“Artists create their visions of beauty out of the machinery of the imagination; the beauty of science lies in the sightings of nature’s grace.” Leon Ledermann.

An installation of two very large paintings - the dark universe and the light universe - will open in the Advanced Research Centre at the University of Glasgow on 8 June 2024, celebrating 200 years since the birth of physicist Lord Kelvin.

Imagine there is a structure for everything - a shape that is the underlying form of all space. What properties would it have, what would it look like, how would you find it?

In 1887, Lord Kelvin (at the time Sir William Thomson - Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow) best known for his temperature scale and for the definition of absolute zero - published a hurriedly written paper 'On the Division of Space with Minimum Partitional Areas'. In it, he tackled the problem of an 'all-pervading ether'. At the time there was no explanation for how light could travel through a vacuum, and Kelvin thought space must have a structure through which it transmitted, in the same way that sound transmits through air.

Kelvin's solution for the structure of space was a doubly curved, truncated octahedron - an idea which he claimed came to him in bed. This he suggested was the most efficient structure that could fill all of space with no overlaps and no gaps. The extraordinarily complex calculations necessary to arrive at this solution were carried out by hand, long before computers were invented. The Kelvin cell (which he called a tetrakaidecahedron) obeys Plateaus’ rules laid out in 1873; the faces meet at 120° at each edge and the edges meet at 109.47° at each vertex (making each vertex a perfect tetrapod). It is similar in appearance to the shapes found in soap foam, as soap films naturally adopt the most efficient forms possible.

Kelvin built a physical model of his solution from wire, nicknamed 'Kelvin's bedspring'. His niece, Agnes King wrote: "When I arrived here yesterday Uncle William and Aunt Fanny met me at the door. Uncle William armed with a vessel of soap and glycerine prepared for blowing soap bubbles, and a tray with a number of mathematical figures made of wire. These he dips into the soap mixture and a film forms or adheres to the wires very beautifully and perfectly regularly. With some scientific end in view he is studying these films."

Kelvin's paper received little attention when it was published as there was a growing understanding of electromagnetic fields, which needed no ether to pass through. Critics described his idea as 'utterly frothy' and 'a pure waste of time’, and a cartoon appeared of Kelvin peering through a jelly under the title 'L'Ether de Lord Kelvin'.

Despite this, the search for the most efficient space filling shape appealed to mathematicians as a challenging problem worthy of further exploration. But Kelvin's solution was not surpassed for more than 100 years. It was not until 1993 that Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan used computer power to prove the Weaire-Phelan structure was slightly more efficient, with a surface area 0.3% less than Kelvin's structure. 

Kelvin's structure has continued to generate interest and has found modern day applications in foam microstructures used for explosion and crash protection, and as an acoustic metamaterial and heat transfer material. In 1999, Princeton Professor Frank Wilczek argued that the idea of an ether need not have been dismissed so easily and could be re-interpreted in terms of quantum field theory. Reference has also been made to foams in concepts for the structure of space time on the Planck scale.

In a parallel exercise, Nobel prize winner Roger Penrose has had a long fascination with the concept of 'tiling', that is, 2 dimensional shapes that do not overlap and have no gaps. This interest stemmed from studying the structure of quasicrystals - ordered structures that do not have the translational symmetry associated with normal crystals - that is, they do not repeat regularly. The solution to the so called Einstein problem (Einstein meaning 'one stone', rather than the famous physicist), which calls for a single tile that can tessellate space in a non-periodic way, was not found until 2023 – now affectionately dubbed 'the hat'.

The idea that the universe is made up of patterns, of repeating forms, interacting with each other, and that the results of those interactions are the things we see and feel – is a seductive one.

To celebrate 200 years since Kelvin’s birth I have used computer modelling to construct thousands of Kelvin cells, creating an intricate lattice that forms the basis of my highly-patterned paintings. I have created two very large paintings for Glasgow University; contrasting pieces that confront each other – one representing the light universe and one the dark universe. The light universe encompasses everything we are familiar with, the universe that we see and feel, the matter and energy that physicists have discovered, measured and classified. The dark universe in contrast is a mystery. Thought to account for 95% of everything, it comprises dark matter and dark energy, neither of which has ever been detected and about which virtually nothing is known.

In the painting of the light universe, waves of radiation flow through Kelvin’s highly-structured ether, their colours taken from the Kelvin scale which is used to classify the colour of light and their layout based on the spectral emission pattern of carbon - an element crucial to all life on Earth. 

The Light Universe - painting by artist Gregor Harvie
The Light Universe - 400cm x 200cm acrylic on four panels

In contrast, the painting of the dark universe is confusing and dizzyingly complex. Whilst the underlying structure is still Kelvin’s ether, in this case it forms an unsettling network of black and white, positive and negative – dark matter and dark energy emerging and disappearing in illusory pattens that compete for prominence but never combine. The layout of the pattern is based on an AI generated interpretation of dark matter and dark energy - the derivation of which is unknown.

The Dark Universe - painting by artist Gregor Harvie
The Dark Universe - 400cm x 200cm acrylic on four panels

To develop these pieces, I spent a year embedded in the Quantum Theory Group at the University of Glasgow, immersing myself in the theory and culture of fundamental physics. This has been a two-way relationship, in which I have spent time explaining my ideas to the physicists and getting feedback about possible routes forward for my work, and I have attended group meetings to hear about their research. It’s important to me that I have a basic understanding of the physics, so that my work can fully explore its implications. I would also like to think I can contribute something to the development of the subject myself, by asking what if questions and imagining new possibilities.

There has always been a relationship between art and science. They draw on the same pool of cultural and environmental knowledge and have often explored similar ideas. Physics, like art, is a search for patterns – things that can be recognised and described.

Two of the most important developments of the 20th century, Picasso’s cubism (1907) and Einstein’s theory of special relativity (1905), emerged almost simultaneously, both challenging our perception of reality. Although Einstein and Picasso were not aware of one another, they were both influenced by the popular speculation of the time about four-dimensional geometry and both were aware of Poincaré’s book ‘Science and Hypothesis’ (1902) which discussed the relativity of the laws of physics in space.

In 1923 Einstein said: "After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well." He emphasised the critical role of imagination and creativity in scientific discovery and believed that intuition coupled with imagination, could lead to insights that traditional logic and deductive reasoning might not uncover. Einstein's thought processes were heavily reliant on visual imagery and he saw imagination as a bridge that could transcend the limitations of knowledge, going so far as to say: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution."

The 15th century Renaissance also saw a flourishing of artistic and scientific advancements. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael created artistic masterpieces and were also involved in scientific pursuits. Leonardo is credited with inventing flying machines, parachutes and armoured tanks – as well as painting the Mona Lisa. He said: “To develop a complete mind: study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see.”

I am an artist, but I also have a PhD in fluid dynamics and I am a qualified architect. We are all polymaths to a certain extent. We all get inspiration from fields beyond our own. We absorb influences from the pool of ideas that we swim in, and in turn the ideas we generate feed back into that pool and influence others. Will my paintings directly affect the work of quantum physicists? That may be fanciful, but could they strike a chord somewhere? Could they spark a thought, could they help open a door in someone's mind? I hope so; that after all is what art is for.

The exhibition will take place in the main exhibition area on the entry level of the Advanced Research Centre at the University of Glasgow, St Mungo Square, G11 6EW. It is open to the public and will run from 8 June to 15 June during the Glasgow Science Festival, and from  25 June to 9 July to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Lord Kelvin. 8am to 6pm.

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