The conceptual worlds of physics have long inspired artists and thinkers across disciplines. Anna Starkey explores how different approaches to visualizing physics can open up the way that society thinks and feels about physics as an imaginative human endeavour
Look up the word “physics” on Google Images, and what you see may surprise you. If, like me, you were expecting to mostly see photos of Albert Einstein and atomic diagrams, you may be somewhat puzzled to find the top search page dominated by a rather different aesthetic – photos and illustrations of chalkboards covered in equations and diagrams. A similar search for “biology” mostly shows a page of DNA helixes, while “chemistry” rather expectedly throws up lots of test tubes. Search for the word “art” instead and one of the first images to pop up is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Painted in 1889, it is still one of the most famous depictions of the night sky.
Looking up these terms and the related images on Google gives us a quick insight into the visual trends carrying an idea at a particular time and place. Indeed, it can give us a pictorial sense of how other people perceive something, beyond our own frames of reference. When physicists make notes on a chalkboard, it is usually to work through an idea or devise a solution, and it is most often done while communicating with peers or students fluent in the same language of mathematics. So given that the visual detail won’t mean much to most people, it’s fascinating that the low-tech, equation-filled chalkboard is so prominent as a visualization of physics in the public sphere.
A powerful argument for the enduring visual power of the chalkboard is found in a work by Turner Prize nominated, multidisciplinary artist Goshka Macuga. In 2018, among other work, Macuga curated nine chalkboards by contemporary physicists in her installation called Untitled (see above). The language of mathematics, specifically equations, “supposedly has the capacity to describe things in a more truthful and universal way than any other language we use to communicate with one another”, says Macuga. “This has always been a very seductive concept to me.” As an artist, she has met many scientists over the years through her art projects. When she’s had the chance to include their written ideas in her work, she describes it as “an honour and a great joy”.
For Macuga, the chalkboards function as artefacts – they represent and question the ways in which we categorize knowledge in different fields of research. “The information embedded in [them] represent a subjective approach in each individual gesture, but once contextualized with each other, open up a possibility of greater narrative,” she says. “The medium of chalk on board is timeless, and very intimate in comparison to other ways we use to register our thoughts and ideas nowadays, not only in the arts but also in science, making them even more precious and unique.”
Online, where the iconography of “physics” is seemingly a board covered in equations, there may be something to bring with us from this artistic context – that this kind of imagery finds meaning and connections with audiences in telling the story of the human process within physics.
In many ways, visual depictions transcend the need for an academic understanding of science, to simply be inspired by the topic at hand. This in turn allows physics to be more meaningfully encountered by the public. Exploring the more complex ideas in physics through visual means spills over in the way that artist Shanthi Chandrasekar talks about her work. “Whatever I have wanted to learn, I do it through art. Because this is my easiest medium, when I start drawing, or building using my hands, then the communication is so much more fruitful.”
Visual depictions transcend the need for an academic understanding of science, to simply be inspired by the topic at hand – and this in turn allows physics to be more meaningfully encountered by the public
In her work Multiverse (see below), she created handmade paper universes, presenting a 3D layering of ideas in physics, interwoven with the cosmic philosophies from sacred Sanskrit verse. Inspired by inflationary theory and the Hindu goddess Aneka Koti Brahmanda Janani who births multiple universes, Chandrasekar’s process of making these eggshell remnants of universes allowed her to explore conceptual questions. “What if I change the rules and the laws of physics in all these eggshell universes? What would happen if they had different dimensions, or if the cosmological constant changed in that part of the universe? And these questions kept coming. I would add my take on it – with very simple lines of all the various possibilities.”
I’m struck by how Chandrasekar’s work manages to capture a sense of the theory of multiverses, the beauty in the infinite possible differences, as well as the fragility of our ability to comprehend these ideas. The visualization of these ideas is about the feeling of that cosmic big picture rather than didactic detail, something Chandrasekar thinks deeply about. “I wasn’t sure if it’s scientific enough, because I brought culture, I brought a traditional art form into it. And I was not sure how scientists would respond to that.” As it turned out, the answer to that question is very positively. Multiverse has been presented at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the US, and internationally.
Working in science communication over many years – and, most recently, curating experiences at the intersection of art and science at We The Curious, a science centre in Bristol, UK – I’ve often heard concern from scientists that artists will get the science “wrong”. But this assumes that artistic imagery and exploration are somehow mainly in service to science, to provide accurate explanations. Where does that leave the space for people to simply have access to a feeling of wonder, curiosity and delight in the ineffability of the edges of physics? There’s a vital place for this alongside teaching and more literal data visualizations or illustrations of ideas in physics.
“Art isn’t about illustration. Art is where you see something from a different perspective, a different angle, it’s a new way of seeing.” Back in 2007 UK artist duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt – who jointly go by the name “Semiconductor” – were on a fellowship at NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratories at the University of California, Berkeley, where they talked to physicists studying magnetic fields on Earth and other planets. The two artists noticed the creativity of language that physicists had to employ in explaining their work, as they were exploring the raw planetary data and plot lines representing the magnetic fields. “They’re all interpretations of magnetic fields. And what do they really look like when you bring them all together?”
