For many years I’ve been fascinated by what lies beyond human perception. My curiosity is sparked by ideas like those of Plato who said our perception of the universe can be compared to people in a cave seeing shadows cast on a wall. We only see the shadows and not the cause of the shadows.
Plato called it a cave, I’ll call it a cage of perception. The human senses and our brains are fantastic ways evolution has provided for navigating and surviving in this universe. They help us interact with physical objects and living things in meaningful ways. Yet, because they are focused on navigation and survival, and because evolution is an efficient process, they tend to permit us to only perceive things about our universe that we need to survive. The result is that they do not allow us to see the universe as it really is.
For example, we cannot see the substrate everything seems to be made of, quanta. We can’t see the strings or loops or grains. They are way, way, way too small to see, not just for our senses, but for our technology. We’re not even really sure they are there.
Scientists are far ahead of the average person in understanding our universe and what it is really like. They are ahead not because they want to be, but because it is getting more and more challenging to communicate about what they are learning. This disconnect between physicists and the average person began to widen in the early 20th century with Albert Einstein’s descriptions of special and general relativity. Everyone can recite E=mc2, but how many people can explain what it really means and understand that it is not about relativity?
I believe visual communication is the key to bridging this gap. Artists and information visualizers are key to the process. So are researchers who are willing to work with artists and designers to help communicate the significance of their research to the public.
I find it fascinating and exciting to be at a point in my career when I can devote time to the pursuits like this. It is not only personally rewarding, it is critical. If we don’t do a better job communicating about science to the public, we may soon find that our species is not fit to survive some upcoming global crisis, whether it is a biological holocaust, a climate-associated disaster, or another asteroid impact.
In 2019 I was privileged to be named the Artist-in-Residence in the Extreme Arts Program, which is a collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute and the Maryland Institute College of Art, where I teach courses in information visualization and perception. I proposed a project called Explorations of the Invisible Domain.
During the six-month residency, I met with John Hopkins researchers whose work involved physics and chemistry happening at the nanoscale or below. This gave me a chance to visually explore things beyond human perception. This is what I called the invisible domain.
During my short tenure at Hopkins, I worked with several research groups. James Spicer and his team were studying how lasers travel through matrices such as glass. Joelle Frechette’s lab group was looking at polymers and what happens at a molecular level when they are being pulled apart. Evan Ma’s research involved studying the phenomena of rapid phase transitions from liquids to solids. All of these projects provided the terrain for me to explore things beyond the range of human vision. I adopted the concept of “terrain” for my artwork and conjured landscapes from chemical or physical reactions happening at nano-scales or smaller.
I finished my Explorations of the Invisible Domain project as the pandemic of 2020 was beginning. I produce seven large, colorful digital art pieces printed on aluminum and three chromium-plated brass sculptures. Ten pieces in six months. That’s not bad for me, since I am a very slow artist! But I feel that I barely touched the topic.
There are so many other aspects of the invisible domain left to learn about and explore. I feel like a bird in a cage that has a cover over it. I’m thrashing around inside, trying to poke holes through the cover to get a glimpse of what is outside. I feel it is important for humanity’s future that we understand more about our universe and see beyond our cage. I’ve managed a pinhole here and there. Light is shining through the tiny holes, but there’s a long way to go before I see anything clearly.