Duchampian Science




Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works, by Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998; 374 pages.

Linda Dalrymple Henderson, a professor of art history at the University of Texas in Austin, has long worked in the lonely and unpopular field of modern art and geometry, publishing a version of her Ph.D. thesis on the topic in 1983.(1) Recently, she has devoted 10 years to investigating Marcel Duchamp’s use of science and technology. The results, impressive in their range of historical reference, are presented in her new book, Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works. Her choice of subject is inspired. By selecting Duchamp, Henderson wisely took aim at the most promising case for interaction between esthetics and technics, one that might finally answer the often neglected but important question “Is there a real link between modern art and science?”

Duchamp had earlier been recognized both by Henderson and by Craig Adcock for a depth of mathematical understanding that made him unique among his modern-artist peers.(2) But did Duchamp’s expertise also include science?

In her introduction, Henderson lays out an ambiguous brief. Duchamp consistently emphasized that his central work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), a.k.a, the Large Glass, was intended to be studied with what he called his “Sears Roebuck catalogue” of notes, most written between 1912 and 1915. Duchamp published three boxes of notes in his lifetime: the Box of 1914 (16 notes and one drawing), the Green Box (or La Mariee Mise a Nu par ses Celibataires, Meme) in 1934 (94 notes and images) and the White Box (or A l’Infinitif) in 1967 (79 notes).(3) However, 289 notes, which Duchamp had apparently carefully organized into folders, were discovered after his death in 1968 but not published until 1980. Within this last set of jottings, Henderson has found an “overtly scientific orientation.”

Such an interest was scarcely exclusive to Duchamp. Public fascination with science ran high in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period of dazzling technological advances. The theme was clearly shared by many artists, among them the Futurists, Picabia (Duchamp’s boon companion for a time) and the Delaunays. Henderson understands scientific connections to popular culture very well and has searched assiduously for possible links with Duchamp’s themes and images. Indeed, Duchamp in Context offers an abundance of potential Duchampian source material–from thumbnail accounts of famous scientists (e.g., William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, Nikola Tesla) to summaries of scientific concepts and devices (X rays, electromagnetism, radioactivity, the atomic model, human-machine analogies, meteorology, Hertzian waves, dynamos, etc.). The book’s period illustrations alone–culled from technical journals, newspapers, magazines, posters, product catalogues and Conservatoire National des Arts and Metiers exhibition brochures–suggest that Duchamp’s historical milieu was awash in scientific imagery and ideas.

Yet this wide-ranging research also contributes to Duchamp in Context’s greatest flaw. In deciding how she will interpret Duchamp’s use of science, Henderson follows the most conventional form of current Duchamp scholarship. She adopts the credo that the artist was known for his “rejection of single readings and his delight in multiplicity” of meanings(5)–a belief that is open to serious question, since Duchamp made fun of multiple interpretations by scholars and clearly recognized that not every reading could be equally valid, because different views often stand in logical contradiction.(6)

Nevertheless, taking a commitment to multiple meaning as her central hypothesis, Henderson randomly compiles reference after scientific reference that she believes Duchamp may have included as “playful” and “ironic” layers in his Large Glass “collage”:

there is no single scientific theme that dominates the Glass: it is a complex and witty overlay of visual and verbal ideas, often based on analogies of appearance or function as well as wordplays. Thus, in addition to electromagnetism and chemistry, it addresses such scientific issues as atomic theory, radioactivity, electric discharges in gas-filled tubes, changing states of matter, the liquefaction of gases, the kinetic-molecular theory of gases, Brownian movement, thermodynamics, classical mechanics, systems of measurement, meteorology, and biology, as well as the technology of the automobile, wireless telegraphy, incandescent and neon lightbulbs, power generation (old and new), and contemporary agriculture.(7)

Is it really true that there is no dominant scientific theme in Duchamp’s work? I can address this question only by offering an alternative reading. According to the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare (1854-1912), whose writings are acknowledged by Henderson as a well-known influence on Duchamp, there is great difference between scientific fact-collecting (Tolstoy called it “lady bug counting”) and the process of discovery whereby intuitive leaps bring us to new generalizations.(8) “Scientists believe there is a hierarchy of facts,” Poincare wrote, “and that among them may be made a judicious choice.”(9) As we lack an eternity of time to make endless possible combinations (facts combined, he said, are analogous to chess moves), the scientist must choose parts which allow us to see the whole. In Poincare’s words: “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built, of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”(10)

Since Henderson has given equal weight to all of her data, as evidenced by the lack of any stated hierarchy in her various lists, how can the reader discern if one item meant more to Duchamp than any other? Is Duchamp’s body of work only a random grab bag of ideas from science (“scientific and technological meanderings,” as Henderson calls them)?(11) Is his Large Glass just a Rube Goldberg assembly of Victorian and early 20th-century science references, as the author’s description implies? Given that Duchamp was a brilliant chess master who sought his goal of mental beauty in the game’s intricate strategic combinations, I do not believe that he would operate so haphazardly in his art.

