Visualizing the Proton

2019-20 Mellon Faculty Grant

Proton Animation. Courtesy of James LaPlante, Sputnik Animation. © MIT and Jefferson Lab, 2021, All Rights Reserved.

Illustrating the subatomic world


Physicists have developed the “Standard Model” that successfully explains atomic structure. In this framework, the proton is built from point-like quarks and gluons. The proton has almost universally been visualized as a billiard ball with quark and gluon billiard ball constituents. Yet, we now know that this visualization is entirely wrong. Quarks and gluons can spin, have linear and circular motion, and can appear and disappear. How can this complex and seemingly “impossible” world be visualized?

To answer this question, MIT Physics professor Richard Milner, physicist Rolf Ent at Jefferson Lab, documentary filmmakers Chris Boebel and Joe McMaster at MIT, and animator James LaPlante of Sputnik Animation have taken inspiration from the colorized Hubble images of the large-scale structure of the universe from original black-and-white exposures. The creators of these images describe them as “equal parts art and science.” This project’s goal is to create similarly scientifically authentic, visually inspiring images of the microcosm and explore the creative process, the challenge of scientific “accuracy,” evidence, and the very concept of “understanding.” Milner and his colleagues are motivated by new and planned electron accelerators that aim to deliver snapshots of the fundamental structure of matter with unprecedented clarity.

In Visualizing the Proton, physicists worked collaboratively with animation and video artists to depict the subatomic world in a new way with an innovative animation that conveys the current understanding of the structure of the proton in terms of its fundamental constituents. The animation was centerpiece of a 5–7 minute film that aimed at grades 7–12 science students and the general public.


Past Events

Public Premiere of Visualizing the Proton Documentary
October 6, 2022 / 12:00-1:30pm
Cambridge Science Festival
MIT Museum, The Exchange
314 Main Street, Cambridge, MA

Visualizing the Proton Launch Event
April 20, 2022 / 7:30pm
Kendall/MIT Open Space
292 Main Street, Cambridge, MA

MIT Professor Krishna Rajagopal, MIT Professor Richard Milner, physicist Dr. Rolf Ent from Jefferson Lab, MIT documentary filmmaker Chris Boebel, animator James LaPlante of Sputnik Animation, and Leila W. Kinney of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology gathered for the public premiere of their new animation of the proton and a discussion of the process of its creation.


Richard Milner, Professor in the MIT Department of Physics since 1988, did his undergraduate studies at University College Cork, Ireland, and received his PhD in 1985 from Caltech. His research focuses on understanding nucleon and nuclear structure using the lepton probe, frequently using spin observables and over the energy range of 2.5 MeV to 27 GeV. He has proposed and led experiments at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Indiana University Cyclotron facility (IUCF), MIT, Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), and Jefferson Lab.

Biography: MIT Department of Physics
Website: Hadronic Physics Group (HPG)

Chris Boebel, Media Development Director, is a filmmaker based at MIT, where he is media development director at the MIT Office of Open Learning and teaches documentary filmmaking. He is the writer/director of many short films and videos and three feature films, including Exit Zero: An Industrial Family Story. His work has screened at more than 50 film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, and has received many awards including a New England Emmy.

Biography: MIT Open Learning

Joe McMaster is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and science journalist and the Senior Producer at MIT Video Productions (MVP). Prior to joining MVP and making videos about all things MIT, he worked for more than two decades as a television producer, director, writer, series producer, and executive producer – much of that time on staff at the PBS science series Nova.

Biography: MIT Video Productions

Rolf Ent is the Associate Director of Experimental Nuclear Physics at Jefferson Lab. Ent came to Jefferson Lab in 1993 as a Hall C scientist and adjunct professor at Hampton University. Rolf served as experimental group leader of the Nuclear and High-Energy Physics (NuHEP) Center at Hampton University from 1996-2001, and served as Hall C Leader from 2002-2006. He then served as the 12 GeV Upgrade Science lead at Jefferson Lab until 2009, and became associate director for experimental nuclear physics in 2011.

Biography: Jefferson Lab

James LaPlante is the CEO and creative director at Sputnik Animation, an Emmy-award winning animation studio in South Portland, Maine. He has over 25 years of experience in media production working as a writer, producer, director, editor, animator and interactive designer. He has produced animation for award-winning documentaries for clients such as WGBH NOVA, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Through Sputnik Animation, LaPlante continues to explore new technologies and creative approaches to communication through immersive media and Virtual and Augmented Reality.

WebsiteSputnik Animation


Visualizing the Proton: Educational Film 


Creator: Richard Milner, Professor of Physics, MIT
Creator: Rolf Ent, Associate Director for Experimental Nuclear Physics, Jefferson Lab
Animator: James LaPlante, Sputnik Animation
Editor: Alexander Higginbottom, Video/Post-Production Assistant, MIT Video Productions (MVP)
Film Consultant: Joe McMaster, Senior Producer, MIT Video Productions (MVP)
Film Consultant: Chris Boebel, Media Development Director
Production: Leila W. Kinney, Executive Director, CAST; Danna Solomon, Producer, CAST

Visual Sources and Acknowledgements:

An Assessment of U.S.-Based Electron-Ion Collider Science. The National Academies Press, 2018.
Brookhaven National Laboratory
CERN Courier, 27 September 2021
Chandra X-ray Observatory
Electron Ion Collider: The Next QCD Frontier, A. Accardi et al., December, 2014,
ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess et al.; Acknowledgment: M. Zamani
Folger Shakespeare Library
Google and data providers: SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO,
LANDSAT/Copernicus, IBCAO, U.S. Geological Survey, LDEO-Columbia, NSF
Jefferson Lab
John Kramer (MIT)
Los Alamos National Laboratory
MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology
MIT Video Productions
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Proton Structure Functions at Small x; Martin Hentschinski 2015 J. Phys.: Conf. Ser.
651 012011
Review of Particle Physics 2017, C. Patrignani et al. (Particle Data Group), Chin. Phys.
C, 40, 100001 (2016) and 2017 update.
Richard Milner
Rik Yoshida and Clare Gwenlan
Rolf Ent
Sputnik Animation
US Department of Energy
Zein-Eddine Meziani

The Visualizing the Proton Project is presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology, Jefferson Lab, and US Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Copyright © MIT and Jefferson Lab, 2021, All Rights Reserved