Practice-Led PhD Research

Making The Conceptual Tangible: The Role of Art in Understanding Mathematics and Science

                             Communicating Science Through Art: A Practice-led Research Project


This research considers the educational role of art in finding pathways towards accessing mathematics and science, particularly those abstract concepts usually only accessible to people with an advanced algebraic vocabulary.

In the light of the narrowing of the school curriculum in recent decades, and particularly the reduction in timetabling of art and music in English schools, this research actively explores the use of topic overlap between science and art to investigate how abstract concepts can be made tangible through visual and aural stimulation.

Kinetic sculpture is employed that visibly and audibly demonstrates particular phenomena, e.g. wavelike behaviour, celestial forces, harmonic ratios or resonance. The sculpture encompasses two or more tangible aspects such as shape, pattern, scale, sound, resonant frequencies, motion, recorded film that illuminates differences in different latitudes, and reversed or translated perspectives.

Feedback is sought through exhibitions of the sculpture. Through observation, survey and interview, key metrics are captured and analysed. These include the degree to which interest has been captured, curiosity aroused, and comprehension aided by the art which is designed to maximise observation, questioning, critical thinking and learning.

The longer-term goal of the research is to initiate a conversation in the wider public domain as to the value of art in accessing abstract concepts. It will bring to the broadest forum the value of art in its uniqueness, breadth of language, immediacy and power of communication by visibly and audibly shedding light on physical phenomena and enabling people the potential for greater success and enjoyment in learning.

Research Question

Can Art Enhance the Learning About and Understanding of Science?

Project Aim

The lack of uptake in STEM subjects in school, particularly in physics and mathematics, as referred to in the press and government literature, gives evidence for this.

The aim of this project is to investigate whether the directed application of art can enhance the interest in and learning of abstract scientific concepts, otherwise often impenetrable to some in society.

To achieve this, specific phenomena will be selected that are usually described using the abstractions of mathematics, but which can have visually or kinetically appealing representations in sculpture, such as wavelike behaviour, or celestial forces and motion. Art will be made that captures in a visual and aural way the observable manifestations, laws and parametric relationships of such phenomena.

The objective is to mount exhibitions of such art, that will measure over a preselected period of days per exhibition each exhibit’s effectiveness in describing specific phenomena and whether the observer’s comprehension of these phenomena has been enhanced.

User surveys containing carefully designed questions, combined with interviews and observed responses of viewers will be used to capture the data. Current thoughts on the format of these surveys could include:  Exhibition attendee responses – verbal, written, pictorial, filmed/recorded with the correct ethical permissions; Multi-choice feedback; Subject-matter based quizzes. Follow-up activities and discussions with some groups- eg school groups

Area of Physics to be Explored and How it will be Exhibited and Communicated

The specific areas of physics that will be explored will be aspects of wave theory, and of celestial motion/forces.

Two main sculptures using pendulums are being used to communicate aspects of simple harmonic motion, and the effects of the Coriolis force on a long pendulum.

 The first sculpture which is a variation of Foucault’s pendulum emphasises the relativity aspects of motion by observing the environment moving around the pendulum as it precesses, rather than a more usual assumption that the pendulum precesses in a stationary environment.

The second of these sculptures links the rhythmic relationship between pendulums whose frequencies are related by a simple fraction, to the relationship between aural frequencies that are at musical intervals pleasing to the ear.

Kinetic sculpture exhibit 1 consists of a pendulum 497mm in diameter suspended from a height of approx. 5 m. The pendulum has a camera mounted internally that takes a photo every 2nd swing peak, tracking the precession of the pendulum over 24 hours. The film formed from these frames is shown as a moving picture to expose the earth’s rotation about the pendulum on a screen.

A further related exhibit demonstrates as a picture what the effect of latitude is upon the precessional rate in degrees per hour.

Kinetic sculpture exhibit 2 consists of a gantry of clock movements designed to drive pendulums whose frequencies are in the same ratios as the unison, major third, perfect fifth, and octave intervals as used in music. Observers will notice the relationship between the tick rhythms for the pairs of movements. They will also observe the square law relationship between pendulum lengths and frequencies.

Further sculptures are in design and planning and may be included in the exhibition as they become available.

Some Video Clips of Work in Progress

A Different View: Making The Conceptual Tangible

 Spiegel Im Spiegel, Arvo Pärt

Individuals/organisations involved in this project are:

The University of Dundee

Dr Paul L Harrison: Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art Practice, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, 1st Supervisor

Gair Dunlop: Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art Practice, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, 2nd Supervisor

The Institute of Physics Scotland funding award

Dr Sean D Smith C.Eng. MIET. Technical Support with Mathematics, Physics and Engineering. 

Promoting the Project Exhibition

The project will be promoted through the university publicity channels in the first instance.

Social media outlets will also be considered- eg Instagram Facebook

In addition, paper copies of flyers/posters can be produced and distributed locally, and at any other locations of the exhibition.

Local press can be approached- through the university press office.

Measures of Success

Feedback solicited from exhibition visitors will be used as an indicator of success of the project.

User surveys containing carefully designed questions, combined with randomly selective interviews will be used to capture the data. Current thoughts on the format of these surveys include:  Exhibition attendee responses; Multi-choice feedback; Subject-matter and interviewee background-based quizzes.

Third party or press reviews of the exhibition will provide further evidence of success of the project.

The accumulation of evidence for this project is intended to be iterative. Following early exhibitions, the data gathered will be used to refine and augment the set of exhibits prior to running additional exhibitions in new venues.


The hypothesis for this research work is that through the use of art, primarily but not exclusively of kinetic sculpture, evidence can be gathered indicating that art can play a useful role in making otherwise difficult conceptual subjects in mathematics and science, accessible.

Through surveys and observation of exhibition attendees it is proposed that this evidence can be gathered and the hypothesis demonstrated.

Having proven the merit of the hypothesis, it is the intention that the work would be used to lobby state education bodies for inclusion of art as a vehicle for improving uptake and achievement among children and students in these subject.