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Interpreting Physics Through Art at Yale University

As an arts academy high school, we’re always fascinated by ways that other educational institutions are interpreting physics through art. After all, we know it’s no easy feat.

So we were especially excited about what happened at Yale University back in the fall of 2019. That’s

when an experimental seminar used art, writing, music, and performance to teach physics to undergraduate students there.

At the end of the seminar, the Yale students – none of whom were artists – created art projects from the concepts they learned. How cool is that?

An Idea in the Making for Years

It all started with Ágnes Mócsy, a theoretical physicist who’d been given the opportunity to do a visiting professorship at Yale. If there is, in fact, an image of a stereotypical theoretical physicist, Mócsy doesn’t fit it. She’s fashion-forward sporting light pink streaks in her hair.

Mócsy showed up at Yale expecting to teach a class on her specialty – nuclear physics. Yet it was a simple serendipitous moment that stirred an idea that had been brewing for years. Upon seeing a flyer promoting the university’s museums and libraries, she was motivated to ask the question – how can I teach physics using Yale’s prestigious art collection?

Yale was on board. “Receiving the green light that fall, she took a class of 15 first-year students on an art-filled journey through the cosmic landscape, the particle zoo, and quantum weirdness,” said Jessica Thomas from Physics magazine.

Mócsy was no stranger to using art to demonstrate physics theories. As a professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she relies on art-based materials to teach physics concepts to artists, architects, and designers. But part of what made this challenge all the more interesting was that the Yale students weren’t artists. And they weren’t scientists either.

Beyond the amazing works on the campus, Mócsy decided to make it even more personal by calling upon sculptors, poets, and musicians who already incorporated physics into their work. They also used their works to stand up for social justice.

In-Depth Discussions

Mócsy felt it important that the students understood how physicists arrive at their conclusions; that physicists, like nearly everyone else, understand things via a process. For instance, they didn’t just stumble upon string theory or “discover” quantum physics.

Brooklyn Bridge by Joseph Stella
Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

In one discussion, they looked at the different ways empty space is depicted in Western versus Eastern art. Much of Western art before a certain time avoided empty space as it was considered “nothing.” They would cover every inch of the canvas with paint or whatever medium they were using. By contrast, Eastern artists (influenced by Eastern thought) recognized empty space as having potential for growth as opposed to just nothingness. Mócsy then went on to connect this idea to the understanding that a vacuum is not “nothing,” but rather “something” teaming with energy and virtual particles.

During another discussion, she focused on how physicists interpret color. She gathered the students around Joseph Stella’s futurist painting, Brooklyn Bridge. The piece contains bold red and blue hues and she used this as a springboard for talking about red- and blue-shifting of light and how color represents degrees of heat.

Her students were also introduced to noteworthy figures such as Tim Otto Roth and Roald Hoffmann. Roth crafts massive installations inspired by physics experiments while Hoffmann is a Nobel-Prize-winning chemist who has also authored several poetry collections.

The Big Show – Interpreting Physics Through Art

Mócsy’s experimental seminar culminated with a student show at the end of the semester. The students had an opportunity to experience what it meant to be an artist as they presented their final projects in a public show at the Yale University Art Gallery. It was something no physics class had ever done before.

The show went far beyond static paintings on a wall. There was a sculpture of colorful balls that, depending on how the viewer looked at it, represented the circular outline of a particle OR the undulating pattern of a wave. Another student’s project was an embroidered T-shirt showing the equations for time dilation and length contraction while she talked about these ideas.

Some students chose performance pieces. Two students chose a synthesized version of Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon, while one of them sang the tune over a baseline and drumbeat that the other student created using plasma and electromagnetic waves collected by NASA.

There was a virtual Q&A with a London-based hip-hop artist who’s known for integrating particle physics themes into his music. He does this to shed light on how underrepresented minorities are in STEM fields.

At one point, the gallery went dark for a few film screenings. One that stood out in particular explored the Voyager mission, relativity, and dark matter as its subjects.

Physicist Artists? Or Artist Physicists?

Well, neither really.

After the close of the show, the students who were neither artists nor scientists went back to their majors. But they certainly saw the world in a different way.

One of the students who was contemplating a degree in computing and the arts chose to use thousands of tiny photos of planets and stars to create a woman’s face for her final project. She was emphasizing the what she called romantic and poetic notion that we are all just stardust.

We couldn’t agree more.

Does Your Stardust Child Thrive When Creating?

Highly creative people have a different way of seeing the world. And it’s a world that often doesn’t understand them.

So if you have a child who shines when creating, then it could be time to consider and arts academy middle school/high school like Arts Academy in the Woods.

Learning math, understanding history, and interpreting physics through art are just a few ways we help kids grasp academics through the arts. So contact us today to take a tour of our school. And prepare for possibility!


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