How to Create Art for the Invisible Domain

I teach classes in information visualization at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). When most people hear the words “information visualization,” their thoughts go to either data visualization or information graphics. Indeed, that is what we teach at MICA. But my interests in information visualization go far beyond data visualization or information graphics. For me, the universe is made of information, literally. The challenge for artists today is to help visualize it.

What am I talking about? Let’s start with one of the easiest things about the universe to understand, but one of the most vexing of the visualization problems—the atom. We were all taught that atoms look like a miniature solar system with electrons orbiting around a nucleus of protons and neutrons. Well, that model is a useful way to communicate about atoms, but it is not how an atom really looks.

how to create art for the invisible domain
This type of “solar system” model reduces electrons, protons, and neutrons to hard balls, which they are not.

The same thing is true of molecules. Chemists and materials scientists use stick and ball visualizations of molecules. Molecules don’t really look like that. The stick and ball model, however, provides researchers and educators with a visual language they can use to communicate ideas, like the structure of DNA.

A stick and ball model of DNA.

When I was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute (HEMI) one of my first interests was to come up with an alternative to stick and balls. I did not know it at the time, but my explorations of an alternative would become the unifying theme in the artwork I produced while I was there. Here’s what happened. 

The three labs I worked with at HEMI were all involved with research that had to do with atoms or molecules. James Spicer’s lab was looking at lasers going through crystal or glass matrices. Evan Ma was studying the phase change of materials from solid molecular structures to liquid. Joelle Frechette’s lab was studying the stretching of polymer molecules.

Some early sketches showing explorations of force models of atoms and lasers going through a lattice.

My first task was to see if I could find a way of thinking about atoms and molecules without using sticks and balls. My thoughts went to bonding and the forces that hold atoms together as molecules. Instead of depicting particles, why not try to depict the forces? 

After some preliminary sketches, I turned to 3D modeling to explore this idea. One of the things I wanted to show was the diminishing strength of the attractive forces of an atom as one moved further from it. 

I created a cylinder in a 3D modeling program and manipulated it to create large bulges spaced on either side. I then placed bulges of decreasing size on either side of these bulges. The large bulge represented the strongest force of the atom and the smaller bulges represented diminishing force. 

This process created an interesting model, but the obvious problem was that the forces I was trying to depict emanate in a sphere pattern around the atom, not in a line. So, I took one of the “force lines” and rotated it multiple times to create more of an impression that the forces reached out in all directions. 

I realized two things at this point in my explorations. The first is that this idea of force lines was still an inadequate depiction of what is really going on with molecular bonds. The second is that even though the model was inadequate, it could still work as an interesting aesthetic device to depict various things I wanted to show about the research I was dealing with. What made my force line model work was that I could make it interlock like a crystal and I could stretch it to show bonds between atoms stretching. 

It turned out to be quite labor-intensive to align the force lines into a crystal lattice using my 3D program. But once the lattice was formed, it was relatively easy to create the impression that tiny laser beams were shooting through the matrix, colliding and bouncing off the forces of the atoms. 

This approach worked well as a way to aesthetically explore the work of James Spicer’s lab. For Joelle Frechette’s research, the bonds had to be stretched. For Evan Ma’s research, the bonds had not only to stretch but to break. 

Twisting and stretching the “force lines” in 3D was also a lot of work. For the artwork based on Frechette’s research, the force lines needed to stretch unevenly along the line. Each force line needed to be twisted in a certain way in order to prepare the artwork about Evan Ma’s research. A lot of tedious vertex-by-vertex modeling became necessary for each of these approaches.

Left, an early exploration of “force lines” in a lattice. Middle, stretching force lines to show polymer stretching. Right, twisting force lines to show phase change. The fish is an addition I initially put in as a lark, but Professor Ma liked it, so it stayed.
Polymeria 2 is an example of the sort of atomic-scale landscape that fascinates me.

Once the force lines were shaped correctly and in position, the artwork took on the nature of landscapes—landscapes at a scale we cannot see. As the artist, I became a tour director for vicarious travelers interested in visiting the invisible domain. 

My explorations during my tenure at HEMI barely scratched the surface of the sort of information visualization that needs to be done. Our universe is a marvelous place. Yet even with our amazing ability to see with our eye-brain system, it remains extremely mysterious and even opaque. I hope to do more—much more—exploration of ways to take what scientists have discovered about the universe we can’t see and make it visual. I hope other artists will join me in this huge and important effort.


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