I also gained somewhat of a position of resident artist in the research group. 

UFSD logo
Logo for my research group main project, Ultra-Fast Silicon Detectors (UFSD), ERC projectcreated by Nicoló Cartiglia

After my graduation (and after decorating my colleagues’ office window to say goodbye), I experienced another incredibly inspiring experience. I won a three-months scholarship at CERN: another dream became reality, finally I was there. I spent an entire summer at CERN, living and working among great scientists, breathing in international air, having lunch next to the Director General. I also had the chance to participate in the CERN Open Days as a volunteer. Needless to say how amazing it has been showing to all those people the amazing physics going on at CERN explaining to them in the simplest way to make them realize that, yes, it can seem magic sometimes and very hard to understand, but research is here to be helpful to the world, to everyone’s life, and there’s nothing obscure or evil behind it. This whole period has definitely been one of the best experiences in my life, from a scientific, social and artistic point of view. I really felt like I was part of something and this something was nothing less than a huge scientific community working as one soul to investigate the mysteries of the Universe. From this I drew inspiration to create new ideas: I started drawing cartoons of myself working in the lab and volunteering during the Open Days, I even designed a necklace containing broken Silicon Detectors and a representation of Particle Physics.

Silicon necklace
My idea of a necklace with broken silicon detectors in its centre and coloured spheres representing the three quarks became materialised.

So here I am, finishing the first year of my PhD, and I can say that it’s been another intense year from both the scientific and artistic points of view. Luckily I’ve won a PhD student position to continue the R&D studies that started during my Masters thesis for the CMS MIP Endcap Timing Layer. The logo I designed for my group research project is now a sticker and all my colleagues have it on their laptop. During this year I also designed a new logo for a project linked to our research, ExFlu, whose aim is to develop thin silicon sensors for high radiation environments, with specific properties that we tried to represent in the design of the logo itself. During the lockdown I then drew an illustration to represent the functioning of Resistive AC-Coupled Silicon Detectors (RSD), new detectors we’re working on at the moment realized within a further project thought as an evolution of UFSD for experiments at future accelerators. 

Moreover, I received even more good news during this year: I had the honor of winning the first prize of the Creative Competition organized by the International Association of Physics Students with “Bunch (of flowers or particles?)”. My very last creation has been a tattoo version of that first drawing of CMS I created after my first underground visit during my Bachelor, and it is now printed on my shoulder. And the same old drawing has been used in the slides of my group’s final presentation at the CMS Data Analysis School, where we also won second place in the analysis competition. A story with a happy ending, after facing  doubts and hurdles, the artist and the scientist living in me are finally getting along and it seems like they will live happily ever after (hopefully)!

Marta tattoo
Project for my CMS tattoo                                                                                 My CMS tattoo on my shoulder