My Photo


  • Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "They like us! They really like us!"

    "Explains physics to the layperson and specialist alike with abundant historical and cultural references."
    -- Exploratorium ("10 Cool Sites")

    "... polished and humorous..."
    -- Physics World

    "Takes 1 part pop culture, 1 part science, and mixes vigorously with a shakerful of passion."
    -- Typepad (Featured Blog)

    "In this elegantly written blog, stories about science and technology come to life as effortlessly as everyday chatter about politics, celebrities, and vacations."
    -- Fast Company ("The Top 10 Websites You've Never Heard Of")
Blog powered by Typepad
Bookmark and Share

« the root of the matter | Main | what lies beneath »


Three artists that come to mind are Rosamond Purcell, Arthur Ganson, and Ned Kahn. Purcell's striking photographs capture items in decay. She is strongly interested in natural forms and collaborated several times with Stephen Jay Gould. Arthur Ganson is an artist-in-residence at MIT and builds machines that elaborately do nothing. Ned Kahn was an artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium and builds sculptures that explore chaotic processes.

I recently saw Olaf Eliasson's show at the San Francisco MOMA and his work is often inspired by ideas in math and optics.

Have, by random coincidence, just discovered your truly wonderful, fascinating and packed blog! I loved some of the images - the skate boarder, the droplet photography, ..the hysterical Prius mock ad and I enjoy the way you batter ideas around. The aesthetic versus the pragmatic and practical. I've noticed it more with refernce to desing. When one becomes disabled good design becomes essential and one notices more and more when something is both gorgeous and pleasing as well as useful. Most design in this field is ugly, consescending.
I am not wanting to fill up your comment area but just to say i am thrilled to have found such an intelligent and exciting blog. If OK with you i will link you on mine in the hopes that some of your searing brainpower may by osmosis filter through!
Tanvir (Chimera)

But is it art? A question as old as art itself, and not made any easier by the likes of Marcel Duchamp taking the p*ss. Nowadays the answer appears to be ' It's Art, as long as it sells' c.f. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin (do you have similar mountebanks in the US?). Scientific imagery can be quite as transfixingly and transcendentally beautiful as any equation, and is perhaps more generally accessible. But is it Art? Does it matter? Never mind (as Bertrand Russell's nurse is said to have said.)

Check out Julian Voss-Andreae- I especially like his heme sculpture.

While we're making suggestions: Jonathan Feldschuh is an artist inspired by science, and his website includes a series on the Large Hadron Collider!

very interesting post!

BTW, I find quite "artistic" (or at least "just beautiful") also some recent pics of LHC:

regards, Alex

I like Tony Smith's [ ] series of sculptures inspired by the Fermi surfaces of metals.

There is of course "Fermi" (look down the page)
It is housed just down the road from you Jennifer in Costa Mesa.

But my favorite is "For Dolores/Flowers for the Dead/Flores para los muertos" in Dallas. It's inspiration is the Fermi surface of indium.
I never understood Smith's name for it, but the sculpture is a gobsmackingly perfect redition of the plot from Russian version of Abrikosov's book on metals. Smith - not being a physicist - motivated his work from the fact that he liked the shapes. I also like the shapes.

I should mention that "Fermi" is inspired by the Fermi surface of copper.

"but is it art?"

If you have to ask the answer is always no.

Many thanks for being included in such great company, Jennifer! I need to update my links and keep an eye on some of these stunning artists. Lia Halloran's is gorgeous.

I can't speak for other artists engaged in work based on the sciences, but for myself, I am intrigued by trying to create decipherable visual metaphors in the tradition of Renaissance and Symbolist painters using information from biology, to do so.

This is a personal bias, but much of the post-modernist movement is naval-gazing, paintings about the process of making paintings. That's fine, but to me it seems a shame people would leave behind the tradition of depicting still-life as metaphor. Dali's Corpus Hypercubus comes to mind as a particularly excellent example of blending science into artistic traditions.

A very illuminating and intriguing overview, Jennifer, with many links I need to explore.

A good 19th-Century example of such art is the work of Ernst Haeckel in his collection Arforms In Nature. Haeckel has been taken to task for his flawed views on ontogeny and phylogeny, but he drew marvellous scenes of various life-forms. The details aren't always exact (he tended to arrange tentacles and such in a stylized Art-Deco-ish manner) but many of the plates are visually stunning. You can see them here:

One of my favorites is #8, the Discomedusae. Note that Wikimedia offers high-resolution files of each plate which print out well and are suitable for framing.

