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Bringing the worlds of art and physics together

Blugold Michelle Gervais has always loved to solve problems but she also has had a lifelong passion for art. 

"In math classes, I loved that moment where it suddenly clicked and I was able to figure out the problem," says Gervais, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "But I also love art." 

When it came time to declare a major, rather than choose between her passions, Gervais decided to pursue them both — she will graduate later this year with bachelor's degrees in both physics and art.

"I decided on physics because it had that same element as math but it also seemed more applicable to the real world to me," says Gervais, a native of Hamburg. "I added the art major because I knew that I couldn't do without art in my life and I wanted to learn more about it." 

This spring, Gervais has literally brought the two worlds together by creating a series of paintings that each represent an idea or concept from physics. 

"Their purpose is to help bridge the gap between the physics world and the non-physics world," Gervais says. "I'm hoping that they will help people better understand these ideas or see them in a new light. I want to bring physics to the art world and art to the physics world." 

Her paintings will be on display on the second floor of Phillips Science Hall through the summer of 2015.

After earning her art and physics degrees from UW-Eau Claire later this year, Gervais plans to work for a year and then enroll in graduate school to pursue an advanced degree in accelerator or nuclear physics. 

The paintings below are among those featured in Michelle Gervais' Connecting Art and Physics exhibit, as well as her first-person descriptions of each piece.


This piece is based on the Bernoulli Principle, which states that where the velocity of a fluid is high the pressure it exerts is low and where the velocity is low it exerts high pressure. This principle is behind the way airplanes work. Air can be treated as a liquid, and as the wings of a plane cut through the air more of the air is redirected over the wing. This is similar to water going from a large pipe to a small pipe;it speeds up when it gets to the smaller pipe. This means that the air going over the wing is moving faster than the air going below it, thus, because of the Bernoulli Principle, we know that the air below the wing is exerting more pressure on the wing creating dynamic lift.

In this painting, the two forms represent cross sections of wings and they show how, as the streamlines of air go around them, the air going over the curved surface is compressed and now has a smaller pipe to go through. The background lines are flowing and fluid to emphasize the fact that the air is being treated as a fluid. With the form on the right, its attack angle is too high and so the air can no longer wrap around underneath to follow its surface. When this happens turbulence occurs. 

I wanted to give this piece an overall organic feel to compensate for the mechanical nature of the subject matter. To do this, I used soft brushstrokes and cropped the image to make it feel like a close up.


This piece is based on a particle accelerator located at the University of Notre Dame. The blue form on the left is the tank where the particle beam is formed;it is then sent down the grey pipeline. A beam of particles is composed of either all positive or all negative charges, and because of this, it constantly wants to expand since like charges repel each other.

For experiments, a well-focused beam is needed so the beam needs to be held together somehow. One of the ways this is done is with magnetic quadrupoles; these are the red box forms that enclose the pipeline in the painting. They use magnetic fields to shape the beam and compress it back down. 

The green lines in the upper part of the painting show the shape of the beam through the pipeline, the top one is the x-axis, and the bottom is the y-axis. They show how the initially expanding beam is bent back down and focused. 

I used a combination of voluminous objects and flat lines to add variation. The line work also gives the painting a diagrammatic feel, which helps point toward a mechanical subject matter.


This piece represents the standard model of an atom. In the standard model, the protons and neutrons that compose the nucleus of the atom are broken down into their building blocks. Protons and neutrons are both composed of quarks and gluons. 

A proton is made of two up-quarks and one down-quark, and a neutron is made of two down-quarks and one up-quark. Down-quarks are negative in charge and up-quarks are positive so that protons end up with an overall charge of positive and neutrons end up neutral in charge. In addition, quarks can have either a red, blue or green color charge, and each proton and neutron gets one of each so as to be color neutral overall. 

Gluons are like glue; they form tubes that link the quarks together and they come in color pairs. In the standard model, electrons have no color charge and their orbits are represented by clouds as there isn't an exact path they follow, but rather there is an area of high probability where they are found. 

The background in this piece is yellow because yellow is not associated with color charge and also because it is a fun, happy color. Many people, when they think of physics, are intimidated but I want to show how it can be fun.