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  • Writer's pictureErik Herman

Physics, Art, and the Space Between

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

I was recently contacted by a previous student in my PHYS 4500 course at Cornell (a course on designing, constructing, showcasing physics exhibits). She is interested in pursuing a career in something at the intersection of "physics, art, and communication". I shared with her advice which pretty much mirrors my own trajectory--take two parallel paths. One path can follow an already existing field and can follow that field in a traditional way, and another path that's more experimental--a sandbox path. This is because the space between Physics and Art is pretty undefined. Unless you're super creative, super determined, and your lifestyle doesn't depend on a steady income you've pretty much got to jump on an already-established path and jump through the hoops laid out before you. But while you're jumping through those hoops you can be pursuing your own interests and creative works on the side. For me the "official" path I chose was Science Education--classroom teaching. All the while I was making demonstrations and exhibits. Teaching paid the bills. Experimenting and tinkering kept the passion for science alive and the creative juices flowing.

There are some really great "science artists" out there*--people who create installments and performances that allow the medium to directly leverage the "special effects" of physics, things that play with our sensory perception, or works that otherwise bring to light underlying phenomena.

The explOratorium has, since its inception--especailly under the visionary leadership of Frank Oppenheimer--embraced art and perception as an integral part of properly celebrating science. In this way, I think, the human experience of science is rightfully prioritized. Science is at its best when it is motivated by a simple desire to better understand and exist more harmoniously within the physical world.

I can relate to those who enjoy simple beauty in science, those who find it personally meaningful to make a discovery from direct observation, and those who find a way to "dance", as it were, with the physical world as one might do by creating a putt-putt boat motor or flying a walkalong glider.

Artists seem to have a similar relationship to their medium. To the extent that working with a medium is about becoming one with the external world, I do believe that these two fields can and even should share some common ground.

Among those who have found a place for themselves straddling art and science there appear to be a wide spectrum of motivations. And there are wide ranges in what they get paid, if anything. Some seem to approach it through the lens of science education, others seem to simply be peacing out on beauty in nature. It is obvious that some want to make the connection explicit--perhaps even explaining the directly observed phenomena in physics terms. Others simply leave things to the senses--perhaps with no other agenda.

If you wish to make the connection explicit, as I do in my own work, drawing the lines between art and science takes a careful hand. As with any good effort to convey meaning, it is better to show than tell, it is even better to experience it first-hand, and it is best to feel that you discovered it. As it pertains to words, less is more. As it pertains to the environment, it should be more like a playground than a laboratory. As it pertains to the process, it should feel more like an adventure than a tour.

* Science Artists

Bernie Zubrowski

Daniel Wurtzel

Bart Hopkin

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