Arts|Science Initiative Collaborations Inspire New Directions, Approaches to Research

Arts|Science Initiative Collaborations Inspire New Directions, Approaches to Research

This article originally appeared in UChicago News on 16 June.

In a hall full of scientists and artists, Qin Xu, Ivo Peters and Iddo Aharony were the ones who broke the ice at the May 14 presentations of the 2014 graduate collaboration grant projects sponsored by the Arts|Science Initiative

The trio of graduate students kicked off the evening at the Logan Center for the Arts by introducing "Breaking Ice," the literal focus of their project. Xu and Peters, graduate students in physics, and Aharony, a graduate student in music, crushed and melted ice in the laboratory, recording the entire process. Next, they used their data and video to create a multimedia composition that incorporated live cello, interactive electronics, and video.

“This collaboration was an incredible opportunity to open up a whole new dimension to my creative work,” said Aharony. “Together, we were able to brainstorm and ultimately create a distinct artwork that would never have been conceived in any other way. I have no doubt that this collaboration and its fruits will continue to inspire my creative work moving forward.”

The composition attempts to evoke the thawing and shattering of glaciers as a result of global warming by studying reduced-scale models of these enormous structures. They crushed ice in a viselike device, applying pressures equivalent to a car’s weight before the pieces shattered. They videotaped at 6,000 frames per second the impact of ice dropped on the lab’s concrete floor. They also constructed a hollow, thumb-sized house of ice in remarkable detail—with well-defined roof, chimney, shutters and door. A slow-motion video of the house dropping to the floor shows it exploding slowly into slabs and splinters.

“It was hollow,” said Anthony at the presentation, “because real houses are hollow.”

“The Arts|Science Initiative actively engages students through direct dialogue and exchange,” said Julie Marie Lemon, the initiative’s program director and curator. “Where new relationships have developed, new networks and resources across the humanities and sciences have been established—ideas have been pushed, questions raised, knowledge transferred, and a new set of emergent possibilities revealed.”

Xu, Peters and Aharony composed one of five teams funded by a 2014 Arts|Science Graduate Collaboration Grant. The program seeks awardees who will invigorate the conversation between the humanities and the sciences. Supporting the initiative are the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories and the Institute for Molecular Engineering.

A total of four projects were presented May 14, which ranged from a close study of the intimate and the personal to an examination of social quirks that populate mainstream society. These projects included “NeuroSonics: Rhythmic Stimulation of Epileptic Cell Cultures,” or NeuroSonics for short.

In this project, Andrew McManus of music, and Tahra Eissa, a student in neuroscience, examined the relationship between neurological processes and rhythms in music. The trio used multi-electrode arrays cultured with neural cells from rats, stimulated them with drum beats, measured the neuron pulses, then sought relationships between the digitized drum beats and raw data.

The NeuroSonics team exemplifies the initiative’s outcomes. “The Arts and Science initiative was a great way to look at our data in a novel context,” Eissa said. The fact that McManus has a mild form of epilepsy “really helped to bring our work alive,” she said.

“The more effective part of this learning process for me was that Andrew was actually using the same type of analyses we use on our data for a completely different result. While we look for biological significance with signal processing, he found musical significance. It really helped us to discover beauty and novelty in our signal that may have otherwise been overlooked.”

A seven-member team, which presented “Hearts Beating as One: Emotions and Physiology during Artistic Performance,” explored how emotion is communicated to an audience. The students measured the physiology of actors and musicians while they performed and compared that to the physiology and emotions of the audience, paying close attention to the role that empathy plays in creating a captivating performance.

Graduate student Patrick Fitzgibbon found himself playing two roles in different phases of the project: first that of practicing musician, then that of a historically oriented music theorist.

“It’s in the latter role that I have come to appreciate how this research stands to enrich a branch of discourse, ancient but enduring, on the political, moral, and even medical properties of musical moods,” Fitzgibbon said.

In another project, Anya Bershad, a graduate student in psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, and Bill Hutchison, in English, researched the behavior known as “binge-watching.” This is associated with continuously watching entire seasons of TV shows.

“What is it about our brains that draws us to compelling narratives?” asked Bershad at the presentation. “What is it about certain narratives that makes them compelling?”

The pair drew parallels between drug addiction and elements in “addictive” fiction. They found that the plot twists, suspense, and characters of a show as well as the TV habits of viewers often elicited cravings and urges to consume, interfering with work, school, or life. Viewers also repeated consumption despite recognition of the problem. Hyper-serialization, made possible by providers like Netflix, indulges binge-watching behavior by offering large quantities and easy access to shows.

Hutchison and Bershad are currently co-writing a documentary named, “Fiction Addiction,” which will be available at It will not be serialized.

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June 23, 2014