Dancing with the universe

'danceroom Spectroscopy' lets people interact on the atomic scale

Imagine having an insect's view of the world, but on the nano scale. Down at the level of atoms and molecules, colorful particles dance, swirl, and vibrate.

The chance to experience such thrilling visions begins on Sept. 4 when "danceroom Spectroscopy," a new interactive exhibition combining art and science, opens at the Stanford Art Gallery.

"Spectroscopy is the use of light to obtain information about matter," explained creator David Glowacki, a Royal Society Research Fellow at the University of Bristol in England and a visiting scholar at Stanford University's PULSE Institute. His creation harnesses this technology, allowing users to see, hear, and even interact with the invisible layers of matter that surround us.

Thanks to Xbox Kinect cameras and a supercomputer programmed with complex mathematical algorithms, gallery visitors will experience the sight and sound of their effect on molecules and atoms. Data from 3D motion capture interprets the body as energy fields immersed in a variety of molecular mediums: water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and other bases for life. The result is a projected display as ethereal as the aurora borealis and as glittering as fireworks. Add to this dazzling light show a sound interpretation of these energy waves, and participants can marvel at their own visual and sonic creations.

Danceroom Spectroscopy is especially compelling because of its game-like aspect, Glowacki added. Having grown up in the 1990s playing video games, art and interactive gaming seemed like natural teaching tools to him. And he wanted to teach non-scientists to see the world at a molecular level.

Before computer imaging, the average person's concept of a molecule was limited to their high school chemistry experience -- a 3-D Tinker Toy model of spokes and spheres. But that isn't the way real molecules and atoms act, according to Glowacki.

"They are vibrating and wiggling all the time in nature," he said.

Diving into water is a good analogy for what happens on the nano scale when energy fields collide, he added.

"When you jump into a swimming pool and the water moves away from you, your body is repellant. The molecules fly off of you."

Glowacki, 33, is a computational chemist and physicist who writes mathematical programs and works with computers -- highly abstract stuff. Yet he's always had a fascination with art and culture. In between earning his bachelor's and doctorate science degrees, Glowacki received a Master of Arts degree in cultural theory. He launched danceroom Spectroscopy in 2011 to teach students about molecular dynamism and to help non-scientists understand the unseen world. Since then, he has used the technology in artistic projects such as a festival in Bristol in October 2013, and for "Hidden Fields," a dance performance he constructed. "Hidden Fields," named after the energy fields not visible to the naked eye, has won six awards in Europe and is a collaboration between a group of scientists, artists and engineers. A full performance is scheduled at Z Space in San Francisco on March 13 and 14.

Glowacki is also teaming up to use danceroom Spectroscopy with choreographer Mark Foehringer, Stanford University composer and sound engineer Michael St. Clair and visual, media and digital artists, dancers and computer scientists. The performance, called "Dances of the Sacred and Profane," takes place Sept. 13 through 21 at Ft. Mason Center's Cowell Theater in San Francisco.

Lest it sounds like a gimmick, danceroom Spectroscopy can be applied to far more than arts and performance. It also enables scientists to enter the simulated molecular universe as energy fields and physically change those molecules by stretching or folding them. In doing so, they seek to discover how the strands are broken or why they don't work. Such real-time manipulation is about 10,000 times faster than using a computer simulation alone, Glowacki said, adding that he uses the same technology to study how to unravel -- and perhaps reconfigure -- errant protein strands that may be the bases of conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

Digital technologies such as danceroom Spectroscopy could provide the missing link between art and science. Mid-20th-century art theorist Gyorgy Kepes first envisioned reconciling art in a technology-dominated society through a common language and symbolism while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1940s.

Like Glowacki, Kepes wanted to share the unseen world with non-scientists. His 1950s exhibition of microscopic cells, atom trails and electrical fields being studied by MIT physicists -- worlds that were not available to anyone outside of scientists with specialized equipment -- introduced a commonality between art and science. (Stanford's Cantor Art Center is currently exhibiting a recreation of the Kepes show through Nov. 17.)

Glowacki said he isn't familiar with Kepes' work. But the show at the Stanford Art Gallery builds on his concept. Beyond mathematical configurations, there is art in science, even if scientists don't always want to acknowledge it, he said. With danceroom Spectroscopy, he aims to forge a link between the two disciplines.

"Science and mathematics give you the coordinates of atoms and their velocity, but I have to decide how to interpret that information," Glowacki said." (Algorithms) tell me nothing about how to communicate that information in the real world, but art is concerned with different ways of seeing. Art has always been about seeing things that you don't normally see."

What: danceroom Spectroscopy

Where: Stanford Art Gallery, 419 Lasuen Mall, Stanford

When: Tues.-Sun. Sept. 4-20, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to stanford.edu or call 650-723-2842

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