Universe, mobile, wire and glass, undated


In the only account she ever gave of her artistic purpose, Jenny wrote of “a sense of wonder of the movement within the very heart of things. Even the humblest clay pot is ultimately made up of molecules and, at the heart of these, the particles dance.

I thought the idea of dancing particles was very poetic: an artist’s intepretation of a concept which is so distant from every day experience that only an atomic scientist or astronomer could understand it. But I was underestimating Jenny, who from the age of 16 had taken a keen interest in scientific discovery. Carlo Rovelli uses the exact phrase to describe the movement of particles in the book “Reality is not what it seems”. This was not published in English until 2016, so Jenny could not have read it there, although it might of course have been used by others. Rovelli describes how nano particles are bombarded randomly by other nano particles, in a fluid, or in the air. It is a crucial point about quantum theory.

I believe Jenny’s introduction to quantum theory was in the Reith lectures “The Individual and the Universe” of 1958, when she was 16. The speaker was Bernard Lovell, director of the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope, and over 6 weekly broadcasts he explained past ideas and current theories about the origins of the Universe and so of life itself. The year before the USSR had astonished the world by sending into earth orbit a satellite ‘sputnik’, whose signals were tracked and then transmitted by the Jodrell Bank Radio telescope.  Lovell described the Cold War states’ sponsoring and driving investment in astronomical research, and the possibility that the more powerful telescopes and scientific instruments carried into space might reach beyond the solar system to the ends of the universe. ‘We are probing the ultimate depths of space and time’.

This was heady stuff and Jenny was mesmerised: not only did she listen, she bought ‘The Listener” every week to read the transcripts and later she bought the book. I have just read it again. Although overtaken by subsequent explorations and developments it is still a clear and compelling account of what was then known and not known about the Universe and the origin of life. One sentence stands out to me as crucial: it comes as Lovell explains the problem reconciling newtonian and quantum physics:

The primeval atom was unstable and must have disintegrated as soon as it came into existence…the essential problem in the conception of the beginning of the universe is the transfer from the state of indeterminacy to the condition of determinacy, after the beginning of space and time when the macroscopic laws of physics apply.   This is the indeterminacy which the quantum theory of physics introduces into the behaviour of different atoms compared with the determinacy which exists in events where large numbers of atoms are involved. The process of thought whereby we reduce the multiplicity of the entire universe to its singular condition of the primeval atom is equivalent in principle to the reduction of the chair in which you are sitting to one of its individual atoms.

There we have the connection between the humble clay pot and the universe itself. When Jenny looked at the natural world, or of man made objects, she wanted to apprehend and depict what could not be seen, what was in the spaces in between the clouds or the pots and in the clouds and pots themselves: ‘the movement at the very heart of things.’