To see the weakness in Henderson’s method, consider her treatment of X rays. As she correctly states, Duchamp wrote two 1920 notes that each use the word “X-ray” once. Duchamp’s brother Raymond was a medical intern in the 1890s at a hospital where Albert Londe pioneered X-ray photography in France. Duchamp’s artist friend Frantisek Kupka used X rays directly in his work, and X rays were an exciting scientific innovation that, being “in the air,” often turned up in popular literature available to Duchamp, his brothers and others in their circle.

Essentially, these observations constitute Henderson’s case for Duchamp’s use of X-ray-like images– that is, the evidence beyond what she calls “iconographic recovery” through examination of his individual images. Unfortunately, the works Henderson then cites–the Cubistic Sonata (1911), Yvonne and Magdeleine Torn in Tatters (1911) and Portrait, or Dulcinea (1911)–look nothing like X rays. The author points to the “darkened noses” on several of the figures and notes how the paintings “employ transparent, partly dematerialized forms overlapping one another.”(12) She claims that the subject’s body in Dulcinea is “depicted in successive stages of movement” and is “partially transparent and dematerialized, in the manner of the X-ray.”(13) But, in fact, X rays are quite unlike these pictures: they yield isolated (not overlapping or sequential) views and show bone structure as prominently white against gray-toned shadows that correspond to varying densities of soft tissue.

Mixed in with these unconvincing speculations about X rays are what Poincare designated “beautiful facts”–those which occur frequently, allow prediction and unify seemingly disparate data. But Henderson fails to identify which of her myriad biographical and historical tidbits are truly significant, just as she fails to give proper attention to Poincare himself. Had she done so, she would have found in the Large Glass an ironic but highly systematic representation of the creative process, whether artistic or scientific.

Early in her book, Henderson notes that Poincare was an “important source” for Duchamp. But she quickly flies away from the then-popular theorist after this brief mention, only to put him back into the roll call of researchers having no direct link to Duchamp, even though Poincare is the only scientist referred to twice by name in the artist’s notes. Henderson does cite Duchamp’s use of Poincare’s mathematics of chance, but never defines or correctly explains this idea. (Poincare laid the foundation for modern chaos theory.)

Henderson also quotes Cleve Gray, an artist who worked closely with Duchamp to translate the mathematical notes that mention the French physicist. If she had asked Gray about these citations, she and the reader would have received some important, previously unknown information. Duchamp told Gray “many times” that “Poincare was at the bottom of everything” the artist was doing.(14) To Gray’s recollections we can add the observation of Francois Le Lionnais, a mathematician and scholar who, for 50 years, knew Duchamp as a fellow chess player and person interested in science discussions. In a published interview, he stated that Duchamp was “stuck at Poincare until the end of his life.”(15) These two testimonies, when combined, provide further impetus for choosing Poincare’s ideas as an interpretive key to the science in Duchamp’s oeuvre.

Moreover, once Poincare is singled out, we can apply the important organizing methods specified above for testing any fact or hypothesis: Are Poincare’s concepts reflected frequently in Duchamp’s words and works? Do we meet with continual success when we apply our theory that Duchamp used Poincare as a primary source? Finally, do seemingly disparate ideas in Duchamp’s oeuvre become unified when we understand them as representating Poincare’s ideas? If we answer yes to all three questions, then we have not only provided a direct demonstration of mental beauty in Duchamp’s work, but have also shown, in part, how science is actually done.

