Dance-Physics Collaboration at Yale

We found a great example of another art-science collaboration being conducted at Yale University that resonates strongly with our goals.  Emily Coates (Dance) and Sarah Demers (Physics) have performed an exploration of the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson, the last particle of the standard model.  Collaboratively they have examined the gestures physicists use to describe the Higgs, developed aesthetic compositions from these, and reflected on how these compositions feeds back into the imaginations of scientists as they look to the next big problem in particle physics (which is likely to be the hypothetical dark matter particle).  Emily and Sarah have also taught a class, “The Physics of Dance“, and a book based on the course is in preparation

You can learn more about their project, Discovering the Higgs through Physics, Dance and Photography, at the Reintegrate website and the youtube video below.


The Dance of Physics: Developing a Conceptual Language for Physics Through Physical Movement

As someone who teaches basic mechanics to hundreds of college students each year, I see again and again the frustration many students have in understanding and manipulating the symbolic constructions we use to describe motion, forces, particles, etc.  Beside standard mathematical notation (which is already challenging for many), the symbolic representation of physical quantities includes letters from both Latin and Greek alphabets, some of which are obvious to an English speaker (e.g., m for mass, F for force) and some of which are not (e.g., p for momentum, µ for the coefficient of friction), and none of which may be clear to someone accustomed to an Arabic or Chinese alphabet or spells mass as khối lượng (as the Vietnamese do).  There is also a fair deal of redundancy (e.g., g is used for both the surface gravity on Earth and for the mass unit of grams) that can lead to confusion. Most importantly, decoding this symbology draws mental energy away from understanding the underlying concepts, leading to the strange situation in which we end up teaching “concepts” and “problem solving” as distinct activities.  It is no wonder that most students decide Physics is just too hard.

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Genetic Cage Scores

As we are preparing possible project ideas for our class next Spring, I had a chance to explore a simple Cage score (after John Cage) using as a driver not chance but genetic code.  Gene sequencing has exploded in the past few decades thanks to advancements in technologies and techniques, creating an entire industry (with occasionally dubious aims).  The pace of this advancement is remarkable:  the Human Genome Project took 13 years to construct a full sequence of the human genetic code from 1990-2003, at a cost of $3 billion; the same sequencing can now be done in 1 day for $1000.

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The Space of Now

space-of-now-varies-by-perceptual-modeThe other night I was having dinner with my wife and my neighbor, discussing the concept of “living in the now”. Bah! My cold physicist brain immediately dismissed such new age nonsense.  We cannot possibly live in the “now” because all of the sensory input of our surroundings comes from the past, not the present. Information travels at a finite speed, be it via light (300,000 kilometers per second, or roughly 1 foot per nanosecond1), sound (340 meters per second, or about 1 foot per millisecond 1), or someone’s very strong perfume (about 3 millimeters in an hour if it is simply diffusion, but nearly instantaneous if you are on a plane). Looking at my wife, I was seeing her as she appeared 3 nanoseconds in the past; listening to my neighbor, I heard a story she told 3 milliseconds ago; and the full moon bearing down on us was merely a mirage from the distant past – all of 1 second ago. My experience at that dinner table was a hodge-podge of the asynchronous past.

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Astronomical Synesthesia


Radio image of the Crab Nebula: an example of astronomical information that can be neither seen nor heard directly

The image to the left is a radio picture of the Crab Nebula, the debris field from a massive supernova explosion that was recorded by astronomers in 1054 AD. These data come from 11 hours of observations made by a large array of metal dishes called, uncreatively, the Very Large Array. In this image, we see the structure of the debris as it streams away from the explosion site at 1000 kilometers per second, energized by radiation and winds coming from the remnant of the long-dead star, a spinning ball of neutrons 10 km wide and more massive than our Sun.

Except, we don’t actually see anything.

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Scale sizes of planets

We’re often talking about notions of scale: human and solar sizes, time-scale, ranges-of-experience, light-seconds vs. light-years. As we imagine a system of observation and performance, it’s exciting to consider the notion of a planet-sized planetarium.

Something we’ve been kicking around lately is the idea performances/observations/actions/productions which more deliberately engage the idea of “solar scale.” I was suddenly reminded of artist Linda Montano’s 7 Years of Living Art performances, in which Montano performs/wears/lives a color for seven respective years. Montano encourages us to think about performances that transcend ordinary notions of “performance time.”

Another example of “planetary scale” thinking can be found in the Long Now Project.

“The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years. ”


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