Visualizing Physics

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Special Feature

PhysCon 2016

Visualizing Physics


Caroline Bowen, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Bowen’s Asterism won Best in Show and People’s Choice Awards at PhysCon. Photo courtesy of Jacob Dean, DF Production Services

Honored with the Best in Show and People’s Choice Awards at PhysCon 2016, Caroline Bowen combines physics, mathematics, and art in unique and beautiful ways. Radiations asked her to share some thoughts on physics, art, and her process.

I study physics to find excuses to make art, and I make art to better understand physics. The more I learn and understand, the more informed my artistic decisions, and the more I can communicate visually. My work is primarily sculptural and focuses on creating concrete, tangible illustrations of otherwise abstract, cerebral concepts in math and physics.

I graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville this past December with a double major in math and academic physics and a minor in studio art. I ended up in physics by accident! To put it briefly, I became interested in meteorology after a close encounter with a severe thunderstorm, and I ended up switching my major to physics even though I had to work my way up from college algebra. I fell in love with physics and picked up the math major along the way to satisfy my nerdy needs.

Bowen stands with her artwork at PhysCon. Photo courtesy of Tracy Schwab

I work part time in my dad’s gun shop making sights, and the rest of my time is devoted towards my budding art career, designing and building math and physics visual aids. My goal is to create an entire library of pieces, from pop-up books on relativity and vector calculus, to figurines of 3D electron orbitals and coordinate systems. I call this growing body of work Eigenstuff.

I’ve done more designing than constructing over the past three years, but a year ago I began experimenting with paper as an artistic medium. I finally came up with something worth showing—cutout accordion cards of Taylor series expansions and special functions. These evolved into sculptures of the 3D contour surfaces of the real and imaginary parts of complex functions. These are more “fine art” pieces than what I envision most of my work to be, but they have opened up many opportunities for me in paper and other media, including the sculpture I presented at PhysCon, Asterism.

I plan to start selling my creations and continue studying math and physics on my own. I’m in the process of opening an Etsy store and selling my papercraft work, but once I really get off the ground I plan to start mass producing my creations. I’m gearing up to start dabbling in plastic fabrication, and I’ll be using my PhysCon prize money to buy a 3D printer. I have a long to-do list of ideas that I’m desperate to get to work on, but right now it’s a matter of gathering resources.

I understand physics best by going through the creative process of converting the images in my mind’s eye into a physical format, which I can then use to make observations and draw conclusions. It’s all a giant feedback loop.

See more of Caroline's work

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