Art and Physicists, Physicists in Art

Art and Physicists, Physicists in Art

April Photos of the Month

Art and physics may not always be the most obvious subject pairing, but within our collections there are many examples of overlap between these two realms. Delving into our photo archives reveals many instances not only of physicists as appreciators of art – taking in exhibits, or with paintings in their offices – but also of these scientists as both subject and artist. A surprising number of examples arose from this search and provide a fascinating look into the duality between the creative arts and sciences, and how they are not as mutually exclusive as might be assumed at first glance. 

Art and physicists

Professor Richard Zallen at the center of the photo in front of a 'art show' of physics-as-art at Wallace Hall, Virginia Tech, with seven images posted on a dark background

Catalog ID: Zallen Richard B1, Credit: Photo by Tatsu Takeuchi, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Zallen Collection

Physicists are often called on to present posters on their research, but rarely do they take on the mantle of artistic curators, with their work presented as an art exhibit. Professor emeritus Richard Zallen took on that unique role in his art show of images highlighting physics-as-art. The exhibit included illustrations from Zallen’s book, The Physics of Amorphous Solids and took place at the Wallace Hall Gallery on the Virginia Tech campus from January 17 to February 3 of 2006.  

All of the works were created by Zallen as illustrative figures for his book, except for one by the artist Marianne Lehmann and her work "Wells Family Tree.” According to Zallen, this piece was used “to illustrate the mathematical concept of a ‘tree’ as a branched network containing no closed loops, using her graceful black-and-white depiction of a stylized tree in silhouette.” In The Physics of Amorphous Solids, Zallen also notes that “the wintry plant...actually corresponds fairly well in structure to a z = 3 Cayley tree.”

Aage Winther, left, looks at a photograph next to his wife, Anna Maria, against a white background

Catalog ID: Winther Aage C2, Credit: Photo by Norton M. Hintz, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

In a different role in the process of art-exhibit-creation, physicist Aage Winther and his wife, Anna Maria Winther, affirmed their appreciation of the arts as hosts and patrons of a photo exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

The work they are viewing was part of a September 1961 photograph exhibition featuring works by Joseph Zimbrolt. Zimbrolt was a Minneapolis-based photographer who captured both artistic and municipal subjects, such as the Minneapolis Planning Commission. According to a Walker Art Center press release, fifty photos by Zimbrolt were on display at the exhibit, and an afternoon members’ preview was also hosted by the Winthers and their fellow sponsors.

Left: man stands next to etching of a knight, right: man sits at an office desk in front of an etching of a knight

Catalog ID: Clayton Donald B8, Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Clayton Collection (left)

Catalog ID: Clayton Donald B7, Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Clayton Collection (right)

Artwork is a surefire way to personalize any office space, including here in the case of physics professor Donald Clayton in his office at Rice University, where he taught from 1963-1989. The print here appears to be in the style of medieval brass rubbings. These examples of funeral art rose to prominence in England and northern Europe in the 1200s and featured a brass plate inlaid into a stone slab. The brass might depict a person or other memorial imagery such as a saint, and these stones were laid as grave coverings. It is estimated that only 4,000 of the quarter of a million brasses that once existed in Europe remain, as many were melted down during the Thirty Years’ War or destroyed during the first and second World Wars. Brasses were unique as they also depicted individuals from every social class except royalty, serving as documentation for people ranging from duchesses to brewers.

Ronald Mickens stands left of a large painting

Catalog ID: Mickens Ronald B7, Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection 

Another benefit to working at university may be the proximity to a wealth of art collections and exhibits. This piece, standing next to Dr. Ronald Mickens, is part of the collections at the African American studies, Africana Women’s Studies, and History department at Clark Atlanta University. The piece is part of a larger collection that belonged to Clark Atlanta graduate student Natisse Mitchell, who passed away in 2015. The collection was donated to the department by Mitchell’s mother, with the requirement that it be displayed at Clark Atlanta. In 2017, the university held the official opening of the Natisse Mitchell Art Collection, located on the second floor of McPheeters-Dennis Hall. 

Mickens noted that he visits the department’s collections monthly, “to examine / observe / admire / think about what these pieces represent and mean.” 

