So, I had a great good meeting with my teammate. We had an in-depth discussion on how to bridge the gap between Art and Science from a spatial awareness perspective. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about my partner’s discipline, however, where she and I could relate was how structures related on the molecular and atomic level. This mutual understanding led to a gripping discussion on how to use art and spatial awareness to increase an individual’s conceptual understanding of some math related subject matter.
This discussion also touched on language. If an expert in a given subject area were going to talk about something to a novice, the first barrier would be terminologies. Those who are experts in a subject area would be accustomed to certain phrases and terms that a novice would not. Those words would carry with them context. As humans, we are visual creatures which use imagery in our mind to help gain understanding. Some might say, if we can’t see it in our minds, we may not be able to understand it fully.
There is research that suggests students who have a developed sense of spatial awareness perform better in subjects such as organic chemistry and physics. Consideration of this finding inspires me to think of creative ways of using art to explore mathematical and physical concepts of the Universe in which we live.
An analogy we discussed was the principles of how pointillism works. On the microscopic scale, we see a collection of seemingly randomly placed dots. However, when you start to move back and look at these dots collectively, we see they make up a much greater image. The dots collectively make up a “thing.” The concept of pointillism is common in our Universe. From where our solar system is in the Milky Way Galaxy, we see individual stars at night. However, when we look at Galaxies in the distance, they look like a soft solid collection of spirals and elliptical clouds. However, these are collections of a star with no less spacing between them than that in our Galaxy. It is this perspective that fuels our thoughts of starting with the very basic to broaden understanding such that we can see the larger picture in Science-Art.
As a kid, standing in a friend’s house peering at a wall-mounted world map, I remember looking from top to bottom, left to right, and assuming logically, that Antarctica was not just south of me, but down (below me)– and Greenland was similarly up above. Nearby, the Mississippi River flowed from north of my hometown of St. Louis down to the south, emptying in the Gulf and bearing out my understanding of the world. My conflation of direction with relative gravitational position was an assumption that continued until I found myself arguing incorrectly in school that the Nile flowed south, rather than downhill (to the north). I took my existing foundation of knowledge (north is on the map, the map is vertical, therefore north is up) and applied it to achieve a drastically wrong conclusion. In the moment, I remember the self-consciousness of feeling stupid. I didn’t realize that I had successfully revised my scientific understanding of the world in that moment, that in fact I was engaging in a critical part of science. The upending of my internalization of north as “up” was a small but meaningful breakthrough that created the space for me to approach the world differently. Kent and I discussed the role of STEAM in facilitating similar breakthroughs through multisensory visualization, simplification of theoretical scientific concepts, and by overcoming the impression that scientific knowledge and tools are out of reach, accessible only by those who are gifted in numeracy.
While mulling over these concepts, I decided to try an experiment in understanding particle physics through artistic creation. As a geochemist and a musician, my tepid relationship with physics has always made me feel a little guilty. It’s the same guiltiness that I feel at never having learned how to change the oil in my car, fueled by the nagging memory of a casual comment from a friend to the effect that geochemists generally tend to overlook the importance of physics in relation to their work. The elegance and simplicity of certain high-level concepts in physics is frankly terrifying to me, perhaps because they pose a threat to certain long-held assumptions I am loathe to give up. This kind of stubbornness is drawn from the kind of objectivity that Western science has generally striven for, that encourages a conquering, imperialistic attitude to achieving understanding. In my experience as a student and a teacher, this approach discourages failure, creativity, and reassessment. It takes patience and acute humility to break down these barriers to understanding, especially when confronted with the discomfort of learning something totally unfamiliar. Within this context, and inspired by beautiful Feynman-inspired sculptures by Edward Tufte, I sat down to doodle some Feynman diagrams, using this tutorial as an exercise.
Given a few rules, the process of creating potential interactions between subatomic particles and photons quickly laid bare my preconceptions and exposed a state of cognitive dissonance regarding basic rules of charge balance and conservation of energy. The wiggly lines were very fun to draw. I found myself getting frustrated, then drawing some more, then pausing to imagine and experiment, then googling another concept and repeating the cycle. This iterative process enabled me to learn visually and kinetically, and to gradually establish a framework for understanding theoretical concepts by experimenting with their pictorial expressions. Going forward, I’d like to explore how similarly austere concepts can be destigmatized through visualization.