Back in 5th grade, my school held a competition to create art for the cover of the yearbook. Out of 300 students, my painting won. I liked to think that I was adequate at making pastel copies of Picasso, but I wouldn't say I was a talented artist. There was something unique about that painting though, something that has stayed with me throughout my career; it combined the beauty of science with art. The painting was of exoplanets and the cosmos.
Bridging the gap between science and art is not something that I was always open to. My first passions were math and science and I tended to push away activities that were purely artistic. I tried, and dropped, hula, ceramics, ballet, sculpting, acting, and painting. Then I found iMovie, Apple’s basic video-editing software.
I kept making videos. I wanted to share what light is: electromagnetic waves! And so are microwaves, and radio waves. They’re the same thing as visible light! MIND EXPLOSION! At some point, I realized that I could combine my enthusiasm, some quirky drawings, and my love for science into one, and the video medium allowed me to do that. And creating videos is incredibly fun.
Fast-forward through a degree in physics and I now write, film and edit videos for my YouTube channel Physics Girl. For the most part, trying to convey science concepts is a logical process for me, like fitting a puzzle together. You start with the borders, laying down the basic science concepts and working up to a complex idea. Then you fill in the pieces, adding in metaphors and connections to the real world.
But there’s a decidedly creative aspect to thinking up metaphors and real-world connections—bringing out the beauty in a soap bubble, designing appealing cosmology visuals, inventing a quantum metaphor that resonates with a non-science inclined audience. There’s something very creative about trying to find the most exciting way to present abstract theories.
How could I not see the beauty, or the art in these subjects that are so connected to the universe? How could I be a communicator without expressing myself in a way that only art allows? I never thought I would create a video about vortex physics that reached 4 million people. But it turns out that art, particularly film, is an effective and important medium for communicating science. It enables communicators to reach an entirely different audience.
What I’ve come to realize is that physics is not just about the research and exploration. It's also about learning and teaching and inspiration. My teachers and the communicators I followed inspired me to pursue a degree in physics. I want to do the same for the future generation of physicists. I am fortunate to be involved in an upcoming IMAX film called the Secrets of the Universe which will explore particle physics and the LHC. I am so excited about this film because these are difficult concepts to convey, mainly because you cannot see them. The SOTU film is going to rely heavily on creative visuals. It has to be beautiful and visually appealing - a piece of art - to really connect with people. And I believe it will.
About the Author
Dianna Cowern is a science communicator and educator. She is the primary content creator for Physics Girl, her YouTube Channel with PBS Digital Studios. Dianna received her degree in physics from MIT before completing a post-baccalaureate fellowship in astrophysics at Harvard. She then worked on mobile applications as a software engineer at General Electric before beginning a position at the University of California, San Diego as physics outreach coordinator where she still does outreach part-time.