Illuminated Universe virtual art-science festival inspires creativity, hopefulness, and community

5/18/2021 11:42:34 AM

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan for Illinois Physics

During the festival, Brown University Physics Professor Stephon Alexander improvises on his saxophone, using a musical scale based on three important numbers in black hole science. Alexander was challenged by his longtime friend and colleague Illinois Physics Professor Nico Yunes to create the scale based on the numbers 2, 3, and 6. These numbers multiplied by the mass of a black hole give the radii of (respectively) the black hole's event horizon, its photon sphere, and the outer boundary within which a stable orbit isn't possible due to gravitational pull.
During the festival, Brown University Physics Professor Stephon Alexander improvises on his saxophone, using a musical scale based on three important numbers in black hole science. Alexander was challenged by his longtime friend and colleague Illinois Physics Professor Nico Yunes to create the scale based on the numbers 2, 3, and 6. These numbers multiplied by the mass of a black hole give the radii of (respectively) the black hole's event horizon, its photon sphere, and the outer boundary within which a stable orbit isn't possible due to gravitational pull.

In quantum physics, some particles can stay connected with each other and act on each other across incredibly large distances. Albert Einstein famously theorized entangled particles, calling the phenomenon “spooky action at a distance”—giving it something of an ominous note. But it was a joyous and beautiful action-at-a-distance that recently affected art and science lovers across the country, when they virtually attended the Illuminated Universe art-science festival. For three days at the end of April, virtual-festival goers experienced over twenty presentations and performances, authored by professional scientists and artists alike.  

Sitting at my kitchen table in Brooklyn, slightly hunched over a computer screen, I felt it too. A slight pull at the bottom of my stomach, a smile on its way to becoming laughter. Joy and inspiration connected me to the rest of the festival audience and its performers situated miles away from me.   

The Art Science Festival @ Illinois 2021: The Illuminated Universe explored themes of space flights and cosmic journeys, quantum physics, biological life, and science communication. It presented science-inspired art and scientific research on an equal footing. The event was hosted by Illinois Physics and the Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe (ICASU) on Zoom. It was organized by Illinois Physics Professor Smitha Vishveshwara, Director of Information Management Rebecca Wiltfong, along with colleagues Patrick Snyder, coordinator of undergraduate recruiting, research, and placement, and Taiya Tkachuk, communications intern; professional science illustrator Lindsay Olson; and Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe (ICASU) outreach coordinator Jessica Raley.

Over the course of three days, the festival featured the work of over fifty contributors. It was attended by nearly a hundred people each day. During each of the festival’s four themed sessions, videos, conversation, and live performances took place in rapid succession. In the dialogue that emerged, the boundaries between disciplines blurred, as scientists danced their research, played their data as sound, and discussed favorite pieces of art, challenging their colleagues to do the same—sometimes in real time. Artists, on the other hand, explained particle physics models through textiles, magnetism through dance, and physics fundamentals through comic books.

The Zoom meeting chat box was filled with comments from festival attendees expressing appreciation for what they were seeing and letting their curiosity shine in the questions they posed, inspired by the performances.

“This is a celebration of the human spirit,” said Dean of The Grainger College of Engineering Rashid Bashir in his opening remarks.

Bashir pointed to the strong sense of passion that drives both the arts and the sciences and emphasized that connecting art and science as practices and disciplines empowers individual human connections to thrive as well. Reflecting on a particularly challenging year for the Urbana campus and beyond, he noted the sense of hopefulness and joy that is contained within beautiful art, just as it is in scientific theories that uncover truths about the world around us.

“My colleagues and I hope that this festival will create a stronger community amongst us and will offer light after the difficult times of this past year,” Bashir said before turning the virtual stage over to a performance by Physics Professor and Department Head Matthias Grosse Perdekamp and his musician daughter. Their piece blended visual art, history of technology, particle physics, and vocal performance, all inside of just a few minutes.

From its first moments, the Illuminated Universe offered an uplifting brightness. The virtual format of the festival made it easier for performers to contribute to it from nearly anywhere. During the first day of the festival, Brown University Physics Professor Stephon Alexander performed a jazz improvisation on a saxophone from his apartment in New York, in the middle of a friendly conversation about black holes he was having with Illinois theoretical physicist, Professor Nicolas Yunes. The two scholarly colleagues and friends interacted across distance, turning a set of numbers crucial for black hole physics into a sequence of tones that then spilled from Alexander’s living room into many others’ in many other places.