Pardon this long comment, but I love this subject and have a lot to say! I was lucky enough to be employed for a few years as a staff scientist at the Exploratorium -- the "Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception" in San Francisco. The Exploratorium had a profound effect on me, in part because of the interweaving of art and science, as implied by its tagline. The museum employed both senior artists and senior scientists and they worked closely together on projects, to ensure that exhibits and other museum creations were both scientifically accurate, and beautiful. One of the senior artists at the Exploratorium once asked the museum scientists, “Could you tell me why you value art and the artists here?” Here’s what I told her: The artists at the Exploratorium tickle my brain. The art exhibits at the Exploratorium, as well as the conversations with artists, have had a tangible effect upon my creativity. My mind was humming in my first months here as I was exposed to new representations of things that I had a tendency to think of in an abstract way. I can’t say that being around artists has taught me to *create* things with an aesthetic appeal, but it certainly has opened my vision to seeing things in a new way and to consider aesthetics as an aim in itself. The art at the Exploratorium also opens me up to wonder. It is easy to get lost in the seriousness of science. When I walked in and saw a new installation, where lighted lightbulbs seem to chase each other with illumination, my mind went a little fizzy and I just stood there and appreciated it. It also reminded me of many things that I know about — neuronal networks, electronic circuitry, persistence of vision. I appreciated it on an aesthetic ground, and it also represented many things in science for me. This is excerpted from a slightly longerw post I wrote on this subject:

Here's a post I wrote ( about Ned Kahn's work (an artist in residence at the Exploratorium, as mentioned above), which focuses in large part on making the invisible visible -- seeing the effects of wind, the movement of air, or water, for example. I had the great fortune to see Ned Kahn speak once, and was struck by his quiet vision -- his predilection for seeing aesthetic possibility in the invisible dynamics of the natural world. His creations definitely tickled my brain.

And here is some gorgeous light painting from the PIE (Playful Invention and Exploration) at the Exploratorium:

And some amazing dynamic "sculptures" made with ferrofluid and strong magnets in a project called "Ebb, Protrude, Flow". You must check these videos out, they're quite stunning, I was completely enraptured with them:

Is it wrong for me to say Gunther von Hagen? Despite whatever human rights violations may have gone on I think the work is interesting. The only thing that really bugs me about it is that years ago I heard about a museum in France that housed similarly preserved corpses made by a long dead French biologist and ghoul, who was even accused of digging up his wife for his "art" projects. I can no longer remember his name but I can't find anything about him on web searches. So, maybe von Hagen bought the corpses of dead Chinese political prisoners, used this "plastination" process that may have been stolen from a dead French biologist, or learned during his time in the SS, and maybe he is involved in some sort of conspiracy involving German war criminals hiding out in South America to erase all information about the French dude from the internet, but you can't deny the work is striking. I do think the LHC is a pretty interesting structure as well. It's largest parts look like pieces of a deathray from a modern Bond film. Plus I've always thought the little lign drawings of particle paths in accelerator collisions were intrinsically beautiful. The way the particles decay in little spiral patterns would have Da Vinci swooning that the Golden Ratio was SO fundamental to nature. But I do think the most obvious, but most intriguing forms of science inspired art are the works of science fiction writers (creative writing is an art too). I've written a poem called "The Speaker" which was inspired by the inherent magic involved in collapsing wave functions through observation. Although I do believe that although most artists are their own worst critics, a poet's his own biggest fan, I'll go ahead and post it:

The Speaker

A hush fell over the rabble
His subtle and soft twitches won them
The shake and the shudder of muscles
And then veins
And then molecules
And then atoms
Down to the quarks and gluey gluons
Crescendo-ed and ebbed to the hum
Of the warm gamma vibration
In that perfect un-stillness every tiny action
Leading to something as huge as a finger pointing
Played out like chess moves
The crowd started playing
Sending off some glorious ordered chaos collisions
Like bowling pins
In their hive core as observers
They fingered him like an organ
"Huwooo," he wheezed
And then all at once they stopped
Stopped the little vibrations of quarks and gluey gluons
And then atoms
And then molecules
And then veins
All the way up to muscles
All just stopped

The French dude to whom you refer is Fragonard. And I am a huge fan of his work. :) Look in my archives for a post entitled "Exquisite Corpses" for a detailed account of his work.... I think I re-posted it in late September/early October of 2007....

"Fragonard", noted. どもうありがとうございます。(thank you very much) That was driving me crazy. I did forget to mention one of my favourite pieces of sci-fi, the Urantia Book ( The fact of the book is that it's based on science that has subsequently been proven wrong, from a psychological case study that probably never happened. The irony is too thick to cut with a chainsaw and on top of that, it's written with such expansive, beauracratic dialouge that by the end of a couple pages the reader is left completely numb, thoughtless and dumbstruck. The real irony is in the fact that through it's thought erasing properties the book actually achieves a first step to enlightenment that it's alleged truths are advertised to provide. After reading a few pages your left so bereft of thought that meditation, or even astral projection, don't seem all that difficult. The sad thing is that some people actually believe in it despite it's incorrect ideas about planetary origin and blatant support of eugenics.

Wouldn't it come in the same category as displaying "found objects" in a gallery? If some driftwood on a plinth can be art ...

For that matter, what about bonsai? What about when a painter uses the way that semi-transparent paint (vermillion green?) over the top of another paint produces a different shade? Does that suddenly count as not art because it involves scientific properties of the media? If so, we can chuck out pretty much any so-called "art" that is an exploration of the media.

Maybe there's a couple of definitions of art in operation. Is art "holding up a mirror to nature"? Is it "communication"? Is it simply the tickling of our aesthetic sense?

Feh. They've been arguing that one back and forth for millennia, and it isn't going to get settled any time soon.

I like pretty pictures. And knowing that it's something real, that reveals something about the physical world make it even better. I might not know much about art, but I know what I like.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.