‘Painting’ with electron flow

Eric Heller is a Professor of Chemistry and Physics at Harvard University, known for his work on time dependent quantum mechanics. In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Heller is also a practicing artist who has worked with a variety of media including photography and landscape painting. He is best known for digital renderings based on the results of his physics research. In this article he shows some of his artwork, as well as giving an exclusive interview with David Glowacki.

Eric Heller: ReflectionDiffraction1

Eric Heller: ReflectionDiffraction1


Eric Heller (born 1946) is a Professor of Chemistry and Physics at Harvard University. Known for his work on time dependent quantum mechanics, Heller has authored more than 260 publications spanning a wide range of subject areas including quantum chaos, the study of two dimensional electron gases, quantum mirages in quantum corrals, scattering theory, few-body quantum mechanics, semiclassical methods, and freak waves in the ocean. Recently, he has authored a textbook on psycho-acoustics, called “Why you hear what you hear” which was published by Princeton University Press in 2013.

He is an elected member of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Philosophical Society. Amongst his many awards, he has been named a Sloan Fellow, a Humboldt Fellow, a fellow of the American Physical Society, and a Guggenheim Fellow.

In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Heller is also a practicing artist who has worked with a variety of media including photography and landscape painting. He is best known for digital renderings based on the results of his physics research. Speaking of the work that he carries out on the interface between aesthetics and science, Heller states:

I do both, I really can’t help it. I feel deep connections, and sometimes can’t tell whether I’m doing one or the other. The reason is my art all derives from my research. I ‘paint’ with electron flow. Chaos in its dynamical forms (not pretty picture hunting in fractals) can become an artist’s medium. I feel an urge to convey to others, non-scientists and scientists alike, where I’ve been and how I feel about it, almost as if I were a landscape painter.”

The images featured in this gallery have been selected from Heller’s oeuvre, in order to give a sense of his aesthetic breadth, and to convey the beauty locked in the laws of nature. In preparation for this special feature, I spent three hours with Eric Heller, chatting together in my office at the University of Bristol. This was a massive privilege, as Prof Heller has been an inspiration to my own artistic and scientific work. Hidden Fields actually utilizes the mathematics of “frozen Gaussians”, borrowing from an idea which Heller introduced in 1981 to approximately model time-dependent quantum systems. During our chat, we covered all sorts of territory. The interview questions that follow span a few of the topics we touched on.

David Glowacki (April 2016)


Eric Heller: OneBounce

Eric Heller: OneBounce

(OneBounce – “A quantum electron wave that was once very tidy and collected at the top of the frame was dropped onto the rough surface in a gravitational field. Starting compactly in the sky, it accelerated toward the mountain, wavelengths growing shorter as it sped toward the mountain below. It then bounced elastically off the mountain, and reached its former height (on average) at the moment this image was recorded,, i.e. after one bounce. The wave now looks disheveled. This work is part of an ongoing study of scattering of quantum waves from rough surfaces” – Eric Heller)

 Interview with David Glowacki

David Glowacki: The artworks for which you are known are digital renderings of physics-based simulations. Can you provide some insight into what motivated you to produce artworks in this fashion, and when you began constructing artworks in this way?

Eric Heller: It was a slow evolution.  One thing led to another, although in the background was my photography and painting – I have been doing art part time since graduate school. The evolution was from an interest in better graphics to illustrate my scientific work, to a few of the best of them printed cheaply and put up on my wall, to a colleague at MIT asking if I would exhibit for a year on an MIT theoretical physics wall, to someone at MIT seeing those and suggesting I upgrade the printing and do a show at the MIT Compton Gallery.  This was around 2001. Getting ready for that show I realized I really could use art to communicate my scientific work to a wider public; I was hooked. I wrote code to directly control the work, pixel by pixel, on an 8000 X 6000 pixel canvas; each pixel carried as much as 512 bits of color information.

Eric Heller: Resonators

Eric Heller: Resonators

(Resonators – “A quantum wave begins as a disturbance in two resonators present in this image. Quantum waves bounded by walls reflect and diffract, and build up resonances, in this sequence of three snapshots of the quantum time evolution” – Eric Heller)

DG: Can you give us some insight into the creative and material processes that lead to the images that we see in your gallery? How “reproducible” are the images that we see in the gallery?

EH: As I said above, the code I wrote directly controlled the work, pixel by pixel, on an 8000 X 6000 pixel canvas, with each pixel carrying as many as 512 bits of color information. But the works themselves were produced spontaneously and inspirationally with on-the-fly variations, including layering and color manipulations in Photoshop. Often, the images I liked best (such as those which you have chosen to include in this gallery) were not reproducible, even the very next day.  Something wonderful effects can emerge spontaneously, when you have so many controls. I lost many good images when working quickly and experimentally at low resolution, only to find I couldn’t reproduce what I had done at higher resolution.

Eric Heller: End of Coherence

Eric Heller: End of Coherence

DG: You’ve distinguished your own approach to creating artworks from what you’ve called “pretty picture hunting in fractals”. Can you give us some deeper insight into what you’re talking about here?


The rest of this article is reserved for members only. If you have a subscription, please sign in here. Otherwise, why not Subscribe today?

Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.

Subscribe Today

, , , , ,

No comments yet.

You must be a subscriber and logged in to leave a comment. Users of a Site License are unable to comment.

Log in Now | Subscribe Today