FEd Spring 2002 Newsletter - Communicating Science with the Arts

Spring 2002



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Communicating Science with the Arts

Chris Chiaverina

1. Introduction

For the last twenty-five years, at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, we have been incorporating elements of the visual and performing arts in our physics classes. We have found that the arts serve as very effective vehicles for teaching a variety of topics in physics and illustrating applications of physical principles in the humanities.

While there are many ways to incorporate the arts in physics instruction, we have essentially used three approaches. These are: 1) interdisciplinary collaborations with the art and theater departments; 2) the inclusion of art-related material in the physics curriculum; 3) interactive gallery displays. I would now like to elaborate on these efforts.

2. Interdisciplinary Collaborations

Physics and the Theater

Each year we schedule a day of interdisciplinary activities with the performing arts department. The collaboration affords physics and performing arts students an opportunity to examine auditorium acoustics, e.g., reverberation time and interference effects, and the art and science of stage lighting.

Students experience acoustical interference patterns produced by two sources of sound, two speakers that approximate point sources. They move around the auditorium and locate points where the sound level is low. By using a large number of students, an easily discernable nodal pattern emerges.

After investigating auditorium acoustics, we invite students to join us on the stage to observe how the color of objects is affected by color of the incident light. Students first observe the color of their clothing under white light. The white light is then turned off and each primary color is used in turn to illuminate the stage and its occupants. Students are amazed by the dramatic changes in the perceived color of their clothing that accompanies changes in lighting.

The Art and Science of Birefringence

A New Trier art teacher and I have been bringing our classes together to produce works of art using polarized light. Our weeklong program introduces art and physics students to color theory, polarization and artistic composition. The week begins with an exploratory activity on color and color mixing. Following this experience, students hear about color from both physicist’s and artist’s points of view. Students then return to the lab to investigate polarization. During the course of this activity they encounter birefringence.

A discussion of polarization is followed by a lesson on composition. Students are then ready to produce their tape art.

The birefringent tape used in this activity reveals beautiful colors when viewed between crossed polarizers. Students layer tape on microscope slides to determine how color depends on tape thickness. Once they have created their color key, they produce polarization tape art by placing carefully cut pieces of tape on a plastic substrate. The resulting work is often reminiscent of stained glass or cubist art.

3. Art in the Physics Classroom


We begin our study of geometric optics with an exploratory activity on shadows. After students become familiar with the rudiments of shadow formation and rectilinear propagation, we delve into the importance of shadows in visual perception and art.

Artists employ numerous visual cues to produce the illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. Shadows are one of the most potent of these visual devices. Renaissance artists are attributed with initiating the use of shadows in drawings and paintings. This use of light and shadow in painting became known as chiaroscuro (“light and dark”).

We introduce our students to chiaroscuro by showing them a number of paintings that illustrate the technique. We also bring in theater instructor Christopher Rutt to give them a lesson in the power of shadows. Using only make-up to create the illusion of shadow and light, he transforms his face with dramatic three-dimensional features (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Christopher Rutt demonstrates the power of shadows.  Using makeup to create false shadows, he has greatly accentuated his facial features.


Anamorphosis is a process that stretches and distorts images beyond recognition through the sophisticated application of the laws of perspective. However, when viewed from the proper angle or, in some instances, with the aid of a reflector, the distorted images appear quite normal.  Anamorphic art, which flourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is now regarded as an artistic curiosity.

Leonardo da Vinci is often cited as the first to experiment with anamorphosis. His form of anamorphic art did not require the use of mirrors, only the correct point of view. Using this approach, known as perspective anamorphosis, distorted images become intelligible when viewed from a particular angle. This technique was later used by Hans Holbein to conceal a skull in the famous anamorphic painting titled The Ambassadors.

Although the popularity of this rather arcane art form waned after the Renaissance, practitioners of anamorphosis may still be found today. For example, contemporary artist William Cochran has created a delightful anamorphic mural of a young woman on the side of a bridge in Frederick, Maryland. Like Holbein’s Ambassadors, Cochran’s painting is best viewed from a particular vantage point. (Figure 2).

Figure 2: William Cochran's anamorphic mural Archangel on a bridge in Frederick, Maryland (a) viewed straight on; (b) at the intended viewing angle. (Courtesy of the artist.)

We attempt to keep anamorphosis alive by introducing it to our physics students during our unit on mirrors. During their study of curved reflectors, our students create their own anamorphic art by first drawing an image on a rectangular grid. Then, point-by-point, they transfer their image to a cylindrical grid. This deforms their drawing. To see their drawing in its undistorted form, they view it in a cylindrical reflector (Fig 3).

Figure 3: A drawing on a rectangular grid is mapped onto a cylindrical coordinate system; the distorted drawing is transformed into a recognizable image by reflection in a cylindrical mirror.

After Images and Pop Art

The eye/brain system is capable of retaining an image for a fraction of a second after the stimulus is removed. This phenomenon, known as persistence of vision, gives rise to after images. Our students learn about persistence of vision and after images through a series of stroboscopic demonstrations. They also discover the importance of after images to an art movement that was born in the ‘70’s known as optical art or “op art.”

Overlaying two identical patterns on the overhead projector produces a Moiri pattern. When one of the patterns is displaced with respect to the other, movement is observed. The same effect is also seen with a single transparency. Due to the superposition of a current retinal image and a previous image that the eye/brain retains, the viewer perceives a Moiri pattern. The eye’s constant scanning motion makes the Moiri pattern change in time, giving the illusion of motion. The sense of motion we experience when viewing op art seems to be the result of these constantly changing virtual Moiri patterns.

Camera Physics

Students build pinhole viewers and learn about the workings of a camera by taking one apart. With the popularity of single-use cameras, it is possible to obtain a class set of used disposable cameras from most camera stores.

Students examine the camera’s optics (these inexpensive cameras sometimes have up to three lenses!), flash electronics and film transport mechanism. They form images with the camera’s principal lens and measure its focal length and f-number. Dissecting and analyzing a camera is one of our students’ favorite activities.


In 1999, Dr. Tung Jeong, professor emeritus at Lake Forest College, spent a week with us as a scientist in residence. He met with students and staff in both large and small groups to discuss the art and science of holography. As a result of his visit, each year all physics students at New Trier (approximately 700) make their own reflection holograms.

While the artistic community is still discussing the merits of holography as an art form, it should be remembered that photography experienced a similar scrutiny a century ago.

4.     Gallery Displays

The Connections Project

Teachers and students from three departments at New Trier have produced over 125 engaging hands-on exhibits that allow people of all ages to discover elements common to the arts, mathematics, and science. Supported by New Trier High School and Toyota TAPESTRY and GTE GIFT grants, the Connections Project has developed cross-curricular displays that have been used in elementary, secondary and college classrooms and laboratories, learning centers, art galleries, and other public venues.

Both physiological and cognitive mechanisms come into play when we view a work of art. Consequently, like San Francisco’s Exploratorium, many of our exhibits examine how the eye-brain system receives and processes visual information. An exhibition focusing on the relationship between art and visual perception is currently being presented at New Trier High School. To learn more about The Connections Project, see the Fall 1996 issue of the Forum on Education.

Chris Chiaverina teaches physics at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. With Thomas Rossing he co-authored Light Science, an optics text written with the visual artist in mind. Chiaverina is currently President of the American Association of Physics Teachers.