Sci-Art

There was recently a beautiful exhibition on ‘SciArt’ (Art using, from and about Science) at my department (Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge). On 20th March 2018, to be precise. It was a beautiful dialogue, of sorts, between the realms of science and arts. From fractals representing self-similarity to ‘God’s Toolbox’, it was an interesting mix of installations and art-pieces. It looked into ways of producing art with the various elements and concepts in different realms of Physics and science. In this post, I would like to look into a selected list of exhibits that caught my attention.

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‘Lissajous’ by Nicolas Strappini (2017)

If you ever thought that old CRO machines are all that could make simple and yet beautiful Lissajous figures, have another thought about it! A steel horizontal mechanism makes Lissajous figures in sand, in this exhibit.

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A source of motivation for these was apparently the work of the French physicist Julies Antoine Lissajous himself. If you want to know more about Lissajous figures, you could click here.


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‘Timeless Relations’ by Philip Kilner (2018)

This installation looks at the interrelationship of various polyhedral wooden-stick figures. It delves into the idea of ‘intersection of the timeless with time’. The relationships become apparent through careful observation, comparisons and questioning. One can ask as to what are the numerical-geometric relationships between the forms when compared radially, circumferentially and diametrically.

Scientifically the work has relevance to molecular chemistry, crystallography, virology, biology, architecture and the fields of structural design and construction. Prominent names associated with such forms include Plato, Kepler, Archimedes, da Vinci and even Buckminster Fuller (after whom the Carbon form Buckminster Fullerenes was named).

All in all, it is a beautiful, internally-consistent, concentric, circular display that stands out.


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‘Spiky’ by Melissa Pierce Murray (2016)

Tactile engagement with materials is used in this piece to explore the boundaries between interior and exterior worlds, juxtaposing an emotional response against intellectually and culturally constructed narratives. Full of charge and potential, the piece holds a certain sense of threat and allure in precarious balance. The piece has a certain utilitarian angle as well as a certain aggression in its similarity to forms of weaponry. A balance of stability and chaos, sustenance and destruction.


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‘Every God’s Toolbox’ by Andy Charalambous (2017)

Based on an apothecary’s box, this is a box that is made to ‘make’ literally anything in nature (except probably gravity). Particle physics has discovered all the stuff from which the known universe is made, as best captured in the Standard Model of Physics. This is what every God’s toolbox will probably look like, as per Andy.

The small bottles in the left portion of the box hold particles in four families: the quarks (Up, Charm and Top Quarks in the first row; Down, Strange and Bottom Quarks in the second row), mesons (electron, muon and tau meson) in the third row and neutrinos (electron-neutrino, muon-neutrino and tau meson-neutrino) in the last row. In each row there is another element each (in the fourth bottle), to represent the force carriers: gluons in the first row, photons in the second row,  Z-Boson in the third row and W-Boson in the fourth row. There is also a fifth bottle in the first row ‘containing’ the Higgs Boson in this piece. You can have a look at the schematic and some of the properties of these particles here.

I like the inclusion of the balance in the box. Not only does it have the element of weighing the elements for making the right ‘concoction’, much like an apothecary’s task, but also the idea of balance, of symmetry and even possibly of justice!


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‘Tension’ by Katherine Gravett (2018)

This composition changes depending on which direction the light on it comes from. As per the artist, the technique used was as follows:

“Using gravity changes to tilt, mix and change the direction of the ink flow, the acrylic pearlescent ink with standard acrylic ink separates, settles and dries at a different rate”

This process creates fractals, eddies and sedimentation patterns of different coloured iridescence to draw into. I find this a possible representation of the underlying reality of nature and the nature of the fabric of space-time. People have long conceptualized and pondered over this question. Some say that space-time is continuous while others believe that it is emergent, made of smaller units of nature. This not only captures what I see as more of a duality than a difference but also the other dualities of nature that come out of correspondence relations between physical properties (like wave-particle duality).

I also like the inclusion of the fractals in this piece since it embodies the idea of self-similarity in nature, which I strongly believe in, and which tells us that nature has some resonances and repeating patterns cutting across the various levels and scales of nature.


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‘Collapsed’ by Lisa Pettibone (2016)

After Prof. Stephen Hawking passed away, many were discussing and debating about how and why he did not get the Nobel Prize. One point was that there is not enough direct empirical evidence or ways of visualizing and knowing many of his findings (a debatable point). Extreme events in the universe, such as blackholes, are nearly impossible to imagine or intuitively construct in one’s mindscape.

However glass can be pushed through extreme forming techniques in the heat of the kiln while we ponder over these questions. Stretching matter, bending and refracting light, all these actions, which are encapsulated and displayed by this exhibit, are happening right now in the cosmos, even as we speak.


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‘Prakriti’ by Priya Odedra (2017)

Prakriti is a Vedic concept, which signifies evolution and change in the empirical, material universe, often described as the ‘primal motive force’. This pieces explores the intrinsic human Prakriti in conjunction with the equanimity of the natural phenomena experimented on: cosmic rays in space, the trees in the forests and the aerosols in the clouds.

I also like the way in which this piece has a form like the Large Hadron Collider and subtly depicts the way in which each layer of reality (such as that in the electromagnetic or strong force) is ‘peeled’ or detected successively in the Collider, albeit in the Collider these detections happen on the walls and not along the axis of the cylindrical tube. Together these layers of reality represent reality in its entirety, alone they represent a rather translucent version of it.


All in all, a beautiful, insightful and artistic exploration of key questions, ideas, elements and concepts of nature and science. Kudos (to all the artists and my department, Cavendish Laboratory, for having illustrated physical reality so artistically)!

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