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Enlightening Dark




Science complexity

Growing up, I tutored a wide range of students who found math tedious and incomprehensible. It was not until I taught two middle school girls with dyslexia that I found out how important it is to find new ways to explain what they saw complicated. I was always trying to create small challenges to spark their motivation. Ultimately, learning ended up being a game. Many scientific topics are incredibly interesting, but have complicated language, and a lack of good visuals unintentionally restrict access for a general audience. Some people are thirsty for knowledge, curiosity can be awoken in others who don’t know what they like or simply are skeptical, but curiosity can be awakened by evoking a visual experience. Media artists have tools to make science more understandable and attractive, to produce what people don’t expect to see and to call attention to important concepts in science. Science plays an essential and omnipresent role in society and in our daily lives. In particular, quantum physics is one of the most contemporary topics in mainstream science fiction. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most poorly understood areas of science, creating misconceptions and faux knowledge. These misconceptions are in part because its complexity is a formidable barrier between the scientific community and wider audiences. Using the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle as an example of new theory, there is a need in quantum physics, and generally, for comprehensive visual explanations, to be created to explain scientific breakthroughs to broad audiences. For scientific content to be absorbed readily, its complexity needs to be fragmented into smaller capsules of knowledge.

Annihilation, Carla Molins (2013) -

About five years ago, as my final degree project, I started the embryonic phase of the following research. My objective was to create an experimental visual representation of antimatter, transforming a concept without clear imagery into a short audio-visual piece, with supporting material such as infographics and booklets based on physics theory. The main aim was to generate debate, curiosity, and amusement with this experience. Hence, I created Annihilation, which became a Laus Design Award winner and Ei Award finalist and was featured in the Blanc festival and selected for Elia NEU. Design can be a bridge to different disciplines, such as science and technology. Design, art, technology, programming, and interactions are the ingredients for projects that will provide society with useful and meaningful experiences. A significant opportunity to achieve this goal lies in creating interactive artworks explaining scientific concepts. Such work can generate more substantial impact and interest than traditional pedagogical methods. Thus, the overarching goal of my project is to visualize scientific concepts whose complexity has rendered them difficult to represent. In this particular project, my focus is on dark matter. Through investigation and experimentation, I plan to have a better understanding of dark matter. There is a need to create a connection from quantum physics to art, design, and technology. Thus, to pursue my research I will explore the work both from scientist and artist. This paper will treat dark matter from a theoretical point of view and but also a conceptual perspective.

Dark matter scientific view







What is dark matter? Apart from knowing that there is five times more ordinary matter than dark matter (23% of dark matter vs. five ordinary matter), and that is present all-around the universe; there is just a few information because dark matter does not interact with electromagnetic force. What does this exactly mean? Dark matter does not absorb, reflect or emit light, which makes it remarkably difficult to find. Researchers have inferred dark matter existence from the gravitational effect that seems to act on the visible ordinary matter. 1

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kovaw

Approaching Dark Matter from an astronomical sense introduces the explanation of how objects in the celestial space should move following specific rules based on observation. 2 Most of the information that we get from the universe is provided by light emitted, absorbed or reflected by its objects. Data sent back from space proves the extension of the solar system. “Since scales of space and time are huge and conditions far too extreme to reproduce in a lab, scientists rely on mathematical modeling and computer simulations to understand our observations.” 3 This means that most of what we know right now relies on a hypothesis based on calculations to demonstrate what astrophysicists observe. My interest in representing instances of the large, the small, and the unseen brings me to another unknown realm of epistemological questions. Epistemology which Keith DeRose4 defines as questions about the nature, scope, and source of knowledge itself. However, it’s important to note Edmund Gettier’s question5 “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Why is it important to understand the relationship between how we know and what we believe as true? Because at a large scale, the universe is a complete mystery in which our knowledge relates to what we think as real, not to what we have proof of existence. There is a vast difference between knowing and having faith in a fact. Taking into account the complexity of knowing any scientific concept, one example of twisted, dark matter, stands out as a complicated concept for the few information that we have available to comprehend and to understand it accurately. For instance, dark matter has no visible instance, how can we know what it is? The knowledge acquired around dark matter is related to what it does. As we cannot tell what exactly dark matter is, we need to know it from mathematics, astrophysics and other angles that help us to create our knowledge. However, the way that we know things can certainly change the way we represent those same things.