According to Poincare, we inhabit a dynamic, constantly changing universe. Nature is essentially a mechanism of chance (probability) that operates in a similar manner from large scale to small (from “the Milky Way” to “gaseous molecules colliding” and sometimes “randomly combining,” in his favorite example), while also including, at the scale of ordinary experience, the weather, dust in fluids, roulette and the human discovery process.(16)

The “greatest act of chance,” Poincare says, is “the birth of a genius.” This occurs when the right “genital cells,” sperm and ovum, meet to produce the rarest of all combinations.(17) Poincare believed that only geniuses are born with extraordinary “unconscious sieves” that choose efficiently from an enormous set of random ideas formed and reformed by colliding molecules in the subconscious.

The best, most useful mental choice will center on the simplest (and therefore most “beautiful”) part or fact that allows us to comprehend the whole. Such a choice, Poincare tells us, brings “sudden illumination”–and is experienced as a surprise, since we cannot witness the causative gaslike molecular collisions within the mind. We therefore apprehend our choice as if it arrived ready-made (Poincare’s emphasis), even though much activity and effort actually occurred in the unconscious during a prior period of seeming rest and delay. However, Poincare warns, these choices are not yet complete as “ready-made” (tout-fait) but must be tested and “verified by measure and experiment” before being declared a discovery.(18)

Poincare states that a kind of “parallelism” (affecting gas, dust and stars, for example) is “elementary” in nature.(19) He specifically mentions pendulums as a prime indicator of these analogous relations. As distinct from the transient beliefs which we arrogantly call the laws of science, such relations never change, despite the various names that we give them. In contrast, the laws with which we “garb” nature’s female “body” are imperfect but useful generalizations, which, due to a loss of efficacy, must be altered “every 50 years,” when we re-dress nature in two ways–with new laws and with new beliefs based on these fresh “vestments.”(20)

This theory of chance mechanisms clearly unifies Duchamp’s Large Glass into a conceptual whole, as can be seen, Poincare-fashion, by examining the principal parts and their interrelationships. For example, Duchamp described his Bride as a pendu femelle (female hanged body) that “swings to and fro,” is “extremely sensitive to differences” and, by “meterological extension,” affects “the storms and the fine weathers.”(21) Indeed, from Duchamp’s earliest drawing (1913) onward, the Bride looks like a double pendulum–a classic implement used in teaching chaos theory today. With its two degrees of freedom (i.e., pivot points), this device demonstrates the change from Newton’s worldview, in which cause equals predictable effect, to Poincare’s notion of the cosmos as a mixture of randomness and order.

Like Poincare, Duchamp frequently used the term “elementary parallelism,” and stated repeatedly that “chance,” “change,” “unconscious choice” and “invention” were the things that concerned him most in his work.(22) The artist was famous, of course, for his preoccupation with chess and roulette.(23) He also said many times, echoing Poincare, that changes in art occur every 50 years.

The Large Glass sieves, in the Bachelor half of the piece, sift “illuminating gas” that is represented by dust in lacquer fluid. The Milky Way, as Duchamp himself called one portion of the work, appears in the Bride half as the cloudlike Top Inscription. Thus the work interrelates gas, dust and the Milky Way– exactly as Poincare did.

I believe that, similarly, Duchamp’s life work has been waiting for us–standing unrecognized right before our eyes–until the moment when we, eventually and by chance, correctly choose the interpretation he intended. As Duchamp always said, the spectator is part of the eternal creative process of change and chance.(25) He has given us the greatest gift: the opportunity to experience the creative act for ourselves–ready-made but in need of personal verification by test and measure. Now on to further experimentation and the next 50 years.


(1.) Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983.

(2.) Craig E. Adcock, Marcel Duchamp’s Notes for the Large Glass: An N-Dimensional Analysis, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1981-83.

(3.) For English translations of the notes, see Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds., The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Da Capo Press, 1973.

(4.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. xix. Also see Paul Matisse, Marcel Duchamp Notes, Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, 1980.

(5.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. xxi.

(6.) “The Iconoclastic Opinions of M. Marcel Duchamp Concerning Art and America,” Current Opinion, November 1915, New York, Current Literature Publishing Co., p. 347.

(7.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. xxi.

(8.) Some aspects of Poincare’s impact on Duchamp am discussed in Herbert Molderings, “Objects of Modern Skepticism,” in Thierry de Duve, ed., The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1991, pp. 243-65.

(9.) Henri Poincare, The Value of Science, New York, Science Press, 1907, p. 4.

(10.) Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis, New York, Dover Publications, 1952, p. 141.

(11.) Henderson, Duchamp in Context, p. 132.

(12.) Ibid., p. 9.

(13.) Ibid., p. 10.

