At the intersection between art and physics

Håkan Snellman

Department of Theoretical Physics
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

© H. Snellman, 1997. Text for a catalogue from Artfactory Productions 1997.

The word physics derives from the Greek word "physis"= nature. Thus physics is a kind of description of nature. Or rather a description of the nature of reality. Art also describes the nature of reality.
- That doesn't necessarily mean that they have much in common, does it?
- No, but perhaps they nevertheless do have something that unites them, deep down beneath the surface of what seems to be apart.
- Then, what are their similarities and what are their differences?
- Their similarities relate to that they both offer new points of view on the nature of reality. The differences in that their aims are different, and hence their criteria of what is a valid description. Ultimately physics always relate to experiment and observation, and deals with what is repeatable. Physics seeks power over nature. Its criteria for knowledge codifies this power.
Art wants to bring out relations that until then have been concealed. It appeals to your intuitive faculty: look and see!
Both physics and art tries to wake us up by offering new ways of seeing. Mechanical seeing puts us asleep. When we do not see we are not fully alive. A physical theory that reveals new relationships is, like a work of art that brings new relationships forward, a means to awaken us to life again. When we get the creeps, and we truly see for the first time, we come to life again. An example is provided for by Johannes Kepler as he describes his feelings when he got the idea of the platonic solids for the description of planetary orbits: "The pleasure I experienced at my discovery, I will never be able to describe in words."
As time goes by, also this new way of seeing turns into a habit, and we must seek new ways of seeing again. In this lies the truly creative element in both art and physics.

- What about the methods? Are there unifying points or unabridgeable distances?
- One unifying point can be found in the word "cosmos". Its meaning connects both to "order" and "beauty". By revealing the the order in the micro- and macrocosm we can demonstrate the beauty in the nature of reality.
One way of ordering reality is to use geometrical methods. The geometrical description is fundamental in physics and also visualisable - "anschaulich". Kepler's work in astronomy brought him for example to the platonic solids and the harmony of the spheres. These regular polyhedra - that are displayed in two series at the Artfactory Production exhibition - constitute the concealed pattern that Kepler felt he saw the planetary orbits cut out in space. Later this description was abandoned, but one has recovered a distant relative to the platonic solids in different form, e.g. in the Carbon isotope C60, the "Buckyball", one of the so called "Fullerenes".

After Newton's differential and integral calculus this geometrical description seemed to become abandoned. For Newton, and still more so for Kant, the properties of space were unreachable and was by the latter dispatched to the realm of "synthetic judgments a priori".

Einstein and Minkowski reintroduces the geometrical description in physics, first through the four-dimensional space-time, and later though the curved space-time of general relativity.
- Space and time, says Einstein, must be brought down from the platonic realm where they have dwelt, and become objects for experimental investigation.
Modern physics now carries out the geometrical description of nature at its most basic level in the hypothetical so called "superstrings", that live in a ten-dimensional space of which only the three spatial dimension (and time) are experienced as space. The six other dimensions are so minuscule that they are only experienced as qualities: different forms of charge, in a generalized sense, for the elementary particles.

Here - in geometry - art and physics join hands once more. The presence of geometry in art recurs over and over again, not only in the art of the renaissance, in Islamic art, in cubism etc, not to mention sculpture, but in the exploration of the qualities of space itself, so visible in the intense occupation with so called "installations" in contemporary art.

As an organizing principle geometry is laid down in nature, though not always in a visible way. In the same way it is often hidden in the works of art, yet quietly exerting its power. Sometimes its presence in nature is hard to see: that depends on the scale. Sometimes it is more obvious. When Artfactory Production displays five fur-/feathercoated heads of animals that seem to burst forth from, or perhaps are superimposed on, the geometrical background, a tension is created that ends in the feeling:
- This square, right-angled geometry, what has that to do with the soft fur, or with the glimmering in the eye? Isn't here just a conflict between artificiality and nature displayed, between dead, mathematical idealization and life?
- No, again a lack of ability to see! It is a question of scales. The possibility in nature of producing a fur with undulating hair, or a shimmering bird's feather, lies in a geometrical ordering of the basic structure, all the way down to the molecular level.

The experience of geometry, of form, also depends on the time scale. That the planets pro primo move in orbits and that pro secundo those orbits are elliptical, comes from observations accumulated in time. These orbits are not immediately visible to us. The time scale for eye-sight is too short. In a similar way it is not obvious to us that matter consists of atoms and that these atoms in their turn are composed of electrons and an extremely small nucleus with mostly empty space in between. Also this is a question of long and careful observation, although in this case due to the time scale for eye-sight being too long.


