A fusion of art and science

UCSC's OpenLab program blends disciplines for new approaches to solving problems

Last summer, visitors at the Tech Museum in San Jose had the chance to step off our planet and hurl a star into the cosmos.

On a screen in front of them lay a black hole waiting to yank in an errant star that visitors attempted to throw toward it at just the right angle and speed. A star isn’t sucked in and gobbled up by a black hole very often—in real life, only once every hundred thousand years or so. But when a museum visitor’s thrown star was destroyed—what astronomers refer to as “tidal disruption”—the screen on the wall exploded in a concussive burst of red light.

Using a Nintendo Wii remote connecting the user to the display, the game was just one result of collaborations between scientists and artists from UC Santa Cruz through a project called OpenLab.

The idea of OpenLab is simple: Bring together a group of specialists from different disciplines and task them with leveraging each other’s strengths to create new ways to visualize scientific research. What often results is a uniquely interactive work of art that changes the way its viewers think about difficult-to-understand concepts. In this case, “They will remember forever that they themselves disrupted a star,” says Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who co-founded OpenLab.

Viewers have the chance to experience science in a way that’s not possible by attending a lecture. “You’re experiencing something as it exists that’s less passive,” says Jennifer Parker, associate professor of sculpture, interactive art, new media, and kinetic art and one of the founders of OpenLab. “It’s the difference between seeing a picture of the ocean and going to the beach.”

Breaking down barriers 

Before OpenLab, Parker and Ramirez-Ruiz had worked together through a project involving a mutual student. From that process, Parker realized the campus wasn’t set up for students or faculty to step out of their specialties and make use of the facilities and human capital in other departments. “I was really frustrated as a faculty member,” Parker says. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we just walk over to engineering and use some of their things?’”

Then, in the winter of 2011, art history student Amy Boewer and business student Jack O’Neill, both undergraduates at UCSC, had an idea for a convertible sleeping pad for use by urban nomads—typically young people, many artists themselves, who have chosen not to live permanently in any one city. The pad could be converted into a chair, a poncho, or a bag as these artist-wanderers travel from city to city. Boewer and O’Neill had a name for their invention—”Nomad Pad”—but no place to make a prototype and no equipment to test their design. So Boewer approached Parker, and the seeds for OpenLab began to germinate.

Parker soon found that other students were “hungry” for that type of cross-disciplinary interaction—students like Sudhu Terwari. A graduate student in music and art, he leapt at the chance to draw inspiration from science.

“Scientists look at physical phenomena and derive ideas from what they observe, and artists take ideas and turn them into physical objects,” he says. “It makes sense that the two would inform each other.

Terwari was part of a team that developed a three-dimensional zoetrope—a spinning sculpture of 12 different scenes depicting a collision between our moon and a sister moon that once orbited the Earth.

The zoetrope and the Wii game came out of groups that participated in Summer Institute, the pilot program for OpenLab held in 2011 and the brainchild of Boewer, O’Neill, Parker, and Ramirez-Ruiz. The quartet developed an idea for a forum in which scientists share a concept from their own research and get artists’ take on it. Then, in four- to seven-member teams, they work to find a unique way to not merely illustrate the concept, but visualize it to engage viewers.

Parker likens the Summer Institute creative process to making a movie, where every individual involved has a specific role to play, drawing on the strengths of, say, someone who studies computer science, a researcher with technical knowledge about collisions in outer space, and a sculptor adept at working with clay.

“It gives people a certain amount of autonomy within their skill set while learning from each other,” Parker explains.

‘It’s working’

And it turns out there was a lot to learn. When James Guillochon, a fifth-year graduate student in astrophysics who works with Ramirez-Ruiz, first presented his research on tidal disruption by black holes to the group, he realized he needed to simplify his explanation of how a super-dense point in space could exert a force powerful enough to destroy a star.

“A lot of us asked really simple questions that I don’t think the astrophysics students had ever gotten before,” says O’Neill of the artists who partook in Summer Institute.

