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danceroom Spectroscopy: Waltzing through the Invisible World

At its most basic, science is a quest to understand the invisible forces that underlie everything from our emotions to our planet’s inevitable orbit around the sun. These forces are fundamentally dictated by the dynamics of an invisible world—of atoms and molecules vibrating, of tiny bonds breaking and forming. But given that human perception is restricted to the observable world, all we can know are the consequences of these forces at work—that an apple loosed from a tree will fall downwards or that a single fertilized egg will reliably divide and morph into a little human being over nine months.

Scientists go through years of training in order to imagine the world that stretches beyond the realm of our five senses, developing techniques, formulas, and models to give us insights into this world. But scientific ways of knowing, while deeply embedded in empiricism, are still to a large extent a translation of these invisible forces into the observable world of experimentation and data collection. The best we can do is to develop an intuition for these unseeable forces and rigorously test that intuition against our scientific method.

But what if you could actually inhabit the invisible world? What would it be like to witness and engage with the collection of atoms that form the molecules that form the complex structures that make your macro self and surroundings?

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danceroom Spectroscopy dome installed in Brunel’s Passenger Shed. Photo by Paul Blakemore

danceroom Spectroscopy [dS] is an interactive simulation of what it could be like to wander the nano-quantum world. Recruiting the power of a supercomputer and the rigor of quantum mechanics, dS uses data collected from 3D motion capture to solve the equations of motion for up to 40,000 atoms, transforming humans into dynamic energy fields. The result is captivating: an immersive sonic + visual environment sculpted by users’ individual movements and their interaction with surrounding fields of energy.

The language of science is laden with the language of aesthetics—the beauty of a question, the elegance of a theory, the symmetry of a structure. But this particular brand of beauty typically takes years of scientific training to appreciate, which is what makes danceroom Spectroscopy so incredibly powerful and exciting. By experimenting + engaging with their energy fields, participants can gain an intuitive sense for complex molecular physics principles as they witness themselves immediately influencing them. In so doing, dS effectively brings to life the equations and theories that populate the pages of our often dull + dry 2D textbooks.

Conceived by chemical physicist David Glowacki, danceroom Spectroscopy launched in Spring 2011 with a large-scale exhibition at Bristol’s Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts. Since then, dS has been implemented in educating the general public, furthering advanced research projects, and has even woven its way into dance with Hidden Fields—a multi-award winning performance using the beauty of dance to illuminate the invisible dynamic world.

Above, take a peek into Hidden Fields 2013 performance, which was most recently performed at ZKM Centre for Arts and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. And below, enjoy ArtLab’s Q+A with Dr. Glowacki as he shares his insights into artistry + the invisible and what science can gain from art.

Over the last few years, danceroom Spectroscopy has found applications in everything from education to research to dance performance. But where did the original seed of the idea to create dS come from?

The real reason I started dS is that I just never knew what to tell people about my research. And also, a lot of the problems I work on are just so abstract. So while in principle if we could crack these problems, we could solve anything, I just have no idea whether or not it’s actually feasible to imagine that we’ll crack them in my lifetime. But still, I had always been overwhelmed by the beauty of what I was doing. So I thought if I could just show it to people, and if they thought it was beautiful too, that would at least be some validation for all the stuff that I’m working on. Even if I can’t solve all the problems I claim I’ll be able to solve in my research, the validation would lie in the fact that people would think, “Oh, that’s really beautiful and cool.”

But the fact was, I didn’t have anything tangible or nice to show anybody about the last six years I’d spent doing research—just papers that no one was going to understand. I thought, well I better make something so that I would at least have pictures to show people that they might find compelling. And ultimately, the content that you can learn with something like what we’ve made—and so quickly—is amazing! I can condense a whole semester’s worth of material into one hour with dS and you’ll have an intuitive feel for so many different physical principles.

Just watching Hidden Fields, I’m amazed at how much faster—and actually better—I can grasp those physical principles than when I was learning about them in textbooks and lectures. There’s something really intuitive and immediate about translating these concepts into a more artistic language.

One of the most fun things about the process was sitting down with these artists and just figuring out a shared vocabulary we could use to talk about the project. Because this is a physics simulation, the code has all these equations that don’t mean anything to the dancers or the artists. At the same time, they have their own dance vocabulary for how they talk about motion. So we spent a lot of time talking about the interconnections between the vocabulary of physics and the vocabulary of dance. Lots and lots of talking. I’ve become so much better at communicating what I’m doing as a result of being forced to talk about it to all these people all the time.

When you’re imagining the invisible world of molecules or atoms, you don’t have a clue what they look like. No one knows what an atom looks like and no one knows what a molecule looks like. So your invention of what they look like is purely an artistic leap—and it has to be good artistry if it’s going to be effective for communication. To be able to construct visual representations for our eyes of something that is way beyond our human sensory domain, that’s an artistic and imaginative endeavor.

