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Using art to bring science to life

| Judy Berthiaume

The arts and sciences literally will share the stage this fall during “Waves: A Celebration of Astronomy and Music,” a one-of-a-kind event that will weave together musical pieces, recent scientific discoveries and stunning images of the solar system.

The Nov. 19 event, which is free and open to the public, will feature Dr. Paul Thomas, a professor of astronomy at UW-Eau Claire, and Julie Majkowski Thomas, an accomplished flutist and UW-Eau Claire music graduate.

“It is a weaving of up-to-date news from our exploration of the solar system and a variety of musical pieces,” Thomas says. “We will showcase stunning images taken from our planetary spacecraft of the planets of the outer solar system, including our recent encounter with Pluto.”

The event will begin at 7 p.m. Nov. 19 in the Ojibwe Ballroom of Davies Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Thomas will provide narration, and the event will highlight musical performances by Majkowski Thomas on the flute and bass flute.

Percussionist Tiit Raid, emeritus professor of art, and pianist George Utphall, a UW-Eau Claire alumnus, also will perform during the event.

The music will include selections composed by Gary Schocker, Claude Debussy, Paul Schwartz and beatbox flutist Greg Pattillo.

Majkowski Thomas and Raid also will improvise, using the spoken word and photographs of the solar system as inspiration.

“The audience will experience a live astronomy presentation that will be performed with a musical accompaniment in an organic combination that we hope will give people a strong feeling of wonder about the recent exploration of space,” Thomas says. “This is very much a one-of-a-kind presentation that we think will interest anyone who has experienced wonder at the universe and our first small steps of exploration.”

In the performance, Majkowski Thomas’ music will be influenced by Native flute, Shakuhachi flute and beat boxing techniques.

Thomas will highlight four recent news events from astronomers’ explorations of the solar system, his research field.

In “Year of the Ice Worlds,” he will highlight the 2014 New Horizons flyby of Pluto and its revelations containing the surprisingly very active geological history of this planet. In “Dance of the Rings,” he will discuss the complexity of the rings of Saturn, which contain multitudes of icy particles weaving an intricate pattern around the planet.

In “Storms as Big as Worlds,” Thomas will discuss the atmospheres of the outer giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and the gigantic cyclones that drive enormous winds. And in “Winds of Mars,” he will talk about the ongoing exploration of Mars and what scientists have learned about the history of the planet, including the likelihood that there were once rivers, seas and even perhaps an ocean in the distant past.

The “Waves” event is the second annual UW-Eau Claire “Art AND Science” program, created by Thomas and Dr. Matt Jewell, an assistant professor of materials science.

“Our view of human history is that art has always been used to explain science and bring it to life for a wide audience,” Jewell says of the inspiration for the “Art AND Science” program series. “Conversely, science has always been one approach to bring focus and clarity to art.

“Think of a beautiful illustration of the solar system or the human body or even a well-crafted graph in a scientific paper. In all these cases, it’s the artistic approach that gives the data relevance and highlights the critical details. Similarly, we can all think of examples of artwork that are inspired by the natural and scientific world, or that rely on mathematical relationships as part of the creative process.”

Jewell and Thomas believe that the spheres of art and science are fundamentally linked, and the “Art AND Science” series is a way to highlight this for the campus and greater Eau Claire communities, Jewell says.

“Last year we screened a documentary about the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland,” Jewell says. “The topic is technical and requires some serious scientific background, but it was understandable and digestible thanks to the story-like narrative constructed by the documentary team. This year, we are using music and images and video to try and capture some of what we now understand about the solar system that we live in.

“In both cases, the story would be poorer and less compelling without the contributions from both scientists and artists.”

Thomas says his passion for both the arts and the sciences is why he has dedicated his career to teaching in a liberal arts university like UW-Eau Claire.

“The two spheres of human knowledge complement each other in a way that shows the very best we have to offer,” Thomas says of the arts and the sciences.

Blugold Emily Watkins will perform on guitar before and after the “Waves” performance.

There also will be an exhibition of paintings by Michelle Gervais, an art and physics major whose paintings represent ideas or concepts from the sciences.

“Michelle Gervais’ art is inspired by concepts in physics, and is a wonderful counterpart to our fusing of music and astronomy,” Thomas says.

Photo caption: Science and music faculty, emeriti, students and alumni will bring the arts and sciences to life during “Waves: A Celebration of Astronomy and Music,” a one-of-a-kind event that will weave together musical pieces, recent scientific discoveries and images of the solar system.