Stanford physicist makes speed-of-light art

Juffmann art
Inspired by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, art by the SEEC project enables people to see light in motion. Photo by SEEC.

On Oct. 28, THOMAS JUFFMANN, a postdoctoral fellow in physics, will present at Vision+Light: Extending the Senses, an event at UC Berkeley that celebrates the intersection of art and science.

Juffmann, who works with Phillip Haslinger of UC Berkeley and artist Enar de Dios Rodríguez of the San Francisco Art Institute, uses advanced imaging technology to capture the movement of light, at the speed of light, across people and objects. Their project is called SEEC because they are visualizing the speed of light, which is often represented by the letter “c,” as in the equation E=mc².

The art draws inspiration from photography pioneer EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE, who, in 1878, used short exposure times to image the high-speed motion of LELAND STANFORD‘s horses. The present work is conducted in the lab of MARK KASEVICH, professor of physics and applied physics, where the group has access to technology that allows them to build on Muybridge’s legacy.

“We realized that we had the equipment that would enable us to see light in motion,” said Juffmann, a member of the Kasevich lab. “Everyone knows about the speed of light, but knowing and seeing are two different things.”

Capturing the movement of light means freezing moments that last less than a billionth of a second. A standard camera flash creates a pulse of light that is a thousand times shorter than the blink of an eye but that is still a million times too long for the images these artists make. In place of this, they use a pulsed laser and a special camera with a shutter speed of 0.1 billionth of a second.

While a subject may look rather uniformly lit in real-time, the slowed or paused SEEC visuals show how light actually flows over objects and people in its path, first illuminating the closest parts, then leaving those to darken as it moves farther away from its source. Their art is a rather literal interpretation of photography, a word that translates from Greek as “drawing with light,” as the light appears to be generating the images piece-by-piece.

The SEEC images and movies invite viewers to consider what we take for granted in our understanding of light. Light gives us information about the visual world, but that information isn’t as straightforward as we might believe.

“It’s fun to think about the consequences of how we perceive light,” says Juffmann. “Every image we see is an image from the past. When we look into a mirror, we see a slightly younger version of ourselves.”

Juffmann and the other members of SEEC will present from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Energy Biosciences Building at UC Berkeley. For more information, visit the Science at Cal website.