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Hidden Fields. Photo by Paul Blakemore

People make a divide between science and art, but the future is going to show us very rapidly that there is no divide. This word—scientist—is a really new word in intellectual history that only came into existence around 100 years ago. If you even go back to the late 1800s, people that did what you and I call science called themselves natural philosophers. And the idea of a natural philosopher is that you’re a philosopher, so you’re interested in different forms of knowledge, but there’s this systematic method of gaining information about nature that you tend to adopt because it’s pretty good. Calling yourself a philosopher, a ‘lover of knowledge’, is way less limiting than what we now think of as a modern scientist. Immanuel Kant would call himself a natural philosopher. Newton. Faraday. So the word is part of the problem because it forces you to think about yourself in a way that’s tied to modern institutional structures.

How has this project affected your own research, in terms of the scientific questions you’re interested in asking and your approach to actually answering them?

My research has taken some new directions that I never expected. Now we’re working with dancers to use their motion to manipulate proteins, which has been really exciting and a real, serious research project. So we’re working with the idea that now we can use all these algorithms and technologies we’ve developed to get people to manipulate proteins in a way that’s a lot faster than a computer would be able to manipulate them just using iterative blind search algorithms. In fact, I just wrote a paper showing that human users can accelerate a protein dynamics simulation by a factor of almost 10,000!

Before this project I was more of a pure theorist in that I would worry about equations and methods. I was less concerned with the computer science side, even though I would simulate everything on a computer. This project has really forced me to get up to speed with the state-of-the-art in computer science, which has actually driven things massively forward in my science research. And that just came from worrying about how to make a really good art piece! It’s definitely got me thinking about how it might be possible to have a more holistic relationship between the different disciplines—producing work on the cutting edge of research science and also the cutting edge of arts practice.


Major hat tip to Columbia University’s CUrioisty3 series, where I first heard Dr. Glowacki speak about his incredible project. To learn more about danceroom Spectroscopy, be sure to peruse the official website. To stay up-to-date on the latest + greatest from this project, Like on Facebook // follow on Twitter!

Oh, the Places You’ll Flow!

Dr. Seuss made oobleck famous in his 1949 classic Bartholomew and the Oobleck in which the sticky substance oobleck threatens to destroy a whole kingdom. More recently, oobleck made an appearance on this very blog, where it decided to take a break from its world-domination prospects to star in a homemade music video.

Disclaimer: what follows seeks to de-mystify the mysterious substance known as oobleck. To add some distance between this disclaimer and what follows, please enjoy another video starring the famed oobleck, made once again in collaboration with filmmaker Chelsey Blackmon.

Oobleck is easily synthesized by combining about three parts corn starch in one part water. When sitting innocently in a bowl, it looks much like any normal fluid; however, do not be fooled. Dr. Seuss, though technically not a doctor, was rightfully wary of oobleck’s monster-like properties, for oobleck is no ordinary fluid like water or wine.

Oobleck is what is known as a *non-Newtonian fluid,* meaning, as its name implies, that this unruly concoction does not obey newtonian fluid dynamics. Specifically, its resistance to flow—viscosity—does not remain constant. If you apply a small amount of force, say by slowly and harmlessly dipping your hand into a bowl of oobleck, the mixture acts like a liquid. If instead you charge your hand into the mixture, it will literally push back, resisting deformation by acting as a solid. Its viscosity actually increases in response to increased pressure.

It is this increase in oobleck’s viscosity in response to the application of a stronger force that caused the finger-like monsters to emerge from the mixture in the video above. Oobleck is technically a suspension of cornstarch particles surrounded by water molecules; the cornstarch is not dissolved, but simply distributed evenly in water when at rest. Within the suspension, two forces compete. On the one hand, you have the intermolecular cornstarch-cornstarch // cornstarch-water forces holding the particles in an ordered liquid-like suspension. On the other hand, you have the external shear forces acting on these cornstarch particles, which push them apart into a disordered state.

When you slowly emerge your hand in the suspension, the cornstarch particles have the time and space to redistribute themselves evenly, allowing your hand to glide through. We can see these more gentle forces at work in the smaller ripples that form in the cornstarch//water solution when the bass is softer and the soundwaves more gentle. Once the soundwaves coming from the subwoofer under the bowl cross a certain force threshold, however, oobleck stops behaving like a liquid. At this point, the shear forces supplied by the bass overwhelm the intermolecular forces keeping oobleck in its orderly state. In response to the increased pressure, the water flows away at the site of impact allowing the cornstarch to lock up and build in a densely packed patch of particles—a fortified army of particles revealed. Once the pressure is removed, the cornstarch settles back into the suspension.

War metaphors aside, non-Newtonian fluids like oobleck—known as shear thickening or dilatant materials—are actually being used in conjunction with kevlar to improve body armor. Kevlar-dilatant armor is much lighter than pure-kevlar and has been found to perform better, as it provides additional strength by hardening when struck. Seems bartholomew was quite the little hero after all.