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Can art impact science?

Image courtesy Moritz Heller.

With all the Twitter rage about the use of the Comic Sans font during the presentation on the Higgs boson-like discovery this summer, another literary comment has popped up online. This one is not so much about the new boson, but the accelerator technology that helped to find it. It is a 3D virtual experiment that smashes words instead of protons together.

The ‘Wordcollider’ is a text visualization inspired by the Large Hadron Collider’s particle collisions. It shows two word phrases collide with each other and break up in their letters, or elementary particles, according to the text narrative of the visualization.

After the collision, the Wordcollider visualizes a signature for each letter, based on their phonetic characteristics. Phonetics is the linguistic study of the sounds or signs of language and their physical characteristics.

The application then differentiates between word categories including ‘vowels’ such as a or e and five types of consonants, and special signs. These include ‘nasals’ such as m or n, or ‘plosives’ such as p, b, t, or d, ‘approximants’ i.e. j and w. Each category makes a unique particle track – excuse me – phonetic track in the Wordcollider.

“How the signatures behave is based on descriptions of how the sounds of each letter are actually made by one’s mouth when spoken. Vowels are straight lines. I was fascinated by the graphics LHC researchers’ computers create to visualize the collision events,” said Moritz Heller, a design student from the Academy of Visual Arts, in Germany, who programmed the software in an open-source language called Processing, that creates interactive programs in 2D, 3D, or PDF outputs.

Heller used the Processing language because it’s relatively easy to use and open source, making it compatible with the Arduino microprocessor which he frequently uses for his projects.

In the Wordcollider, the combined phonetic explosions look almost identical to the types of collisions we’re used to seeing from protons in the Large Hadron Collider; even though protons are much much smaller than the smallest word font on a computer screen. But, perhaps linguists, instead of physicists, could actually find this sort of infographic useful in their research.

“I only understand or learn something by doing it. You can say that Wordcollider was some kind of research for me. I really don't know why suddenly everyone is interested in my little experiment,” Heller said. “But, if the program would use more scientific parameters, maybe it could be interesting for linguists or other researchers as a visualization tool.”

- Adrian Giordani

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