Ideas

brainiac

An artist walks into the Harvard physics department

Courtesy Kim Bernard

Physicists will tell you that they see great beauty in the physical world, though much of that beauty remains hidden to others — masked by mathematics that most people never understand. Artist Kim Bernard translates across the divide. She’s no physicist, either, but through a series of elegant installations, she makes plain the simple order expressed by physical laws.

For Bernard, who lives in Rockland, Maine, and is currently an artist-in-residence in the Harvard physics department, physics has been an inadvertent muse. Initially she was just interested in creating sculptures that moved, but the more she developed the work, the more she realized that she couldn’t separate her artistic vision from the physics present in it.

“I was making a kinetic sculpture and needed to understand simple harmonics in order to have the movement be what I wanted,” she says.

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At first, Bernard turned to physics to help her execute ideas she already had for sculptures. Later, though, she began to draw inspiration directly from the discipline. In 2011 she saw a video of a lecture demonstration in which a table-top device is used to depict pendulum waves. Based on that, she created a wall-sized installation with 15 red balls on cables of graduated length that swing out when a wooden gate is released. Because the cables have different lengths, the balls swing with different periods, creating a wave-like effect that is precisely rooted in physics, but also an aesthetic achievement in its own right.

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“[Physicists] might build something that simply demonstrates a principle,” she says. “I take it into an aesthetic realm and create an installation out of it and be more selective about materials, color, and context.”

In other work, Bernard has depicted the mesmeric patterns created by the quantum positions of electrons in a hydrogen atom, and she’s interested in giving artistic form to the lattice form of the super-material graphene. During her time at Harvard, she’s talking with professors and students, sitting in on lectures, and prowling the supply basement in order to gather ideas for future sculptures.

Bernard has gotten past any intimidation she felt about talking with the top minds in a field she left behind, at least formally, in high school. In fact, she says, the only real moments of awkwardness occur when students recognize her as one of the adults in the room during a lab experiment. “If they don’t know I’m the artist-in-residence, they might turn to me and ask a question,” she says.

Watch one of Bernard’s sculptures in motion

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.