'Incredible Fusion': Physics and Art Combine in PHYS 498

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By Meghan McCoy, English, '18

One of the things The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is known for is the incredible range of classes that, with a few exceptions, are open to every student to suit whatever interests they may have. Whether an arts, humanities, engineering, or science major, by the time a student graduates they will have multiple years of world-class courses backing them up in their given major.

But what about when you’re looking for a class that combines the arts, humanities, and the sciences? Is such a mix even possible?

This is where Physics 498: Where the Arts Meets Physics comes in. Created and taught by Professor Smitha Vishveshwara from the Physics Department, this semester is the first time this class has been offered

As an actual student in the class, I can attest to how this class asks students to creatively explore where art and science meet. It’s so good it inspired me to write this story, after all.

This sliding guitar, designed by Angelo Niqula, demonstrates the creativity and skill of the students in the class

Talking to Professor Vishveshwara, I was wondering where she got the idea to design a class that uses art to show physics concepts many of us might find confusing, too difficult, or maybe even uninteresting.

As it turns out, she pulled this idea directly from her own experience as a student.

“I studied physics in my undergraduate and graduate degrees, but in my undergrad I was also in a college scholars program which could be as specialized or unspecialized as you wanted,” she explained. “So I did everything a physics major does, but I also focused on creative writing and the arts, with writing being one of my favorite media of creative expression. I’ve always had a ‘Renaissance-type’ outlook in which art and science come together in diverse, natural and powerful ways. I am delighted to have the opportunity to create a course that embraces this view and to be sharing with a motivated group of students who are willing to deviate from traditional course practices and transcend boundaries.”

Professor Vishveshwara wants to use Physics 498 to give her students the same creative and intellectual freedoms she had as an undergraduate. Though we’re usually taught that science and creative writing are different or that art and lab coats don’t go together, Physics 498 is a space that encourages students to put things together that are often kept apart.

To do this, she invites artists and faculty members from a bunch of other fields to come in and speak. In this class, the experts are also students.

Just as the name suggests, Physics 498 is a special topics physics class that seeks to explore, discover, and creatively show where the arts and physics converge. To demonstrate that intersection, Professor Vishveshwara arranged for multiple presentations by various artists and teachers, including the incredible harp duo Ginger and Spice, Professor David Hays from the Department of Landscape Architecture, RAQS (Rarely Asked Questions) Media Collective, and from faculty in the theater department like Peter Davis and Latrelle Bright (Professor Bright is also auditing the course!).


Professor David Hays and Professor Vishveshwara demonstrating how solar power works

When they’re free to combine different fields of study in their own ways, Professor Vishveshwara thinks that students will like both physics and art more. And it seems to be working.

For the semester, the students are put into groups with certain topics according to their specific interests, such as Light and Sound, Quantum Theories, Chaos and Flow, the Universe, and Mechanics. Each group then designs and creates a project according to their topic, which will be presented both in class and to the public at the end of the year.

As the wide range of presenters suggests, the students involved in the class cover just as wide a range of backgrounds, interests, and talents. With approximately twenty-five students enrolled, the class ranges from graduate students in math and physics, to undergraduates in the arts, humanities, and even general studies.

Michelle Victoria, a second year Graduate student in Physics, says that the collaboration of people from so many different backgrounds is one of the best aspects of the class.

“I’ve always liked science and math because it helps me understand how life works and the mechanics of it all, but without the arts and humanities in it there’s no meaning to it. I think there’s a difference between understanding life and how it works and actually giving it a reason,” she said.

Explaining the mechanics of the world, and also exploring the life behind it? Perfect.

Groups continue discussing their projects

As a current sophomore in the English Department, initially I was worried that, even though I find the science fascinating, my lack of technical knowledge would mean every week I’d leave confused or always feel on the outside of the class. But it was just within a few weeks that I knew that that wasn’t going to be the case in this class. Even though I wasn’t a science or Engineering major, my skills as an English major could also be just as useful by writing the descriptors and explanations for the different projects.

Professor Vishveshwara has done an amazing job at ensuring that in Physics 498 there is something for everyone no matter their major. And for those who are still figuring out what major they want, Physics 498 is tailor-made to give each student as much freedom as they want to explore their interests.

Xuiting Wu, who is finishing up her freshman year in General Studies, has discovered a lot about what she wants to do once the semester concludes. “I really like art,” she began, “and while I like science too when I came to the University I thought that I was going to have to give up on art to pursue my technical classes. But I didn’t want to do that completely, so when second semester came I found Smitha’s class (Physics 498) on the course website, and after looking through it I was really excited about it, and now I know that I can study both art and science and not have to give one up.”

Participants (from left): Latrelle Bright, Nicholas Laracuente, Xiauqian He, Suke Yao, and Jawad Hossain

One thing that many students feel when they come to college is that once they decide on a major, they are locked into that major and all of the classes that come with it. And when a student does decide to take a class that doesn’t quite pertain to their degree, or even just a “fun” class, it may not be until their junior or senior year. What Professor Vishveshwara has created through Physics 498 is a class where students from all majors, years, and skills can come and experiment with ideas and interests they may have had for years, and turn them into fun and interesting projects.

I never would have thought that, as someone who has never taken a Calculus course, that I would have learned so much and been able to extensively participate in a special topics Physics class. However, I think I’ve gained so much from this class precisely because of my lack of in-depth knowledge about science and math. This class helps teach me new concepts in accessible ways, while opening my eyes to old knowledge in new ways. My classmates and I have are interested to see where the arts, humanities, and sciences intersect with and depend on one another.

No major or department is ever truly separate from another, and to divide topics is to lose a crucial part of what makes a particular subject so fascinating, or even lose some potential to add depth, knowledge, and beauty to a person’s life. Combining those is what makes the arts and sciences so rich. Through Physics 498: Where the Arts Meets Physics, all of us in the class have been able to experience a little more of that incredible fusion.