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.