Clifford Truesdell stands in front of three Renaissance paintings

Catalog ID: Truesdell Clifford B1, Credit: Photograph by James Lightner, Walters Art Gallery, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Scholars have noted how math changed the way art was practiced during the Renaissance, including through the illusion of three-dimensional perspective, and in the use of ratios to depict the human body. Perhaps this is what drew mathematician and historian of science Clifford A. Truesdell to these pieces at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. All three paintings are from the Renaissance period, and thanks to identification by curator Joaneath Spicer of the Walters Art Museum, the paintings are (from left to right): 

Truesdell was a professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University from 1961 until his retirement in 1989. He was noted in his obituary as an “an authority on European art and culture” in addition to his other professional interests.

Hideki Yukawa sits on the floor with a brush in hand and pieces of calligraphy on the floor

Catalog ID: Yukawa Hideki B19, Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Yukawa Collection

Hideki Yukawa was the first Japanese Nobel laureate, lauded for his work in predicting the existence of the pi meson (pion). He was also a practitioner of art, depicted here in his home in March 1962 writing calligraphy. Thanks to translation and analysis by Kana Jenkins, Curator of the Gordon W. Prange Collection and East Asian Studies Librarian at the University of Maryland, the sentence Yukawa writes is: “君子學道則爱人” a quote from 論語 - "Analects of Confucius," Chapter 17 - 陽貨 "Yoka." The Shinsen Kanwa Jiten, web version (新選漢和辞典 - New Japanese character dictionary), explains this quote as: 

〖君子学(學)レ道則愛レ人〗 くんしみちをまなべば すなわち(すなはち)ひとをあいす 


Jenkins translates this as: "If a person who is above people learns the Confucius way of courtesy and music, he will be a good ruler who loves his people."  While it is unknown what happened to this piece of calligraphy, another example of his writing was framed and hung on the wall in the Office of the Dean of the Department of Physics, Graduate School of Science, Osaka University.

The image above may appear to be a casual conversation between physicist Isidor Fankuchen, playwright Arthur Miller, and artist Abraham Joel Tobias, but it conceals a decades-long bureaucratic and artistic battle over the “History of Science Mural” at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which was never completed. 

Due to a confluence of factors ranging from artistic vision to funding, about 10 years into the project, in 1974 Polytechnic ordered Tobias to stop work and put up a wall covering the partially completed artwork (which stretched 60 by 9 feet). That year, a Committee to Save and Preserve the Wall Mural at Polytechnic Institute was organized to advocate for Tobias and his art and the issue eventually reached the U.S. Congress; the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Kings; and resulted in a hunger strike, in which Tobias stood at the entrance to Polytechnic with a sign stating “I am on a hunger strike to protest an injustice by Polytechnic.” This lasted at least twenty-three days. Some sort of truce appears to have been made in the early 1990s, when funding was reallocated to Tobias to continue work on the mural. Tobias’ death in 1996, however, left the work still unfinished. While it’s unclear why Miller appears in the above photo, Fankuchen was a Polytechnic professor and one of the founders of the International Union of Crystallography.

Sheldon Lee Glashow stands in front of a blurred metal sculpture

Catalog ID: Glashow Sheldon B7, Credit: Boston University Photo Services, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Though positioned in the background of this portrait photo, it is impossible not to notice the dynamic sculpture behind Sheldon Glashow. Created by the Chilean sculptor Sergio Castillo, the towering sculpture, titled “Explosion,” debuted in 1987 and was inspired by Glashow’s work in particle physics (for which he received the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam).  

“Explosion” stands on the Boston University campus in front of the Metcalf Science Center, and is one of three works Castillo created for the university, where he was an artist in residence beginning in 1985. Castillo’s oeuvre features works that are large in scale and are often publicly displayed artworks. He mainly worked in metals and was very particular about which ones. In an interview about his practice, Castillo said: “I never work in aluminum. It’s a little dead. There is no life inside aluminum. It has no soul. ... Stainless steel is different – it's very shiny, very aggressive. There’s life there.” “Explosion” is understandably made of stainless steel. 

