The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
At first glance, it’s unlikely that a passerby would identify the pale blue sculpture above as an homage to the most famous scientist in modern history, but that is exactly what the composition of glass and steel entitled A New World View depicts. The 32 bas-relief squares feature raised patterns that beg to be touched, depicting a variety of shapes from the outline of a child’s toy train or a roll of twine to mysterious and obscure arrangements of spindles, spheres, and concentric circles. Each represents one aspect of the life and legacy of Albert Einstein. Images of children’s faces peer out from behind the glass squares, often seeming to ponder the mysterious shapes and objects hovering before them.
A New World View was commissioned as part of last year’s World Year of Physics celebration by the U.S. World Year of Physics (WYP) team, which includes representatives of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), the American Institute of Physics (AIP), and the American Physical Society (APS). It commemorates a century of physics since Einstein revolutionized our understanding of nature and the universe.
“Much of the World Year of Physics was dedicated to reflecting on Einstein’s work in 1905, which we often call his miracle year,” says Jessica Clark, who coordinates public outreach efforts for APS. “But this is an exciting time in science, and we wanted a work that looked forward, rather than concentrating exclusively on the past.” In order to meld the past and future of science into a single sculpture, Clark explains, the WYP team asked the artists of the Washington Glass School to incorporate photographs of dozens of children into the piece.
Although Clark expects that some people will be able to guess the meaning of at least a few of the shapes that make up A New World View, most of the panels will likely seem obscure at first glance, even to physicists. Three of the four columns are dedicated to exploring Einstein’s contributions to science in 1905. They include his explanation of Brownian motion, which convinced the scientific community that matter is made of atoms and molecules; his work on the photoelectric effect, which helped set the stage for quantum mechanics; and his discovery of the theory of special relativity, which revolutionized the way scientists think of space and time. The fourth column includes images that represent various aspects of Einstein’s personal life, from his love of music to his efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.
Michael Janis, Tim Tate, and Erwin Timmers of the Washington Glass School in downtown Washington, D.C., created the sculpture by molding blue glass. They pressed objects into plaster of Paris powder and removed them to leave intricate indentations behind. They then placed sheets of glass over the impressions and enclosed the assemblies in a high-temperature kiln, where the glass melted into the plaster forms. “The result is very tactile,” says APS World Year of Physics coordinator Vinaya Sathyasheelappa. “We haven’t decided where the art will be installed yet, but we want to make sure that it is in a place where people, especially kids, will be able to touch it as well as enjoy its visual beauty.” The WYP team is currently researching venues for A New World View, including airports, science museums, schools, and other public spaces.
Wherever it comes to rest, the display will include a legend to help viewers understand the motivation that led to the images. “We don’t really expect people to look at a relief of a pair of cats, for instance, and immediately realize the connection to Einstein and quantum mechanics,” says Sathyasheelappa, “and we hope people will enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level. But if they want to learn a little more about the art, and perhaps a bit about science, they can read some of the descriptions we are providing with the art and on our web page, www.physicsmatters.org.”
In addition to the sculpture, the WYP team has produced a poster (enclosed here) that incorporates parts of the artwork, as well as the pictures of hundreds of children arranged to form a portrait of Einstein. “The sculpture is striking,” says Clark, “but doesn’t translate to a poster well all by itself. The poster evokes the art, Einstein’s familiar image, and, most of all, the children. A few of them may someday follow in Einstein’s footsteps.”
About the APS
The American Physical Society
(www.aps.org) is the world’s
largest professional body of
physicists, representing over
44,000 physicists in academia
and industry in the United
States and internationally.
The WYP team has also put together a website to accompany A New World View that provides close-ups of the panels and expanded descriptions of each image. The website also includes a number of extension activities to help middle school students explore their understanding and appreciation of science through art, much as the Washington Glass School artists did. “We had so much fun working with the artists to come up with the images,” says Clark, “that we wanted to find a way to let students have the same experience.”
A New World View: Find out more about the sculpture, obtain additional copies of the poster, or learn about extension activities that can help your students express their understanding of science through art—
Albert Einstein and the World Year of Physics—
Physics for students—
Washington Glass School—