Physics Professors Uncover the Art of Physics

May 5, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

Sometimes professors see possibilities in students that they themselves don’t immediately see.

More than two decades ago, Sudha Swaminathan (Earth, Environment, and Physics), then a physics and mathematics major at Mount Holyoke, took a sculpture class for fun.

“My sculpture professor predicted that one day I would find a way to bring my fondness for science and art together,” she said.

That prediction, with some help from serendipity, is coming true: In the spring of 2009, Swaminathan and her colleague Frank Lamelas will offer Physics in Art, a new, three-credit lab course they’ve developed for science and art majors.

Swaminathan, who is in her third year on the faculty, began researching art analysis using physics when she got to Worcester State. “I found a book, Art Criticism from a Laboratory,” she said. “It was published in 1938, and some of the images were from the Worcester Art Museum.”

She called the museum to make an appointment to see the images and talk with a curator. The idea for Physics in Art was born. Her 2007-08 mini-grant with Lamelas has that title.

The two have used the grant to develop an introductory physics course with three components.  The first addresses optics. What are the basic principles of optics and how did artists use those principles? They’ve constructed a camera obscura to give students the opportunity to experience the ways artists painted.

The course will then move to the analysis of art using physical techniques. They’ve employed Emily Nelson, a WSC junior history major with an interest in art, who has also worked in a dentist’s office and therefore knows something about x-ray technology. Nelson is creating painting swatches to illustrate the use of non-invasive techniques such as x-rays, infrared and ultraviolet techniques.

X-rays of paintings are used to reveal underpaintings. These are the painted layers beneath the outermost visible layer.  Pigments with greater amounts of lead or other heavy elements absorb x-rays strongly, and can be seen in an x-ray of a painting.

“With infrared detection you can see Emily’s charcoal drawings underneath the samples of 10 different colors of paint,” Swaminathan said.

Infrared techniques can also be used to see the under image, because some paints are transparent in the infrared portion of the spectrum.

“Research-grade infrared cameras are too expensive for such a course,” Lamelas said. “But by adapting a camera made for amateur astronomers, and with a home-made infrared light source, we can see some of the infrared spectrum we’re interested in.”

They used part of the mini-grant to purchase the camera then outfitted it with a 50mm Nikon lens from an old film camera, and a $50 infrared filter. “We’re trying to engineer our own way of doing this so that it will be interesting for students,” Lamelas said. “We’ll be able to do multi-spectral imaging.”

The third part of the course encompasses the analysis of art for authentication and dating. “We don’t have the capacity to examine paintings with neutrons,” Swaminathan said. “Neutron analysis is invasive. You need a small part of the painting itself to do the analysis.”

Instead, they’ll use a scanning electron microscope to examine paint pigments. “This way you can tell whether the pigment source is natural or synthetic,” she said. “Natural iron oxide shows up differently than synthetic iron oxide.”  Paintings can thus be dated.

The public will also benefit from the development of this course. Swaminathan and Lamelas are preparing a one-hour “Physics in Art” tour for the Worcester Art Museum. They’ll write guides to six paintings in the museum’s collection that illustrate the techniques they’re teaching their students.  They hope to have this tour available for museum visitors later this year.

Written by Barbara Zang, Ph.D.

Leave a Comment

See for yourself what #woolife is all about.

The best way to learn about Worcester State University is to tour our beautiful campus. Be sure to let your student tour guide know your interests so they can personalize your tour.

See the tour schedule