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Intriguing Intersections: Quantum Field Theory and KCAD

Posted April 21, 2015 in Events

It isn’t every day that a theoretical physicist from the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen visits Grand Rapids. Even rarer still, that he gives his lecture at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD).

This unlikely pairing was inspired by an email from Natalie Wetzel, professor of Sculpture and Functional Art at KCAD, to Doctor Jacob Bourjaily. “You may think me mad,” she wrote, “but I’m a visual artist with an interest in theoretical physics, and I have this idea about collaborating.”

Dr. Jacob Bourjaily speaks at KCADDr. Jacob Bourjaily speaking at KCAD

That unexpected message caught the attention of Bourjaily, a Grand Rapids native and Princeton PhD grad who is quickly earning a reputation as one of the leading researchers in the arena of quantum field theory. “For any artists who may interested in this type of collaboration, I have to say, letters like this are likely to find root,” he said. “Physicists are an untapped resource for artists. A lot of our work is guided by what we can visualize and think about.”

Wetzel explained, “In my mind and my collaborators’ minds, it’s amazing how similar our thinking processes are as far as looking for elegant solutions to big ideas….or very small ones! It’s really a matter of looking at innovative ways to teach, to create art, to incorporate what we both do in our own professions into a public realm.”

Before long, a new collaborative partnership to bridge the gap between science and the arts was born. Wetzel first visited Bourjaily in Europe, attending a lecture he recently gave in Vienna and creating a short film that illustrated the concept of recursion relations in quantum field theory. On March 26, Bourjaily teamed with Wetzel, a group of students from the KCAD transdisciplinary art club INTERSPACE, and members of Wetzel’s art collective, The Moon, to present “Quantum Field Theory for Pedestrians” at KCAD, sponsored by the Drawing Program.

KCAD professor Natalie Wetzel and students from INTERSPACE, a student organization focused on transdisciplinary workKCAD professor Natalie Wetzel (back row, center) and students from INTERSPACE, a student organization focused on transdisciplinary work

While Bourjaily explained the scientific progression from Newtonian laws to the latest quantum field theory, Wetzel and the INTERSPACE students stood across the room, wrapped in an intriguing array of blinking costumes and swirling headdresses they had constructed from plastic wrap, colored lighting, and metallic fabrics. To illustrate the ways particles scatter, the students followed paths throughout the room, intersecting and changing direction just as theoretical formulas predict particles do.

Dr. Jacob Bourjaily presenting at KCADBourjaily's lecture included a breif history of physics as a discipline

“Our concept was that we were each a Von Trapp child, and Natalie was Maria, because Dr. Bourjaily is based in Europe,” explained Chelsea Kelley, a junior in Art Education. “Each of us designed a costume based around the diagrams from his presentation, and we were to interact and make the diagrams happen. We came together in one day and put everything together. It was a lot of fun.”

INTERSPACE students act out a Von Trapp DiagramINTERSPACE students act as particles in a physcial representation of Feynman diagrams, which visually and mathematically describe the behavior of subatomic particles

Bourjaily says he was drawn to this opportunity for both personal and practical reasons. “Before I was ever an actual scientist, I got my start here in Grand Rapids, working at the planetarium and giving lectures about the night sky,” he said. “I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for outreach. I really believe that things like quantum mechanics that people think are scary and complicated are explainable to the public at large. It’s a set of knowledge that as a society we should be more proud of, and it should be part of cultural awareness. On a very practical level, every grant application in science requires a statement about how you’re going to do public outreach and communicate your ideas to the public. When there’s sincere, genuine interest from other disciplines that want to help communicate, that’s supported on almost every level.”

NTERSPACE students act as particles in a physcial representation of Feynman diagrams, which visually and mathematically describe the behavior of subatomic particlesINTERSPACE students act out another Feynman diagram

Stay tuned for more collaborations between Bourjaily and Wetzel, including an interactive physics playground in the works.


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