Physics in Art
A video exploration of elements of the string theory
Faculty Mentor: Joseph Ostraff, Visual Arts
The string theory, also known as the “great unifying theory,” finds middle ground between the
long at-odds theories of quantum physics and general relativity. The “strings” in this theory are
tiny pieces of matter, smaller than protons and neutrons, which make up the world, as we know
it. These strings are said to be undulating at incredible rates and forming loops and waves.
According to the theory, these loops and waves form other dimensions of space and time. My
project took some of the aspects of physics presented in the great unifying theory and found
visual examples of them in the world around us. I wanted to record these visuals and create a
short film illustrating the jarring, displacing, and sometimes uncomfortable aspects of how I
visualize the string theory.
During my freshman year at BYU, Daniel Greene, scientist and face of the string theory, came to
a university forum and addressed the BYU student body. I was among the students in the
audience and was captivated by the theories he was explaining and the methods he used to do so.
The following summer I traveled to London on a study abroad and while there read Greene’s
book, The Elegant Universe which, much like his forum address, chronicled the parts that make
up the string theory (and also gave a general background of how quantum mechanics and general
relativity work). During the study abroad I had the opportunity to go to Paris with a professor
and take video footage of spiral staircases. . The spinning staircases made me think of the
spinning strings I was reading about on the ride to Paris that morning. Soon my mind was
spinning with ideas about what I could do with the footage we shot. These experiences laid the
groundwork for my ORCA proposal and eventually project.
The following Fall Semester I was talking to my professor about the ideas I had surrounding the
string theory. As an art student, my mind was full of images describing the laws and theories I
had been reading about. I discussed with him the idea about making a film. Because BYU
doesn’t offer classes that instruct students in new art medias such as film, I thought an ORCA
project would be the perfect way to explore my thoughts and create a film illustrating elements
of the string theory.
Six months after I submitted my ORCA application I got married. Two days after that I flew out
east to live in Washington DC for the summer while my new husband worked as an intern.
Living in the city gave me an abundance of visual vocabulary with which to build my project.
With my new video camera in hand, I walked the city keeping an eye out for visuals that would
capture the phenomena in physics I had learned about. The first thing to catch my eye was the
way that the metro system mimicked this feeling of displacement described in Greene’s book.
Sitting in the back car of a metro train, you could watch as another train approached and its lights
would illuminate the tracks. However, as your train would turn a corner, the illuminated tracks
would seem to twist and disappear. Visuals such as this became the focus of my summer.
My grant also helped to fund a trip to New York to capture footage of certain buildings and
locations I had researched. For two solid days we pounded the streets in search of more footage
to work with in building my film. It was a new experience for me to work with a camera in this
way. Figuring out to manually focus or defocus, for example took time and practice. Achieving
certain effects in the footage I shot was often times a matter of trial and error.
When I returned to Utah to begin school again l I had over 6 hours of raw footage. While trying
to download this footage I learned about fire wires and various software programs that could
extract the footage from my camera. I learned that the camera I bought didn’t have fire wire
capabilities, which considerably slowed down the downloading process. I considered myself
fairly well versed in computers and related technology, but this project opened my eyes to so
areas in which I’m completely ignorant. I had to step up and learn how to deal with various
technical problems in a new way.
Using FinalCut Pro edit my footage was a daunting task. Having never really used the program,
hours upon hours were spent simply trying to understand how to compress footage, speed up
footage, rewind, fast-forward, etc. The editing process was (and is) slower than I ever knew.
After the first day of editing, I had only watched a fraction of the footage I shot. Days later I had
completed sifting through all of it, putting much of it in the scrap pile, and keeping parts that I
thought had interesting visual qualities. I realized while watching all of it together for the first
time that much of what I was capturing were various light effects.
Before I was even partially finished with editing, my footage was somehow erased off of the
computer I had been editing on. While I still had all of the raw footage, hours of work were lost.
This put a serious hold on my project and provided me with an opportunity to deal with serious
setbacks. After a few weeks of trying to recover the footage, I was close to downloading all of
the footage again and starting from scratch. Then, a few days later, my mentor came to and told
me he had restored my project. Because of this setback, I was not able to finish the editing
process by the end of December. This project has taught me how meticulous you must be when
editing and how tedious the process really is. However, plans to finish the film are underway.
As I’ve continued editing, the project seems to change in concept. I started with these theories of
the string theory, but visuals in the film strongly remind me of portions of the scriptures that I
have been studying about light and darkness. It has been interesting for me to edit and be a part
of what seems like an organic process of creation. Because I have so much footage, I think I
could take my project in a variety of directions conceptually, while still using principles of
physics and the string theory.
I am hoping to finish this project by the end of this semester and then submit it to a film festival
in July. This year has also provided me with opportunities to research new exhibition spaces and
new ways to show my work. In so many ways this project has helped prepare me as an artist and
given me valuable experience with new media. The conceptual process that this piece has also
gone through has made me realize how important firm concepts are in art. I could not be more
grateful for the opportunities given me through this generous grant.