The Dark matter problem

There is a need to understand the dark matter problem from a historical perspective to know how important each small discovery on the theme is. Robert H. Sanders reviews a historical perspective in his book “The Dark matter problem” 6. The first modern conception of dark matter takes place at the time of Copernicus through an idea of celestial spheres. Of course, after Galileo’s telescopic observations showing anomalies on his data and Newton’s laws definition, there was a culmination in a more substantial hypothesis of an unseen part of the galaxy thanks to a French mathematician called Urbain Le Verrier pointing out an undiscovered planet beyond Uranus. The relevance of Le Verrier’s theory was not patent until Neptune’s detection. Otherwise, it would have meant a breakdown of Newtonian gravitational laws in the Solar System because it would have indicated that everything believed at that point was a mistake. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s, when Frist Zwicky’s proposal of dark matter, introduced the idea of a giant filling of a dominant component of the universe after observing the rotations of the galaxies that form the Coma cluster. Based on Zwicky’s estimation of the mass of the galaxies calculated on the light they emitted, at the speed at which the galaxies were moving, they should have flown apart. Some mysterious and unseen dark matter seem to be adding mass to the galaxies to keep them together. Nevertheless, it took 40 years to accept Zwicky’s theory, which was the reconciliation of astronomical observations and the dynamics based on Newton laws. In the 1970s, Vera Rubin was studying Andromeda galaxy neighbor stars velocities, and she anticipated that the edge stars were moving more slowly than those at its axis because of the gravitational pull. Surprisingly, Rubin found that the stars moved as quickly as the ones in the middle. The only explanation is the presence of a more massive halo made of something that we can’t see surrounding the visible stars changing stars velocity. Since then, other astronomical observations have confirmed anomalies in the way galaxies and light moves across space. If it happens that dark matter exists, its effects have been perceived and seen already, even though there is no visible instance of dark matter itself. In 1998, scientists on the DAMA experiment (a dark matter detector in Italy), discovered an unexpected pattern in their data. Although there is not proof it is dark matter, it could reveal that earth was moving through a dark matter halo explaining some of the anomalies cited above.

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kovaw

"If dark matter turns out to be something garden-variety, then maybe it will only take one experiment for people to be excited about it—and two for people to be borderline convinced," Neal Weiner, director of the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics at New York University. “But if something unexpected shows up, it might take more than that to persuade people.” 7

There is still a long way to understand the remaining pieces that form the puzzle of the universe. In a ten years’ time span, there is hope on being able to have more accountable data to prove the existence of dark matter finally. Meanwhile, popular science has an essential role in the education of future generations of scientists that one day may determine the nature of dark matter. Eminences like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking make physics more accessible to non-experts creating educational, exciting and engaging content.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Neil deGrasse Tyson is both an astrophysicist and a public figure who is creating experiences to learn science. Tyson’s approach to science has brought a lot of light to thousands of families wanting to discover the unrevealed mysteries of the Universe. Tyson has been part of the American Museum of Natural (AMNH) History since 1997 when he founded the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics. As the director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson has been involved in several projects wanting to explain the complexity of the universe in the realm of popular science. To fulfill this purpose, AMNH is screening Dark Universe presently.

“Dark Universe celebrates the pivotal discoveries that have led us to greater knowledge of the structure and history of the universe and our place in it—and to new frontiers for exploration.” 8

Tyson reaffirms how little we know about our galaxy. “Just within the last hundred years, we humans, inhabitants of a small planet orbiting this unexceptional star, have learned where the galaxies are, what they are made of, and how they got to be that way.We began to glimpse how we still don’t know about the universe.” Tyson’s commitment to popularizing science allows millions of ANMH’s visitors to have a better vision of the complexity of the Universe.

Stephen Hawking Both Tyson and Hawking have contributed enormously to society sharing their understanding of the complexity of the cosmos from different angles. Understanding the current status of dark matter research from the lenses of a rock star of physics such as Stephen Hawking gives more than just hope. “It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. The fact that we human beings, who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph”. 9

Hawking stated that the next breakthrough in cosmology could involve dark matter because he considered that there is a link missing in cosmology and it consists in discovering the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Again, dark matter remains invisible and imperceptible, its existence is inferred through calculations and observation of galaxies. Sadly, Hawking’s contributions won’t be able to answer some of those questions anymore. However, his legacy will help other physicists to maybe have the only answer at some point.