UIUC alumnus and astronaut Michael Hopkins connects to the festival from the International Space Station. Hopkins answered questions about weightlessness posed by two children participating in the <em>Illuminated Universe</em>.
UIUC alumnus and astronaut Michael Hopkins connects to the festival from the International Space Station. Hopkins answered questions about weightlessness posed by two children participating in the Illuminated Universe.

An hour later, an even more dramatic action-at-a-distance took place when Michael Hopkins, an astronaut at the International Space Station and a UIUC alumnus, called in from orbit. During the call, he described the feeling of weightlessness to a pair of children. In a move reminiscent of both a spinning top that one might study in physics class and a dancer spinning in a choreographed piece, Hopkins flipped in the air while he spoke, spontaneously claiming a small piece of the performance portion of the festival.

“It was amazing how so many marvelous people came together because they want to do something like this. It was a privilege for us to nucleate these constellations of diverse explorers, creators, and communicators,” Vishveshwara says of the breadth of personality and expertise involved in the festival, humans in space included.

One of the performers, Illinois Physics Professor Virginia Lorenz, explains that projects like the Illuminated Universe festival are appealing in part because they offer a unique forum for thoughtful and accessible science communication.

“We all have different ways of communicating and different preferences for communicating, and that's really important to take into account when you're communicating your science,” Lorenz adds.

Illinois Physics Professor Gina Lorenz recites an original poem she composed for an earlier theater production titled <em>Quantum Voyages</em>, presented during the festival in the <em>Quantum Voyages</em> synopsis video titled <em>A Light-Filled Dawn</em>.
Illinois Physics Professor Gina Lorenz recites an original poem she composed for an earlier theater production titled Quantum Voyages, presented during the festival in the Quantum Voyages synopsis video titled A Light-Filled Dawn.

She first found herself in the place where physics and art meet when she starred as a “quantum sage” in a theater piece titled Quantum Voyages co-developed in 2018 by Vishveshwara and theatre-maker Latrelle Bright. Enveloped in bright light, surrounded by a cast of actors doing their best personification of elusive light particles called photons, Lorenz described her studies of that same bright substance in a poem she had herself written in iambic pentameter. The same poem was featured in a virtual rendition of Quantum Voyages that was showcased during the second day of the Illuminated Universe festival.

Though Lorenz has presented her rigorous and systematic inquiry into the quantum properties of light many times in the past, packing her insights into verses as opposed to a talk at a physics conference carries a different implication for her. She describes the process of communicating science through art as profound.

“We're addressing the whole person,” says Lorenz. “We take our various skills, which might not be just in science, and think about how we can express our results in ways that are more meaningful to us.”

Co-organizer Lindsay Olson, who is trained in art rather than science, similarly notes that combining art and science allows one’s professional and emotional world to become larger. Olson was Fermilab’s first artist-in-residence in 2014 and 2015 and she presented some of her work from that time during the festival.

She describes working on her first project where science played a major role: “I was able to hook into something larger than myself.”.

Olson’s textile interpretations of the standard model of particle physics and particle accelerators convert abstract ideas and large machinery into color and texture. In her work, Olson work uses the imagery of books to underline the tools scientist use to document theories and discoveries. At the same time, this work also serves as a new form of documenting science in itself. A textile artwork may be softer to touch than a textbook, but it can still convey the same information.

“There are infinite possibilities to connect science to the full range of human emotion,” Olson says, underscoring again the power of art to transcend the artist and the scientist as one-dimensional figures and connect to them as—like Lorenz says—whole persons.

The succession of works presented during the Illuminated Universe festival demonstrated how naturally science and art flow together, even when artists and scientists do not consciously set out to engage with both. Watching Illinois Physics Professors Jeff Filippini and Dale Van Harlingen tell stories of their respective research blurred the line between scientific reporting and impassionate storytelling.

Illinois Physics Professor Yoni Kahn plays a musical composition he wrote in 2006 on his French horn during the festival. Kahn told festival goers that the acts of thinking about physics problems and writing musical pieces have a beautiful symmetry.
Illinois Physics Professor Yoni Kahn plays a musical composition he wrote in 2006 on his French horn during the festival. Kahn told festival goers that the acts of thinking about physics problems and writing musical pieces have a beautiful symmetry.

Listening to Illinois Physics Professor Yoni Kahn play a historical French horn that required him to insert his whole hand inside it in order to manipulate the sound blurred the line between an exercise in sound wave mechanics and musical excellence. There is potential for art within all science and some science is needed to make all art, the implicit suggestion seemed to be.