(14.) Unpublished interview with Cleve Gray, fall 1997.

(15.) Cited by Molderings, p. 262, fn. 1. See also Anthony Hill, ed., Duchamp: Passim; A Marcel Duchamp Anthology, Amsterdam, G + B Arts International, 1994, p. 127. Henderson cites Le Lionnais but does not mention the 50-year relationship.

(16.) Henri Poincare, The Foundations of Science: Science and Method, New York, Science Press, 1921. See especially the chapters on mathematical discovery and chance.

(17.) Ibid, pp. 383-46.

(18.) Henri Poincare, Science and Method, New York, Dover, 1952, pp. 60-62.

19.) Poincare, Science and Hypothesis, pp. 254-62, and Science and Method, p. 132.

(20.) For remarks on nature’s “garb,” see Science and Method, p. 162, and The Value of Science, p. 95. For discussion of the 50-year cycle, see Science and Hypothesis, pp. 174, 182, 206; Science and Method, pp. 123, 125; and Value of Science, pp. 35, 95.

(21.) See Sanouillet and Peterson, pp. 45-48.

(22.) See Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, New York, Da Capo Press, 1973, pp. 34- 35; Laurence Stephen Gold, “A Discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s Views on the Nature of Reality and Their Relation to the Course of His Artistic Career,” undergraduate thesis, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, May 1958, appendix; and Sanouillet and Peterson, p. 138.

(23.) Duchamp created a roulette system in 1924 based on 100,000 turns of the roulette wheel. Also see Sanouillet and Peterson, pp. 9, 137.

(24.) Space restrictions allow me to discuss only the broadest resemblances between the Large Glass and Poincare’s science. My fuller analysis is contained in “Marcel Duchamp’s Impossible Bed and Other `Not’ Readymade Objects: A Possible Route of Influence from Art to Science,” Art & Academe, Part I, vol. 10, no. 1, fall 1997, pp. 26-62, and Part II, vol. 10, no. 2, fall 1998, pp. 76-95.

(25.) See Cabanne, pp. 69-71, 76; Gold, appendix; and Duchamp’s essay “The Creative Act” in Sanouillet and Peterson, pp. 138-40. The reviewer organized a three-day symposium, “Methods of Understanding in Art and Science: The Case of Duchamp and Poincare, ” that took place Nov. 5-7, 1999, at Harvard University. Rhonda Roland Shearer is a New York-based artist who is also an associate of the Harvard University department of psychology and a visiting scholar at New York University’s physics department.

Arthur von Hippel (1898-2003)

Arthur von Hippel was a pioneer in the study of dielectrics, semiconductors, ferromagnetics, and ferroelectrics. He was an early advocate of the interdisciplinary approach to materials research, art and science and his example substantially furthered the science of materials.


Von Hippel aged 100




Von Hippel writing in 1982:

‘About fifty years ago, I studied the development of electrical breakdown in gases and recorded in detail the discharge phenomena by placing electrodes on photographic plates.1 The resulting pictures were known as “Lichtenberg Figures,” named after a venerated scientist and philosopher of the 18th century, George Christoph Lichtenberg, professor of astronomy in Göttingen (Figure 1).2 Faithful to his maxim of exploring nature with instruments of unusual dimensions, Lichtenberg baked a tremendous resin cake (electrophorous) for electrostatic experiments. Clambering up a ladder he rubbed the surface violently with a fox tail, got an electric shock and fell down. The room was dirty since the observatory was being painted. A dust cloud arose and — lo and behold — it settled down on the electrified surface in patterns of unusual design (Figures 2).3 Ever since that chance-discovery of 1777, “Lichtenberg Figures” have aroused the interest of physicists — not only because the variety of their forms offers one of the most beautiful spectacles in science, but because they record in visible detail the onset of electrical discharges. Returning to this project at M.I.T. before World War II, I developed with my graduate student, Fred Merrill, some sophisticated equipment — a four-stage impulse generator and a pressure tank (Figure 3) — that made it possible to take pictures on photographic plates (Figure 4) from discharges at pressures ranging from vacuum to high pressures in any gas desired. Our principal results were published in 1939.4 Then the war, with its urgent demands, interrupted our work. Subsequently the commitment of the Laboratory for Insulation Research to the “Molecular Designing of Materials and Devices” pushed its continuation further out of sight. Finally, while I was in Washington, as the science advisor to the Naval Research Laboratory, the equipment got lost. Fred Merrill, a cheerful and lovable companion on obstacle courses — both indoors and outdoors — had returned to England at the outbreak of World War II and died there in the late 1970’s. Therefore, I find myself in old age with many beautiful pictures still on hand that might be enjoyed by the lay person as “art in science.” The primary purpose of this work is to make these surprising images more generally accessible. Simultaneously, it might stimulate new thoughts about thunderstorms and lightning strokes in other worlds in the universe. Space probes have recently recorded lightning strokes on a moon of Jupiter.5



