Right now, there’s a team at the University of Chicago at work on an experiment like no other in its history: a human particle detector. To clarify, it’s a particle detector, made of humans, that detects human particles. In action, it’s moving limbs and bending backs, stimulus and response, cognition without immediate consciousness. A rise here, a fall there, bodies responding to bodies responding to bodies. Perhaps, the project seems to suggest, the human body has a lot in common with the humble electron. The experiment is the invention of Sophie Reichert, a PhD candidate in anthropology, and Evan Angelico, a PhD candidate in physics. It’s called “A Choreographic Score to Human Particle Detection,” and was one of only six collaborative projects chosen for funding by the Arts, Science, and Culture Initiative this year.
“Both Evan and I work with movement, but at very different scales,” Reichert explains. When you measure particles in physics, she continues, “you register the trace of the particle, not the particle itself.” With dancers, their project explores the same thing. Dancers in the project don’t enact preplanned movements—they respond to the movements of other dancers, or even a toy car being remotely driven around among them. “The dancers' movements tell us something about the stimulus; their bodies are responsive to the environment.” Bodies answer questions for Reichert, questions that are central to her research. Why do we move the way we move? How do we learn to move, and how does that learning change the way we move? How can you feel someone turn their head behind you? How can you train your somatic sensibility?
But Reichert’s anthropological research isn’t necessarily about being an anthropologist. “If I’m attracted to one discipline,” she says, “it’s because the questions I’m interested in are being answered there.” In her quest to grasp—perhaps literally—the nature of kinesthetic consciousness, Reichert goes where the movement of her study takes her. Anthropology offers a set of tools, but so does physics, and so does dance, and so does music. By moving through and across disciplines, Reichert stays connected to her curiosity—and to other curious thinkers. “The Arts, Science, and Culture Initiative overcomes that central lack in my academic life,” Reichert says. “What bothers me most about academia is the solitude.” In working with a partner like Angelico, Reichert finds herself set free from that solitude. “The places and ways we think together are so different—like a hefty, three-hour brainstorming session at my apartment. I still get to think with someone, I’m just doing it outside of the academic setting.”
As the pair continue to prepare their project, experimenting and choreographing and brainstorming, Reichert is deeply engaged with her intellectual curiosity, even when it’s not about writing it all down. The collaboration grant lets her work with big ideas outside of the confining solitude of text. “I love producing something that’s not text, seeing that another medium can carry your vision and ideas. I can express some ideas better in movement than writing. I just never had the chance before.”