Strange Bedfellows: Exhibition Celebrates Physics, Arts

Release Date: May 5, 2006 This content is archived.


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Reinhard Reitzenstein's bronze "Atom Corral" visually depicts the electron probability cloud for a giant, two-atom rubidium molecule.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the lobby of a nondescript brick building on the University at Buffalo North (Amherst) Campus, a unique marriage of sorts is taking place through a new "Physics and Arts Exhibition."

Housed in Fronczak Hall, the home of the UB Department of Physics, this permanent exhibition, which is free and open to the public, uses visual arts and interactive displays to encourage nonscientists to understand and celebrate the discipline of physics in a non-intimidating and entertaining way.

"A physics exhibition that uses art is a formidable vehicle to make this 'hard science' more accessible and less intimidating to wider audiences," said Doreen Wackeroth, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of physics and a member of the team that created the exhibition.

"To help demystify physics and to underscore its omniprescence in our modern world, we are establishing this permanent, interactive 'Physics and Arts Exhibition' at UB," she said.

Several original works of art were created for the exhibition.

The "Tachyonic Antitelephone" is a Dadaist sculpture, built by Gary Nickard, UB assistant professor of visual arts and media study.

Nickard says the sculpture pays homage to a thought experiment devised by astrophysicist Gregory Benford, who described an "anti-telephone" made out of theoretical subatomic particles with no mass -- tachyons -- which travel faster than the speed of light and, by definition, travel backward in time.

Nickard explains: "If you made a call on this phone, Benford said, your message would travel backward so fast as to precede the call itself, thus violating causality and proving the principle of special relativity false. Your message would only 'get through' so to speak, if you didn't make the call, an apparent incongruity that recalls the 'logic' of the Dadaist artists, whose art touted convention by being discordant and unseemly."

In addition, Nickard will exhibit two working physics instruments that also are works of art. One is an electron accelerator operating with the power of 400,000 electron volts. The accelerator's tube consists of alternate rings of aluminum and high molecular density plastic. The electrons produced can hit a solid object (they're like bullets) or they can enter an attached cloud chamber in which each leaves a vapor trail in the alcohol vapor of the chamber -- where these sub-atomic particles can be "seen."

The second machine is a cosmic-ray spark chamber, constructed of a large bell jar with aluminum plates, each of which has a 7,000-volt positive or negative charge. Helium and neon are pumped into the bell jar and when muons produced by cosmic rays that come from deep space -- from black holes or exploding stars -- travel through the spark chamber, the neon and helium will become ionized and conduct electricity resulting in a bolt of lightening inside the bell jar.

The bronze "Atom Corral" by Reinhard Reitzenstein, UB assistant professor of visual studies, took several months of casting to produce. It is a dramatic, abstract three-dimensional replica of an "atom corral," which is a visualization of the electron probability cloud for a giant two-atom rubidium molecule.

Other items featured include:

-- A Foucault Pendulum, named after the French physicist Jean-Bernard-Leon Foucault. It is the only instrument that can demonstrate without access to the sky that the earth is rotating. The weight or "bob" at the bottom of this pendulum was designed by Reinhard Reitzenstein, UB assistant professor of visual studies, in the shape of an electron orbital. It takes about 35 hours to oscillate in a complete circle.

-- Display cases containing historic scientific instruments, including a hand-cranked generator and a spectrometer that lets spectators attempt to identify gases

-- A camera obscura ("dark room") inside a booth where spectators enter and watch inverted images result from whatever they put in front of the pinhole

-- Murals by Reitzenstein, Nickard and Renee Ruffino, adjunct professor of communication design and director of creative design, College of Arts and Sciences,

Displays that will be added to the exhibition during the coming months will allow spectators to create standing waves, watch a laser display, simulate the effects of general relativity on a computer, observe cosmic rays as they pass through a detector and listen to radio signals from Jupiter.

High school students participating this summer in the physics department's first Physics & Arts Summer Institute also will contribute to the exhibition.

Information about the exhibition and photographs documenting the creation of the installations can be found at

The "Physics and Arts Exhibition" in the UB Department of Physics is a team effort between professors and students in the Department of Physics and the Department of Visual Studies, both in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, and staff in the college's machine shop.

Other UB physicists who participated in developing the exhibition are: Ulrich Baur, professor; John Cerne, assistant professor; Andrea Markelz, associate professor, and Michael Ram, professor.

Sponsors include the Office of the Dean in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, Ohmcraft,, the American Physics Society, Dr. and Mrs. Ashok Kaveeshwar and other physics alumni.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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