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Physics Professor Gregory Mahlon's Diagram Inspires Stainless Steel Sculpture

6/25/2014 —

A diagram of photons and electrons in a mathematical equation developed by Physics Professor Gregory Mahlon inspired artist Edward Tufte to create a sculpture that was included in “All Possible Photons: The Cognitive Art of Feynman Diagrams” exhibit this spring in the Fermilab Art Gallery, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in Chicago, Illinois.

"I feel like the poster child for serendipity,” said Mahlon, “that after 20 years of writing the mathematical diagram, “someone would grasp onto it and make a great piece of art,” he said.

The piece is a 17.5-foot by 5-foot wall sculpture entitled, “All Possible 6-Photon Scattering,” and includes 120 stainless steel Feynman diagrams that replicates the mathematical equation as written by Mahlon. The artwork is meant to “reveal the endless complexities that result from multiplying and varying fundamental elements,” according to Tufte’s exhibit materials.

The work came out of Mahlon’s doctoral thesis and incorporates the “Feynman diagram” method, developed by Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman to visualize the interactions of subatomic particles. Mahlon wrote the diagram to include in a white paper while doing postdoctoral work at Fermilab. He later added it to a slide that got published in a colleague’s computer package and then posted online.

Tufte, who is a data expert, was considering different ways to represent data and became interested in Feynman diagrams. While looking for things related to Feynman, he found Mahlon’s 6-photon scattering diagram on the Internet, thought it would make a nice sculpture, and created it as a result.

A former colleague at Fermilab emailed Mahlon about the artwork and invited him to the show’s opening reception, saying “You are the inspiration for his work. Turn up and reveal yourself,” said Mahlon.

After scheduling someone to teach his classes, Mahlon was able to attend the opening, where he signed the guest book, met the artist, and took in the show. He found it impressive and especially meaningful since “The art parallels the work,” he said. “Those diagrams represent the interaction between light and matter, and the point of the sculpture is the relation between light and matter.”

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