Kurt Kaminski’s Project

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Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by saharss2533 » Thu Nov 06, 2014 3:24 pm

Kurt Kaminski’s Project

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Re: Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by kurt » Mon Nov 10, 2014 11:49 pm

Methodology of Ideas: On Developing an Art Installation for The Kavli Institute For Theoretical Physics


At the beginning of the Arts and Engineering Research course, our professor George Legrady told us about an encounter he had with physicist David Gross where Mr. Gross suggested installing a large Calder mobile or similar art piece above the open-air meeting room inside the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. As theoretical physics has for some time been both a curiosity and inspiration of mine, I decided to come up with a proposal.

Site specific artwork is informed by context. The Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics is one of the most important institutions on the planet for theoretical physics. The National Academy of Science recognized it as having the highest degree of impact for a non biomedical research organization in the United States and it continues to host a plethora of luminaries and Nobel laureates. A $65 million donation was recently made by billionaire Charlie Munger to build a residence for visiting scientists and thinkers. The Kavli shares a common home at the University of California Santa Barbara with some of the best materials science and quantum physics schools in the world.

Part I: Exploration

In choosing to install an art piece in a building dedicated to theoretical physics, I first had to make sure I knew what theoretical physics was. Thankfully the distinction between theoretical and experimental physics is fairly intuitive, but caution must be made in segregating them from each other. Just as it is callous to divide the brain into independently functioning hemispheres, the interplay between these two branches of physics is as important as their differences. As we discovered in our visit to David Weld's quantum simulation lab, experimentation can inform theory and theory can at times be experimented on. Similar prediction/application relationships are evident in many fields, and for this piece will be an integral part of the decision making process.

Taking further inspiration from Mr. Weld’s lab, he conveyed a property of quantum mechanics which they place a lot of importance on: that energy states of an electron jump to higher orbitals only after receiving specific amounts of energy. I liked this idea of thresholds being crossed at precise moments and thought this would be a good topic to explore for the project.

So I did some reading. This is what I found:

An electron does not orbit around an atomic nucleus in the sense of a planet orbiting around a sun, but rather their physical location is a wave function, or a varying degree of probable places where it might be found. A vivid analogy is that of an atmosphere which, given a set of quantum numbers describing its energy, angular momentum, and angular momentum vector component, the atmosphere takes on interesting symmetrical shapes. In the following image, a cross section of the "atmosphere" is depicted in various states. The brighter the pixel value, the higher the probability of finding the electron there.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electron#A ... _molecules

These can be explored interactively using Paul Nylander’s implementation in Mathematica:

For the purposes of making an art piece, I find it useful to abstract this idea, making it more modular:
Atomic energy states are governed by specific thresholds -> increasing input leads to sudden transformations.

From here, I will pull this abstraction into the Kavli’s domain:
Increasing input leads to sudden transformations -> interacting minds become a catalyst for discovery.

The courtyard where the art will go is a private meeting area for some of the most brilliant people in the world. While most of their work might be done in relative physical isolation (their offices, studies, etc), that they gather in a single geographical location represents a significant effort in investing in an environment where such work can be encouraged and accelerated. The meeting space is symbolic of socializing and exchanging information, so in the Kavli it can be seen as a kind of crucible for the various elements that are added to it. New ideas are forged here.
To relate this to my atomic orbital abstraction, I decided I would need a piece that responds to the presence of others. My first idea was producing a literal depiction of the cross sections of atomic orbitals that changed when more people entered the room. The image would be displayed on a computer monitor, then bundles of fiber optics would feed the light emanating from it to a dome shape. As the animation changed on the monitor so too would the pattern of the fiber optics:
I extended this idea into Houdini where I simulated hundreds of wires emanating from a central rectangle out to a dome shape:
I'm not sold on this yet as an idea to move forward with. Some more exploring is required.
Last edited by kurt on Tue Nov 11, 2014 12:30 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by kurt » Tue Nov 11, 2014 12:08 am

Part II: Exploration continued

The design from before is essentially an expensive way of doing a projection. I wasn’t too happy with this idea, but I did like that it had the potential to evoke some of the aesthetics of quantum machinery, which I hope to introduce into this project. For reference, here's the quantum experiment at the forefront of popular science at the moment: the Large Hadron Collider with its iconic ATLAS experiment.
But David Weld’s lab continues to inspire:
I’ve done some work before with caustics, or highlights from reflection and refraction. I had an image in my head of something like a series of angled torus’ reflecting the patterns of the electron states. Something like one of those folding colanders:
I tried searching Google and ART+COM came the closest:
http://www.artcom.de/en/projects/projec ... of-motion/

But I’d like it to be more deliberate. The next question is if it is possible. In Francesco Bullo’s lab, John Simpson-Porco told us about his process of exploring the terrain of knowledge and bringing something useful back to his work:
1. Find something interesting
2. Play with its simulation to understand its underlying principles
3. Make a model from these principles to integrate into your work

With my background in lighting simulation, I figured the next logical step was for me to make the thing in 3d and see if it produced any sort of readable effect.

