New Art Exhibit Explores Concept of Thought Experiments

Sculptures in "Gedankenexperiment," a new exhibit in the AAAS Art Gallery, are inspired by the types of thought exercises at which Einstein famously excelled.

Thought experiments were used in ancient Greece to probe questions of metaphysics and ethics. This type of exercise, called a Gedankenexperiment in German, has since been used to teach concepts, win arguments, promote or discredit ideas, and explore the universe through the imagination. This summer, it is also the inspiration for a new set of sculptures presented at the AAAS Art Gallery.

The exhibit "Gedankenexperiment" celebrates the concept of thought experiments with art by 24 members of the Washington Sculptors Group, with whom AAAS collaborated for the show.

"Doppler Effect" by Rebecca Kamen | AAAS/Kat Zambon

"I wanted to see what the artists would do with this," said Robert Coontz, physical sciences deputy news editor for the journal Science and fan of the AAAS Art Gallery. "Because after all, art is embodied in physical form, while gedankenexperiments take place entirely in the imagination. They're never performed."

Albert Einstein struggled with math but was the master of thought experiments, Coontz said, and, during a panel discussion during the gallery's opening, Rebecca Kamen, a sculptor from McLean, Va., thanked Einstein for his inspiration.

Kamen's sculpture, Doppler Effect, utilizes copper and steel wires to depict a gravitational shift, also known as an Einstein shift, which occurs as the frequency of electromagnetic radiation waves decreases when observed from a weaker gravitational field.

"I'm very proud to be part of an exhibit that would celebrate his discovery process," Kamen said. "It amazed me because at a very young age, he really engaged his imagination to inform his work. And that seed of imagination, which most of us come into the world with, that curious part of ourselves, remained with him."

"Time Dilation" by Billy Friebele | AAAS/Kat Zambon

Billy Friebele, an artist from Hyattsville, Md., applied Einstein's theory of relativity to the passage of time to create his entry, Time Dilation. Using found objects to create sculptural instruments, Friebele's work often responds to environmental stimuli such as wind currents or individuals walking through a room. As such, his sculptures evolve during the course of an exhibit, giving them an interactive appeal.

"I find that to be really powerful because you have a piece of artwork that is being made right in front of you. For me, as the artist, it's really exciting because I put it out there in the world and it continues to grow and change," Friebele said. "But it's also very hard sometimes because experiments do fail."

For his sculpture, Friebele attached five clocks to a platform mounted on a turntable activated by a timer, with all of the clocks set to the same time and positioned at different distances from the center axis. The spinning of the turntable and the clocks' own internal spinning motions are evocative of the rotation of the earth and the cyclical nature of time.

"I was interested in the inherent fallibility of the clock, that if you put a bunch of clocks together, they tend to go out of time with one another," Friebele said. "I guess I'll find out towards the end of the show if they do indeed go out of time in similar patterns."

"Cosmic Asymmetry" by Greg Braun | AAAS/Kat Zambon

Greg Braun, a sculptor from Hartwood, Va., drew inspiration from baryon asymmetry, the puzzling observation that the universe contains vastly more matter than anti-matter. On the right side of the sculpture, asymmetric, layered drywall panels of increasing size represent matter in the expanding universe, while on the left side of the sculpture, a pair of mirrors reflects off of each other, suggesting the antimatter in the universe.

Before beginning to work with materials, Braun developed the concept for his piece, drew sketches, used the modeling software SketchUp to model the sculpture, and drafted the sculpture in AutoCAD, software for three-dimensional computer-aided design. After building the sculpture, he developed a strategy to hang and transport the sculpture.

From left, Rebecca Kamen, Greg Braun, Billy Friebele | AAAS/Kat Zambon

"There's a lot that goes into art," Braun said. "There's this whole string of process that goes from concept to 'this is what I want to portray' to the physical thing that's out there. For me, it's very, very complicated."

Gedankenexperiment runs in the AAAS Art Gallery through August 22.