By Niamh Shaw

16 December 2019 - 16:06

Water droplet
'The first show I made explained particle physics, and related that back to a life philosophy or an understanding of ourselves.' Photo ©

Linus Mimietz used under licence and adapted from the original.

Engineer, scientist, performer and aspiring astronaut Niamh Shaw tells us where art and science meet. 

Humans have the motivation and capacity for innovation. We're trying to leave our mark on the world, whether that it is through a building, a structure, or family.

That is where we differ from machines. Our understanding of the world comes from what we are passionate about. Machines can learn facts, but humans can see the bigger picture. 

How do you explain science through art?

Theatre is the most common art form I use to communicate scientific concepts. The first show I made explained particle physics, and related that back to a life philosophy or an understanding of ourselves.

I prepared by speaking to scientists at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) to understand more about particle physics. I made sure that I was interpreting the maths and the models of those equations correctly.

Through string theory, I learned how everything in the universe is connected. I took this theory and extrapolated it into a philosophy of life, showing through a play how life can be seen as a tree of interconnected decisions. Each step determines the next, and activates a path at each stage in life.

It's like my career path that began with engineering, led on to the arts, and then to my current mission to travel to space.

Which other artists combine their work with science?

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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was a master of both science and art. He sketched inventions like helicopters, and drew cadavers to show how skin moved.

The camera obscura is another example of science influencing art during the Renaissance era. Using a pinhole camera, artists realised they could manipulate this technology, project an image in a pin and reflect onto the ground when in total darkness.

This created a new way of painting detail and perspective – up to that point we had a lot of two-dimensional art.

Tomás Saraceno

The visual artist and sculptor Tomás Saraceno finds art in uncontrollable forms of nature, and has found a way of physically representing nature and recreating it for us.

Saraceno creates massive interactive floating installations of cloud formation, the atmosphere and planet. In Cloud Cities he used a clear material and wireframe network to make huge bubbles which you can step onto. The wires are so narrow and thin it makes people feel that they are floating, and feel the sensation of earth as a planet.

Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist whose studio recently had an exhibition called 'In Real Life' at the Tate Modern in London. His work is about the planet. Like Saraceno, Eliasson wants to give feelings to things beyond us. Light, air and temperature are all elements in his work. He took some glaciers and moved them into an urban setting, and we see these lumps of ice melting in front of us. It’s a visual way of representing the earth’s ice caps melting.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan, who was an artist as well as a cosmologist, had a role in preparing the Golden Record on the Voyager space craft in the 1970s.

The Golden Record contained greetings in different languages from people all over the world, different types of music, and a reference to our location in space. It also had instructions for how to play the record.

The Golden Record captured what it is to be human. It got to the edge of our solar system and is still going.

Niamh was a FameLab Ireland judge. Sign up for FameLab 2020, an international science communication competition owned by Cheltenham Science Festival and delivered globally by the British Council.