Particle physics art

The art of physics

Nothing can prepare you for a conversation with a physicist, certainly not a conversation about abstract art. TIFR physicist Sukant Saran straddles both worlds with mastery


Sukant Saran describes the notion that any observer in the universe, regardless of position, would find space expanding in all directions. Photos/Shadab Khan






Sukant Saran would like you to know from the start that his artworks are not diagrams. Clay sculptures do not represent scientific concepts; that is not how he sees them. They are a conceptual fusion of art and the laws of physics.

For example, the story of Isaac Newton discovering gravity after an apple fell on his head is just that, a story. “Newton’s great contribution to science, however,” says the physicist, “was the observation that the force that knocked the apple off a tree was also responsible for keeping the moon in its orbit around the Earth. He connected the celestial and the terrestrial in his theory of gravitation. The massive clay apple of Saran is pockmarked with lunar craters to represent this connection made by Newton. That there are voids in the universe is another myth he busted.

With craters on the surface of the fruit, Newton's apple postulates that the moon and the apple have equal status in Newton's theory of gravitationWith craters on the surface of the fruit, Newton’s apple postulates that the moon and the apple have equal status in Newton’s theory of gravitation

The 59-year-old works at TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) which is parked at the end of Homi Bhabha Road in Colaba, right next to the entrance to Old Navy Nagar. Too few would look for art there, let alone security clearance. And it’s unfair. “My colleagues have all seen [the exhibition Sculpting Science: An experiment in art] and supported me, but yeah, I don’t know how others will find their way here. As it stands, there is a bit of a mystery about what we do here at TIFR.

Saran was born to a journalist father and grew up in Chandigarh in an environment rich in poets, artists and entertainers, authors and other cultural elements of the time. “I have been drawing and painting since I was a child. Initially, I was engaged in creating abstract art with a pen, then I switched to digital art in 2000, ”explains the scientist. Along the way, he realized he was thinking in three dimensions and then translating that into two-dimensional art.

In quantum mechanics, particles are waves and waves are particles.  This sculpture shows particles merging to make waves, and the waves become localized particlesIn quantum mechanics, particles are waves and waves are particles. This sculpture shows particles merging to make waves, and the waves become localized particles

Sculpture seemed a more appropriate form. At first he played with different types of clay, took some basic pottery lessons and it became his medium of choice. After a few experiments he realized that his hand was informed by science and the sculptures became concepts about subatomic particles (particles in the form of waves along the time axis), physical processes such as evaporation, ductility and malleability (at the subatomic particle level), history and symbolism (the apple comes here, as well as a “faithful representation of a tree”).

“Traditionally, the tree is only represented by what we see above ground,” he says, “but the tree as an organism spreads as much below ground as branches above ground. above. I have modified the usual traditional symbol to show that this should be the actual drawing of a tree as informed by science. The secondary intention is to emphasize that unseen processes are as important as those that the we see.

Embryo day 18 shows cell division and differentiation as the fetus develops in the womb.  The repeated folding, unfolding, stretching and contraction of two interacting layers form all the elements of a developed human bodyEmbryo day 18 shows cell division and differentiation as the fetus develops in the womb. The repeated folding, unfolding, stretching and contraction of two interacting layers form all the elements of a developed human body

Other sculptures are grouped into Duality: Order/Disorder, Wave/Particle, Matter/Antimatter and Interaction; mathematical forms illustrated through abstract representations of surfacing, saddle and idealization. For example, the Earth does not have a smooth surface – there are mountains and trenches, oceans, overlapping or colliding tectonic plates. But for computational purposes, we assume it is a smooth globe. With this, Saran tries to argue that science is an abstract representation of nature, just like a poem or a painting.

“Dualities such as mind-body or good-evil are woven into our daily routine in such a way that our lives are governed by them. Wherever you look, whatever you do, a certain duality is part of our life. Science also has dualities and I have tried to describe some of them. Sometimes they appear as mathematical abstractions, and sometimes as manifestations in the physical environment,” he explains. A sculpture shows “order blending seamlessly into disorder”. “Although it is a scientific concept, it can be applied to any situation.”

“Have you heard of the Möbius loop? he asks, heading for the next sculpture. We nod, dishonestly (It’s the surface formed by tying the ends of a strip of paper together with a half twist, we’ll find out later). “I just used the concept of a U-turn. If there is a protrusion [on one side], in a U-turn it becomes a depression. There is no real theory that uses the Möbius strip as a mechanism for producing pairs.

One of the last two groups is that of biological forms which show the interaction of science and art. Multicellular mitochondria responsible for life; the segmentation observed in an earthworm or the bark of a date palm being imitated by an embryo as it grows; and depictions of 18- and 28-day-old embryos. The last group is Space and Time, considered in physics as a single entity. Twenty-four of the 80 pieces he created are on display until June 10.

Watching Dr Who or Big Bang Theory doesn’t prepare you for a conversation with a physicist; definitely not one about abstract art. This writer asked him to explain the plays as if addressing a six-year-old child, and a tour of the room solicits the imagination. Especially if one sat motionless during the physics period, eyes glazed over. Try to understand this: “According to quantum mechanics, waves are particles and particles are waves.”

Abstract representation of space-time or wave-particle duality along the time axis may require a more specific mind, there is no denying the beauty of each sculpture. Bands of clay blend into each other to represent an expanding universe, with galaxies moving further and further apart. It is a complex and chaotic piece, which attracts you. Biological forms and physical processes (evaporation, ductility, malleability and expansion) are much easier to understand.

It was her particular position in space and time that guided Saran’s upbringing, as well as societal conditioning. “I was good at studies and therefore considered intelligent and science-oriented,” he says, “If you see that in a broader perspective, it’s a very dumb way of thinking. Both disciplines are harmed by it. there is no interaction He cultivates a very rigid way of thinking.