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Picasso and Quantum Theory

Art and physics come together again.

["A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges-Pierre Seurat. Click on the photo to see the individual dots of paint in the park scene. In her talk, Imogen Clarke used the painting to show that while the individual dots are discontinuous, the painting as a whole is continuous, much like the role of atoms in our lives.]

Last week, the American Institute of Physics (a society that, among a few others, shares our building) hosted a conference on the history of physics. A hundred or so graduate students and early-career physicists gathered to talk about topics stretching from the first uses of X-rays in medicine to the development of theory in physics.

Imogen Clarke, a PhD student of science history at the University of Manchester in the U.K., spoke Friday morning about the transition from classical to modern physics at the turn of the last century. In a talk titled "A 'Conservative Attitude'? Continuity, Discontinuity and the Contested Rise of 'Modern Physics'" Clarke noted how the changes in thinking in the physics community in the early 1900s mirrored the broader cultural attitude shift of the time.

The painting above, "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" painted in 1885 by Georges-Pierre Seurat, is an example of the cultural merging of continuity and discontinuity at the turn of the century, Clark said. Seurat's scene shows that while the painting appears continuous, the individual dots of paint are actually discontinuous, much like the role of atoms in our lives. Atoms on their own are discontinuous, they are individuals, but when combined they form people and rocks and trees - continuous objects.

Pablo Picasso's "Le Guitariste" (at right) from 1910 and George Braque's "Fruit Dish and Glass" (at left) from 1912, both examples of cubism also echo the trend of the time to look at things in a new way. In cubist art, objects are broken apart into many pieces and reassembled at angles that show them from difference perspectives, often removing the perception of depth. The style examines objects as a sum of their parts rather than as a whole.

In 1913, Neils Bohr published his model of the atom in which he said that an electron could drop from a high-energy orbit around a nucleus down to a lower orbit and - in doing so - emit a photon, a particle of light. The model helped bring about the creation of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics explains how matter and energy interact on the very small scale - on the scale of atoms.

Before quantum mechanics became widely accepted, it was thought that light propagated through a medium called "aether." Experiments, however, failed to verify the presence of the aether. Thanks to those experiments and discoveries like Bohr's, quantum mechanics, and the interactions between matter and energy, gradually became accepted physics.


  1. What a pointless article!

  2. @Anon - I rather thought it was pointillist.


  3. It is a good article, probably not what the first Anon was looking for.

    Good Job Echo.

  4. Admit it Echo, you posted the Anonymous comment just so you could make a pun. Come on, 'fess up.

  5. Seems a little far fetched. Not to say the mentioned shifts in attitude didn't happen, but it seems only logical that attitude shift across the general population affect all aspects of life whether science or art.

    The fact that developments in physics at the time happened to be similar to what was going on in painting seems rather coincidental. Had it turned out that objects weren't made out of individual atoms we could probably draw the exact same conclusion in regards to a different art movement that resembled a couple aspects of science.

  6. I've always thought that Picasso and Einstein were their own kind of kindred spirits in a way. Einstein's theory of relativity abandons the idea of a universal reference frame, where two events that seem simultaneous for one observer may not seem so for another. Picasso similarly, and at around the same time explored the concept of abandoning traditional reference frames seen in painting up to that point, and playing with concepts such as space, perspective and the observer's own interpretation of the piece.

  7. @Kevin - I wish I were that clever. ;-)


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