The visual, and audio, answer to that question became a short film titled Magnetic Movie (see movie still below). Set in the laboratory, it combines recordings of physicists talking about their work, with very low frequency recordings of the Earth’s magnetosphere, along with animated field lines inspired by the data. The resulting work is mesmerizing. So much so that some people watching it in the early days of YouTube weren’t sure whether it was a film of real physics phenomena and experiments in motion or simply special effects. Semiconductor don’t encounter those reactions anymore, perhaps as audiences have become used to digital visualizations in all areas of our lives. “In our work, a lot of the time we’re dealing with phenomena that exist beyond our perceptions of physical scales or timescales. And so we always bring things down to a human scale, so we can experience them directly,” say the duo. “We’re giving people the confidence to ask questions of science. Science is a constantly evolving question. And people aren’t taught that; nearly everybody just assumes science is the answer.”
Most of the time, scientists control the images chosen to represent their work, as they make aesthetic visual choices about their data. Semiconductor point to the Hubble Space Telescope. The stunning images the public have seen are all manufactured in some sense, with false colouring applied and aesthetic choices being made in selecting a few for publication. “ And of course, [the pictures] give no understanding of how that image is being captured, or what it really looks like out there. In a way science has created its own myths.”
This poses an interesting question for visualizing physics. So often, physics is presented to audiences via the polished end product, a result, a perfect image. And yet, many artists would prefer to explore the raw data, before the algorithms have been applied to filter out the noise. When the BBC became interested in another Semiconductor project, for the TV series Wonders of the Solar System, it was attracted to the work the pair had done in visualizing raw, noisier data. “When you can see all these artefacts and all the noise, that tells you something about the capturing process, and we were really interested in that,” say Jarman and Gerhardt. Now, the TV programme makers often go a step deeper into the process of physics, asking for raw data to generate their visuals, instead of only the final, glossy images. “Audiences have such a different journey when they’re engaging with noise, which is what we deal with every day. They have more of a connection to it, more of an understanding, so they don’t feel so removed from science.”
Playing with imperfections in the observing process was what led astrophotographer Steve Brown to produce a compelling visualization of the many colours of the star Sirius. “I wanted to create an image that presented the twinkling of Sirius frozen in time. The best way of doing this, I realized, was video.” After experimenting with different camera settings, Brown worked out that the best way of capturing the rapid scintillations in starlight over a short period of time was to deliberately capture the star out of focus.
“Choosing the best frames from the video, I was amazed at the sheer variety of colours captured with this method. Initially, I began to group the colours together into a kind of spectrum montage, but I didn’t think this looked particularly aesthetically pleasing.” So he chose a simple grid arrangement and in doing so, created a visualization of a physics phenomenon that’s now been featured in art books and photography competitions (see above). “Hopefully, the way I have presented the image inspires the viewer to think about why stars twinkle and the science behind it, while also appreciating the beauty to be found in the night sky.”
Why visuals matter
Our brains are wired to respond to images – we process them tens of thousands of times faster than we do words, and we recall images more readily than text. As social media develops to be increasingly visual, with the rise of apps such as TikTok and Instagram, and with images flying around the world in seconds, what things look like really matters. Visualizations of ideas and phenomena, whether they are direct representations or abstracted forms, communicate across disciplines – but they can also wield an unconscious power within disciplines, changing them for the better.
In her breakthrough book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, economist Kate Raworth set out to change the world – to communicate a new economic model for the future, an alternative to the endless unsustainable growth that’s breaking society and the environment. She realized that to change our view of economics and the practice of economics itself, she needed to change how it’s visualized.
In replacing the old exponential GDP growth curves and circular-flow-of-income diagrams with a visual for regenerative, sustainable economics; her “Doughnut model” has attracted global attention (see left). “Many people told me that the Doughnut made visible the way that they had always thought about sustainable development, they had just never seen it drawn before,” writes Raworth. She adds that her new model “helped to reinvigorate old debates and instigate new ones, while offering a positive vision of an economic future worth striving for. Visual frames, it gradually dawned on me, matter just as much as verbal ones.”
Might there be longstanding graphs and diagrams in our high school physics textbooks that are keeping us unhelpfully stuck within old paradigms? Sometimes a new visualization opens up new ways of thinking about things within physics. Indeed, when physicist Richard Feynman introduced his eponymous diagrams, they became a powerful tool for calculating probabilities of the outcomes of processes in particle physics. If more physics textbooks included visualizations from the world of art – instead of the dated black-and-white diagrams most students are used to seeing – perhaps it would better suit those who learn visually.
Let’s not slip towards instrumentalizing visualizations of physics, however. When asking what physics looks like, the question is really how these images make people feel around ideas in physics; how a visualization of something can reinforce or challenge perceptions, generate questions or simply express something beyond words. Physics and art both play at the edges of the sublime, the ineffable, and can also ground us in our collective, daily human experience.
In some ways, physics has been absorbed into the popular consciousness, as part of our visual cultures – from chalkboards and Hubble images, to the conceptual exchanges between Einstein and Pablo Picasso, to contemporary collaborations between artists and physicists at laboratories such as CERN. Indeed, it’s likely that sketches of spiral galaxies informed the recognizable swirls in Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (see below). The artist may have encountered one of the earliest sketches of spiral nebulae in Camille Flammarion’s popular astronomy books of the 1870s and 1880s. These would have included the Earl of Rosse’s sketches of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), which he discovered through his telescope in 1845.
What does physics look like? That’s up to you, to all of us. Does it matter? The more people who can connect to physics, the more ideas flow between disciplines, the better the outcome for science and society.
All art is, of course, subjective, and different visualizations will resonate with different people. Some – such as Rutherford’s representation of the atom – are more enduring than others. When I wonder what imagery of physics might dominate in 10 years’ time, I can only hope it reflects the intensely imaginative and evocative visual world of physics and the conceptual landscapes it explores.