Made On Earth: Watching the Detectors

Craft & Design Technology


Deep underground beneath Switzerland and France, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN are searching for particles that were present just moments after the Big Bang, when the universe formed. The massive machines built to conduct these experiments are astounding on their own — sheer marvels of precision and engineering. For one Bay Area artist, they’re also his muse.

John Zaklikowski, 55, re-creates particle accelerator detectors like the ones at the LHC and at Fermilab in Illinois. What makes his large-scale assemblages so unique is what they’re made of: computer motherboards, hard drives, video and sound cards, cellphone bits, vacuum tubes.

In his work Large Hadron Collider, based on the ATLAS and Compact Muon Solenoid detectors, the central feature consists of razor blades and a race-car air filter. “You’ve got to be very careful around this one,” he warns. “When I was first making these things, I bled every day.”

In Fermilab, Zak, as he prefers to be called, depicts a real collider detector with hard drives

and motherboards, but also old telephone bells, cheese graters, and an ancient Chinese compass called a luopan.

Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Zak studied philosophy and literature, not science. Sporting a full head of white hair, black jeans, and a pale blue Polo button-up splattered with paint, he says, “I did grapple with the idea of studying physics but didn’t think it would really suit me. Obviously, my science interest is coming out in a big way in recent years with these pieces.”

His work recently made the cover of the particle physics journal Symmetry, but Zak doesn’t restrict his subject matter to physics experiments. There’s also a baby grand piano in the middle of his San Francisco art studio, covered in parts. A newer work, Enamored, pays homage to his son, who, at 13, abandoned his collection of the Lego bricks. Luckily, his dad knew just what to do with the stash.

Zak’s Art in Symmetry:

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