Another view of “Explosion”

Three people stand together, holding each others' arms, in front of a portrait of Maria Theresa (left), portrait of Maria Theresa (right)

Catalog ID: Holton Gerald E5, Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives (left)

Portrait of Maria Teresa by Martin van Meytens, located in the Hofburg Palace collections in Vienna, Austria. Credit: WikiMedia Commons (right)

Maria Theresa of Austria, here in portrait at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, ruled from 1740-1780 as a member of the Habsburg family, and was famously the mother of Marie Antoinette. The artist, Martin van Meytens, was a Swedish-Austrian painter who later became the official painter for the Vienna court and made at least fifteen portraits of Maria Theresa during his career. 

Her portrait is featured with then-president of Austria, Heinz Fischer, and Gerald Holton and his wife, Nina Holton, on the occasion of Holton receiving the Order of Merit of the Republic of Austria in June 2008. A professor of physics at Harvard, Holton was raised in a Jewish family in Vienna. In March 1938, the family witnessed the Anschluss and the rise of Hitler to power in Austria. At this point, Holton and his brother made an escape to England through the Kindertransport program, and they were later reunited with their parents and came to the United States in 1940.

Two men stand in front of a statue and portrait of George Washington (left); statue of George Washington in a courtyard (right

Catalog ID: Keyworth George C4, Credit: Photograph by Anne Suydarn, George Washington University Office of News and Public Affairs, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives (left)

George Washington statue in the courtyard of University Yard near the George Washington Law School, Credit: Camryn Bell (right)

Imagery and namesakes of George Washington are ubiquitous across the District of Columbia, including the multiple iterations here: a statue (and a bonus portrait in the background) of Washington at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. These iterations belong to the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, which manages the George Washington University's art collection. Thanks to identification by collections specialist Sara Berg, the statue is a cast bronze of the original “George Washington” by Jean-Antoine Houdon, purchased by the university in 1932 for the George Washington Bicentennial. Since 1991 it has stood in the University Yard near the George Washington Law School. 

Standing alongside the statue: George A. Keyworth (left) was a science advisor in the Reagan administration. Barry Berman (right) was a long-time professor of physics at George Washington University and studied atomic nuclei.

Physicists in Art

Wax may not be the immediate medium that comes to mind when capturing anyone’s likeness, and it brings an eerie sort of energy here in these life-sized wax models of physicists Enrico Fermi (left) and Arthur H. Compton (right).  

This piece stood at the former National Historical Wax Museum, which was then located at 5th and K Street NW in Washington, D.C. The museum opened in 1958 and featured wax depictions of prominent cultural and political figures. After two relocations the museum eventually closed in 1982 and was replaced by a nightclub called...the Wax Museum. The club reportedly featured some of the figures from the bygone museum and was open until 1984. Unfortunately, the location of the Fermi and Compton figures has been lost to time, and it is unknown if they took part in any nightclub revelries.

Silver balloons with faces are floating above a crib

Catalog ID: Mickens Ronald H1, Credit: Credit Line: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection

Dr. Tina Marie Dunkley is an Atlanta-based artist whose work explores “the lost narratives of the pan-African journey that have informed much of the history of the Americas.” This mixed media work, titled “Fair Accompli” was part of the broader series “Comin’ for to Carry Me Home,” which was displayed at the Hughley Gallery and Objects in Atlanta, Georgia, from September 20 to October 12 of 1991. 

A writeup of the exhibit in ART PAPERS in 1992 described the artwork as “a compact piece filled with visual cues that seem to converse with each other” (Viso 50). The work features a hospital crib, in which lies a life-size figure of an African American child and multiple layers of symbolic imagery adorning the crib. Additionally, the piece features silver balloons that are tied to the crib railings and screen printed with portraits of prominent African American figures. Among them are Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, astronaut Frederick Gregory, and seen at the center of this photo, physicist Ronald Mickens.

Playing card with hand drawn faces (left); portrait of Aleksei Abrikosov (right)

Catalog ID: Abrikosov Aleksei H1, Credit: Lev Gor'kov, National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL (left)

Catalog ID: Abrikosov Aleksei A1, Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection (right)

Aleksei Abrikosov was a noted physicist and a co-recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Vitaly Ginzburg and Anthony James Leggett); but here he took on the role of a face on a playing card. This hand-drawn card features images of Abrikosov and an unidentified man cropped into the faces of the "B" of spades. In a Russian playing deck, the Cyrillic “В” stands for “валет,” translating to the French “valet,” and serves as an equivalent to a “Jack” card in an English deck.

