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Science Can Be a Beautiful Thing : Art Is in the Eye of the Beholder. Well, Behold All This Sci-Art and Judge for Yourself.

March 17, 1996|K.C. Cole | K.C. Cole is a Times science writer

On the rooftop of the sprawling Moscone Conference Center in San Francisco, a courtyard-sized cloud floats quietly, waiting for a whisper of wind to whip it into an interesting shape.

This is no ordinary cloud--no visitor dropping in from a passing weather front. Instead, it is a sculpture--a work of art. The cloud condenses into existence from billions of tiny water droplets exhaled from a circle of nozzles that spit a fine spray of city water into the courtyard. At first encounter, it looks like smoke billowing out of a volcano, hot and dangerous. But it's cool and friendly, like a shadow on a hot day.

"The weather appears really calm today," says the cloud's creator, artist Ned Kahn. "You'd swear there was no wind."

His cloud proves otherwise. At the slightest unseen prodding, it morphs into almost lifelike figures, climbing up a concrete courtyard wall, swirling around corners, creeping along the ground and up the stairs, twirling into a vortex like a spiral staircase, and just as rapidly disappearing. It leaves behind cool, moist patches, cloudprints on the cement.

It's not every day one finds oneself nose to nose with a cloud, so one tends to pay attention. And that's the point. Kahn likes to pull people into what he calls "cloud time"--a state of observing far too settled to fit into the noisy chaos of everyday life. "At times I have the patience to do something like that, it's been an incredible experience. Most people never have the time."

Certainly it's natural to wonder at clouds, and many artists find the muse in quiet contemplation of nature. But this artist is also a scientist of sorts. He knows that the cloud embodies equations that repeat endlessly in nature--in rivers of water, currents of electricity, swirls of stars in galaxies--even, possibly, waves of thought.

"It seems so intuitively obvious to me how a flow likes to organize itself,"he says. The water droplets, like the stars, are all essentially the same. "But when you get a lot of things that are the same together, you get these emergent properties. When things are flowing, they spontaneously organize."

It boggles his mind, for example, how highly structured galaxies form out of flowing rivers of stars. Galaxies can pass right through each other, more or less intact, the stars within them held together tenuously over vast distances only by gravity. "How can one star know what another star is doing?" he asks.

If stars, like water droplets, are much the same, then where do the intricate patterns come from?

The questions artist Kahn asks are at the forefront of numerous fieldsof science--from the study of the universe to the study of earthquakes, weather,human consciousness and heart attacks. The National Science Foundation thinks so strongly of Kahn's contributions that it recently granted nearly a million dollars for what amounts to a retrospective of his work.

Called "The Turbulent Landscape: The Forces That Shape Our World," the exhibit is scheduled to open in June at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Scattered among garden paths and running water, several dozen works of art will showcase the evolution of natural forms, from sand piles to vortexes. Fluids, pendulums and fabric will wave, spin, ripple, erode, vibrate and merge under the competing influences of gravity and molecular forces.

In the meantime, a different sort of partnership between art and science is blooming at UCLA, where artist Pamela Davis presides over an arts center in the physics building. Officially an artist-in-residence at the university's College of Letters and Science, Davis teaches courses to undergraduates in tandem with physicists and mathematicians. Last spring, an exhibit of student work included a drum composition based on the Fibonacci number series--a kind of natural multiplication that directs the growth of seashells, sunflowers and snails. The student, an English and Latin major, played drums in a rock band. His piece throbbed with a subtle crescendo that sounded a little like the stealthy unfolding of spring.

Another student, a biochemistry major, created a picture/word piece on people's reactions to images of DNA. Depending on who was looking at the images, he found, "DNA looked like everything. A physics major thought it was a stellar interaction."

Davis' show, "Physics Art"--a collection of painting and sculpture--has appeared at the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry as well as at UCLA, and at least one of Davis' works is slated for the Garden of Complexity. But where Kahn runs on cloud time, Davis operates on a frantic fast-forward. Where Kahn is contemplative, Davis digs furiously for clues to the fundamental nature of things. Where Kahn collaborates with geophysicists, Davis hangs out with mathematicians or theoretical ("mathematical") physicists. Where Davis is attracted to the hidden symmetries beneath the surface, Kahn concentrates on the rich embroidery that displays itself for all to see.

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