The Unbreakable Bonds between Physics and The Arts

Feynmann’s doodles

It’s often thought that science and art are polar opposites. At school, the methodical way scientific subjects are taught couldn’t be more different from the teaching of creative subjects. In fact, it was back in school that I remember trying to work out if I was a “scientifically-minded” or “creatively-minded” person, convinced that I couldn’t be both. At A-level, I just couldn’t choose between artistic subjects and scientific subjects, and ended up doing a combination – Art, English and Physics – and I distinctly remember thinking I was probably damaging my career prospects in either area by not just choosing one. However, as I progressed through a 4-year in degree in Physics whilst maintaining a number of creative hobbies, it became more and more clear to me that science and art are intrinsically linked.

Throughout the duration of my Physics degree, I began to realise that having a creative background could actually work in my favour. Away from the structured teaching of physics from school, I found myself presented with challenging open-ended problems, experiment planning and attempting to understand complex physics phenomena, all requiring an ability to think imaginatively and laterally. I was both shocked and relieved to find that typically “creative” traits were equally valuable in a scientific field. And I’m certainly not the first to have found this! Many of the most successful physicists in history were also keen artists. Richard Feynman, most famous for his work on the Manhattan Project and Quantum Electrodynamics, was an enthusiastic amateur artist. He would trade physics lessons in return for art lessons with a professional artist friend, and would often sketch portraits and figures on top of his mathematical workings. Feynman held the strong view that both science and art could be used to understand the beauty of the natural world.

Similarly, art is an important medium when it comes to visualising and understand difficult physics concepts. In recent years, a number of laboratories carrying out cutting-edge science research have invited artists in to help explain their work to the general public. Back in 2015, artistic duo Semiconductor spent 3 months at CERN, learning as much as they could about the particle physics research being undertaken there. Now, the duo have created a huge cylindrical art installation, visually representing the result of a number of proton collisions. The installation, called Halo, shows a projection of the collisions slowed down by a factor of a billion. The hope is that the project is to make pioneering physics research appealing and accessible to the general public.

Personally, I feel lucky to have been able to combine my love of physics with art. In my career as a technical consultant, I get to use creative problem-solving skills and imaginative thinking on a daily basis. My part-time freelance illustration allows me to explore the artistic side of science – illustrating typographic physics equations and trying to convey what I consider to be the real beauty of physics. Physicists are artists both just trying to understand the world in their own way. Despite the obvious differences between the two disciplines, the end goal is the same. This inevitably leads to a number of cross-overs and interconnections between the two, and the opportunity for much more collaboration in the future.

This is a guest post by Lily Clarke, who has recently completed an Masters in Physics at York University and also sells her artwork on etsy. She can be contacted on Twitter here.