Because I’ve been traveling so much for the last couple of months, I missed the opening of the physics-themed art exhibit, “Measure for Measure,” at Gallery 825 in Los Angeles.
It was doubly disappointing because said exhibit was curated by noted Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, author of Warped Passages, whose other forays into melding science and culture include penning the libretto for a modern opera — not to mention a glamorous photo shoot for Vogue (thereby proving that it’s possible to be a brilliant female physicist and still rock the designer duds).
Randall and her fellow curator, LA-based artist Lia Halloran, found common ground between art and science in the theme of scale: according to Randall, ideas of scale are critical in both particle physics and general relativity and cosmology (the physics of the very big and very small), as well as in art, where making a large object small, or a trivial object extra large, can force the observer to reconsider his or her assumptions about the world.
“I wanted a theme where both art and science could participate and it wasn’t just art representing science or science pretending to be art, but where we could think deeply about ideas that underlie both of them,” she told the Culture Lab blog.
So, for instance, one artist (Meeson Pae Yang) chose to play with notions of scale in diatoms (single-celled phytoplankton), while another installation by Katrina McElroy scattered circles along a wall like so many subatomic particles, except mimicking the migratory patterns of birds.
And Susan Sironi played with illustrations from Gulliver’s Travels and Through the Looking Glass — both of which challenge the reader’s concepts of size and scale in their narratives — and matched them with actual to-scale tracings of her own body parts.
As impressive as it was, the “Measure for Measure” exhibit is not an isolated occurrence. In September, the Chicago Art Department debuted “Hard Science,” an exhibit showcasing the work of various artists who had been challenged to illustrate aspects of particle physics in their pieces. The idea came from conversations between the artists and Teppei Katori, a physics postdoc from MIT who has been working with Fermilab.
It was certainly a daunting challenge for the artists, most of whom lacked any scientific background. “I didn’t understand the title of Teppei’s thesis. I couldn’t get through listening to one sentence,” artist Chuck Przybyl told Symmetry Breaking. Not only did they have to grasp the concepts, the artists then had to figure out how to recast those concepts for a general (art-loving) audience. Fortunately, the artists weren’t required to necessarily get the science 100% right, just to play with ideas like time, space, symmetry, and cosmology, hopefully inspiring viewers to explore those topics in more detail.
So there were pencil and ink sketches evoking the Higgs field and associated boson, while Katori himself contributed an installation featuring a series of photomultiplier tubes — used as detectors by particle physicists — that drew parallels with clay veins and nerves. “This device is an extension of your body,” he said, comparing it to “an eyeball for the physicist.”
And sometimes there are full-fledged collaborations between artist and scientist, such as the partnership between artist Josiah McElheny and cosmologist David Weinberg, during McElheny’s art residency at Ohio State University. The goal was to depict the big bang in sculpture form, and Weinberg even submitted a paper on arXiv detailing some of the scientific concepts at play in the finished installation.
For instance, there center of the sculpture is the singularity — the point of origin for the universe — and as one moves outward from that center, it’s meant to evoke the evolution of the cosmos through its 13.7-billion-year history. There are 230 rods jutting out from the piece, of random lengths, capped with various glass discs and spheres to represent clusters of galaxies — and the occasional lamp representing a quasar (pictured top).
McElheny even endeavored to keep the scale reasonably accurate, with “each 7.2 inches of the sculpture correspond to a factor of two times cosmic expansion, giving the piece a 1000-fold growth at its outermost point.” The piece would fit quite nicely in Randall’s “Measure for Measure” exhibit — should it ever be reprised on go on a national gallery tour.
Image credit: Los Angeles Art Association