“Uncertainty”: A Science Art Exhibit in Pasadena, CA

Since moving to the Los Angeles area, I’ve been constantly overwhelmed with how much stuff there is to do, and am regularly torn between coinciding events. However, one event I knew I could not miss was the opening of the Uncertainty art exhibit at the Williamson Gallery of the Pasadena ArtCenter College of Design. Exhibit description:

UNCERTAINTY is the latest in a series of exhibitions exploring the intersection of science and art at ArtCenter’s Williamson Gallery. Nine installations authored by artists and scientists have been assembled for an exhibition that ponders the edges of knowledge and perception, and explores the poetics of data visualization.

The opening night featured two main events:

  • A lecture by the artist-slash-Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University: Edward Tufte
  • A wine reception and gallery viewing

It was my first time visiting the Hillside Campus ArtCenter College of Design, and I was quite impressed. To get to the lecture hall, visitors had to pass through long hallways flanked by classrooms. Because these classrooms had giant windows, passersby could observe the art students hard at work on their projects, which was kind of like an art exhibit all in itself. There were some students in metal shop, some doing woodworking, others painting, and many on computers doing graphic design. It revived this compulsion that I sometimes feel (though don’t we all?) to drop everything and live that idealized artist’s life. But then I remember that I get to be a scientist, and that’s pretty cool too.

The scientific artwork in the gallery was stunning. This essay by the Williamson Gallery director Stephen Nowlin details the themes underlying the Uncertainty exhibit and introduces the featured artists. Here are exerpts describing some of the artists and their installations:

  • Jonathan Corum is an artist, data visualizer, and science graphics editor at The New York Times. His projects range from creating images of black hole collisions and elusive gravitational waves, to visually explaining the optics of an Einstein Cross–the phenomenon of double or even quadruple vision when light bends through a lens created by galaxies and other massive space objects.”
  • Lia Halloran is an L.A.-based artist whose work migrates between the terrains of art, science and culture, and her project Deep Sky Companion is a series of ink paintings and solar contact prints based on the work of Charles Messier—the 18th-century French astronomer who made a life’s work of observing uncertain, fuzzy space objects.”
  • “University of Notre Dame physicist and software scientist Thomas McCauley, who is part of CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) team, made a mesmerizing data visualization of the physically tiny yet humanly monumental Higgs particle that shook the scientific world by quietly smashing-up at close to the speed of light. McCauley’s video reports data, yet is hauntingly symbolic of the cosmic proportions to which the human mind and ingenuity has reached with the Higgs confirmation.”
  • “A group of artists and scientists assembled and called themselves The Einstein Collective, with the mission to help one another chronicle a few moments in the life and mysteries of one of those formidable cosmic sinkholes [supermassive black holes]. The resulting animations of the installation Black (W)hole exert both an intellectual and emotional gravity on the spectator, spawning a sense of awe tinged with uncertainty over the ultimate fate of a universe torqued into devouring itself, and yet admiration for the human brain’s impossibly oversized ability to acquire massive knowledge by using such a tiny colony of living cells.”

One of my favorite installations was the wall of Feynman diagram sculptures by the guest lecturer Edward Tufte. I like Wikipedia’s explanation of these diagrams: “Feynman diagrams are pictorial representations of mathematical equations describing the behavior of subatomic particles.” These diagrams are of course named after their inventor, Richard Feynman, who first introduced them in 1948. On his website, Tufte emphasizes that the sculptures are made of “stainless steel and air,” to remind viewers that the empty space in a sculpture is part of the art.

Sculptures of Feynman diagrams by Edward Tufte. See more at Tufte's website.

Sculptures of Feynman diagrams by Edward Tufte, Andy Conklin, and Brad MacDougall.

Stephen Nowlin’s essay ends with a quote from Richard Feynman that embodies the theme underlying the Uncertainty exhibit:

“You see … I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything…” — Richard Feynman

If you’re not really into art, but you’re into science, you might want to make the trip to the ArtCenter just to see Nobel Laureate Physicist Richard Feynman’s restored ’75 Dodge van covered with Feynman Diagrams, which will be on display at the ArtCenter through Sunday, Oct. 23.

Richard Feynman's Dodge Tradesman Maxivan, customized with Feynman diagrams. Photo from the ArtCenter's instagram (artcenteredu): https://www.instagram.com/p/BLzZ8rIDPln/

Richard Feynman’s restored ’75 Dodge Tradesman Maxivan, customized with Feynman diagrams.
Photo from the ArtCenter’s instagram (artcenteredu).

The next thing on my for-fun to-do list? “Double Data: Typography and Data Visualization“: a science-art exhibit at the ArtCenter’s South Campus that just opened on Oct. 21. Description:

Double Data is drawn from a broad range of subjects—from architecture to linguistics, from pop culture to public policy, from Dr. Seuss to Wikileaks. Some visualizations seek to provide a platform for political discourse, while others search for patterns that have yet to be made visible. Double Data will feature interactive installations, data-driven sculpture, music, poetry and large-scale prints.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, I strongly recommend checking out these exhibits. As always, if you know of any other cool science-art events ongoing or coming soon, please email me or share in the comments!

The photo of Edward Tufte’s Feynman diagram sculptures was used with the artist’s permission. To see more of Tufte’s work, visit his website.

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