According to this NPR story, the sculpture titled Dialogo on the University of Chicago’s campus contains a hidden message.

Supposedly, every year, on May 1, at noon, it casts a hammer-and-sickle-shaped shadow:

As the sculptor Virginio Ferrari confesses, the effect was unintentional, although he enjoys the humor in it. I believe him because he could have done much better than the rather unrealistic version of the Soviet symbol.

Question: Do you know of a sculpture with an unmistakably intentional elaborate hidden message in its shadow that appears on a specific day of the year?

Shadow sculpture


Shadow sculptures are interesting for two reasons.

First, the objects that cast the shadows don’t have to look as though they have anything in common with the shadows themselves. Such is this piece at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (sorry, artist, I don’t know your name – I got this on flickr):

Secondly, the meaning of the sculpture can change as the light source moves or changes. Such is this thesis project of an art student:

Time-lapse Shadow Verse

Both reasons are more mathematical than aesthetic, but the boundary is subtle. According to one definition, beauty is the sense of wonder, whereas art is the expression of that sense. Well, mathematics is all about wonder. Both of these examples are quite primitive from the mathematical point of view and an engineer with good geometrical skills could design something far more impressive. For some reason most engineers rarely give much thought to such projects. Could it be that engineers are less prone to respond to symbolism?

I actually like both pieces for their artistic value too. Shadows and the motion of the sun across the sky do convey a sense of the passing of time and the illusory nature of perception.

Any artists/mathematicians care to brainstorm a few ideas? For example, in the shadow sculpture above, it would not be too difficult to modify the pile of junk so that it casts for different meaningful shadows onto four different walls simultaneously, but that’s just the beginning.

Science needs art


In a powerful common theme in recent science writing, art has been viewed as a necessary exploratory faculty of human intelligence, one expanding the language of the mind, equipping us with new metaphors and intuitions. Science provides rigorous tools to solidify and validate our knowledge of the universe, whereas art enables us to relate to the universe, incorporate its laws into our common language, intuitions, and ethos. Art and science together enable us to break through our collective cognitive limitations. Jonah Lehrer has written, once again, an excellent piece for the Seed magazine titled “The future of science is art” in which he argues convincingly that arts and sciences are inseparable in our relationship with nature and our own minds. I loved the examples Jonah used in his piece! A cultural divide between the arts and sciences has grown in the 20th-century academia and continues to present an obstacle to progress. We need art to intuitively comprehend the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, the mind, and society. We need new metaphors to communicate across boundaries. Artists and poets indeed explore the universe and the mind with tools available to them and perhaps yet unavailable within the limits of the scientific method.

To my greatest delight, my university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Art and Technology CIDAT has organized a series of lectures titled “Common Ground: Making Meaning in the Arts and Sciences.” In the first installation, Pat McMurty , a University of Utah Mechanical Engineering Professor described his lifelong fascination with fire and turbulent flow of fluids and gases. Flames, twisters, and smoke rings can be described by elegant formulas and simulated on a computer while at the same time that are mesmerizingly beautiful. Dr. McMurtry’s work is highly technical but his inspiration comes from a visceral fascination with forces of nature. In the second presentation, choreographer Prof. Ellen Bromberg described how frames of reference radically transform our perception. Technology and new media create ways to express meaning succinctly and eloquently. I was particularly impressed by the use of choreography to convey and relate to scientific concepts such as tectonics and ecology. I cannot wait to see the second installation of the lecture series!