Cadet Midshipman Albert Abraham Michelson, Class of 1873, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, seated before a mirror and apparently sketching himself.

Catalog ID: Michelson Albert B1, Credit: Michelson Collection, Nimitz Library, U. S. Naval Academy, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

In a meta, almost Magritte-esque sort of triplicate artistic rendering, Albert Abraham Michelson is photographed here before a mirror, sketching a likeness of himself. 

Michelson was a member of the 1873 United State Naval Academy class, appointed as a Cadet Midshipman by then President Ulysses S. Grant. His studies later took him into the work of measuring the speed of light, and his Nobel prize in physics made him the first American to win a Nobel Prize in any science in 1907. Beyond his scientific pursuits, his artistic endeavors were also noted throughout his life, in particular his propensity for watercolors, in which he could “try to fathom the mysteries of light” (Wilson 45).  

In the 1973 biography of Michelson, “The Master of Light,” written by his daughter, Dorothy Livingston, she noted her father “felt thoroughly at home with the arts of music and painting.” Albert Einstein also once referred to Michelson as “the Artist in Science … His greatest joy seemed to come from the beauty of the experiment itself, and the elegance of the method employed.”

Guests attend the dedication of Bohr bust, positioned in the foreground against a background of books

Catalog ID: Crane Horace D1, Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

This is an NBLA favorite for obvious reasons, as the bust currently graces our reading room, and its subject is our namesake! Created by Danish sculptor Jørgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen in 1956, this bust was dedicated at the American Institute of Physics in 1983. It was donated in honor of John Archibald Wheeler, a founder of the Center for History of Physics. A version of the bust also stands at the Frue Plads outside of the University of Copenhagen. 

Featured in the photo while attending the dedication ceremony are (left to right): Bertram Schwarzschild, Gertrude Goldhaber, person not known, Robert Marschak, person not known, John Wheeler, and Horace Crane.

It may have been surreal for physicist Pieter Zeeman to watch as sculptor Jobs Wertheim created his likeness in real time, gradually building out his features and clothing. Zeeman was a 1902 recipient of the Nobel Prize, along with Hendrik Lorentz, lauded for his discovery of the Zeeman effect. A version of this bust currently stands in Zonnemaire (Schouwen-Duiveland, Zeeland, Netherlands) was given as a gift by the city of Amsterdam; Zeeman was born in Zeeland.  

Sculptor Jobs Wertheim was well-known for his portrait sculptures, and won the Prix de Rome in 1926. He was actively working until the second World War, when he and his family were taken to the Westerbork and Theresienstadt concentration camps. He survived the war and eventually returned to the Netherlands, where later in his career he worked on war memorials honoring those killed in the Holocaust.

Four images of in-progress Einstein memorial

From left to right:

Catalog ID: Einstein Albert H55, Credit: Richard Meek, National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection 

Catalog ID: Einstein Albert H52, Credit: Richard Meek, National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Catalog ID: Einstein Albert H53, Credit: Richard Meek, National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection 

Catalog ID: Einstein Albert H54, Credit: Richard Meek, National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

This monumental monument to Albert Einstein stands at the southwest corner of the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., seen here in progress and in model-scale with sculptor Robert Berks. Einstein posed for Berks for two days for a bust in 1953, which Berks described as “two days that changed [his] life.” Berks based this sculpture after that initial sitting. The work required 40 people to assist in its creation and was cast in nineteen separate bronze sections before being welded into its final form. 

The sculpture was unveiled on April 22, 1979, in honor of the hundred-year anniversary of Einstein’s birth, and during the National Academy’s annual meeting. The figure weighs four tons, and features Einstein holding a paper with various equations, as well as three quotes by Einstein engraved on the bench where he sits.

