74 May/June 2015 Published by the IEEE Computer Society 0272-1716/15/$31.00 © 2015 IEEE
Art on Graphics Editors: Bruce Campbell and Francesca Samsel
Translating the Quantum World to
Human Scale: An Art-Science Collaboration
Karin von Ompteda
Royal College of Art
In the spring of 2014, MA students in the In-formation Experience Design (IED) program at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and physics
PhD students at Imperial College London (ICL) entered into a one-month collaboration with the purpose of translating the concepts and methods of quantum physics to a human scale. Engaging in both high- and low-tech approaches, the students used (for example) balloons, lasers, speakers, lenticular printing, and physical computing to create spatial and experiential installations. The nal result of the PhysicSpace project was an exhibition entitled “Physics Happens in a Dark Place,” held in the basement of London’s historic Shoreditch
As an exemplar, we present here an art-science collaboration that, in its methods and outcome, lies in between didactic museum display, practical visualization, and science-inspired art projects.
Throughout this article, we use the term “art-science collaboration” with the understanding that design practice exists within “the arts,” just as the IED program is based at the Royal College of Art.
Visualization attempts to convey complex information in a comprehensible form,2 and many scienti c visualizations employ the familiar language of pie charts, bar graphs, and scatterplots to visualize data.3,4 Art, by contrast, “presents layers of visual connections, analogies and metaphors, asking the viewer to complete the picture. Unlike visualization, its intent is to raise questions rather than provide answers.”2 The goal of our project was not to create artworks informed or in uenced by science; nor was it about visualizing scienti c data.
Rather, the work endeavored to communicate physics concepts and methods in an engaging manner through spatial and experiential installations.
We are thus engaged in interdisciplinary, practiceled design research that attempts to balance scienti c rigor and computational thinking with art and design practice. Our hope is to make a contribution—through our process and outcomes—to the elds of information visualization, science communication, and art and design. We (the authors) collectively bring to this work extensive experience in information visualization and science communication. Karin von Ompteda, with an academic background in both biology and communication design, has been engaged in data visualization for many years as a designer, researcher,5 and educator (http://tinyurl.com/mupkpb5). Most relevant is the Critical Visualization Workshop that she has run since 2010 in the UK and abroad, in which participants have rendered world statistics as object, environment, and experience.6 Kevin Walker has many years of experience in visualizing science using technology in the museum context, by employing techniques of physical computing.7,8
Visualizing Quantum Physics
For the work we describe here, we secured funding from the Institute of Physics to collaborate with physicists, aiming to render the concepts and methods they use in physical, spatial, multisensory, and experiential forms, resulting in a public exhibition. Visualizing quantum physics is inherently dif cult because of the scale at which it operates, the abstract nature of its formulations, and the confusing, often counterintuitive effects studied.9 Because the eld is so specialized, visualizag3art.indd 74 4/21/15 6:42 PM
IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 75 tions tend to be created by physicists or computer scientists.10–12 Even with such resources, many physics graduate students continue to hold deeprooted misconceptions about the subject, even after one or two years of specialist instruction.13
There are several artists working in the realm of quantum physics. For example, Edward Tufte, best known in the visualization community for his practical books, also creates sculptures based on the wave and particle diagrams of physicist Richard
Feynman.14 Among well-known artists, Grenville
Davey15 and Conrad Shawcross (http://tinyurl.com/ ljjjvn6) create works based on string theory. Victoria Vesna has become well-known in the art-science community, working particularly with nanosystems including quantum interactions.16 Other artists working with physics include Tauba Auerbach (www .taubaauerbach.com) and Mira Schendel.17 Libby
Heaney (http://libbyheaney.co.uk) and Julian VossAndreae (http://julianvossandreae.com) are perhaps unique in having been formally trained in quantum physics before moving on to careers as artists.
For the PhysicSpace project, Walker enlisted the participation of four physics PhD students from
ICL, all of whom had an interest in the art world and expressed a desire to explore new forms of science communication. Each of the physicists displayed an impressive ability to communicate their research, and based on their presentations, groups of RCA students chose one of them to work with.
The RCA students were inspired from the outset; the tools and apparatuses the physicists used, from lasers to waveguides to quantum systems, already provided a material basis for physical and interactive ways to communicate the science.
Von Ompteda next drew up a brief that tasked
RCA students to create projects that would interpret their collaborators’ concepts and/or methods and, in so doing, bring the quantum world to a human scale. An excerpt from the brief elucidates the spirit in which this work was undertaken: “Our ultimate goal will be to bring people into the dreamy, philosophical, analytical, and poetic space of physics; communicate a sense of wonder, awe.”
The RCA-ICL collaborations led to seven installations. We describe three in this article, and presentations about the other four are available on the PhysicSpace webpage at http://spaceprogram .rca.ac.uk.