Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Quark Park

Crammed into a narrow wedge of land in downtown Princeton, N.J., an unusual but ephemeral park presents a quirky celebration of art, science, mathematics, architecture, and landscape design.


A neon sign marks the entrance to Quark Park in Princeton, N.J. Marc Pelletier's 120-cell sculpture is visible below the sign.

Named Quark Park, this Alice-in-Wonderlandish garden offers an enchanting visual and aural experience. Granite pillars ring with resonant tones. Crystal shafts sprout from sand, reaching for the sky. Glass bubbles float in a sparkling sea. Mirrored double helices flash fragments of light as they twirl in the breeze. An intricate, stainless-steel cage glints geometrically in brilliant sunlight.


When struck by a metal rod, each of these granite pillars emits a tone. This "augmented lithophone" was created by sculptor Jonathan Shor, in collaboration with Princeton music and computer science professor Perry Cook. Signal processing equipment enhances the vibrations to simulate a cave-like setting.

The park was conceived, designed, and organized by architect Kevin Wilkes and colleagues Peter Soderman and Alan Goodheart. It temporarily fills a sliver of land that is to be redeveloped into housing, so the park is open to the public only through November.


The "Light Emerging" sculpture is meant to represent the nacsent industry of solid-state lighting. The bottom of each plastic rod has a thin layer of phosphor that converts incoming blue light into a particular color. At night, these colors are visible on the canopy that hangs over the rods.

The mathematical highlight is a stainless-steel sculpture by Marc Pelletier, honoring Princeton mathematician John H. Conway. The sculpture represents a three-dimensional shadow, or projection, of a famous, four-dimensional figure sometimes called the 120-cell, where each cell (or three-dimensional face) is a dodecahedron.


Glinting sunlight highlights pentagons that form the basis of Marc Pelletier's 120-cell sculpture.

A regular dodecahedron has 30 edges and 12 faces, each of which is a regular pentagon. Its four-dimensional analog—a polydodecahedron—contains 120 dodecahedra. Pelletier's sculpture embodies one possible, particularly symmetric projection of this four-dimensional object in three dimensions.


This view of the 120-cell reveals striking symmetries.

The sculpture, in which steel rods define the edges of the object's dodecahedra, features an undistorted dodecahedron at its center. This dodecahedron is surrounded by 12 others, which are only slightly distorted by foreshortening. Proceeding outward, the next layer has 20 dodecahedra, then 12 more that are considerably flattened by foreshortening. The final layer consists of 30 dodecahedra that are seen edge-on and so appear flat, delineating the sculpture's outer surface.


In a different setting and viewed from a different angle, the 120-cell shows off other geometric patterns.

The original version of the 120-cell sculpture created by Pelletier is located at the Fields Institute in Toronto, where it honors geometer H.S.M. Coxeter, who died in 2003.


This model, crafted by George Hart, represents an alternative three-dimensional projection of the 120-cell—one that shows all of the object's 120 cells.

Another sculpture at Quark Park that has a mathematical element is the result of a collaboration between Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt and sculptor Christoph Spath. Called "Forbidden Geometry," it is based on three-dimensional models of four different shapes that can be combined as building blocks to form so-called quasicrystals.


This sculpted model of a quasicrystal is made up of 6 building blocks (zonohedra), three fashioned from limestone and three from glass. The projections on the blocks represent the rules that define how blocks can be combined to form larger structures.

One of my favorite installations at Quark Park appears to have, at first glance, little to do with mathematics. Called "Motion in the Ocean," it consists of 1,200 hand-blown glass bubbles hanging from an overhead frame. The assemblage looks like a school of glistening fish, drifting underwater in a seaweedy nook.


Glass artist Bob Kuster collaborated with mechanical engineer Naomi Ehrich Leonard to create a school of glass fish.

Mechanical engineer Naomi Ehrich Leonard, who inspired the artwork, studies how animals use feedback to move as a cohesive whole, with the idea of applying similar principles to coordinate the movements of robots. The result may be a school of robotic underwater gliders. And there's certainly math in modeling the synchrony and interconnectedness required to get this to work.


Entering a glassy sea.

It's a shame that this assemblage and all the other wonderful elements of Quark Park will soon disperse and disappear.

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