18 November 2020

#DrawnToGeoscience: Refraction in Action

Posted by Shane Hanlon

#DrawnToGeoscience is a series of posts by artists who draw about science and explain their process and inspiration while also showcasing their pieces. Learn more about contributing. This week, Nick Young.

Earlier this summer when I was beginning to brainstorm ideas for the science art exhibition I would be co-organizing, my partner and I went to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park near Grand Rapids, Michigan. While some of the sculptures were large and complex, I was struck by the simplicity of some of the sculptures. Made only of a few metal blocks and rods, these works of art still communicated complex thoughts and ideas. I began to wonder what scientific concept I could communicate in a simple manner.

As I continued to walk around the sculpture park, I came to the koi pond. I watched the koi swim and occasionally poke their heads above the surface. I noticed that the koi looked different in size when they were above the water rather than below, a consequence of refraction, or the bending of light as it moves between mediums. After observing the koi, I thought, why not create an art piece describing refraction. Using only a single line, I could describe that scientific concept.

In my artwork, Refractions, I show the path light takes through water, glass, and diamond respectively. These materials are the standard choices for introductory physics refraction problems, and hence I chose them for this piece. While the bending of light may appear as an optical illusion, it is the result of part of the waves of light hitting the other medium before the rest does and slowing down. That is, these drawings are not representations of refraction, but descriptions of what actually occurs. As a result, I used a simple equation to calculate the angle at which the light bends and then put the result into a computer program to draw the lines.

Refractions. Credit: Nick Young

Perhaps what I like most about creating art from scientific concepts is that anyone can do it themselves. For example, anyone can take a glass of water (make sure it is glass or clear plastic) and place a spoon in it. When the spoon appears bent or even cut in half, that’s refraction in action!

-Nick Young is a PhD candidate in physics education research and computational mathematics, science, and engineering at Michigan State University.