Practice-Led PhD Research

Making The Conceptual Tangible: The Role of Art in Communicating Science

 Communicating Science Through Art: Practice-led Research


This research considers the 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.

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. This includes 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 contribute to 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.

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 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.

Further related sculptures and prints signify what the effect of latitude is upon the precessional rate in degrees per hour.

Kinetic sculpture 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 include steam-bent ash sculpture as an interpretation of d’Alembert’s travelling wave equation, the Analemma Sundial sculpture and landscape Artwork, situated in the University of Dundee Botanic Gardens.

Some Video Clips of Work in Progress

A Different View: Making The Conceptual Tangible

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

Professor Mary Modeen: Chair of Interdisciplinary Art Practice, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, 2nd Supervisor.

The Institute of Physics Scotland funding award.

The University of Dundee Botanic Gardens, commissioned public artwork in sculpture and landscape art.

Kevin Frediani, Curator, University of Dundee Botanic Gardens

Dr S. 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

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.