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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

After the "Turbulent Landscape"show, Kahn plans to leave the Exploratorium, where he has been anchored for more than 10 years, to try making it on his own. "I guess I need a rich benefactor," he says, then immediately recognizes the flaw in this plan. Rich benefactors like paintings to hang on their walls, not fickle clouds that can fly like the wind--leaving no capital gains for the benefactor's investment.

Besides, Kahn's art is actively, intensely public. Not only did he put a cloud atop the Moscone center, he built a greenhouse filled with fog and color at the San Francisco County Jail--with the help of inmates. His fondest wish is to create a "cloud conservatory." He's working on a proposal to build one at the Oakland Observatory, which was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and now has funds for restoration. People would sit in reclining chairs and view the sky through frame-like windows. "Of course, all these things hang by a thread," he says, "even in the best of circumstances--and it's not a good time for public art." A project to design a new terminal for San Francisco's airport fell apart after two years of work. The cloud observatory, however, appears to be doing fine. "This will be my place to get people into cloud time."


Cloud time is a precious commodity in Pamela Davis' house. On a recent visit, Davis threw out ideas one on top of another as she tried to maneuver her huge belly (Sophia Clare arrived on Feb. 10) into a comfortable position. Two-year-old Paul pushed the vacuum cleaner around with noisy enthusiasm. UCLA physicist Steve Kivelson--Davis' husband--padded about on bare feet, munching on Cheerios from a box as he chatted with an East Coast collaborator, occasionally spewing out strange bits of physics babble: "That'll get squished in the KY directions. . ." or "the asymptotic correlation function is pretty isotropic."

Davis calls Kivelson a great collaborator who's gone so far as to demonstrate wave interactions by dripping water down cookie sheets and pointing out the patterns of flow.

He's also a fan, particularly of her abstract mathematical pieces, such as the solitons.

"Pam is trying to make a sculpture out of a soliton that is a beautiful piece of art and also captures the essence of what the physical soliton is," he says. "She's trying to communicate what a scientific aesthetic is, and that's a very abstract concept--but very important.

"Everyone says, you should do beautiful science," he elaborates. "But that's just a platitude. You have to think about what it means to be beautiful. The process of discussing these things with Pam has made me think about what beautiful science is."

If Kahn's mission is to test the limits of understanding, Davis aims to explore what understanding really means. "What does it mean to know something?" she asks. "Good science makes you think about that."

In some ways, it's one of the oldest questions in science. Isaac Newton, who figured out that the fall of the apple and the orbit of the moon were both ruled by gravity, made it quite clear that he still didn't know how gravity worked. Niels Bohr, the father of the quantum mechanics that rule the inner world of the atom, said that understanding atoms would require a serious rethinking of what understanding means. Davis decided to tackle the soliton in part because it had been proposed as a possible solution to another thorny physics problem--the so-called high temperature superconductors. A superconductor is a material that can conduct electricity without any friction or loss of energy; an electric current in a superconductor is immortal. The problem is, these magical materials have to be really cold to work--at least 400-odd degrees below zero. When some physicists announced in the mid-'80s that they'd discovered some comparatively high-temperature superconductors, it's fair to say that the physics community went berserk.

In fact, the March 1987 physics meeting at the New York Hilton where many of the findings were discussed has become known as the Woodstock of physics, with thousands of physicists packed into overcrowded corridors.

One group from UC Santa Barbara, known as the Santa Barbarians, included Steve Kivelson, who is one of the top people in his field. (Kivelson also collaborates with his father, a UCLA chemist. His mother, a UCLA astrophysicist, is an expert in planetary magnetism and project leader for the Galileo mission to Jupiter.) In the midst of all the excitement was 2,000 square feet of "Physics Art" by Pamela Davis.

Some of the pieces were "talking paintings"--huge canvases of scientists collaborating on a beach, or huddled over equations, or holding babies.

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