In my attempt to keep up with high-energy physics news, I read the online publication, “Symmetry Breaking“. “Symmetry Breaking” had an article with an fascinating set of photos of a sculpture (Quantum Man II, below). Based on your viewing angle, the sculpture would either appear solid or would melt away into an almost ethereal nothingness. “Quantum Man II” is a representation of the wave-particle duality of nature and is the work of artist and scientist Julian Voss-Andreae, of Portland, Oregon.
Julian has an interesting history: During the 1990s he was a physicist and he participated in an experiment that showed the wave-particle duality of the largest object to date, the C60 “buckyball”. In the 2000s, Julian changed careers and is now crafting sculptures, many of which are based on scientific topics. Several of Julian’s pieces are part of the “Worlds Within Worlds” exhibit, showing through April 16, 2010 at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland (approximately 10 miles northeast of Washington D.C.).
I asked Julian for an interview, and he graciously accepted and answered my questions. Note – In the following interview, [SC] = “Science Cheerleader” and [JVA] = “Julian Voss-Andreae.”
[SC]: While growing up, was your first “love” art, science or were you interested in both?
[JVA]: My first love was in a way both art and science; it was my LEGO blocks. I would spend hours building stuff with them. At that time, form strictly followed function for me. I would make very functional toys like cars with motors and 4-wheel steering or vehicles that carried a detachable folded up bridge on their back. As an older kid I had hobbies in both fields, pottery for example in art or electronics as a more science-based hobby. I also had a really cool chemistry lab in my room which I started assembling as a child. By the time I was about fifteen I had collected hundreds of chemicals. During those years I also got obsessed with computer programming which aimed mostly at creating cool visual effects. But in all my interests, including the scientific ones, I was always driven more by the sensual and aesthetic experience than by an interest in purely intellectual understanding.
[SC]: According to your bio you were drawn to study physics due to its philosophical implications. Which philosophical implications intrigued you?
[JVA]: As a young kid my aunt always gave me a certain popular science journal which I loved to read. Almost every issue had pictures of melting clocks and of Einsteins with crazy hairdo and his tongue sticking out and I was fascinated by the articles that came with those illustrations; partly because I found them completely unimaginable. Later I realized that Einstein’s theory of relativity is actually not nearly as challenging to our everyday assumptions about reality as quantum physics. When I started studying at the university I first took some philosophy classes and it was in such a class that I came across Roger Penrose’s fabulous book “The Emperor’s New Mind”. That book really made me want to study quantum physics because I wanted to see how far I can get in really understanding those problems. Penrose does a beautiful job in pointing out the deep problems that stem from the fact that our intuitions are not made to deal with the quantum world.
[JVA]: Quantum physics provides us with a detailed statistical knowledge describing exactly the behavior of many events but it does not predict the outcome of the individual event. We can, for example, calculate the pattern of light that falls on a photo paper very accurately but if we dim the light down and look at the spots caused by single particles of light, the photons, quantum physics doesn’t predict where each photon will be detected. After a hundred years of quantum physics we now know that this is not a shortcoming of the theory but a fundamental aspect of reality. The single event turns out to be not determined by anything. It is truly random. Now, if we look at the concept of free will in a pre-quantum, Newtonian world view there is simply no space for that. Everything is caused by something, everything is deterministic. Yes, there is certainly chaos (in a mathematical sense of the word) and things like the butterfly effect, but we are still essentially puppets on a string in this world view, because everything is predestined. With the fall of the absolute reign of causality this looks different though and we can have hope that this freedom of will we seem to possess is not just an illusion of ours.
[SC]: You and I both admire Linus Pauling (he was a sort of hero of mine in my teen years). How did your sculpture “Alpha Helix” (below right) come to end up in Dr. Pauling’s front yard?
[JVA]: He was a very cool scientist and an extraordinary human being. He started out doing quantum mechanics with
its founders in Europe, which he, as one of the first people, applied to chemistry. Then he went all the way over biomolecules to human health and to the health of society as a whole. I am a big fan of him as well. And I noticed around 2002 that I kept making those “alpha helix” sculptures based on the geometry of a very common spiral motif found in proteins that was postulated first by Pauling. And I made some of those pieces from Douglas firs, the Oregon state tree. When I realized that Pauling was born and raised in Portland and that there is absolutely nothing here to commemorate him, I thought this was a shame since he is certainly one of the most important sons of this city. After all, he is the only person to ever win two unshared Nobel Prizes. So my idea was to create some sort of a monument for him, namely an alpha helix out of a bronze cast Douglas fir. I typed “Pauling memorial” into Google and found that some people had proposed a building in his honor. I visited the architect who had drawn the sketches and was referred to Terry Bristol, who is best known in Portland for organizing a very successful series of science lectures. I met Terry, we had a long talk about physics and philosophy, and he wanted me to create an outdoor sculpture for the Linus Pauling Center located at Pauling’s former childhood home. Pauling had his first laboratory as a child in the basement of that house on Hawthorne Boulevard in SE Portland. The plan to do it in bronze turned out to be difficult and I came up with the idea to use a steel beam instead.