I set up an environment with very simple geometry that has similar features to the courtyard in the Kavli. I added a spherical HDR image captured on some hills around Los Angeles to approximate daytime lighting and a square area light where the art would go. A semitransparent and subsurface scattering material was used for the ceiling, and a torus with some angled geometry was the stand-in for my “colander”. VRay was used in combination with its Light Caching technique of calculating global illumination. Billions of rays are cast from the camera’s perspective and bounce around the scene, sampling it to create a 3d map of the environment. If one ray hits a sample created by another ray, the sampling stops. When the viewport is sampled, it is matched with the 3d map to compute the color of the pixel. This is an incredibly efficient way of calculating realistic light behavior with some accuracy. This is the result of my initial test:
So to me, the test was successful and proved that the idea is at least physically possible. The circular highlight on the roof is solely from the reflection of the downward-facing rectangle light onto the torus.

This image shows the surface of the torus:
A big caveat to this is so far I have not been mindful of scale. I should rough in the approximate size of the the space and use appropriate units so I can get a better idea of how bright the light will actually need to be. The relative sharpness of the highlight will likely change as well since the inverse square law might make a noticeable difference, but only if my scene were starting off exceptionally small would it completely invalidate my prediction that it's possible.

I will continue to simulate and experiment with various shapes. I have two new goals at this point: reproduce some of the more complex electron orbital cross sections and come up with some ideas of how to control these shapes in real life.

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Re: Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by kurt » Sat Nov 22, 2014 8:45 pm

Part III: Aesthetics

Previously, my progress included an initial step into considering how the installation might look. I am interested in translating some of my notions of the aesthetics of physics experiments, particularly quantum physics. When I presented, the conversation loosely revolved around aesthetics where it became clear we had little foundation for speaking about the aesthetics of scientific experiments themselves, and it would be a good idea to do some research in this area.

Aesthetics has for some time been in ambiguous relationship with science. The scientific method carries with it the implication that “form follows function”: new ideas are considered valuable when supported by evidence coming from repeatable experiments. Opinions on the validity of evidence focus on the logic and implementation of its associated experiment, not their relative beauty or nonbeauty. Yet notions of beauty are nonetheless a common subject among scientists. Physicist Paul Dirac famously said in describing Schrodinger’s path to publishing, “it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment,” (Scientific American 1963). Indeed, aesthetics is considered to play a significant role in the development of theories, particularly in physics, and to some extent in their appraisal and validation (Wartofsky 1994, McAllister 2010). Biology sees its share of aesthetic discussion, most popularly with regard to the double helix of DNA. The machinery of molecular biology is often drawn by analogy to industrial design, where presumably “form follows function” to the highest order, despite the mechanisms for survival incrementing as a result of being “good enough,” rather than optimally functional (Parsons 2012). Chemist Steven Benner even describes DNA and other forms of natural selection as a “hack” (Benner 2012).

Putting aside the substance of their opinions, that there is even this kind of discussion is encouraging for the artist, but also presents new challenges. Discourse on aesthetics in science may use similar terminology (elegance, symmetry, harmony), but care must be taken to understand why a theory might be considered elegant. In other words, some formal, including historical, understanding of the subject matter is required by the artist to engage in scientific aesthetics.

A more public aspect of aesthetics in science surrounds the published paper, in particular the data associated with it. This is a huge subject that has seen a surge in artistic focus in the last few decades, in no small part due to the necessity and interest in data visualization. This topic is a bit too far outside the scope of this post and my project, so I will leave it alone for now.

Unfortunately, the impetus for my research on aesthetics for the past week was not fully satisfied. I found almost nothing written about the aesthetics of the scientific instruments themselves. The subject, as far as I could tell, is really a barren desert begging for some wise artistic interpretation of these machines. I did find an op-ed titled “Beautiful Propaganda: the myth of the Large Hadron Collider,” by Crystal Bennes which reacts to the surge of then newly released images of the Large Hadron Collider. Bennes compares the LHC to Hogarth’s criteria laid out in his 1753 Analysis of Beauty. She finds it fits neatly into his guidelines for “fitness for form, variety, symmetry, distinctness, intricacy and magnitude.” Bennes goes on to relate the LHC to the Crossness Pumping Station, a sewage pumping facility from 1865 which took six years to build and was considered a pinnacle of engineering at the time. In it, incredibly intricate ornamentation and thoughtful architectural design subverts from its utilitarian function. This is in contrast to the LHC, which is immediately less utilitarian, and also presumably lacks any ornamentation whatsoever (I couldn’t find information suggesting otherwise). Yet its “cold symmetry and vast scale” demand aesthetic reverence.
Crossness Pumping Station

