Her technique is almost embarrassingly low tech. Take an eyedropper and fill it with a mix of water, glycerin and reflective flakes and drip it against a dark background. Shoot a hundred frames, and maybe you get something. "I find it really satisfying that you can perceive these as representations of science, or fine art, or somewhere in between. I like the idea that it challenges expectations. It's important to shake your tree from time to time."
Like Kahn, Davis takes her cues from the physical world. "The nice thing about nature is, you can show off what is there. It's even more fantastic than anything you could think of." But she also collaborates very closely with physicists. Among them is UC Berkeley's Dan Rokhsar, who helped Davis build her solitons, nearly severing a finger in the process. "He gave blood for this project," she says.
When Rokhsar met Davis, he was a graduate student working on the structure of glasses. A "glassy" material, to a physicist, is one that falls into that murky ground between liquid and solid; a sort of solid liquid, it doesn't flow, but it doesn't crystallize either. Physicists call this state of matter "frustrated," because no matter how you try to stack the atoms together--like pears in a shipping box--they don't quite fit. "So inevitably you get these stresses and strains," says Rokhsar. "No matter what you do, no one is happy. That's frustration."
Based on these ideas, Davis built her "Frustrated Icosohedron"--a huge, red oak geometrical solid made out of 20-odd perfect pyramids. "It's analogous to a phase transition, to glass," she says. "We made some extra ones [so the pieces don't quite fit.]" It's like trying to jam a few extra pieces into a jigsaw puzzle.
Some physicists view frustration as geometry in the wrong dimension. That is, in four-dimensional space, the 20 pyramids would fit perfectly. But because our world is stuck with three dimensions, the material has to be torn, stretched and glued to fit (rather like trying to put the foot of one of Cinderella's wicked stepsisters into the dainty glass slipper.)
Rokhsar's physics obviously had a deep impact on Davis' art, but inspiration also flowed the other way as well. "She got us all interested in art, in thinking about aesthetics. Part of the attraction for physicists is Pam's personality. She's so convinced that it's important to convey this visually--she is so enthusiastic--she forced people to think about it. It gave physicists someone to talk to about those aspects of their work."