Illinois Music Professor Stephen Taylor contributed two pieces, both presented on the third day of the festival. He explains that art can even start with the raw data collected in scientific studies.

“So instead of composing pieces, inspired by DNA or whatever, you can just take genetic data and map it directly onto musical notes, rhythms, and so on,” he offers as an example.

The piece of music produced in this way, according to Taylor, carries valence in two ways. It can elicit an emotional response from music fans, but also reveal features of the underlying data that may have previously eluded scientists.

Illinois Music Professor Stephen Taylor demonstrates his work with the UIUC Biophysics Sonification Group: data  on WW proteins are mapped and then transcribed into music. Playback of the music allows the researchers to mark where interesting data points can be found, of significance to their biophysics research.
Illinois Music Professor Stephen Taylor demonstrates his work with the UIUC Biophysics Sonification Group: data on WW proteins are mapped and then transcribed into music. Playback of the music allows the researchers to mark where interesting data points can be found, of significance to their biophysics research.

His work with the Biophysics Sonification Group, aiming to turn data on protein folding into sound, enchanted many of the festival attendees. At the same time, captivating sounds that Taylor and collaborators created also helped biophysicists pinpoint previously unknown features of how a protein called WW domain crimps and creases. Interpreting biophysics data through sound added a potent layer of richness to the project, and one that proved to be insightful and inspiring at the same time.

“If it sounds bad, that's okay. Because maybe that's actually showing you something important,” Taylor says.

During one of the last sessions of the festival, co-organizer Patrick Snyder challenged the attendees to seek this sort of multivalent creative experience themselves whenever they can. He reminded the festival audience that we grow the most as people when we see the connective tissue between seemingly conflicting ideas and practices.

Snyder’s words rang as a call to action, as the festival moved towards its last performance: a stunning exploration of the Earth’s place in the cosmos and its somewhat precarious future plagued by climate change, in the form of a short film titled Solaria, a collaboration by Vishveshwara, Wiltfong, Taylor and videographer Nic Morse.   Redefining our humanity, infusing it with both more compassion and greater sustainability, will most certainly require both scientists and artists.

Just as many who watched the Illuminated Universe in their own homes may have gained new inspiration for personal projects, the festival’s organizing team did not run out of ideas when they collaborated to create the festival.

Raley says dedication and enthusiasm characterized the many late evening and weekend meetings it took to organize the event.

“A major goal for this project was to provide some beauty and mystery and excitement,” Raley comments. “I think it really was a joyful and friendly spirit that propelled us and kept us going. All of us on the organizing committee—we would certainly be interested in doing this again in the future.”

Support from the Department of Physics was one big factor in the success of the festival, as was the endorsement of Dean Bashir, note Vishveshwara and Wiltfong. Over the past few years, the two have worked together on other art and physics projects, in addition to a formal course titled Where Art Meets Physics for physics and art students alike. Here, their experiences underscore that most creative and most prolific work happens when there is an active investment in people, whether they are students brimming with potential, or well-seasoned academics.

On this front, Vishveshwara is an optimist.

“Science-art is flourishing! We are poised to blossom new directions,” she says with enthusiasm.

She is already lining up new projects, following up on connections she made during the festival and thinking up new ways of sharing the joy “this physics-art thing” has brought her. Without exception, when they talk about their festival, the organizers and performers can’t help but propose ideas for possible future performances or artwork, even if the ideas aren’t fully concrete just yet.

In quantum physics, action-at-a-distance typically happens between particles that are heavily entangled. This entanglement, a special connection that cannot be undone by distance or passage of time, is what makes one particle instantly react when something happens to the other, even if the two entangled particles are separated by a huge distance. In other words, the way each takes in the world changes once they link up, as they simply cannot forget that connection. Similarly, the connections forged between organizers, performers, and attendees of the Illuminated Universe festival are bound to withstand the test of both distance and time.

After so much time spent letting their art absorb their science and their science approach their art, how could they possibly ever again see the world in a way that does not entangle the two?

If you missed the 2021 festival, it's not too late to find your inspiration in the presentations! The festival was video recorded in segments— you can view the full lineup of recorded presentations on the festival website--the schedule contains links to the videos on the Illinois Physics YouTube channel.


Karmela Padavic-Callaghan, Ph. D. is a science writer and an educator. She teaches college and high school physics and mathematics courses, and her writing has been published in popular science outlets such as WIREDScientific AmericanPhysics World, and New Scientist. She earned a Ph. D. in Physics from UIUC in 2019 and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.