Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stop this Day and Night with Me

Background: Phases and Seasons: Is Less More or Is Less Less?, an article by astronomer, educator, and textbook author Jay Pasachoff about some ongoing controversies in astronomy education. (This article was forwarded to me in relation to an earlier post on the place of Newton's Laws in the physics curriculum.)


April 24th was the opening of the MULTIPLES show (c.f. the last post), and afterwards the organizers, the artists, and I went out to a restaurant to celebrate. At dinner I sat next to Charlotte Sullivan, a student who'd shown work that night. Charlotte uses many media, and her work tends to the conceptual. Our conversation was about the next piece she's going to present.

To create this piece, Charlotte and a fellow student, Todd Weeks, went outside and sat on a campus green for 24 hours, from midnight to midnight, leaning against each other back-to-back. Charlotte faced east; Todd faced west. Every hour, they each took a picture of the scene directly in front of them. She's still working out how to present the piece - how to share the experience and its depths along with the 48 photographs. And there's lot to think about besides the photos: the sensations of pain and fatigue...the ongoing negotiation for comfort between two sets of shoulders...and, almost, the transfer of moods and thoughts over the course of 24 continuous hours of direct contact with another person.

As we spoke, it also became clear that this event had been a tremendous opportunity for two people to slow down and observe and contemplate various phenomena. For example, Charlotte had wondered about the ways in which predawn light would differ from the light which follows sunset. She also expressed to me, in the most enthusiastic terms, what she learned that day and night about our physical situation on this planet. Her initial expectation had been that the sun would rise directly in front of her, sail over the top of her head, and fall below the horizon directly in front of her partner. Instead, a couple hours after sunrise, she noted with surprise that the sun was now off to the side, on a course passing over her shoulder. With time to reflect, she came to understand her observations in terms of Vermont's northern latitude.

She next went on to describe how incredible it was to see the moon descend, and then later rise again - at which point it hit home for the two of them that they had gone all the way around once. The vast distance they'd evidently traveled - and the time this had taken, directly sensed - combined to give her a dizzying sensation of speed and motion.

How many adults have such a visceral sense of our place on this spinning world?

It occurred to me later that if I were to teach astronomy, or a course with astronomy in it, an interesting idea would be to have the students follow Charlotte's course. You wouldn't tell anyone what to look for as they passed the night and day. You wouldn't know what they'd come back with, either. But given the notorious difficulty of teaching astronomy students about the round earth, I would think that if even two or four of them made the discovery that Charlotte and her friend made, one would have to consider it a pretty successful piece of "curriculum."

Driving home after dinner, I reflected on Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." Frankly this poem has always disappointed me, in the way it appears to set up what I consider to be a false dichotomy between learning and appreciating; between knowing and wondering. ("The Learn'd Astronomer" is not the only place where "the poet of exact demonstration" falls into this easy trap.) But reflecting on Charlotte's project, I had the hopeful thought that at the end of this poem, the speaker's upward gaze might after all have been as penetrating as it was reverent.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Few Iron Posts of Observation

Background: Quantum Theory and Measurement, John Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, Eds.

A couple years ago, I made the mistake of sharing a sketch from one of my notebooks with Jonathan Isherwood, a sculptor on the Bennington faculty. Evidently Jon has a good memory, because this past summer he came to me with the proposal that I actually build the thing, as part of a show that he and ceramicist Barry Bartlett were curating.

I finally finished the piece last week. It was a very long road from sketchbook to object.

What I ended up with is called "A Few Iron Posts of Observation." In part, the piece is supposed to be a meditation on classical and quantum physics, and the title is a quotation from a famous essay on quantum theory by John Wheeler called "Law Without Law."

You can see some images of the object, along with my "artist's statement," here.

To help me make the piece, Mr. Maurice Winn, a surveyor, came out to my property and set nine spikes in the ground, roughly 25 feet apart. The spikes spanned a total distance of about 200 feet; they determined a straight line to an accuracy of about an eighth of an inch.

Based on his measurements, Mr. Winn was able to give me a list of heights that I could use to erect a series of nine window screens - one above each spike - in such a way that the window screens were all at the same vertical level, to within an inch or so. The window screens were 2 feet square.

I then mounted a .22 rifle to a tabletop in front of the first screen; aligned the barrel along the line determined by the spikes; leveled the barrel; and fired a round. If all went according to plan, the bullet would pierce all nine screens. Later, in the gallery, the screens would hang from the ceiling by swinging steel posts, with a separation of only two feet, instead of the original 25 feet. (Physicists will chuckle at this "active gauge transformation.")

After the first shot was fired - in a blizzard, it turned out - I took down the screens, mounted nine more, and fired again. Then I took down those screens, mounted nine more, and fired a third time. Thus in the gallery there are three runs of nine screens each. The runs are mounted from the ceiling on steel tracks. (The suspension system involved a good deal of welding and working with steel; it was designed and executed—elegantly and beautifully—by John Umphlett, a Bennington College staff member.)

All of this makes the job sound much easier than it was. Making objects, I learned, is incredibly tough! The materials do what they want to do, and getting from notebook to gallery is more work than I could have imagined. Also, in order to make sure I was going to hit the last screen, I had to learn a lot about what's called "external ballistics." This is the complex science that describes what happens to a bullet after it leaves the gun, but before it strikes the target. (Before the bullet leaves the gun, you're talking about "internal ballistics." After the bullet strikes the target, you're talking about "terminal ballistics," or possibly "wound ballistics." See this page for more information.)

(I came across some pretty strange websites while researching this project; see the following sniper poetry page for example.)

Given how much work this project turned out to be, I think I'll probably leave art to the artists for a while! But then again, I have this great idea for just one more thing using window screens and bullets....

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Some "behind-the-scenes" shots are below. (My wife by the way seriously deserves a medal for putting up with this stuff. Outside in a blizzard holding a plumb bob...)