Abram Ioffe and wife, Anna Vassilievna Ioffe, while Abram holds a sculpture of himself (left); zoomed in image of Ioffe sculpture (right)

Catalog ID: Ioffe Abram C1, Credit: Dr. Peter H. Plesch, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

On the less monumental, or even life-sized, scale of sculptures, here physicist Abram Ioffe holds a small sculpture of himself. While the provenance of this miniature is unknown, at the Ioffe Institute, busts of Ioffe and Boris Konstantinov grace the building’s façade (sculpted by G. D. Glickman in 1964 and sculptor Mikhail Anikushin in 1975, respectively). The Ioffe Institute in Saint Petersburg was run by Ioffe for decades and was one of the largest physics research centers in Russia. Sitting next to Ioffe in this photo is his wife, Anna Vassilievna.


“Albert Abraham Michelson 1852-1931.” Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics. 

“Announcements: Tina Dunkley Exhibition.” Atlanta Daily World. 8 September 1991. 3. 

“Before Madame Tussauds, Washington had another wax museum.” The Washington Post. 31 August 2011. 

Broad, William J. “George A. Keyworth II, Reagan Science Adviser, Dies at 77.” The New York Times. 28 August 2017. 

Carmody, Deirdre, and Haberman, Clyde. “New York by Day: An Artistic Dispute.” The New York Times. 15 September 1982. 

Chang, Kenneth. “Alexei Abrikosov, Nobel Laureate in Physics, Dies at 88.” The New York Times. 2 April 2017. 

“Cross-curricular ideas: Mathematics and Renaissance art.” The National Gallery.,painting%20with%20increasingly%20effective%20techniques 

Denison, D.C. “The Interview: Sergio Castillo.” The Boston Globe. 27 January 1991. 

Duncan, Erika. “ENCOUNTERS;A Sculptor Whose Model Is History.” The Washington Post. 14 April 1966. 

Harrington, Richard. “Wax Museum to Close.” The Washington Post. 5 October 1984. 


Gerald. “Einstein, Michelson, and the "Crucial" Experiment.” Isis, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Summer, 1969), pp. 132-197. 

Ireland, Corydon. “A completely new life was beckoning.” The Harvard Gazette. 6 May 2015. 

“Joh. G. Wertheim: From Banker to Sculptor.” Mueum Beelden aan Zee zoekt vrijwilligers. 

Joseph Zimbrolt photographs, Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis. 

Livingston, Dorothy Michelson. The master of light; a biography of Albert A. Michelson. New York, Scribner, 1973. 36. 

Parke, William. “In Memorium: Barry Berman.” GW Today. 19 July 2010. 

Pitts, Rex. “Russian Opera Scenes.” The World of Playing Cards. 20 August 2014. 

Robinson, Sara. Clifford Truesdell, 80, Master Of 2 Disciplines of Mechanics. The New York Times. 22 January 2000. 

Strutt, Robert John. “Obituary Pieter Zeeman 1865-1943.” Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 30 November 1944 Volume 4, Issue 13. 

“The Einstein Memorial.” National Academy of Sciences. 

“Two Previews.” Star Tribune. 21 September 1961. 

Wilson, John Henry. “Albert A. Michelson; America's first Nobel prize physicist.” New York, J. Messner 1958. 45. 

Vane, George. “Brass Rubbings Introduction.” Hamline University. 

Viso, Olga. “Tina Dunkley: Comin’ for to Carry Me Home.” ART PAPERS. March/April 1992. 50-51. 

Yukawa, Hideki. “Calligraphy by Hideki Yukawa.” 1940. Folder 14. Osaka University Yukawa Memorial. 

 Zallen, Richard. The physics of amorphous solids. New York: Wiley, 1983. 171.


About the Author

Camryn Bell

Camryn Bell in Wenner Collection in the NBLA archives

Camryn Bell

Camryn Bell was the Wikipedia-in-Residence at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from UC Berkeley with a certification in New Media studies. One of her favorite collections at the NBLA is the John Irwin Slide Collection from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, which features hundreds of informal portraits of physicists. As a Wikipedian, her work focuses on bridging the NBLA’s collections with platforms including Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and Wikidata. You can follow her Wikipedia work directly through her user account CamrynBell

Caption: Camryn Bell in Wenner Collection in the NBLA archives 

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