Intelligent Design in Science

'Chaos and Geomagnetic Reversals,' by Christophe Gissinger (postdoc), Department of Astrophysical Sciences/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

For those, like me, who have trouble fitting the square pegs of science into the round holes of your brain, an exhibit titled The Art of Science can be the window in to understanding such topics as dusty plasma and spiral galaxies.

The 56 works chosen for the 2011-2012 Art of Science, on view at the Princeton University Friend Center through the end of the academic year, represent the theme of “intelligent design” interpreted in the broadest sense. And in fact it’s an attempt to take back the title “intelligent design.”

“Science is under attack, and as a science educator I’m very troubled by attacks on climate change and evolution,” says Art of Science co-organizer Andrew Zwicker, head of Science Education for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, as well as a lecturer in the Princeton University Writing Program. “There’s so much misinformation,” he says, making a distinction between movie science, science from magazines or books, and true scientific discovery.

“There’s amazing natural beauty in the symmetry and order in nature,” adds Zwicker. “You don’t need to call on a deity to see a beauty in that order.”

A field rabbit regulating its body temperature through its posture; a simulation of the birth of a galaxy; an electron micrograph of a computer chip created with novel materials – all are examples of intelligent design.

If ever there’s a guy who can make science fun – and accessible — it’s Zwicker. He has students perform dusty plasma experiments in the “Vomit Comet” – a microgravity plane in which they are weightless. Hoping to reinvigorate science interest in young people, he makes the connection between science and play.

“Little kids love to build and take things apart,” he says. “All kids have the potential to love science, and we have to keep that message from getting lost when, say, there is too much lecturing or too many facts to memorize.” He laments the weeding out of students for only “the best and the brightest.”

“Science is as creative as art,” Zwicker maintains. “Both have parallels – there are things you have to do along the way that may not be fun. To make a scientific contribution is extremely hard, but you can have fun.”

A visitor to the Friend Center can get very excited about science. Alongside the exhibit, a display case of books whets the appetite: “Dr. Evler’s Fabulous Formula Cures Many Mathematical Ills” by Paul J. Nahin – on its cover, a blue bottle with a silhouette of a Victorian lady carrying a tray of a steaming elixir, the steam forming a mathematical formula; “The Mystery of the Missing Antimatter” by Helen R. Quinn and Yossi Nir, with a Sherlock Holmes-type detective holding a magnifying glass to a spiral galaxy; and “Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the back of a cocktail Napkin” by Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam.

The Art of Science began in 2005, and this is the third year Zwicker has been an organizer. Zwicker had been one of the “artists” in 2005 and was a first prizewinner.

“When someone says your scientific image has aesthetic value, it changes how you think,” says Zwicker. “It changes the lens of how you see your own work.”

The panel of judges this year included David Dobkin, Dean of the Faculty; Joel Smith, Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum; and Shirley M. Tilghman, President. Past judges have included photographer and faculty member Emmet Gowin and poet and Chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts Paul Muldoon.

Even the scientists may not have expertise in every field, and have a personal aesthetic in judging, says Zwicker.

“All three of us could agree what made visually interesting pictures while we were looking for scientific images, whether or not we understood it,” says Joel Smith. “I’m always looking for visual grammar that there’s something real – you know you’re seeing relevant information.

“Just looking at the image before you read the caption, the image can either present an open window or be obscure,” continues Smith. “What’s showcased in this exhibit will give you a start on understanding what it’s about.

And artists and scientists have a lot to learn from each other. “Study the science of art and the art of science,” Leonardo da Vinci is reported to have said.

Zwicker’s own interest in science can be traced back to what he describes as “exceptional teachers.” He credits his calculus teacher at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, and his physics professor at Bard College.

Born in Manhattan, Zwicker’s mother was an English teacher and his father, an executive recruiter. He graduated from Bard in 1986 and earned his Ph.D in physics from Johns Hopkins in 1992.

Zwicker runs Plasma Camp, a one-week intensive summer program for K-12 teachers to prepare them for teaching about energy in the 21st century in a state-of-the-art laboratory. “We study dusty plasma – the rings of Saturn, the tails of a comet. Teachers are saying this is life changing, because as educators, they had never done real science.”