To uphold the Large Hadron Collider as a reference for aesthetics presents some interesting implications for methodology as it pertains to this course. Assuming the LHC is not designed with aesthetic principles, then it might follow that a sufficiently complex question (e.g. how to prove the Higgs Boson’s existence) is a gateway to beautiful objects. In art, this question can be viewed as anything which the artist intends, including invocations in viewers, design goals, and conceptual inquiry. Complexity can be thought of as the minimum number of tools required to answer the question, whether they be related to the the physical creation of the artwork or conceptual tools which the artist might employ. Distinction should be made between a complex question and multiple questions. The LHC is not answering a wide variety of questions. Similarly, art can be made ineffective by having a multitude of intentions. I will be curious going forward how true this is in practice and the degree to which this territory has already been explored by art writers and historians.


Steven A Benner (2012), Aesthetics in synthesis and synthetic biology, Current Opinion in Chemical Biology 2012, 16:581–585

Crystal Bennes (2012), Beautiful Propaganda: the myth of the Large Hadron Collider, Domus, http://www.domusweb.it/en/op-ed/2012/02 ... lider.html

Paul Dirac (May 1963) The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature, Scientific American, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/gue ... of-nature/

James W. McAllister (2002) Recent work on aesthetics of
science, International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 16:1, 7-11, DOI:

Glenn Parsons (2012), The aesthetics of chemical biology, Current Opinion in Chemical Biology 2012, 16:576–580

WARTOFSKY, M.W. (1994) Science and art: heuristic and aesthetic dimensions of scientific discovery, Philosophic Exchange, 24/25, pp. 5–12.

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Re: Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by kurt » Sat Nov 22, 2014 9:34 pm

Part IV: Movement

I next wanted to tackle the practical problem of controlling the torus shape enough to produce reflections which were more complex than circles, using the electron orbital cross sections as my guide. Further, I didn't want to manually control the movement, but rather have it governed by a system of equations. I made this decision because I find it to be more closely connected to my goal of creating an object which could feel familiar to the scientists who convene below while transcribing some aspects of quantum mechanics to a reactive art installation.

I decided to move to Houdini to continue my experiments which is more forgiving when it comes to procedural animation. In my first experiment, I just tried implementing some simple sine equations to control the rotation of each panel. The panels are copied onto a circle, and each copy moved the period of the sine. This worked relatively well:
This is kind of hard to interpret as it is very pared-down. It is showing the caustic reflections of a circle of panels which are initially rotated based on a sine function. The animation comes from advancing the period of the sine across all the panels simultaneously. The perspective is that of directly below looking up. Imagine you are lying down and everything in the world was completely black except for the reflections of the panels onto the ceiling.

I had done some work previously with mathematical knots which can take on some interesting shapes with relatively simple equations. Using the parameterization functions found in this PDF by Prof. Y.F. Chen of the National Chiao Tung Univeristy:
http://ocw.nctu.edu.tw/upload/classbfs1 ... 151019.pdf

I was able to create a control shape which all the panels could "look at." I did this by making the knot have the same number of points as number of panels in the torus, then subtracting their positions so their normals faced the control shape. I made the knot only exist in one dimension, so it is in a way a cross section of the 3d Euclidian knot. This makes for a somewhat neat analogy to the hydrogen orbital cross sections.
Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 9.10.40 PM.png
Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 9.08.30 PM.png
Here are my results from implementing q=4 from the second diagram:
(need to click on them)
Here's a flipbook illustrating the control mechanism:
I'd like to experiment with this more and see if I can't get closer to the electron orbitals this way.

Finally, I came across this artwork by Studio Nomad in Budapest which was aesthetically inspiring. The whole time I was just thinking about the reflection on the panels facing the lights and giving little consideration to what would be on the side facing the viewers. This convinces me that the panel should be reflective on both sides. It is a simple change that adds dimensional interest and a bit of cognitive dissonance, especially when there is negative space between the panels:
http://studio-nomad.com/post/1025673293 ... 014-mirage

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Re: Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by kurt » Mon Dec 01, 2014 8:53 pm

Part V: More Details

This week I did some more work with scale, shapes, and investigated mounting options. First, I used Google Maps's measurement tool to get a rough idea of how large the space is.

It's about 18x18 meters. I want my piece to have an impact on the viewers and its space, so I increased its diameter from 3 meters to 5 meters. I tried to get a good idea of what 5 meters looked and felt like, so I returned to google and found this cool gentleman:

5 meters looks about right. It's my intention to actually have two rings of mirrors- one large and one small. Currently the larger ring has a diameter of 5 meters with 60 reflective elements, each element with a diameter of 25cm. The smaller ring is 3 meters with 33 elements each with the same diameter, 25cm.

