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Helena Raymond-Hayling, Online Arts Editor and third-year physicist, explores how physics and its principles have influenced visual art.

In the world of academia and beyond, we see a shamefully stark divide between the arts and the sciences. Creatively minded folk too often shy away from maths and science as it appears just too tough to grapple with and thus the beauty in numbers and the natural world seems unattainably out of reach.

Likewise, the more mathematically minded may think less visually and more syntactically, and thus not feel too engaged by the less empirical world of art and literature. A fellow scientist once asked me, as I was sneakily writing an exhibition review during a laboratory session: ‘I don’t like art. I just don’t get it—especially modern art. What’s the point?’.

This is of course a complicated question with an inevitably complicated answer, but to that same student and to many others who I am sure share a similar sentiment, art and the arts has more in common with evidence based science than one might expect.

Katie Paterson is a Scottish artist who has been collaborating with scientific research institutes and space agencies to create work takes inspiration from astrophysical phenomena. Totality is a mirrorball made with images of nearly every solar eclipse ever documented.

Related content: Epigram interviews Hollow artist Katie Paterson

Katie Paterson, Totality

Including over 10,000 unique images, these eclipses come together to reflect the progression of an eclipse across the room—from total through to quarter and half eclipses—mirroring the way the Sun is eclipsed by the Moon. (Interestingly, the University of Bristol recently commissioned Katie Paterson to create Hollow, a work made in collaboration with architects Zeller & Moye, permanently situated in the historic Royal Fort Gardens, which consists of wood specimens from 10,000 unique tree species.)

Related content: Thoughts on Katie Paterston’s installation, Hollow

Art and beauty can be found on a microscopic scale as well as an astronomical one. In my third year lab project, I found myself taking pictures of graphite, the material that makes up pencil lead, and found the atomic structure surprisingly beautiful. The atoms are arranged in hexagons, much like honeycomb, in sheets just one atom thick. This is why graphite makes a great material for pencils; the layers flake off one by one and leave their mark on paper.

These diagonal of these tiny hexagons measure at about one-millionth of the diameter of a human hair

Jim LeBeau, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University, is interested too in the beauty of atoms and their arrangement. He helped curate an exhibition which showed in detail how effective microscopes can be in finding the structure of materials, and how impressive the resulting patterns can be.

Silicon nitride in two different arrangements

One image shows silicon nitride and highlights how differently atoms can organise in a material depending on how it was manufactured. All silicon nitride is composed of the same atoms, but they are arranged in very different ways, which here results in a discrepancy in structural hardness—an important property to scientists and engineers.

Some artists will even go beyond the atomic scale into the quantum world. That is, the scale of the particles that make up atoms: protons, neutrons and electrons. On this scale particles behave in mysterious ways, their motion is captivatingly unpredictable. Eric J Heller  uses the flow of electrons to ‘paint’ and studies chaos and randomness on the subatomic scale.

Eric J. Heller, Transport XXI

In Transport XXI, Heller records electron tracks from several different starting points, when they undergo random weak deflections caused by nearby atoms. The electrons bunch up and separate, and behave in a chaotic way, generating this beautiful work.

Quasicrystal, art by Eric J. Heller #EricJHeller

A photo posted by Lane μακρόκοσμο μικρόκοσμο (@aramathea) on

It is not only contemporary artists that use the laws of physics to create beautiful art. There are suggestions that even the Dutch master Rembrandt was keen to use physics to take shortcuts in his magnificent paintings. It was proposed in a paper in the Journal of Optics that Rembrandt was incredibly familiar with constructing optical equipment, that is, lenses and mirrors. The theory says that Rembrandt set up an elaborate system of concave mirrors and lenses to project his own image onto a surface to assist him with his self-portraits.

Could Rembrandt be a con artist?

There are some scandalous tell-tale signs that Rembrandt could not have used only a normal mirror to paint himself. Firstly, Rembrandt’s consistent off-centre eye gazes can be attributed to his looking at a projection rather than into a mirror—much like taking a mirror selfie and looking at your own reflected eyes rather the camera lens. The sheer scale of his paintings too is suspicious, as lenses make magnifying images much easier.

The proposed setup for Rembrandt when he was creating self portraits

More blatantly, however: some of his works, such as Self-portrait with Saskia, contain less sharp detailing outside of a central circular region—much like the ‘vignette’ effect on Instagram—a direct consequence of the fact that round lenses focus images most sharply in the centre. The paper suggests that Rembrandt was not alone in this, and that many Renaissance painters harnessed the laws of optics to help achieve the realism seen in their works.

It is fair to say that art and physics do indeed have a complicated relationship, and it is not always obvious where the connections between the two fields of study lie. William Blake asserted that ‘art is the tree of life [and] science is the tree of death’; a distinctly exclusive take on the relationship between the two disciplines.

Taking a different approach, Antoni Gaudí mused that ‘nothing is art if it does not come from nature.’ Personally, I am a Gaudí-an. I was once told ‘physics is just fancy maths, which is just fancy philosophy, which is just fancy art’. Let artists and physicists alike unite in acknowledgement of their common traits and continue to be exactly that—fancy.


Can physicists and artists ever reconcile their differences? Give your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @EpigramArts @helenarayhay

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