Art and Quantum Physics

Quantum Waves

Feature image: Quantum Waves III

Art and quantum physics - a sight of the unseen

The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.

Werner Heisenberg

What are our universe’s fundamental building blocks, and how do they work?

This is one of the many questions quantum physicists dedicate their lives to answering, exploring the unknown and the theoretical to find those answers. Understanding quantum physics in its entirety is a challenging feat. However, that does not mean the field is secretive about their findings. In fact, some of the answers we seek about this knowledge don’t lie within the walls of a laboratory but rather the canvas.

Transport III
Transport III

It studies the smallest particles in the universe, a world of multiple possibilities. Art inspired by quantum physics is inspired by painting particles and sculpting way forms by opening us up to new dimensions. It is a new lens through which to experience the world and the universe because they are interconnected—entangled—no matter the distance. 

Quantum Physics: The History and the Basics

Quantum Physics focuses on the behavior of particles that exist in discrete energy shapes instead of continuous ones. Particles are studied to be constantly entangled, influencing one another’s state, momentum, and position. Quantum matter is the subject of study. The Latin definition for quantum means “how much.” Early understandings of quantum physics were that energy was discharged in quantifiable packets or quanta.

Transport II
Transport II

Based on this, Heisenberg developed the Uncertainty Principle in 1927. The Uncertainty Principle states that you cannot simultaneously know a particle’s speed and position. The more time you spend trying to understand one, the less accurate your understanding of the other will be.

In a way, this sets arts and physics on a level playing field. It feels like a scientific approach to how artists understood impressionism in the 1800s. The entire movement was focused on capturing the fleeting moment; they were more concerned with capturing a given point in time simply as it was instead of focusing on photorealistic detail. Impressionists could not focus on realism and emotion in their technique; the longer they spent overcomplicating a figure, the more their environment changed.

Analyzed Collision
Analyzed Collision

Seeing the Unseen

This all seems complicated to wrap our heads around. However, artists are committed to bridging the gap of understanding between physicists and the public by allowing us to see the unseen. In a way, Quantum physics and the fine arts are one and the same—they both bring sight to the unseen. Quantum Art challenges our perceptions of reality as we know it. It focuses on the human impulse to impose order onto chaos, forcing our desire for the universe’s inner workings to be as linear as time and flipping it on its head. 

An example of an artist who draws inspiration from quantum physics is Julian Voss-Andae. He created a sculpture that disappears depending on the angle from which it is perceived. The sculptures contain figures and faces. However, as you move to view it from another angle, the sculpture seems to disappear. This idea stems from the uncertainty principle by highlighting how we observe something altering its physical reality. 

Lex Kemper

I spoke with Lex Kemper, a physics professor at NC State University, to better understand this bridge between physicists and broader audiences.

Kemper received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Florida in 2010. In 2018, he received an NSF CAREER award to study the single- and two-particle properties of light-induced phases in two-dimensional materials. 

Quantum Waves III
Quantum Waves III

When collaborating on a project with the design college, Kemper was inspired by their process. He aspired to handle criticisms like a designer who would effortlessly build on feedback to transform a project into a work of art.

Kemper weighs the importance of setting a context and providing balanced perspectives in the conversation. Kemper highlighted the challenges of communicating quantum mechanics and computing to broader audiences. Collaborating with scientists, artists, and educators is vital to strengthening public understanding of quantum mechanics through interdisciplinary approaches. 

Encompassing Disciplines: Eric J. Heller

Some physicists further elevate our understanding of the discipline by elevating the arts. Eric J. Heller is a professor of Physics and an Abbot and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University. He is also an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, the American Physical Society, and the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Eric J. Heller
Eric J. Heller

His artwork examines the connections between art and science, telling stories of both his own career and the progress of science in his decades of dedication to his craft. What makes his work so distinct are the layers of secrets within his works. All of his work derives from his own research, offering a glimpse into his life and career as a scientist dating back to when he started doing this at Los Alamos Labs in the 80s. As he continued to create these works, colleagues approached him to include his works in exhibits at the Compton Gallery at MIT. Now, his works have been shown across the world.

“I feel like an honest artist who has a reason to paint,” Heller said.

Artwork by Heller, from his essay and portfolio, "Art and the Quantum Moment"
Artwork by Heller, from his essay and portfolio, "Art and the Quantum Moment"

Heller suggested the emphasis on connecting scientists and artists may be misplaced. Instead, scientists should focus on creating for the public to squash the notion that the arts and sciences are distinct in a hierarchical structure.

“Everybody in my group knows we’re extremely visual and we make visual discoveries all the time. Some of these artworks are based on physical discoveries we made,” Heller said.

For example, Eric Heller’s Monolith (2000) visually represents quantum waves, emphasizing quantum chaos. The piece was generated by depicting the particles’ trajectory on a flat surface and rendering it from a 3D perspective to emphasize the points where the particles’ paths overlap. This piece is distinct because its reference data is still ongoing; there simply had to be a stopping place to capture an image, the sole reference moment we can fathom in the field. As the trajectories of these particles continue, they will keep overlapping. However, constant data collection will not result in these particles flattening or smoothing out the page.

The entangled world of art and quantum physics continues to astonish the masses. Artists and physicists turn to it to create thought-provoking pieces on the unknowns of our universe. Quantum art offers a re-evaluation of our understanding of reality. It invites you to explore realism and dimensions you never imagined as our world’s brightest and most creative minds continue to discover more secrets of our universe.

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