Here are some more wedges I did to experiment with different properties of the reflection. The first is moving the light source from being in-line with the mirrors to about 2.5 meters above them:

The next wedge was done to test the effects of adding some surface variation to each reflective element. So far, my tests have all involved perfectly flat surfaces, but in real life this would not be the case. Moreover, I was curious how the roughness might smooth add or take away from the presence of my intended shapes. Here, I'm ramping up the amplitude of perlin noise applied to each element. For each one, the frequency was 2.5 in all dimensions, the roughness 0.1, attenuation 1, and turbulence 5. However, the noise space was offset for each element so each one was uniquely warped:

Here is a flipbook showing the effects of the noise on a single element:

Next, I've been thinking about the possibilities for actually mounting the work. In my mind, it came down to two options:
1. An array of controllers suspended from the ceiling, with each reflective element suspended from this mechanism by translucent wires.
2. A "chandelier" type support structure with rotating servos mounted to it, and each element mounted directly onto the servo.

For option 1, I specifically was thinking of the ART+COM solution I presented in Part 2. Here is its most famous implementation for BMW:
And here is the only photo I could find of the other side of the control array:

I really like how elegant and borderline surreal this looks. Unfortunately, the space in the Kavli is not at all welcoming to a solution such as this. ART+COM relies heavily on the fact that there is a flat ceiling. In the Kavli, not only is the ceiling angled, but its center is interrupted by the large steel crossbeam from which an artwork is supposedly to be hung. Suspending a large rectangular control array from this steel crossbeam would look awkward and conflict with the space too much, creating a double roof and distracting from the work itself. Unfortunately, I have to veto this idea.

Option 2 is in my mind the best bet. I still have to come up with some sketches of it, but in my mind there is a central pillar from which everything connects to. The lights would be mounted around it and concentric rings emanating from the bottom of the pillar would form the support for the servos and reflective elements. Tastefully placed crossbeams could add a lot of visual interest.

The next obvious step is to design the support structure. From there, I could probably do a rough cost estimate. Not long after that, the proposal will be due.

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Re: Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by kurt » Tue Dec 09, 2014 12:33 pm

Art Installation Proposal for the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics

Catacaustics is a reactive art installation designed for the open-air meeting space within the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California. The primary structure consists of two concentric rings suspended from the ceiling with a support beam suspended in the center. Numerous individually controlled stepper motors are fixed to the rings, each with a plastic mirror disc attached to a motor, enabling the discs to rotate at precise angles. The center column supports a ring of bright LED’s angled toward the discs. This configuration results in patterns of overlapping reflections on the ceiling. Inspired by hydrogen electron orbital cross sections and other properties of quantum mechanics, the orientation of the reflective elements and consequently the reflected pattern on the ceiling, will change according to approximately how many people occupy the space as viewed by a thermal camera. Catacaustics refers to the mathematical term of the same name: the envelope of rays emitted from a source and reflected off a curve.

Attached is the installation proposal containing design goals, technical details, visual representations, and diagrams:
(1.22 MiB) Downloaded 403 times
Image files of the proposal:
Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 8.50.21 PM.png
Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 8.50.35 PM.png
Last edited by kurt on Fri Dec 12, 2014 4:13 pm, edited 7 times in total.

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Re: Kurt Kaminski’s Project

Post by kurt » Thu Dec 11, 2014 8:47 pm


The following is an overview of how I proceeded with the project:

1. Heard of opportunity to create Calder mobile-esque installation in Kavli
2. research the Kavli, quantum physics, looking for a concept in than can be explored in an installation
3. Work the concept into kinetic sculpture ideas, find inspiring kinetic sculptures, pick materials to work with
4. Adapt everything to space in Kavli
5. Take what you have and start again at 2, making changes as necessary to better convey concepts and aesthetic goals

The main prompt for me was the Calder mobile. Since it was specifically named as a suggestion by a Nobel prize winning physicist and Chair of the building it will go in, I took it fairly seriously. In researching quantum physics, I was pleased to discover that the careful asymmetrical balancing of the Calder was a common theme in quantum mechanics, namely the balanced summational nature of a Hamiltonian.

Looking for my own concept to adapt was challenging as I needed to somewhat familiarize myself with this enormously complex topic. Moving forward, I used some interests and experiences I've had in the past such as working with caustics, as well as my background in computer graphics and lighting simulation to both guide exploration and inform my decisions. My computer graphics background was also used in constructing the control rig for the target reflections, a critical aspect of the project which helped to convince me it was possible. Having never done an installation like this, I looked for kinetic sculptures which satisfied a goal, or at least a particular aspect of my design. This came in especially useful when working out the logistical concerns. In the end, all these things were filtered, modified and combined in a loosely iterative loop until a final design emerged.

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