[SC]: Many of your commissions are from scientists or scientific organizations. Would you like your work to expand beyond this audience?
[JVA]: Yes, I would very much like to do expand beyond the science circles. I do have a few collectors without a strong affinity to science but it is not easy to reach this kind of audience. One reason my work appeals foremost to scientists is that my works tend to have underlying concepts with an actual meaning and scientists can appreciate them for what they are. In the art world, the situation is different: A critical mass of art world endorsement is needed that most collectors dare to ‘invest’ in an artist. The ‘aura’ of the art, i.e. at what venues the artist exhibits and who talks about him or her is all-critical and in my opinion frequently rated much higher than the work itself. But I am still interested in getting more into the traditional art world circles because I feel that is where my work ultimately belongs.
[SC]: What messages would you like your work to convey to a larger audience?
[JVA]: My main message is simple. I have a deep feeling of awe when I behold nature. That can be a landscape or humans, or how an animal moves, but it can also be phenomena we see only through the instruments and theories of science. My first goal is to share and convey this feeling I have.
[SC]: The Oregon Public Television video showed you experimenting with balloons and resin; this caused me to think of the speculated space-time “foam” at the Planck length. Did you have a particular theme in mind as you were exploring the balloon and resin method?
[JVA]: I came to that idea by thinking of a natural way to connect dots in space. I started out writing my own
algorithm for this which turned out to be trickier than I had thought. Then I contacted an old physics professor of mine and asked him about some irregular lattices he had used in his research which I still remembered from my student days. He pointed me into the direction of so-called Voronoi cells and from there it was only a small step to the structure of foam. He was actually studying quantum chromodynamics, the dynamics of quarks. He did his calculations on random lattices instead of the regular grid to avoid computational artifacts. After I had gone into a dead end with modeling foam on the computer, I decided to create a real foam-like system by using water balloons as bubbles and filling the gaps in between the balloons with a hardening liquid. At the end I pop the balloons and I am left with the cellular structure of foam. I have made several trial objects and one cast bronze piece in that technique. I later called the bronze piece “The Universe” (above, left). This sculpture was actually directly inspired by the hypothesized smallest cells of space and time you were mentioning in your question. In fact, its initial title even was “The Cellular Structure of Space and Time”.
[SC]: You contributed to the ground-breaking experiment in 1999 that showed the wave-particle duality of the largest object (C60 “Buckyball”) to date. What did this experiment tell us about the borderline between the classical and quantum worlds?
[JVA]: Essentially it tells us that there is no such borderline between the quantum world and the world of classical physics. This divide is a man-made concept, (or, to be more accurate, it was Niels Bohr-made); it is an artificial separation. In principle, we can see quantum effects on every scale, not only in the microscopic realm. That we don’t usually see them and that it is very difficult to perform such an experiment even though the 1-nanometer buckyball is still quite small compared to us, has to do with the fact that larger systems are much harder to separate completely from the environment.
[Editors Note – An article just recently published proposes using optical levitation to separate objects from their noisy environment, thus possibly allowing quantum experiments on objects with millions of atoms.]
[SC]: Your work tends to deal with the very small. Might you sculpt works based on the very large (e.g., cosmological scale)?
[JVA]: I have been thinking about the stars in the night sky and I have made pieces that allude to that imagery. But larger than that? I am not sure. I did call that piece I mentioned above “The Universe” though… I guess the cosmological scale is just too mind-boggling to me. I just read a book about the possibility that we have not just one Universe, but an infinite amount of Universes. I prefer small things for now. Maybe later!
[SC]: At “Science Cheerleader”, we like to have fun. Which of your sculptures do you consider the most whimsical?
[JVA]: You know, that is actually a tough question for me. In my culture, ‘Kunst’ – fine art – is something very serious – well, you know, I am from Germany. Not that art is necessarily all that depressing where I come from, but it tends to be seen as something profound, something concerned with deep questions. When I went to Art College in the US I was surprised that Americans generally don’t seem to feel like that. Fine art can easily be whimsical, even comical here. So even though humor and silliness are important to me in my personal life, there is really no space for that in my art. But there is a sculpture I made a few years ago that might qualify as ‘whimsical’: It is a piece of square lumber my dog chewed up. It looks really neat since he was balancing it in his snout which gave the stick sort of a narrow, almost regular waist. Right before he broke it, I took it away, lacquered it and made a metal stand for it. A fellow art student suggested the title “Monument to Chomp” (above, right) playing off Duchamp’s name and it is still called like that. The piece is actually included in my current “Quantum Objects” exhibition in Washington DC.
[SC]: Your work explores the intersection of science and art. Might you one day explore the intersection between, say, science and cheerleading?
[JVA]: I find cheerleading actually quite fascinating. I find it certainly much more entertaining than the sports usually following it. It is impressive from a performance point of view and also interesting to me because it is all about conveying excitement, the very essence of any art. I am not sure though if I will one day directly reference it somehow in my work… But it would probably be really fun to take space-time measurements of cheerleading moves and turn them into a sculpture or other kind image.
Sculpture image credits: Julian Voss-Andreae