Physics 85HC


This course is an attempt to explore the connection between seemingly diverse areas of human intellect: physics (and in a broader sense, science) and art. Both are driven by our desire to understand and describe our universe, they have much in common as far as their approaches to our world, and their methodology is concerned. The issue of their interconnection has been explored from both sides, both by scientists and by artists, and often major developments in the sciences and important technical breakthroughs left clear marks on the visual arts of the same period.

The approach which will be taken is that of a physicist with emphasis on descriptions of our surroundings in terms of laws, which are expressed in the form of mathematics. Concepts that played important roles in the various areas of physics - and at the same time, in movements in the arts - will be discussed.

The focus is on two somewhat loosely defined recurring themes. Symmetry and form will be covered in the first part, together with their relation to physical concepts such as equilibrium, statics and dynamics, and conservation laws. This is followed by proportions, patterns, order, and issues such as fractal dimensions and chaos. Light and vision will be discussed in the second part of the course, starting with light emission from the sun, followed by the examination of our sensory system, the primary colors, and the interaction of light with matter. We will conclude with interference patterns and op art.

Demonstrations and lectures by Visiting Professors on other aspects of the relation between science and art will complement the course as outlined above.

Albrecht Durer: Melancholia I Albrecht Durer: Melancholia I, Engraving, 1514

In the context of the relation between science and art this work is significant in several respects:

First, exact scientific principles, such as the linear perspective and the vanishing point (the consequence of Euclidean geometry) were used in designing the engraving and these were applied with uttermost precision, a prerequisite also of any scientific method. These principles were perfected by Durer who also designed various instruments in order to help to achieve linear perspective in drawings and paintings (Albrecht Durer: Underweysung der Messung mid den Ayrkel and Rychtscheyd, 1526).

Second, a new technique, pioneered among others by Durer, engraving was employed, this allowed not only a new form of artistic expression but also relatively easy and inexpensive reproduction. This in turn resulted in the availability of art to a wide audience; a clear example of the influence of technology on art.

Third, the theme is science. Although the meaning is disputed, it most probably illustrates the process of scientific thought. It also displays several scientific instruments used at the time such as the balance, measuring weight, the ruler measuring length and the sand clock measuring time. The engraving is also full of references to mathematics and geometry such as the magic square, the most perfect body the sphere, and the golden cut which determines the dimensions of the rock.

Course Outline

1. Symmetry: An Introduction

The concept and definition of symmetry. The relation of symmetry to equilibrium, statics, and dynamics. Asymmetry, disorder, broken symmetry.

2. Mirror Symmetry

Its role in physics, chemistry, and biology. Chirality of life, the weakly asymmetric universe.

3. The Divine Proportion

The golden mean, number sequences, and spirals. Proportion is architecture and painting.
(The Parthenon, Fibonacci, Mozart, and Bartok)

4. The Perfect Bodies

The Platonic solids, Keplers Universe. The mathematics of shapes. Carbon compounds.
(Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Euler, and Buckminster Fuller)

5. Patterns, Crystals, Order

Periodic structures and translational symmetry, crystals and quasicrystals.
(Durer, Kepler, Escher, Penrose)

6. Hypercubism

The vanishing point. Non-Euclidean geometry. The representation of higher dimensions.
(Euclid, Della Francesca, Cubism)

7. Space-Time Dimensions

Curved spaces, relativity.
(Lobachevsky, Gauss, Bolyai, Riemann, Einstein, Duchamp and the futurists)


Back to the Class Home Page

Last Updated on March 25, 1997

Web site design by the Administrative Support Group
Questions, comments? Send them to