Science & Art

Tonight I went to a talk by the Physics department’s artist-in-residence Geraldine Cox. I’d somehow never been to one of her talks or exhibits before, though I had seen some of her paintings around Blackett.

I was actually kind of sceptical about her work at the start of the talk, because although I love poetry and plays and novels and all those kind of English-y ‘arty’ things, I am not really comfortable with ‘art’ in general—paintings and sculptures and such. My knowledge of art amounts to knowing that Monet might have been able to see UV light after he had surgery for his cataracts, and that that might have made his later paintings more blue, and also that Turner did some good sea.

I suppose I thought that her work would probably be kind of not very helpful science communication, because it communicated something that most people find a bit impenetrable (physics) into something that people still find incomprehensible (abstract paintings and stuff).

I am glad I went to the talk because it was clear that she absolutely believed the opposite—that art has the potential to enrich a large audience and interest them in some of the principles of physics, and I must say I am now completely converted to this point of view.

Geraldine Cox is an interesting character—she has a physics degree, and invented this job for herself after coming to the conclusion that she wanted to return to physics as the subject of her work, and she seemed really genuine and intelligent.

The talk started with her introducing how the department seemed to her when she first joined, talking about how the research groups are organised around the huge stairwell we have through the centre of Blackett. This might seem like sort of an obvious overview of the department, but it struck me that I have never been given a run-through of the research groups, let alone where they are situated in the building before, not even on an open day. In physics, everything is so compartmentalised, that it is hard to remember that there is a bigger picture, let alone that it is a poetic one, with floors of people involved in ‘democratising the Sun’s energy’ and chambers colder than outer space.

Her focus on the bigger picture, the applications and philosophical implications of physics, remained an important part of the rest of the talk, which included an overview of some of her work. I had no idea of the range of mediums she used—she showed us two videos she had made, one talking about an experiment on the electric-dipole moment of the electron, and another about clips of Physicist’s scribbled notes taken under a microscope. The first film was a nice juxtaposition of the deeply fundamental reasons the experiment was being done and the persistence of the researchers carrying out what can be very mundane and tricky tasks for year after year.

In addition to short videos, she also created a solar powered cinema and oil paintings about reactions in the sun and Fourier analysis to name just two subjects. She mentioned that art is a good teaching aid for children about science and I think that could absolutely be extended to undergraduate level. We spend so much time within our degrees stuck down by the details, trying to understand one step or struggling with one bit of maths, that the actual visceral implications of what we are studying just kind of wash over our heads as kind of footnotes. Taking that step back and trying to represent what physical theories viscerally mean through something completely different like art has to be a good thing—or else what is the point of struggling through in the first place?

My favourite part of her talk came right at the end with a prose piece that she had written to perform at a conference about light and resonance. It reminded me that even the simplest of scientific facts that we might be ‘familiar’ with are completely astounding when we actually think about them. She spoke about the size of the waves of light and invited us to imagine them and their origins and paths, from the huge radio waves washing over us, to the light of the early universe once scattered ceaselessly and then set free to travel everywhere. It was kind of hypnotic to sit there and imagine if we could see in these different lights: infrared ‘around the size of a needle-point and you can feel it on your skin’, that would reveal to us the friction of water falling on a fountain if we could see it. And light is caused by charges moving around—we all know that, but isn’t that amazing when you think about it? You shake a charge, and out falls the light– it doesn’t need poetic language to make it poetic, it just needs language that we are used to, to reveal to us how our perceptions are so, so limited.

It was really so lovely and immersive, that I will definitely have to try and hear the finished thing, as this was just a sort of rehearsal for the conference.

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I am now completely in love with the work of our artist-in-residence!

Science is full of completely incomprehensible things like the age of the universe. I can tell you that number, I can remember it, I can work things out using it and I can write about it, but have I ever sat down and tried to understand just how achingly, tiringly long ago that was?

‘By discovering the world through science we let in the light.’ That was something Geraldine Cox wrote on the side of her solar powered cinema. I think that is completely true—scientific ideas can be insanely profound and beyond our imagination that it seems vital we spend the time trying to understand this ourselves and communicate this celebration of knowledge to others—in any and every way that we can.

Here is her website if you want to see some of her work for yourself 🙂

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