So what, exactly, is plasma? Ninety percent of the universe is plasma: lightening, the stars, the sun, even fluorescent lights and TV, says Zwicker. It is the fourth state of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. When you heat gas, you get plasma. Zwicker’s goal is no less than to change the universe, creating a clean source of energy from plasma.

“How would you like a job where you are given the freedom to use your imagination, your creativity, and your scientific training to the fullest?” he writes of his work on his blog “Science Educmacation.” “How would you like a job where you feel that you are making a difference?  How would you like a job that makes you feel that in a small but significant way you are changing lives?”

The Art of Science artists – faculty, students and alumni – use many techniques to capture and create images for the Art of Science competition, from computer-generated images to those captured by a camera in the field. And, of course, since they are scientists, they use advanced scientific instruments to create works of art. These extraordinary images are not art for art’s sake, but were produced during the course of scientific research.

“Dust to Dust, to Planets?” by Xuening Bai and James Stone, Department Astrophysical Science, looks at first like black and white marble paper, undulating folds of white on black. In fact it is the coagulation of tiny solid particles (dust) that form planets: aerodynamical interactions between gas and pebbles collect into dense clumps that become, first, planetesimals – the building blocks of planets.

“The Sum of All Wrinkles” by Atray Dixit, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, looks indeed like a pattern of wrinkles made of butter cream frosting. Or like ridges of mountains on a scale model village. In fact it is a microfabricated structure using a template of sinusoidal wrinkles. Kind of makes you want to sneeze.

Peter Q. Liu, a grad student in the Department of Electrical Engineering, writes “Spirals, a family of beautiful and elegant geometrical curves with fascinating mathematical properties, are present everywhere in the universe on a vast range of scales: nautilus, hurricanes, galaxies…” By connecting a spiral semiconductor micro-structure to a straight one, he produces an image – “The Golden Spiral” – that looks like an Art Deco ornament carved into an old train car or movie theater seat.

Stephanie Wissel’s “Balls and Bubbles” looks like a hand-blown glass vase filled with glass weeds. “The dynamics of the bubbles and splashes produced by a ball impacting water change dramatically when the force due to gravity is removed, leaving the only remaining driving forces: surface tension and inertia.”

“The Buddy System: Two Fish Swimming Side-by-Side” is another example of the spiral. It looks like peacock feathers or a series of random spirals worked into stripes. Created by Birgitt Boschitsch, Peter Dewey and Alexander Smits, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, two artificial fish fins are placed side-by-side and flapped in phase with each other as water flows past. “In developing next-generation autonomous underwater vehicles, we look for intelligent designs observed in nature,” write the scientists.

“The Orange and the Black” by Henry S. Horn in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology looks like butterflies and is, in fact, butterflies. It shows a “simulated compound-eye view” of how one Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly sees another Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly.” Sounds like love to me, and in fact it is: “It may be more than coincidence that 18 centimeters is about the typical courtship distance for this species.”

There are grid-like images, crystalline images, images of fluorescence. There is “Rainbow Nanoplankton” like colorful dandy drops, and “Your Brain on Donuts,” a neural network.

Zhen James Xiang, Department of Electrical Engineering, has a photograph, “Tree,” that looks like a view up a very spiky tree through a window grid. He is designing “intelligent image decomposition algorithms that split an image into sub images.”

Sarah Batterman, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has photographed a field of lupines to show the potential ecological disaster. The beautiful flower that favors northern climates was planted in Iceland more than 50 years ago to fix nitrogen in the soil and help rebuild after erosion, but it is now controversial among Icelanders.

The Art of Science is on view at the Princeton University Friend Center, Olden and William streets, through the end of the academic year. It can also be viewed on line: http://www.princeton.edu/artofscience/gallery2011/about.php.html

Science on Saturday, also run by the Education Department at PPPL, is a series of lectures given by scientists, mathematicians, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m., the lectures are geared toward high school students and draws teachers, parents, and community members as well; free and open to the public.  Full program schedule:  http://science-education.pppl.gov/SOS/2012_Program_files/SOS.2012.Flyer.11×17.pdf

This story originally appeared in U.S. 1 Newspaper.

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