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‘I see things that are too beautiful not to share’

Marco Kraan of the Dutch research institute Nikhef developed artistic impressions of gravitational wave detectors that are used around the world. How a mechanical designer makes art out of technology.

It is one of the iconic images of the Einstein Telescope: a night sky with black holes spinning around each other, rippling gravity waves travelling towards a hilly landscape, and below it the triangular detector with which researchers want to observe this phenomenon. Technical designer Marco Kraan of the Dutch institute Nikhef talks about how and why he visualizes scientific research.

Artististieke impressie van de Einstein Telescope. Credit: Nikhef / Marco Kraan
Artististic impression of the Einstein Telescope. Credit: Nikhef / Marco Kraan
What drives you to create artistic impressions of science?

“As a mechanical designer I get into all kinds of corners of our lab, with the most amazing experiments. There I see things that are too beautiful not to share. I am convinced that you can make people enthousiastic about science by letting the image speak for itself. I have now also been given formal time to do that; one day a week.

It is very versatile, creative work that can make me really happy. From building a CAD model, choosing lighting and camera angles, through to photo and video editing. I can enjoy seeing parts of animations come out of the preview rendering and thinking ‘they’re going to love this’.”

Technisch ontwerper Marco Kraan (Nikhef).
Mechanical designer Marco Kraan (Nikhef). Credit: Nikhef / Marco Kraan
How did this image of the Einstein Telescope come about?

“Actually as a collaborative project. The basis is a CAD model by physicist Andreas Freise and now retired designer Martin Doets from Nikhef. Together with Andreas and Harald Lück (Max Planck Institute), I developed that model into a cover image for a report on the Einstein Telescope design. That was also the seed for an animation in which you follow gravity waves from the source to the detector.”

Are such artistic impressions standard work for a technical designer?

“Not really! Normally I have projects like designing components for detectors at the LHC accelerator, the neutrino telescope KM3NeT, or the gravitational wave detector Virgo. Anything where Nikhef is involved. But I have also always felt the call to make research and our technical work more visible.

Preferably I find a subject myself to depict and decide how to approach it: an animation, an artistic impression, a time-lapse of a manufacturing process, or shots with a 360-degree camera. The best experience is to make something for someone without them asking for it, and then seeing that it catches on.”

Kraan schiet beeld in de Nikhef-cleanroom. Credit: Nikhef / Marco Kraan
Shooting video in the cleanroom at Nikhef. Credit: Nikhef / Marco Kraan
What was your first artistic impression?

“An animation for the gravitational wave detector Virgo in 2015. Barely four weeks before they were due to go public with the big press release about their very first observation of gravitational waves, researcher Jo van den Brand knocked on my door to create an animation. It was fantastic and a bit exciting, because it had to be done under considerable time pressure and the animation software I still had to buy and learn how to use it. After three weeks of slogging I had three minutes of animation.”

Is there a trade secret to these animations?

“For me that is adding details to a ‘bare’ CAD model in such a way that you get a realistic image of what the future could look like. That is why I added parts of the current ETpathfinder facility in  Maastricht to the clean rooms of the Einstein Telescope. That kind of detail makes an image for me, although many viewers may not even notice it.

It certainly helps that I have a background as a mechanical designer. I know how a design is put together and what the important parts are. That can also work against me, for example when I insist on having a correct model of a crane in a 3D drawing. Another illustrator might then quickly draw a yellow bar on rails, but I search and search until I find a realistic model.”

What more can we expect from you?

“I have a model of the Einstein Telescope in the pipeline for the new Expo at Nikhef, a kind of permanent exhibition about the research we do here do. We might also make a version of that to take to events about the Einstein Telescope. You’ll see it when it’s done!”

Still uit een videoserie over de fabricage van een onderdeel voor deeltjesexperiment LHCb. Credit: Nikhef / Marco Kraan
Still from a video series about machining a component for the particle physics experiment LHCb. Credit: Nikhef / Marco Kraan

You can find more artistic impressions by Marco Kraan on his YouTube channel.

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