Blending the rules: how physics helps paint a new picture for artists of all mediums

This post was written by student science writer Rachael Lee.

A singer or a violinist’s performance produces sound waves that echo across a concert hall. A painter may mix different paint colors to create a new hue. Dancers use forces like gravity and inertia to produce stunning displays.

At first glance, the arts and physical sciences may look like very separate disciplines. However, many art forms are based on physics.

One hugely popular physics course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows how the arts and physics are, in fact, inextricably linked. Physics in the Arts (Physics 109) examines sound and light using examples from the arts. Physics in the Arts has been taught at UW–Madison since 1969, when it was started by physics professors Willy Haeberli and Ugo Camerini. Today’s instructors, professors Pupa Gilbert and A. Baha Balantekin, are continuing and extending the class’s mission to bridge the two disciplines to benefit both physicists and artists in understanding and appreciating each other’s fields.

Balantekin says that the interdisciplinary course shows the rest of the campus community that physics is not just a technical subject. By demonstrating physics in a medium familiar to artists, it helps provide a new perspective and appreciation for the sciences. “If you’re a musician, it’s much better to learn about the physics behind how your instrument works, or the physics behind how colors mix. It’s more interesting, and then it still helps them to learn,” he says.

For example, when an orchestra plays together, they create a piece of music with several parts that blend to create a pleasant sound. Physics can explain why the blending of overtones — additional notes that can be heard above a note that is being played — and the superposition of frequencies, which are the number of vibrations per second, makes two notes sound good together. If an orchestra is like cooking a meal, the physics of sound would look at how two specific flavors complement each other.

Balantekin enjoys teaching the class because of the way it teaches physics qualitatively — using examples in the arts to explain certain phenomena — rather than through equations. Most instructors of the course are not professional artists or musicians, but people who enjoy the arts. The shared appreciation for arts that the instructors share with the students who take the class brings them together. “We’re not professional artists, we are physicists. So, in that sense, perhaps it brings us at a level closer to the students … so we’re not giant experts high up on the ivory tower,” says Balantekin.

Physicists get to see practical applications of physics principles in artistic mediums, giving them a new appreciation for the arts as well. Gilbert says both parties benefit from the perspective the other discipline brings. “I think it is fundamentally important that scientists learn from artists, and vice versa.”

Gilbert sees these benefits in her own research on biomineralization. She is publishing an article about a new color theory that is simple to understand but works quantitatively for both additive and subtractive color mixing, that is, mixing lights or pigments of different colors. Gilbert has also developed a new understanding for how the human ear and brain work and processes sound, “just like a Fourier synthesizer,” she says.

Haeberli’s initial vision for an interdisciplinary experience continues as Gilbert and Balantekin incorporate changes and improvements to the course. Class enrollment increased 25% in the spring of 2022. In addition, the newer edition of the course textbook, Physics in the Arts, has many colorful illustrations Gilbert created to visually explain various concepts.

Balantekin says that he looks forward to fine-tuning and improving demonstrations that are shown during lecture, as well as updating the lab activities that students participate in. “When I first started, the lab was not as good as we wanted it to be. Because certain things were too expensive. And we had to build them ourselves. And they were not perfect. Now, you can buy a lot more sensitive equipment … improving the lab and improving the lecture demonstrations — that is probably the direction to go,” Balantekin says.

Haeberli passed away Oct. 4, 2021. In 2008, Haeberli co-wrote the first edition of the course textbook with Gilbert. This book would later become an international bestseller, being translated into multiple languages and used in college courses internationally. A later edition has even been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In addition, the third edition of Physics in the Arts was awarded the “Texty” award by the Textbook and Academic Writing Association in 2022.

Gilbert, a longtime friend and mentee of Haeberli, says that she never intended to go into teaching until she met him. She fell in love with his teaching style and his way of communicating very complicated concepts in very simple terms. Gilbert says one needs “much bigger knowledge and much more in-depth understanding to be able to actually make it sound simple to everybody and still 100% accurate.”

Gilbert says that she misses her friend tremendously and is excited about how the future of the course will help carry on his legacy of teaching. She will be organizing the Willy Haeberli Memorial Symposium in June 2022 to celebrate his scientific contributions, as well as his various passions for teaching, cooking, and art.