Quest for the Visualization of Quanta

Quanta. For me, searching for a way to depict this phenomenon of our universe is like a quest for the holy grail. 
Scanning the internet for “quanta art” yields a number of interesting pieces of artwork. Many are associated with Quanta Magazine, an online publication that covers physics, mathematics, biology, and computer science. The art used for the magazine is conceptual illustration. These illustrations use a variety of symbols to communicate their ideas. These include geometric shapes, loops, squiggles, and waves. All of these are derived from the language of mathematics which surrounds quantum physics.

I used to be an art director of finance publications that used conceptual illustration. It was a lot of fun and I met a lot of talented artists who were great at using symbols to connect people to ideas. What I found, however, was that the world of symbols that were useful for communicating about finance was limited. There were stacks of coins, ascending and descending arrows, banks, bags of money, and, of course, the dollar sign. 

It was not long before I saw these symbols reappear. I realized that there was a finite number of symbols people associate with finance. I expect the same is true of mathematics and quantum physics. I suspect that Quanta Magazine is seeing the same symbols again and again—drawn by different artists, of course—but the symbols are the same.
Complicating matters for the depiction of quantum physics is the paucity of imagery and the uncertainty and weirdness of it all. As Philip Boll, a contributing writer to Quanta put it in one of his articles, ” Scientists have been using quantum theory for almost a century now, but embarrassingly they still don’t know what it means.” As a result, researchers don’t give artists much to work with other than billiard balls for particles and rippling waves.

A table showing all the billiard balls, eg., subatomic particles, available to artists and a depiction of waves. It is not much to work with.

I respect the efforts of the conceptual artists working for Quanta Magazine, but I think that communicating about the quantum nature of the universe is a role for fine artists. The reason is that we need to go beyond symbols. We have to, partly because we’ve run out of them, but more important is that visual poetry of some other kind will be necessary.
Among the illustrations that came up in the search were two pieces of fine art named Quanta. Both are featured on the Metropolitan Museum’s website. One is by David Row, created in 2012, and the other by Lucio Fontana, created in 1959. I respect the efforts of anyone who attempts a task like trying to depict quanta. It is hard to say, however, whether these get us any closer to a worldview that includes an understanding and acceptance of quanta.

Web pages showing Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept, The Quanta, and David Row’s Quanta.

Understanding what researchers are saying about quanta and quantum physics is going to take some study and some time. As I read books on the topic, my mind sometimes feels like I catch a glimpse of it—of a way to visualize it. But it’s an elusive glimpse. Just like subatomic particles, the vision gets blurry and disappears as I get closer to it.


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