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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
In today's society, even non-scientists need a basic understanding of how science works. Physics and education professor Les Blatt develops physics courses designed to educate non-science majors to be scientifcally literate.

Seeing the Light

What do artists like Johannes Vermeer, Georges Seurat and Leonardo da Vinci have to do with physics? They all relied on an understanding, whether through study or intuition, of the physics of light and visual perception to create their masterpieces. Drawing on the active learning approach he uses in Discovering Physics, Professor Les Blatt is developing a new course in which he ties together two seemingly unrelated subjects: physics and art.

Seeing the Light will be built around small-group, hands-on activities and investigations in
  • the physics of light
  • the physiology of vision
  • perceptual science
  • optical illusions.
Students will perform experiments in art in an attempt to utilize some of the techniques suggested by their investigations, and will study of the works of artists past and present. In some instances, parallel developments in music will also be explored. Other topics, to be selected from among the many and varied relationships between the arts and the sciences over the ages, will be discussed.

Some of the topics to be included in the course:
(Click on any image to enlarge)

Light, shadow, and chiaroscuro (Italian and Dutch masters of 1500s). Painting: Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna.
Linear perspective (Brunelleschi, da Vinci). Drawing The centre nave in St. Lorenzo by Brunelleschi (early 15th century).
Reflection and absorption of light by various surfaces (still lifes of the 1500s). Painting: Detail from a still life by Pieter Claesz.
Image formation by lenses (Vermeer and the camera obscura in the 1600's, and the massive impact of photography on art starting in the mid-1800's). Painting: Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat, c.1665
Color mixing and color vision (using pointillism - late 1800's - to show how light can be mixed in the eye instead of mixing the colors on the pallette). Painting at left: Seurat's Lighthouse at Honfleur, 1886. Diagram at right: color mixing. Courtesy of Pascal Renault
The importance of our minds and our experiences in how we visually understand the world around us (Magritte and Escher - 1900's - techniques of "realistic" artists, but used to create worlds that cannot exist). Painting at left: Magritte's Le Blanc Seing . Picture of brightness illusion at right by R. Beau Lotto.
Shapes and patterns in nature and in art (symmetries, fractals, fibonaccis - snowflakes and other crystals, Muslim tilings, plants, seashells) Photo at left: Romanesco broccoli has a fractal pattern! Photo copyright William Chow


Seeing the Light will be offered for the first time during the 2005 May Term in Luxembourg (a joint program of Clark University and The College of the Holy Cross). Field trips will take advantage of the proximity of the University's Schengen Campus to museums, gardens, and appropriate architectural locations to investigate real-world examples of the ideas being explored in the classroom.

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