Real status

Meanwhile, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research hosts physicists and engineers from all over the world to prove the fundamental structure of the universe. Its facilities feature custom-made particle detectors that produce millions of collisions of particles to study and answer most of the unanswered questions about our cosmos. Regarding dark matter, CERN has the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) looking for dark matter, antimatter and missing matter from a module on the international space. AMS is a particle physics detector that provides data about dark matter presence and at the same time performs precision measurements of cosmic rays. 10 Since 1949, when CERN was created, a lot of scientific advances have been achieved. CERN keeps looking for answers, who knows which one will be the next one answered.

Image archived on the CERN Document Server

Dark matter artist view

What do artists think about dark matter? How has dark matter been represented/ experienced before? From an artistic and conceptual perspective, each artist has approached the idea of expressing dark matter subjectively. Indeed, describing dark matter through a scientific lens is exceptionally different from an artist perspective. The works below are a brief compilation of the most relevant artworks.


‘Dark Matter’, 2014, wood, aluminium, black flock, 237.5 x 237.5 x 237.5 cm Troika is a collaborative contemporary art group formed by Eva Rucki (b. 1976, Germany), Conny Freyer (b. 1976, Germany) and Sebastien Noel (b. 1977, France). Their piece Dark Matter is a massive sculptural piece made of Wood, aluminum and black block that represents a real-world simulation of a complex spatial system. The relevance of this three-faced piece remains on the many viewpoints offered by just one black enormous element. It consists in an immersion of the viewer through three distinct geometrical shapes (square, hexagon, and circle) that creates a shift between “realities” in a seamless way. “Yet, contrary to its digital origin, the physicalized version has a weight, a size and takes up space, becoming a way to understand the visceral and physical presence of the virtual space it was created in. Selected for its ostensible ability to swallow light, the volume is covered in black flock contributing even further to the eery, flattened and artificial nature of the object.” 11

Besides, its physicality makes it a richer and extended version of the piece to recreate a virtual space which strengthens Troika’s powerful concept.


Radius, 2012, wheat straw, wood, foam, plastic, paper, screws, and acrylic paint, 83.75 x 83.75 x 27 inches. Shea Hembrey is an American contemporary artist who questions reality through its work. He is pursuing the exploration of the structure that holds the cosmos. His current interest in exploring the universe through physics makes his work exciting both conceptually and formally. “Dark Matters” is a collection of paintings and sculptures that Shea Hembrey created to show what is not there or intangible energy. Hembrey talks about the set as “a collective meditation on the unseen structure of our universe.” 12 The artist statement is clear. “For nearly two decades, I have continually pondered dark matter and dark energy—which together account for over 95% of the cosmos,” Hembrey stated: “The question of these mysteries has repeatedly surfaced in my imagery over the years.” 13 The materiality applied to each of Hembrey’s pieces speaks for itself. For example, using wheat straws to illustrate black holes brings part of his childhood on it and an entirely new point of view. His body of work is the most personal Hembrey’s take on answering one question, “What does dark matter look like?” 14.


DARK MATTER For 9e2, King Street Station, Seattle, WA 2016. Nylon and lights. 9’ x 4’ x 4’. Susan Zoccola draws inspiration is her research on Dark Matter together with James Sloan’s (University of Washington) discussions. Zoccola affirms, “I created a sculpture which explored the liminal and elusive limits of materiality and immateriality - the threshold of what’s there and what’s not and what might be just beyond.” 15 The piece reflects mathematical simulations showing dark matter as a possible actor in a grander scale element, a cosmic web. From the formal perspective, different elements call public attention. The central sculptural body and the projection create a flattened instance of the piece similar to the computer-generated image above. Again, the materiality demonstrates the capability of providing another dimension that a bi-dimensional visual is not able to show.

Other references Several works attempt to portray natural elements such as wind, humidity, and sound. Each piece represents a concept that otherwise wouldn’t be visible. The artist takes on each piece shows a different way to materialize the concept.

Wind of Boston: Data Paintings, 1.8m x 4m digital canvas

Soundwave, Alex de Graaf

Specifically, the natural Hygroscope takes advantage of a physical property such as using an animal bladder to project vacuum to glass to view the humidity of the environment. This combination of elements proposes a smart way to show something that otherwise would not be visible.