This work about stormy events is dedicated to two centenarians with whom I intimately shared the storms of our times: M.I.T.’s Electrical Engineering Department, and James Franck. When I came from Niels Bohr’s Institute in Copenhagen to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall of 1936, the President of M.I.T., Dr. Compton, placed me in the Electrical Engineering Department as its first physicist. The E.E. Department has become corrupted more and more by science ever since. James Franck (1882-1964) lives in many memories as a great nobleman of Science and a wonderful human being. We became close friends while going on joint adventures during my Rockefeller year at Berkeley (1927-1928) and his guestprofessorship there. He became my father-in-law in 1930.

The Onset of Electrical Discharges Electrical discharges are initiated by negative electrons (e- ) ejected from matter by photons (the photo effect), heat (thermionic emission), or intense electric fields (field-emission). Such electron “bullets,” accelerated by an applied electric voltage, collide elastically with atoms or molecules until they reach critical energies sufficient to excite or to ionize their collision partners. Excitation — first discovered by Franck and Hertz6 — promotes the atoms or molecules into a higher energy state from which they can return to the ground state by light emission. Ionization ejects an electron from the collision partner and successive repetition of this process increases the number of charge carriers in avalanche fashion. Thus, by electron impacts causing charge carrier avalanches, an insulator can be transformed into a conductor. In contrast to homogeneous conductors such as metals or conducting liquids (electrolytes), conductors produced by impact ionization have structure. The atoms or molecules, when hit by electrons with sufficient energy, are left behind as positive ions and distort the applied field by their space-charge action (Figures 5 and 6). In front of the negative electrode (the cathode), the positive ions steepen the electric field and, by positive space charge action, a cathode fall develops. The field may become so intense that it pulls additional electrons out of the metal by field emission. Those electrons in turn, accelerated to impact ionization in the cathode fall, liberate additional electrons. Thus highly conducting paths develop, which grow as sparks from the cathode into space. Similarly, electrons falling in an intense electric field towards the positive electrode (the anode) can multiply in this anode fall by impact ionization and sparks may grow from the anode into space. Light emission, caused by electronic excitation and electron capture, can imprint the phenomenon as a “Lichtenberg figure” on a photographic plate. Lightning Benjamin Franklin, in his famous kite experiment (Figure 7), demonstrated the electrical nature of lightning. The idea was that the damp cord of a kite would provide a conductor in space and lead the charge down to a suspended key. Franklin, sheltered under a dry shed, held a silk ribbon tied to the end of the cord and noted a spark jump to his grounded knuckle; he also charged a Leyden jar. Fortunately, for the history of America and of science, he was lucky: the Russian physicist G. W. Richmann was killed while repeating the experiment (Figure 8).7 Franklin’s experience led him to develop the lightning rod for the protection of buildings. In the early decades of this century, practically every house in Europe was thus protected. However, a lightning rod, if not properly grounded, is a dangerous asset, and the chance that lightning will strike a house in an unexposed location is so small that today only high, exposed structures are equipped with lightning arrestors. Lightning can be one of the most awe-inspiring phenomena in nature — as anyone who has been caught in a thunderstorm while mountain climbing knows. It is also a spectacle of unsurpassed beauty. Figures 9 to 11 show three images that imprint themselves stay indelibly in one’s mind: a thunderstorm over a city; lightning striking a water column ejected by an exploding mine; and the spectacular lightning accompanying the birth of the island of Surtsey off the Coast of Iceland.8 When lightning struck a meadow, a Lichtenberg figure of more than one meter in diameter was found burned into the grass (Fig 12). And a man killed by a lightning stroke under an apple tree had such a figure — erroneously identified as an image of the apple tree — burned on his back. Thus Lichtenberg figures and lightning are closely interrelated. Therefore, as the title of this work suggests, in addition to their inherent beauty, images of discharge phenomena in various gases under a variety of pressures might assist in the remote identification of these characteristics of the atmospheres of other planets.

