Where Scientific Method Meets Artistic License

Viewing science at KITP through a different lens

Leonard Susskind, Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Photo by Gary Smaby.

It was the spring of 2012 when I entered Kohn Hall for my first day as visiting KITP artist-in-residence. I didn’t really know quite what to expect. This Michael Graves-designed mecca, spectacularly perched on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is of course world-renowned in the field of theoretical physics.  But less well known is the fact it likewise stands apart as a naked singularity for those of us in science-oriented arts and letters. There’s nothing else quite like it in our universe.

I was curious to learn the secret behind KITP’s cross-disciplinary notoriety; how is it that this place not only attracts the world’s greatest physicists to share great ideas, but also welcomes visiting journalists, producers,  playwrights and artists like myself to observe and participate in the harmonic convergence?

Fay Dowker, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College London. Photo by Gary Smaby.

The answer became apparent when, immediately upon arrival, I was warmly received and ushered into the office of then-director and Nobel-laureate, David Gross. Before I left that short meeting, I had keys to an office (with my name on the door), an invitation for my wife and me to join David and Lars Bildsten for dinner the next evening with a leading authority on Albert Einstein, and finally, a request to deliver a noontime “blackboard talk” the following week to all of KITP’s visiting scientists.

As a photographer and filmmaker, I have developed a keen eye for observation. As I left that meeting in an afterglow to find my office, I noticed that every square inch of available wall space in the contemporary Kohn Hall was lined with old-fashioned slate blackboards, covered with incomprehensible (at least to me) white chalk squiggles.  It was at that moment that I began to ponder David’s final request; my awe turned to trepidation. A blackboard talk. . . I’m a visual artist but not with chalk!

Upon reflection I realized that I was invited to KITP to share my world view, not to try to dazzle present and future Nobel laureates with my utter lack of knowledge about theirs. I quickly realized, upon entering the darkened lecture hall to observe the daily presentations, that I was basically watching a series of foreign films - without subtitles. I began to think of each lecture as a performance of sorts where I didn’t understand the lexicon.

Then I got an idea.  I sought and was granted permission by David to do what I do best:  observe and record the performances during that first six-week residency through the lens of my camera, just as I did in my early 20s as a rock concert photographer. I became an inconspicuous, non-intrusive observer of the unfolding daily drama. With a sense of relief, I settled into that groove, culminating on the final day with an exhibit of B&W photographs entitled “@work, @play”. I’ve been welcomed back to KITP every year since, each time with a unique project in the works.  

- Gary Smaby
Visiting KITP Artist in Residence

KITP Newsletter, Fall 2019