Natural hygroscope, Zalán Szakács , 2014.Pig bladder, pine wood, copper metal. Lastly, the nature of the Tactile dome, at Exploratorium in San Francisco is an opportunity to explore senses other than sight. As the experience is described at Exploratorium’s website: “Take an interactive excursion through total darkness in our Tactile Dome. Crawl, slide, and bump your way through the pitch-dark Dome using your sense of touch as your only guide through its chambers and mazes.” 16

Tactile Dome, Exploratorium.

Whereas many scientific representations rely just on visuals, there is a lot of room for exploring other senses and push the materiality to add more value, but more importantly more information. What do senses contribute collectively to a singular experience? 17 Is not just about vision, there is a multisensory interaction that could trigger other stimuli and a way to discover the world differently. The richness and variety of sensorial experiences that could be designed thinking beyond the sight is a path that will be explored with a series of prototypes.

“The Senses: Design Beyond Vision� , Copper Hewitt. 2018.

Materials & circuitry

Materials - Arduino UNO - SunFounder PCA9685 16 Channel 12 Bit PWM Servo Driver - 6 x SG90 Micro Servo Motor 9G - 4 x photoresistors - 5V 10A AC to DC Power Supply Adapter - 4 x 10k Ohm resistors - 1 x Male + 1 x Female 2.1x5.5mm DC Power Cable Jack Adapter - 2:1 Heat Shrink Tube - Wires - 6 x Mini Tactical LED Flashlight (Battery powered) All components listed above are available on Amazon.



The starting point of this project was to represent a scientific concept, dark matter, without imagery. The research widened my horizons regarding formal representations of the concept. However, there was a need for physical exploration to answer the design questions prompted by my own goals.


How might a concept without visible instance like dark matter be represented for a better understanding? How might my work validate a representation without knowing if dark matter inferences are valid or not? Invisible dark matter makes up most of the universe, but we can only detect if from its gravitational effects. 18

As a response to these questions, I have designed Enlightening Dark Matter, a physical installation that uses sensory experience to reveal hidden structures of the universe. The dimensionality of the piece conveys the effect of dark matter warping the structure of the universe to a museum audience. This multisensorial installation takes place in the context of a bigger museum exhibition explaining the secrets of the Universe.


Popular Science. Simplify Complexity. Visual Science. Materiality. Senses. Those are the core elements of the project.

Process An experimental phase to create several prototypes shaped the final piece through several iterations.

Unseen space

unseen space Caltech researchers have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system. Planet Nine has not yet been located or photographed.








BETWEEN 10,000 AND 20,000











A predicted consequence of Planet Nine is that a second set of confined objects should also exist. These objects are forced into positions at right angles to Planet Nine and into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system.













The evidence for the claim is that six of the most distant known Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) have orbits that line up in a way that would only happen if the gravity of a massive unknown planet were pulling on them. Five known objects (green) fit this prediction precisely. source: caltech

Starting from just a visual perspective, I attempted to representing a planet that has never been photographed. This infographic is clear but is not powerful enough to call the public’s attention. A 2D representation relies on the sight, which raises questions the idea of exploring other senses in further prototypes.

First prototype

This prototype is a first approach toward the use of materials on how to represent intangible elements adding a haptic component. The air expresses what cannot be seen but at the same time holds the structure of the piece together. Also, there are circular elements representing planets suspended and at the same time attached to the invisible structure of the universe.

Aesthetic prototype

There are a series of different prototypes that explore how light can reveal the invisible structure of the universe. Firstly, project the shadow using a flashlight using a metallic mesh hidden under a thin layer of paper. The light reveals the elements inside the mesh changing the scale depending on the distance of the flashlight. The effect is pleasing, but there is no interaction with the user

From a formal perspective, there were different approaches. Sketches provided below.

The shape chosen is a small-scale dome where the user interacts introducing the head inside the representation of the universe structure held together thanks to dark matter. The dome shows the projection of the structure and thanks to the movement of the plates where the shape gets distorted because of the intersection of the alien body inside the dome. In fact, the user can interact with the latex inside the dome twisting, even more, the projection.

Technical prototype The technical kit includes different options for tech. The main proposal involves an Arduino, six motors and a sensor to trigger the system

. At first, the stepper motor seemed to be the best choice because of the accuracy provided by this type of motor. However, even producing the desired effect, when scaling to 6 devices it was too many components. Servos controlled by a shield move the whole system in a simplified and more efficient setting.

The final setting includes several photocells to trigger the system.