Colour has complementary roles in art and physics. Newton's spectral decomposition of the white light is the foundation of modern optics, whether it is about chromatic aberrations, lasers or holography. Goethe, however, was of the opinion that colour was intimately connected to the experience of the observer, thus of the colour vision of human beings, not only of the frequencies of spectral lines, and came in deep conflict with Newton. For Goethe colour emerges in the interface between light and darkness in a truly alchemical tradition. In the exhibition at Artfactory Production we can find this alternation between different points of view exemplified. Spectral lines seems to appear in the large, heavily geometrised painting with the two circles. The platonic solids, on the other hand, have been coloured in the alchemical spirit, illustrating the four elements plus the fifth - the quintessence. At the same time there is another series of platonic solids in metal where the refraction of light in the surfaces creates the variations in colour. The background colour of the animal heads also adheres to the alchemical tradition. At the same time one can get the impression that it has to do with spectral lines of chemical elements behind the animal heads: in that case alchemical elements - because who ever saw a brown spectral line! It is obviously important here to be tuned in to the right frequency!


It is claimed that Einstein once said that time is the means of God for not having everything happen simultaneously. In a similar way space might exist due to the wish of God not to have everything be on the same spot. There is interspace between the objects that allows us to imagine freedom, that movement is possible, that things not yet having become manifest could appear. In this space each one of us moves in his own personal body-vehicle to explore existence.

In a space vehicle - another one of the exhibited objects from Artfactory Production (or is it maybe an oven, a decorated megalith or some exotic cult object?) - there is created for a short time an artificial microcosm: one vehicle within another vehicle, a small room containing an animal or a human being seeking contact with reality outside its usual living space.

This situation, unfamiliar that it might seem, is still not different in its essence. Fundamentally all of natural science is affected by it: the observer must be compatible with the space he wants to observe, what he sees is affected by the instruments with which he makes the observation, not only optical tubes or microscopes, but ultimately also eyes, ears and other sense organs in a biological body. Whatever we see must be compatible with the fact that it is us who are seeing it. This line of thought acquires its confirmation in manned space missions. From the opinion of Aristotle, that celestial matter was different from earthly matter, we are today convinced that all of the universe is filled with the same kind of matter that we are composed of and that exists here on earth. Here we approach another central point of view of the scientific method: it seeks a unified description behind the multiplicity of phenomena.

Similar conditions probably also hold for art and will also affect art in a fundamental way. Its elements must be compatible with each other. Already from this a context is created. Ultimately it is always the observer, the on-looker, that embodies and affirms this compatibility. Put yourself in front of the "Kaleidoscope" from Artfactory Production - or is it perhaps a "telescope" for seekers? - and turn its cut prism. Before you put the eye to the ocular, the kaleidoscope looks like some curious object mounted on the wall, perhaps an archaic instrument from some now extinct and forgotten science. It is first in the interaction with the observer that the kaleidoscope acquires its further meaning as an instrument for the study of the apparent motion of the stars - in the spirit of alchemy!?


However, behind the conviction in physics of the compatibility between the universe and us, an abyss has during the last decades opened up: there is invisible matter in the universe. This is a type of matter that not only most likely comprises 90% of the total amount of matter in the universe, but furthermore is of a kind we do not yet know of: so called "Dark Matter", since it is not luminous, as are the stars. This dark matter shows up in the rotation curves of spiral galaxies, and in the peculiar motion of clusters of galaxies, i.e. in the journey of our own Milky Way through the Universe.

Perhaps we also in a symbolic way within ourselves contain various forms of "dark matter". The presence of the unconscious fills us with anxiety and might control us much more than we want to think. Here lies an unexplored field for art and for the human consciousness to conquer. Works of art are, like scientific theories, really chips - left-overs on the floor of a workshop - or smoke from an Artfactory - whichever you prefer. The real work takes place within the Factory - or the Laboratory, the place of work - and can only be experienced indirectly. This is also the understanding in alchemy of The Great Work. The true result is therefore neither the smoke nor the chips or left-overs, but the new meaning and understanding that we acquire.

Ultimately the two - physics and art - unite here, in the fact that both, when they are successful, create new meaning for us and thus become truly educative. In physics this meaning leads to quantitative relationships. In art these relationships are primarily qualitative. In this way they complement each other.