Scottish artist collaborates with quantum physicists

Gregor Harvie

YOU would expect the Quantum Theory Group at the University of Glasgow to be pushing boundaries in their exploration of science.

But in addition to working with renowned scientific thinkers the group is also collaborating with a Scottish artist, resulting in the creation of two large and dramatic paintings exploring the light universe and the dark universe.

Artist Gregor Harvie approached the Quantum Theory Group (QTG) at the University last Summer asking for help with his current work which explores the nature of the universe.

Gregor, who has a strong scientific as well as artistic background, was invited to attend QTG meetings and struck up a friendship with the group’s eminent head, Prof Stephen Barnett as they talked about physics from their two very different perspectives.

As well as attending group discussions, Gregor has given talks to students and researchers. He recently spoke to the QTG about the work of scientist Lord Kelvin – one of the most prominent figures in the University’s history, and last year he spoke to students from the School of Physics and Astronomy about the relationship between art and physics.

The collaboration resulted in Gregor being commissioned by the University to create an installation of two large paintings to celebrate the bicentenary of Lord Kelvin.

Gregor said: “For me the collaboration has been an immense privilege. As an artist I’m fascinated by physics, and working with the Quantum Theory Group has allowed me to fully embrace the subject, developing ideas which I then explore in my work.

“It has given me the chance to experience physics from the inside and to engage with some of the sharpest scientific minds. I also try to contribute to the subject myself, by asking what if questions and imagining new possibilities.

“There is more common ground between science and art than you might think. Both are a search for patterns, for things that are recognisable and repeatable, and ultimately, progress in either requires a leap of the imagination.”

From the University’s perspective Gregor’s collaboration with the QTG has been beneficial and enriching for both students, researchers and staff.

Prof Stephen Barnett said: “Having Gregor around has been a joy for us. Most of the physicists that I know have an interest in something outside of science and many of us are interested in the arts. Gregor is a regular attender at our group meetings, and he’s very welcome. It’s good for the students and it’s good for the community to see there’s more to intellectual life than sorting out experiments and equations.

“Most of the people we get are more rounded than just being a physicist. They have some sort of artistic outlet, and I’m very keen to encourage that because it enriches the education they’re getting.

“The collaboration is a definite plus for us. Interesting questions come from everywhere. It’s about value, and I think value includes a more rounded education. I think it’s simply a matter of being in an intellectually stimulating environment. And Gregor is part of that.”

This summer the University of Glasgow will celebrate the life and legacy of Lord Kelvin through a series of events and reflections. Kelvin was an eminent mathematical physicist and engineer and was the professor of Natural Philosophy at the University for 53 years. He is most famous for developing the international system of absolute temperature that bears his name.

He was also interested in the structure of space and proposed a specific shape (a doubly curved, truncated octahedron) as the most efficient structure that could fill space.

To celebrate the Kelvin bicentenary, Gregor has used computer modelling to construct thousands of ‘Kelvin cells’, creating an intricate lattice that is the basis of two huge and highly-patterned paintings representing the light and dark universe.

The paintings will be unveiled by the University on June 8, building up to the 200th anniversary of Kelvin’s birth on June 26. The two paintings will confront each other from opposite sides of a specially constructed space in the exhibition area of the Advanced Research Centre.

Explaining his paintings Gregor said: “The painting of the light universe encompasses everything we are familiar with, the universe that we see and feel, the matter and energy that physicists have discovered, measured and classified. The painting of the dark universe in contrast is a mystery. Thought to account for 95% of everything, it comprises dark matter and dark energy, neither of which has ever been detected and about which virtually nothing is known.

“Both paintings explore the idea that the universe is made up of patterns, of repeating forms, interacting with each other, and that the result of those interactions are the things we see and feel.”

The unveiling of the project comes in the same month that Glasgow celebrates both art and science more widely. The Glasgow Science Festival starts on June 6 and Glasgow International (GI) the Festival of Contemporary Art starts a day later on June 7.

Art and science intertwined

Gregor explained: “There has always been a relationship between art and science. They draw on the same cultural and environmental knowledge and have often explored similar ideas.”

Two of the most important developments of the 20th century, Picasso’s cubism (1907) and Einstein’s theory of special relativity (1905), emerged almost simultaneously, both challenging our perception of reality. Although Einstein and Picasso were not aware of one another, they were both influenced by the popular speculation of the time about four-dimensional geometry and both were aware of Poincaré’s book ‘Science and Hypothesis’ (1902) which discussed the relativity of the laws of physics in space. In 1923 Einstein said: “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

Gregor added: “We all get inspiration from fields beyond our own. We absorb influences from the pool of ideas that we swim in, and in turn the ideas we generate feed back into that pool and influence others. Will my paintings directly affect the work of the Quantum Theory Group? That may be fanciful, but could they strike a chord with someone, somewhere? Could they help open someone’s mind to new possibilities? I hope so; that after all is what art is for.”

Images and a short video explaining the project can be viewed and downloaded here.

A more detailed explanation of Gregor’s Kelvin paintings can be seen here.

Gregor’s main website can be seen here.

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