Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 22
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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Fighting Hippos and Chilly Rabbits: “Art of Science” Exhibit is Mind-Bending

Ellen Gilbert

Leonardo da Vinci bade us to “Study the science of art and the art of science,” and teams of Princeton University organizers have been doing that with brio for the last four years in year-long “Art of Science” exhibits mounted in the atrium of the Friends Center on Williams Street.

These mind-bending images explore “the interplay between science and art,” and “those moments of discovery when what you perceive suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts.”

Three images were selected as top winners: “Xenon Plasma Accelerator,” by PPPL faculty member Jerry Ross; “Therapeutic Illumination,” by Chemistry Department graduate student David Nagib; and “Neutron Star Scattering Off a Super Massive Black Hole,” by Tim Koby, ’11.

Other images in the exhibit are more than attention-worthy. Children of all ages will be enchanted by a photo of hippos fighting with each other, rabbits coping with the cold, a toy train carrying a neutron source inside a fusion experimental machine, and a bug with huge, glowing, orange eyes. It looks like science fiction, but it’s all the better for being real. It’s easy to imagine youngsters’ interest in studying science being whetted by these representations of fish brains, magnetic whirls, and starry skies.

This year’s competition drew more than 115 submissions from 20 departments, and includes work by undergraduates, faculty, research staff, graduate students, and alumni. This year’s theme, “energy,” is beautifully depicted by the “Hare-ball,” in which Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Henry S. Horn displays “the ways that animals arrange their bodies and their physiology to cope with extreme environments.” At first glance, it is easy to believe that we are being shown the photographs of two different hares, one plump, the other gaunt. It is however, one and the same animal, coping, in the second photo, with a cold winter evening by turning into a more spherical form “to minimize its surface-to-volume ratio, and so to minimize its loss of energy.”

“These extraordinary images are not art for art’s sake,” we are told by the exhibit’s organizers, who included Andrew Zwicker, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory; Adam Finkelstein, Department of Computer Science; and Teresa Riordan, School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Rather, they were produced during the course of scientific research. Entries were chosen for their aesthetic excellence as well as scientific or technical interest.”

“Stuck,” a photo of a Drosophila Santomea, was taken under a microscope by Virginia Byron, ’10, for her senior thesis work. “While we were aiming to capture patterns of pigmentation on the hind region of the fly, the most striking feature of this ‘portrait’” was, she reports, “the fly’s unnaturally orange glowing eyes. Postmortem, these eyes emit an unexpected energy.”

The improbable sight of hippos duking it out in an image taken by Christina Gupfinger, ’12, depicts “one of the only times hippos are seen expending significant amounts of energy.” This occurs “when bachelors challenge the bull for mating rights for all the females.” Although this “display of aggression” lasted only 15 seconds, we are warned that “the fighting gets more intense as the territory rights become more essential for survival during the dry season.”

The judges who selected the top three prize winners included David Dobkin, dean of the faculty; Emmet Gowin, professor of Visual Arts; Paul Muldoon, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts; James Steward, director of the Art Museum; and Shirley M. Tilghman, president. It must have been a very difficult call.

The atrium gallery is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For more information, visit

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