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The Museum as Lab

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2006
Sally B. Patterson

In a world of ever-increasing specialization, many people believe that cross-disciplinary approaches that encourage looking at the same subject from different angles boost creativity and foster the ability to “think outside the box.” Arthur David Snider, a professor of engineering and advanced mathematics at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has created a course that acts on this line of thinking: “Light and the Arts.”

The course presents solid scientific principles of optics, quantum theory, relativity and optical devices as the underpinnings of the more subjective realm of fine art. It explores the spectral content of light alongside masterpieces by Degas and Hopper; film development through the lens of Ansel Adams; visual effects, such as perspective, through the works of Dali and Michelangelo; and color theory and manipulation in the palettes of van Gogh and others. Experiments range from making pinhole cameras to using technology to expose art forgery.

Snider estimates that, of the 60 or so students who enroll each semester, about 90 percent are science majors. “They are going into high-paying careers with lots of travel involved, and they can add museum-hopping to the list of things to enjoy. Also, it reinforces, through novel applications, some of their academic studies,” he said. The other 10 percent are mostly art majors. “They are very curious (and amused) to observe the mind-set of the techies and to see how we look at their work,” he added.

The National Science Foundation is supporting the endeavor with a three-year grant of approximately $100,000, which Snider is using to pay for research, assistants and equipment such as optical systems and lasers.

Perhaps the curriculum will inspire a new generation of Leonardos — engineer/artists who can do it all.


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