Kirlian Photography and Nerve-Conduction

Recently, Lichtenberg figures have found a more doubtful application in “Kirlian photography.”9 The index finger of a person under psychological test serves as the high-voltage electrode and is pressed on a photographic plate. The pattern recorded is thought to reveal the state of physic health of the owner. Alas, if no special precautions are taken, it may be more a test of cleanliness than of godliness. On the other hand, we have begun to learn that the signals transmitted through the nervous system are of an electrical nature.10 Therefore, even though it may start as a heresy at its fringes, medicine is bound to make increasing use of electrical methods. “Electro-acupuncture,” a modern version of the classical Chinese method of “acupuncture,” has been developed by Dr. Voll and his colleagues in Germany.11 The “ionic effect” — the psycho-medical effects of positive and of negative ions inhaled during approaching weather fronts or from ionizers — is also beginning to get increased attention.12 Furious discussions have also arisen about the damage to health that may result from microwave radiation, from the stray electrical fields of high-voltage power-transmission lines, and from the magnetic fields of lowfrequency high power communication networks.13 Finally, the “electro-shock 6 LIFE IN TIMES OF TURBULENT TRANSITIONS treatment” — used by medical doctors in cases of psychosis — has been revealed to be a procedure of nearly criminal ignorance.14 Obviously, the time has come for a close cooperative effort of science, engineering and medicine to put electromedicine on the map without witchcraft approaches. In presenting this selection of Lichtenberg Figures to the general public, I therefore hope not only to provide enjoyment of the beautiful phenomena recorded but also to stimulate scientific curiosity about electrical effects observed in unusual situations — be they micro- or macroscopic. Future studies will be able to use today’s advanced color-photography as an additional source of insight — an enviable prospect. Postscript Lightning recorded as Lichtenberg figures transforms terror into enchantment. The genesis of complex phenomena unfolds in beautiful designs studied by scientists in puzzled contemplation (Figure 13).15 In these images, electronic excitation and ionization, the release of charge carriers from surfaces and gases, their cumulative action and re-absorption, the effects of space charges and of field distortion all can be studied in detail. And, in principle, the way is open to extend these studies from gases to liquids and solids (Figure 14). Time has run out for this observer. Old age has called a halt. But hopefully some young scientist somewhere may be challenged by the beauty of Lichtenberg figures to explore further the turbulent events that transform insulators into conductors.


REFERENCES 1. A. von Hippel, “Erdfeld, Gewitter und Blitz,” Die Naturwissenschafter 22, 701-712 (1934).

2. Reproduction of a drawing preserved at the University Library in Göttingen.

3. G.C. Lichtenberg, Novi. Comment. Göttingen, 8, 168 (1777).

4. F.H. Merrill and A. von Hippel, J. Appl. Phys. l0, 873-887 (1939).

5. The original says, “in the Rings of Saturn.”

6. J. Franck and G. Hertz: Verh. der Deutschen Physikalischen Gesellschaft XVI, 512 (1914).

7. cf. Bern Dibner, Benjamin Franklin, Electrician, (Norwalk, CN: Burndy Library, 1976).

8. cf. Sigudur Thorarinsson, Surtsey, (New York: The Viking Press, 1967).

9. cf. The Kirlian Aura (Anchor Press, Doubleday 1974).

10. cf. the recent work of H. Athenstead and his coworkers in, Science 216, 1018 (1982).

11. R. Voll, Elektroakupunktur, (ML Verlag, 1971); H.Leonhardt, Grundlager der Elektroakupunktur nach Voll (ML Verlag 1977).

12. Fred Syka with Alan Edmonds, The Ion Effect (printed in the USA, copyright 1977).

13. cf. e.g. the letter exchange, “high tension,” Proceedings of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 18, October 1978; and “The invisible Threat”, Saturday Review, September 15, 1979.

14. Stephen Ford and Pamela Vaughn, “A Case for More Regulation” Physician East, July 1979, pp. 21-24.

15. Woodcut by M.C. Escher, made for our book, The Molecular Designing of Materials and Devices, (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1965).

Rolling Pendulum Photography

Concave transparent acrylic body with spherical curvature. A rolling ball oscillates
inside the concavity about its rest position like a mathematical pendulum does.
The radius of curvature is equivalent to the length of a normal pendulum.

