The Quantum Man Effect

Art, science and technology all change the way we experience the world.


Recently I saw an art exhibit by one of my favorite artists, Julian Voss-Andreae, a German-born sculptor now living and working in Portland, Oregon. In addition to sculpting, he has studied physics, mathematics and philosophy. His background in science has informed and influenced his career in the arts, leading to his creation of pieces such as protein sculptures, based on frames of a protein folding simulation, and a large-scale depiction of the carbon-60 molecule commonly known as a buckyball.

Of course, the microscopic subjects of Voss-Andreae’s art are beyond what the human eye can perceive. But by creating artwork from his scientific perspective, he imparts tangible, three-dimensional forms to these “invisible” elements that are all around us.

One of his most visually striking works is his Quantum Man series. These 3D sculptures – which can be found around the world from Portland to Zurich, Switzerland, to Sydney, Australia – are composed of thin vertical plates that, when viewed head on, bring to mind a person walking. But when seen from the side, the figure virtually disappears.

This artwork depicts a human figure as a quantum object. The sculptures’ name is derived from quantum mechanics, a fundamental theory in physics that describes nature in the smallest terms of atomic and subatomic energy levels. You know things are infinitesimal when they’re even tinier than the nanometer and submicron sizes that are common throughout our own semiconductor industry.

All around us are forces – and potential energy sources – that are unseen. For example, ambient power can be collected from a wide range of common external sources including photons, geothermal heat and kinetic energy. The process of harvesting this energy has been used for decades. In the early days of radio, crystal radio sets were powered solely by the energy in radio waves received by a wire antenna. Today, one of the most widespread forms of ambient power collection is the photovoltaic panels that populate neighborhood rooftops and solar-energy farms, converting solar rays into electrical current.

Ambient power can be harnessed to improve our human experience through applications such as mobile, wireless electronics. The technology incubator Silicon Catalyst helps many innovative entrepreneurs to get their ideas started on a business track. One such start-up involves a group of imaginative young people working on technology that harvests body heat to power devices such as smart watches. The principle is to leverage the difference between body temperature and the surrounding air; the larger the temperature disparity, the more energy is available. And while the energy captured would be relatively small, the group believes it can channel that power in sufficient quantity to drive all of the functions on a smart watch. In theory, simply by moving around, a wearer could generate electrical power wherever he or she goes. The implications for IoT and wearable electronics would be dramatic, especially considering that wearable sensors are estimated to be a billion-dollar industry and growing.

We live in the Age of Connectivity, in which everything from the people we know to the information that we want is no further away than the phone in our pocket or the smart watch on our wrist. From the works of provocative artists to the emergence of self-powered wearable electronics, we are surrounded by ways in which technology contributes to human experience. Even if the microscopic linkage is not visible to us, everything is connected.

So the next time you are struggling to find a solution to a difficult problem at hand, perhaps think of the energy you can generate all by yourself. Or get even more abstract and try art. Outside-the-box approaches can open our eyes to things we don’t ordinarily see.