As the discussions ensued, Guillochon honed his explanation to contain only the most essential pieces. “I needed to cut out the right things,” he says. Once the group understood, he says, an idea began to take shape for a way to convey this type of event: “We wanted to have the user playing God and disrupting stars.”

As they built the game from video simulations he had created through his research, Guillochon says they had to sacrifice a bit of accuracy—in the game, for example, stellar disruptions occur more often than once every hundred thousand years. But Guillochon’s team decided that leaving the user with a memorable experience was more important.

At the Summer Institute exhibition at the Tech Museum, Boewer said she only had to look around to measure their success. “People were walking around with cocktails learning about black holes and stars,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘It’s working.’”


The excitement surrounding OpenLab dovetails with growing support nationwide for the STEM to STEAM initiative, which is based on the belief that arts should be as important in our education system as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—”STEM,” which becomes “STEAM” with the addition of the arts.

“We give children so much more freedom to engage in art than to engage in science,” says Ramirez-Ruiz. By allowing the interplay between art and science as equally important disciplines and encouraging the creativity so often only associated with the arts, OpenLab can impact even the most specialized researchers.

“Just working with the artists has really opened a new dimension to the way that I think and a new dimension to the way I visualize the world,” adds Ramirez-Ruiz.

That’s the real benefit of OpenLab—the potential to kickstart the imaginations of researchers about their work. “The concept just becomes a blood infusion,” says Parker.

What’s more important than the specific concept are the tools that each participant gains in the process. The vision is for OpenLab to extend beyond the Summer Institute program into a campus-wide network of facilities that allow access to students and faculty from other disciplines—perhaps marked with an “O” (for OpenLab) sticker on the doors. Most of the current facilities are part of the Arts Division, based at OpenLab’s epicenter in the Digital Arts Research Center, but OpenLab participants also have access to several other spots on campus, including the Supercomputer Lab for Undergraduates, known as SLUG.

By making use of existing resources and equipment, OpenLab came to fruition with relatively minimal funding. Ramirez-Ruiz rallied money from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Packard Foundation, and the UC Santa Cruz Foundation. And the Arts Department chipped in as well. Arts Dean David Yager saw the value of this collaborative approach and provided a research grant to get the project off the ground.

“Things are accomplished by people from lots of disciplines looking at the same issue and trying to figure out what might be the real problem or question and then focusing on the solution,” Yager says. “We don’t live in silos anymore in the real world.”

Another Renaissance

“The palette of expertise that you need to succeed in the world today is much more complex than before,” says Ramirez-Ruiz, adding that he’d like to see OpenLab address global problems such as climate change or crippling poverty, because viable solutions to these problems require people who understand more than just climatology or economics.

Parker sees the OpenLab approach as a nod to the great thinkers of the Renaissance. “Leonardo was as much a scientist as a maker,” she says, and DaVinci’s thinking wasn’t constrained by the labels “artist” or “scientist.” He was both.

Enter 21st century renaissance thinkers like Jack O’Neill and Amy Boewer. Since graduating in June 2011, they’ve been working to develop OpenLab, and they run their own Web design firm, GirlBoy Media. Nomad Pad is also on the verge of taking off. Staying true to OpenLab-style thinking, they’re currently searching for research groups in the UC system with which to collaborate on materials and design. The goal is to produce a pad that costs less than a buck and could even be donated in a pinch to displaced disaster victims.

Like Nomad Pad, OpenLab is only a reality because Boewer and O’Neill saw an opportunity to improve the status quo and came up with a solution with the help of two forward-thinking faculty members.

“The idea really just started with two students in the middle of the night dying for some space and support,” recalls Boewer. Thanks to OpenLab, that’s a situation UCSC students aren’t apt to find themselves in again.

John C. Cannon is a freelance writer living in Pacific Grove. He is a 2008 graduate of UCSC’s science writing program.