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Art and science get physical

By Meg Schmitt

The first question brought to mind by the artwork of Gavin Warnock ’14: are science and art quite as unmarriageable as the usual assumptions say? Warnock’s art bucks the naysayers in its mission to link a passion for physics with artistic expression.

“[I like] the idea of spreading physics, [which] is usually something that people aren’t really into,” said Warnock. “I try to show people that physics can be interesting!”

Warnock meets this challenge through his combined studies in physics, studio art and education at Grinnell. A large part of his commitment to popularizing the sciences in his native Iowa revolves around local education. His past projects have incorporated elements of science demonstration to children and adults throughout the state, in which he encourages audience participation and questions.

Photo by Joanna Silverman

“I do demonstrations… where I explain concepts to kids and let them help me with experiments,” said Warnock, citing his experiences in Winterset and Dexter Summer festivals as well as his time in the PACES summer program in Perry, Iowa from this past summer.

Warnock’s art serves to incorporate physics concepts in artistic media and thereby create a more visual and accessible understanding of the science behind it. Among his past projects is Chalk Theory, a series of chalk drawings that used the concept of wave motion to form patterns across black paper, reflecting the energy of the waves in the shapes. The punches of color and weaving lines against stark black forms emit a subtle energy, especially when seen in the progressive eight-piece series.

His series from last year, “Chiral Powered,” was inspired by the nature and nuances of light and waves. The Smith Gallery Exhibition held a deep fascination in its manipulations of color and shape through a variety of glass containers, filters and light sources.

“I try to make physics tangible so that it can be explored in a much more intuitive sense than math,” Warnock said.

Interactive displays and exhibits like these are exactly the type of inquisitive and exploratory demonstrations that Warnock hopes will inspire a curiosity, similar to his own in physics.

The studio art and physics major is preparing a holistic physics project inspired by the prayer flags native to Buddhist religion in his newest scientific venture.

“I like the idea [that the prayer flags] are prayers to the universe,” Warnock said.

The universal nature of the prayer flags fits with his objective, to explore and expose the universality of the sciences in everyday life.

“I want to make physics prayer flags and write equations and derivations on them to spread knowledge and … spread the spirit of physics through the universe,” Warnock said.

In keeping with the idea behind prayer flags’ domains, indicated by color, the physics prayer flags would denote different themes in physics.

“[The prayer flags] stand for earth, fire, wind, air and water… the physics concepts I have [are] the wave equation for water, thermodynamics for fire, electrodynamics and electricity for air, equations of motion for earth and general and special relativity for sky or space,” Warnock said.

Warnock bridges the traditional divide between the analytical nature of science and the reflective powers of artwork. The two are intrinsically linked in his exploratory path through the fundamentals of physics. The art that is the product of this unique combination is indeed a learning experience. This is appropriate, given Warnock’s post-Grinnell aspirations.

“I want to teach high school physics…[I want] to show people that physics doesn’t just have to be math,” he said.

If the lessons in his artwork to date are any indication, Warnock has quite a career to look forward to.

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