Science is based on reason and logic, while art is considered a very different field that stems from emotion and imagination. However, when considering the behind stories of many masterpieces, much of the artists’ process and workflow resemble that of scientists.
Following this historic pattern where art meets science, Minah Seo, a senior researcher at Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), is widely known as the ‘painting physicist.’ While studying nano-optics and terahertz spectroscopy at the Sensor System Research Center, she is consistently pursuing painting on weekends.
Seo regularly reminisces about the days she majored in the Department of Physics at Ewha where her interest in art was sparked. She took art classes and drew illustrations for children and the earnings helped her through university and tuition.
“Instead of taking liberal arts courses, I took classes related to sketching, three-dimensional sculpture, and visual design,” Seo said. “I remember the professors curiously glancing at the only physics major in the classroom, every time they looked at the attendance book. There was also a professor who recommended me to double major in fine arts.”
Seo feels as though she has always had a desire for painting, but there were practical difficulties to become an artist. Conversely, she believed that she should pursue her dream of becoming a scientist. But with art remaining a powerful driving force in her life, Seo still hopes she can study fine arts later.
In science, testing and encountering failures over and over and then going on to tweak the methods to correct what has gone wrong is regularly viewed as a stringent logical and analytical process. In such a taxing environment, the emotional turbulence that follows the processes of failure and successes is a given. However Seo suggests that this is indistinguishable from the process of art and how it is created. According to Seo, she didn’t leave one field for the other, but found her own type of harmony between them both.
One example Seo said exemplified the fusion of art and science was Rembrant Harmenszon van Rijn, a Dutch painter, otherwise known as the ‘painter of light.’ Van Rigin was known to closely observe how objects are perceived by light and shadow and as he understood the nature of light like a physicist, he created numerous masterpieces.
Coincidentally, during the time when Van Rigin acted as a highly productive artist, in the physics world, new theories and experiments that analyzed the identity and characteristics of light began to flourish. This resulted in the beginning of modern physics and quantum physics. Art and physics, which on the surface seem to have few similarities, have developed and converged on a common denominator: light.
In February this year, Seo published a book titled “A Physicist in the Art Museum,” which introduced a new approach to the fusion of contemporary physics and art.
“The publisher first suggested dissolving the episodes I have experienced and including some of my own drawings in the book. I think it was a meaningful attempt because people around me gave a positive evaluation that it was easier and more comfortable to read a topic that could have been an abstract theory,” Seo said.
Her book was selected in the '2020 Sejong Book' organized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Through her ongoing journey amid the worlds of science and art, Seo hopes her work can act like a beacon for students in the science and engineering fields that art and science can be seen as one in the same. Her wish reaches out to the general population, where she hopes people can see the intersection between science and art and discover a fresh topic that has previously been seen as separate.