Particle Falls: Art Fueled by Scientific Data

Feb 2, 2015

On a cold and clear night in Logan there’s a low-hanging crescent moon, Venus is shining bright above the horizon, and on the side of the Caine Performance Hall on the main campus of Utah State University, there’s an animated waterfall of light. This is Particle Falls, a large-scale work of public art created by Andrea Polli. Polli was invited to display Particle Falls as part of ARTsySTEM, a semester long project initiative to integrate Art & Design with the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Particle Falls takes readings from a nearby monitor and creates a visualization of real-time air pollution levels.
Credit Jennifer Pemberton

Polli starts by describing Particle Falls: “If it’s a beautiful clear day and there’s no particulate pollution in the air, you see this beautiful pristine waterfall, but if particulate pollution is detected you might see little red or orange dots over the waterfall and as more pollution is detected, that waterfall turns into something like a fireball.”

A device called a nephelometer detects pollution particles in the air and provides the data that generates the projection that is Particle Falls.
Credit Jennifer Pemberton

She expects an awareness response when people stop to watch Particle Falls: “I want people to at first be surprised or intrigued, almost like there’s a spectacle that they’re seeing and wondering about. And then I’d like them to understand that what they’re seeing is the real-time particulate pollution. If they see pollution or don’t see pollution, they might breathe easier. Or if they see a lot of pollution they might hold their breath and think about what’s going on in their air.”

Different communities have different relationships to their air pollution problems. Places like Cache Valley that don’t have many polluting industries, are forced to point their fingers at themselves. Particle Falls shows us that we have a stake it in. When they’re looking at it, we have to realize that it’s us that’s causing it.

“That’s what I like about presenting Particle Falls and what made me feel like it was successful in different cities,” says Polli. “I’ve heard people say, ‘That’s our waterfall — check it out.’ They’re taking ownership of their city and the information being displayed there.”

“I was blown away by how much people know about the air quality and inversions around here,” she says about presenting Particle Falls in Logan. “I have never experienced that in other places that I’ve shown this piece…It’s really amazing the awareness of people around here.”

Particle Falls can be viewed on the main Utah State University campus in Logan on February 19 - 20, March 19, and April 16.