Diameter of balls: 16 mm

Radius of curvature: 200 mm

Diameter: 140 mm

A rolling ball bearing moves inside a concave acrylic body of spherical curvature. The radius of curvature of the acrylic body corresponds to the length of the pendulum. One special case is a circular motion of the ball around the vertical where it acts like a conical pendulum. Mathematically speaking, the way the location of the oscillating ball changes over time is described by the space vector in spherical coordinates.



My MA degree show installation – ‘Kinetic Energy’



I have recently completed the MA Art and Science course at Central Saint Martins. For my degree show, I wanted to present work that mapped and visually traced a variety of processes including oscillations, Lichtenberg figures and pendulum movements using a variety of mechanisms like harmonographs and Wimshurst machines. My practice involves finding ways of visualising mathematical concepts and the nature of physical laws, from electromagnetism and sound to elementary particles. I have been researching and selecting different types of natural phenomena that can be described using equations.


I applied to show my work at Imperial College as part of the Center for Doctoral Training event. I displayed some pieces that are direct visualisations of static electricity (Lichtenberg figures, see below). During my time at the college, I spoke to MRes student Jeevan Soor about my works. He spoke to me about Maxwell’s equations and how they help to describe Lichtenberg figures. I wondered if the toner dusting process had been used in forensic science and he mentioned that footprints are recorded using an electrostatic lifter. Forensic scientists use a device that generates static charge, and the charge draws the dust from the print on to the black plastic.




I have been exploring the possibilities of using electricity as an artistic tool. Through using a Wimshurst machine, I have been charging up plastic surfaces with static then dusting powders on the surface, thus visualising the invisible Lichtenberg figures left in the plastic. I then exposed the patterns onto photopolymer plates, resulting in works that are visually similar to the piece above. The works are direct visual representations of electricity.



I demonstrated and recorded sound oscillations. This is a recording of sound oscillations on a sooted glass plate. One of the two prongs was equipped with a metal tip. I also used the tuning fork on a zinc etching plate. (below)




The artwork below depicts different phases of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction (2016). The zebrafish is a model organism for pattern formation in vertebrates. First found in chemicals in dishes, (Belousov-Zhabotinsky) then in the stripes and spirals and whorls of animals, Turing patterns are everywhere. Perhaps these patterns extend to ecosystems and galaxies. My plotting electrode and its graphical depiction of Kepler’s laws (image above, 2017) is also a visual representation of Turing inhibitors because the electrode is constantly turning on and off – hence the zebrafish texture.


I’m interested in making links between processes, using the micro to explain the macro – for example, Lissajous figures drawn in sand could be illustrative of Lissajous orbits – the orbital trajectories of planets. My work unravels like Ariadne’s thread, proceeding by using multiple means and attempting exhaustive applications of logic.
Some of the processes are mathematically chaotic in nature, and leave behind a fractal pattern. The idea of chaotic patterning is fascinating and may seem contradictory – one pendulum may represent chaotic motion, the other harmonic – the Lichtenberg figures are chaotic discharges, but may also display self-similarity.

I’m interested in the idea of the mechanical prosthesis between the artist and the art – the work being able to describe something of the natural world. The performative aspect of the work also takes the form of scientific demonstration to be able to describe something about the inventor or discoverer of the equipment or process I am demonstrating.

The delineation of time is also important – simply through visual analysis, the individual strokes of some of my pieces can be given time stamps. The marks produced by plotting electrodes change in reference to its speed – the same can be said for the tuning fork works.

How do these small (Wimshurst machine) and giant (the Large Hadron Collider) technological devices help us to understand the physical universe on different scales?

The relationships that connect this world together are mysterious, indeed, why do these relationships exist? Why and when does mathematical structure appear? Is it that the structure of physical laws is transmitted from a solitary point – the symmetry that becomes diminished and scatters as the universe unwinds itself to the viewer?

‘Kepler, Sulphur Drawing’: The curved movement of a plotting electrode is recorded using the sulphur-marking system.


‘Kepler, Sulphur Drawing 1’: The curved movement of a plotting electrode is recorded using the sulphur-marking system. This produces time-interval marks. Using the distances between the marks as points of reference, one can measure the speed of the electrode. An alternating voltage at the mains frequency is applied between the electrode and the tracing plate, so that the sulphur powder is alternately attracted and repelled according to the changing polarity.