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Revealing the Workings of Our Household Techno-Gods

PARTNERSHIPS FOR PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING - Funded by the EPSRC and the Department of Physics and Applied Physics at the University of Strathclyde

Scientists at the University of Strathclyde have opened their laboratories to the world of art. The intention is to use photography and poetry to increase the public's awareness of the strange and exotic word of physics.

Photographer Peter Fraser and poet Ian McDonough have been warmly welcomed by the Department of Physics and Applied Physics since Easter, after picking up the gauntlet thrown down to them by Drs. Dino Jaroszynski and Brian McNeil who received a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to fund the project. The Council has awarded them £20,000 to help create a travelling exhibition, which will explore the everyday work and environment of physicists, and make connections between artistic and scientific inspiration.

The idea developed as a result of a series of late night conversations between the artists and physicists. What emerged was a consensus that the arts and science had many common themes including the basic preoccupation of revealing the hidden structures, which define our world and our place in it.

"We chose poetry and photography because they share properties with scientific research," said the team.

"Poetry uses concise and elegant language to derive general principles from the chaos of everyday existence, and is able to make intuitive leaps in describing the universe. Photography has an ability to observe and `catch' the outer state of an object in a moment of time, and at the same time illuminate its inner qualities or workings."

"We want people to be able to see what sort of world scientists inhabit, what frustrates and excites them."

Internationally recognised photographer Peter Fraser said: "The images attempt to capture scientific thought. They represent the physical manifestation of the thought process. Everything in the laboratory is a product of a stream of conscious or unconscious thought."

Ian McDonough, who is Convenor of Edinburgh's Shore Poet's Group, said: "As someone who parted company with formal scientific training at the age of 13, I was well aware that to the majority of people physics is alien and incomprehensible. What I hope our work in this project will do is help make people realise the strange beauty of physics, and the remarkable logic-defying forces at work just under the surface of our everyday existence."

Dino Jaroszynski said: "I come from a family of artists, and I'm interested in showing people that being a scientist can be creative. You can have leaps forward in a piece of research, spot interesting juxtapositions or simply work on a hunch. Both poetry and composition are evident in all aspects of science. Science has exerted an important influence on the formation of the world we live in, and is very much part of our culture. I want people to be able to see what sort of world scientists inhabit, what frustrates them - such as the difficulties in finding funding for research - and what excites them. We hope to convey a view of science as seen through the eyes of non-scientists. Art is an excellent medium for doing this while capturing the imagination of people"

Brian McNeil said: "Our aim is to produce material that will be true to the underlying principles of science while at the same time being accessible and easily understood by the general public, including younger people who may have confused or negative images of science. Just as importantly, we want to try to reveal what it is like to be a research physicist: the intense excitement of discovery; the more mundane aspects like failing to get your e-mail working; the very human nature of the environment we inhabit in contrast to the pristine, white lab-coated image that is so prevalent. Poetry and photography are individually excellent media at capturing such events, but when working together, I think they will prove to be a powerful force in presenting a realistic perspective of physicists and their work environment."

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