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Picasso and Quantum Theory

Last week, the American Institute of Physics (a society that, among a few others, shares our building) hosted a conference on the history of physics. A hundred or so graduate students and early-career physicists gathered to talk about topics stretching from the first uses of X-rays in medicine to the development of theory in physics.

Imogen Clarke, a PhD student of science history at the University of Manchester in the U.K., spoke Friday morning about the transition from classical to modern physics at the turn of the last century. In a talk titled “A ‘Conservative Attitude’? Continuity, Discontinuity and the Contested Rise of ‘Modern Physics'” Clarke noted how the changes in thinking in the physics community in the early 1900s mirrored the broader cultural attitude shift of the time.

The painting above, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” painted in 1885 by Georges-Pierre Seurat, is an example of the cultural merging of continuity and discontinuity at the turn of the century, Clark said. Seurat’s scene shows that while the painting appears continuous, the individual dots of paint are actually discontinuous, much like the role of atoms in our lives. Atoms on their own are discontinuous, they are individuals, but when combined they form people and rocks and trees – continuous objects.

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Desh Kapoor

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