Todd Johnson is a scientist at the famed physics research facility Fermilab, where he works on laser systems. And in his off-hours, he turns his knowledge into art, producing incredible lightning-like patterns in chunks of clear acrylic using nothing but the power of frustrated electrons.

Using a commercial linear accelerator similar to the ones he runs at work, Johnson creates "Lichtenberg figures," similar to the chaotic, fractal patterns of lightning in the atmosphere or water branching into many streams at it rushes over the ground.


At Symmetry Breaking, Laura Dattaro explains the artistic process:

Johnson arrives at the facility with stencils laser-cut from steel or handmade from sheet lead; clear acrylic hunks of varying sizes; and a lot of ideas. He sends his pieces of acrylic through the accelerator’s electron beam, which is designed to break chemical bonds in plastics. Because acrylic is an insulating material, the beam scatters through the material, losing momentum as it goes. Only areas of the acrylic not covered by a stencil are exposed to the beam, allowing Johnson to create shapes.

Eventually the beam coalesces into a pool of electrons that desperately want to escape but can’t—an invisible puddle of potential energy. Releasing that energy is a simple but arresting process. To do it, Johnson uses a hand-made tool reminiscent of a crude, oversized syringe. It works like a click pen—press on one end and the tip comes out the other with enough force to puncture the acrylic. The instant the tool punctures the surface, there’s a burst of white light as the pool of excited electrons escapes from the material, leaving trails of vaporized acrylic in its place.

On their way out of the acrylic, the electrons follow the same natural laws that govern all systems that flow—electricity snaking its way from a storm cloud to Earth, rivers branching into ever smaller creeks and streams, or the spidery web of veins that distributes blood throughout your body.

You can learn more about Johnson's work at Symmetry Breaking, and see more images of his art there too.