Physicist explains the intersection of art and science

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Ágnes Mócsy did not always want to be a theoretical physicist. Like a lot of us, she at first failed to see the beauty and grace hidden within those stale science textbooks.

This Friday at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams on Michigan State University’s campus, Dr. Mócsy will be giving a presentation titled “Physics in Concert with the Arts,” which explores the connections between science and art.

Mócsy, a professor of physics and astronomy at the Pratt Institute, grew up as a Hungarian minority in Romania, under a dictatorship that provided little room for educational exploration. “There were no electives, so you had to take physics, chemistry and biology,” Mócsy said.

A good teacher, one who taught with charisma and humor, got Mócsy to see that physics was fun and relevant to the world around her. “I wanted to impress him, so I started studying more rigorously,” she said.

The Iron Curtain fell while Mócsy was in university. After that, she obtained a passport, took off, and now only returns home for the occasional visit. She earned three degrees, including a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

Mócsy’s decision to become a professional polymath was not an easy one. Her lifelong dream was to teach at a university, but then she saw a job posting in a nature magazine. The Pratt Institute, a prestigious art school, was hiring scientists as full-time faculty.

“After 10 days of agony, I decided to go with Pratt,” she said. “It was a completely risky, alternative route.”

The job forced Mócsy to figure out how to teach complicated physics without “dumbing it down” for her art students.

“Early on, I started thinking of ways to challenge the students to grow their artistic abilities together with their scientific understanding,” she said.

She had her students choose a topic from the course, research it and express it in an artistic medium of their choice. Then, a panel of scientists and artists judged their creations.

“I ended up producing and creating shows in the city, art shows, fashion shows, with the students’ work,” she said. Some of this artwork will be featured in Mócsy’s presentation. “It ended up feeding further collaboration with artists.”

This is all part of what Mócsy referred to as her “multidisciplinary journey.” She began to understand that art and science are more closely intertwined than we typically think.

“In previous times, art history and science history coexisted. Scientific and artistic changes happened at the same time but without knowing each other, indicating that both science and art can change the status quo,” she said.

Perhaps this reminds you of the men of the Renaissance — Da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo. They are presented as infallible and multifaceted geniuses that existed at the forefront of a new era, capable of painting the Sistine Chapel one day and discovering Europa the next.

Mócsy is careful to avoid lionizing so-called geniuses. She actually prefers to avoid the word “genius” entirely. To her, it is an outdated term that undercuts the value of collaboration.

Instead, Mócsy prefers to make room for “participation and unification of people from minority backgrounds.” She said, “When I talk about art, I talk about it in a wider sense, rather than zooming in on Western gallery culture.”

The same problem is evident in the scientific world, too. As an example, Mócsy cited Einstein, the archetypal genius. She pointed out that his work is in conversation with the work of many scientists who came before him. “Collaboration and discussion make progress happen,” she said. “When we say someone is self-made, it’s simply not true.”

The very concept of genius is harmful, too, because it mainly benefits a certain stereotype — specifically, white males with money and an ego. “The ‘Genius Myth’ highly disadvantages people who don’t fit that stereotype, like women or African-Americans. They don’t get a voice,” she said.

Mócsy is a believer in a brave new world, one in which there is space for people of all backgrounds to study what they like, where collaboration is celebrated and the ‘Genius Myth’ is discarded. She also hopes to see more diversity in her field.

For anyone nervous to enter the world of science, for all those who don’t feel like they belong, Mócsy has a piece of advice: “We all have been scared of our choices. Not doing what you like for the wrong reasons is a tragedy.”

“Physics in Concert with the Arts”

Friday, Feb. 28, 5:30 p.m.

Facility for Rare Isotope Beams

640 S Shaw Ln, East Lansing

(517) 908-7573, frib.msu.edu

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