User testing takeaways The user testing helped to define the final scale and the material of the latest piece. Different feedbacks helped to set the shape and the fidelity of each element. First prototypes were not suitable to be used comfortably. The size and the strength were improved in each iteration until reaching the final piece.

Final piece “Enlightening Dark Matter� is a physical computing-powered interactive dome. The dome is suspended from the ceiling hanging from a sturdy parachute thread providing a 360 view of the experience. The system is triggered by introducing the head inside the lower aperture where a set of photocell detect the presence of an alien body which starts distorting the geometric mesh. The dome is made of a laser cut wooden structure painted in black that supports the whole system which includes several layers of materials to create a complete haptic experience:

First of all, the inner layer constituted by a cylinder made of latex surrounds the user, allowing to touch and deform the projection by applying light pressure to the surface. The dome is surrounded by six mobile panels made of laser cut chipboard shaped like a hexagonal grid. All this elements are attached to a metallic ring that serve as a support for the lights.

The system includes an Arduino connected to six servo motors that control the panels bending them to deform the structure projected to the latex when the user introduces the head inside the dome. A set of 4 photocells allow to define when to activate or deactivate the movement. Lastly, the system includes six flashlights that project the pattern of the mobile panels onto the latex surface.


This project involved a lot of different challenges all along the process.

Fabrication - Adequate fabrication of resources available (Large format Laser Cutter was out of Service). - Material Testing (some materials were discarded for poor performance). - Iterating on the shape of the dome to improve sturdiness and interaction. - Polish the prototype to achieve an appealing external form. - Last minute fixes and details for exhibition purposes. - Hanging the piece safely from the ceiling (10 feet from the ground).

Physical computing - To find the right motor to perform the desired task/ movement. - To wire for exhibition purposes. - To solder all component to be visible. - To power the whole system. - To sync motors. - To stabilize of the interaction for large crowd demo (Major Major).


This project is just a first step on a bigger scale exploration of quantum physics representations. The apparatus is not only a closer view of an uncertain topic but also an experimental approach that shows new horizons where the research could be pushed forward. In future iterations, different materials, sizes, and constructions will be considered to contrast the interaction with other different settings. The real contribution of this project relies on creating a method to explore different systems to represent what has not been enacted yet. It is not about creating a toolkit or a template, is about creating a system to apply in the future when representing other scientific topics like dark energy, antimatter, and so many others. For this reason, not only must the digital visualization of science be studied, but its physicality must also be pushed forward too. Moreover, the impact that successful experiences could provide to society is tremendous which would mean a step closer to an expanded public scientific knowledge. Although there is still a lot of research to do, every step is one step closer to answer all the mysteries of the universe.

Endnotes 1 “Dark Matter.” CERN. Accessed March 20, 2018. 2 “Dark Matter.” CERN. Accessed March 20, 2018. 3 “Dark Universe.” Smithonian. Accessed March 22, 2018. 4 “Epistemology.” Yale. Accessed March 30, 2018. 5 “Scientific Epistemology” Illinois State University. Accessed March 30, 2018. publications/scientific_epistemology.pdf. 6 Robert H Sanders, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective (2013). 7 “Stephen Hawking.” Stephen Hawking. Accessed March 20, 2018. 8 “Neil deGrasse Tyson.” Hayden Planetarium. Accessed March 20, 2018. tyson/ 9 Robert H Sanders, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective (2013). 10 “AMS.” CERN. Accessed March 20, 2018. 11 “Dark Matter.” Troika. Accessed April 2, 2018. 12 “How I became 100 artist.” Shea Hembrey. Accessed April 2, 2018. how_i_became_100_artists. 13 “How I became 100 artist.” Shea Hembrey. Accessed April 2, 2018. how_i_became_100_artists. 14 “How I became 100 artist.” Shea Hembrey. Accessed April 2, 2018. how_i_became_100_artists. 15 “Dark Matter.” Susan Zoccola. Accessed April 2, 2018. 16 “Tactile Dome.” Exploratorium. Accessed April 2, 2018. tactile-dome. 17 “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision.” Cooper Hewitt. Accessed April 2, 2018. visit/west-gallery/tactile-dome. 18 “Dark Matter.” CERN. Accessed March 20, 2018.

Final documentation - PComp  

Physical Computing final documentation

Final documentation - PComp  

Physical Computing final documentation