Quantum Art

Chemist, physisist, and artist Eric Heller harnesses the computer to render stunning images of minute natural phenomena

"Art can lead to science," says Eric Heller, Ph.D. '73, noting that chaos theory "would never have taken off without some gorgeous images--like fractals--that came out of computers." Heller, who is professor of chemistry and of physics at Harvard, has always loved graphic arts, and often presents his own scientific work visually. In recent years he has begun to create artistic images based on scientific research, including his own. A grant from the National Science Foundation funded an exhibit of more than 40 of Heller's pieces that opens at both the MIT Museum and its Compton Gallery in February. Titled Approaching Chaos, the exhibit moves to the Chicago Academy of Sciences in May, then continues a tour that culminates at the National Academy of Science in Washington in 2002.

Heller writes computer algorithms that mathematically describe scientific phenomena, typically taken from chemistry or quantum physics. The program computes a huge file--often gigabyte-size--that Heller translates into a pixel map to create a raw image. (Even a few years ago, computers would have been too slow to make these pictures.) Then, using software tools like Photoshop, he manipulates hues and other aspects of the image to create these digital printouts, some as large as five feet by eight feet.

"Graphics help communicate the science, and also help scientists to think," Heller asserts. "With a poor method of plotting data, for example, you can miss a scientific discovery." In his art, he says, "I'm trying to convey the mystery and beauty of discovery, and the pleasure and delight of the quantum world. You could say that I'm using physics as my brush."

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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