Physics, Plasma & Painting...

This week’s visit to the CNSI gallery was rather interesting for me. I never took the opportunity to take physics in high school, so the mini lesson in physics really interested me in the subject. I had no idea that something so simple as attaching some metal to a magnet and a battery could create a motor! What intrigued me even more was the discussion with physicist Walter Gekelman. His work was highly abstract to me, but from the ideas I was able to grasp I am truly amazed. When we visited the CNSI gallery to view the bio art club’s gallery, which was based on Gekelman’s work, the notion of plasma was brought up. Initially, when I heard the word I thought of blood, which didn’t make much sense. Then I thought maybe they were referring to a laser beam. It wasn’t until I spoke to one of the student an artist that they explained to me what plasma actually was. “Plasma is defined as a state of matter predominantly comprised of ions and electrons. An ion is formed when an atom or molecule gains or loses electrons, yielding an overall charge (either positive or negative). The presence of charged ions means that a plasma is highly electrically conductive and responds strongly to magnetic and electric fields.” (Futurism, 2014)  After taking years of chemistry the knowledge of a fourth state of matter was something astonishingly new to me. It was hard to imagine this state of matter but Gekelman took the time to explain more in depth. To my understanding plasma can only be achieved at extremely high temperatures like on the surface of the sun. For their project they must house this state of matter that I thought is extremely dangerous, yet pretty cool.

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During Gekelman’s presentation he mentioned the insignificant amount of time it took to measure the movement of plasma. I couldn’t even begin to understand what he meant by a billionth of a second. Or moreover how it was easy to measure such a quantity. Not to mention the cost it takes to obtain such a machine. “The room that houses the center’s plasma-processing device must be kept dust-free at all times to run projects correctly. At industrial plants, rooms like these cost $1 billion to build and maintain. Machines stored in the rooms are worth another $400 million ““ a testament to the seriousness of the research the center conducts.” (Barragan, 2011) I was curious to know more about the purpose of such an intricate project. After some research I found that “Gekelman obtained substantial extramural and university resources and over a period of 4.5 years led a team of undergraduate and graduate students in the construction of the Large Plasma Device (LAPD). This is widely perceived as the premier machine for basic plasma studies and is presently yielding important insight into basic processes observed in space by rockets and spacecraft.” (“About Walter Gekelman”) I think Gekelman’s dedication to improving the level of science education is admirable. I think it is awesome that he wants to collaborate and do an art piece based on his knowledge. 


After learning about such an important physicist who wants to join teams with artists to create bio art, I was interested to see what other physicists and artists were interested in such a collaboration. I found that “Crossovers between art and science are nothing new; consider, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's botanical sketches, proportional studies, and flying machines (or, for that matter, the culinary artistry of today's molecular gastronomists).” (Harvard University, 2011) I learned of physicist Jackson Pollock who was also an artist. “Pollock is an artist who is seen as the prime mover and innovator behind a new American style of art (Abstract Expressionism) that blossomed in this county in the aftermath of our nation’s defeat of the Axis powers.” (Seed, 2014) He used his knowledge in physics to create new techniques in paintings inspired by the law of nature. “Pollock's signature style involved laying a canvas on the floor and pouring paint onto it in continuous, curving streams. Rather than pouring straight from the can, he applied paint from a stick or a trowel, waving his hand back and forth above the canvas and adjusting the height and angle of the trowel to make the stream of paint wider or thinner.” (Harvard University, 2011) I admire this physicist’s aspiration to bring two fields together has created something totally new to the art world.




"About Walter Gekelman." About Walter Gekelman. Basic Plasma Science Facility, n.d. Web. 25 May 2016. 

Barragan, James. "UCLA’s LArge Plasma Device Helps Understand Universe, Create Innovative Technology through Experimentation with Artificial Plasma." Daily Bruin. N.p., 24 Jan. 2011. Web. 25 May 2016.

Futurism. "Plasma: The Fourth State of Matter." Futurism Plasma The Fourth State of Matter Comments. N.p., 25 Jan. 2014. Web. 25 May 2016.

Harvard University. "Jackson Pollock, artist and physicist?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 June 2011. Web. 25 May 2016.

Seed, John. "What Makes a Jackson Pollock Painting Worth Millions?" The Huffington Post., 2 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 May 2016.