‘Beauty of Science' Winner Captures Network Synchronization with Striking Image

Science in Society brings artwork, scientists into community with ETHS gallery night

By Roger AndersonDecember 12, 2018

“There’s often simple beauty in complex systems,” said Yuanzhao Zhang, a fourth-year doctoral student, standing before a print of “Tidal Basins,” his award-winning entry in Northwestern’s 2018 scientific images contest.

Zhang’s piece conveys research into a phenomenon — the sensitive dependence of a system's long-term fate on initial conditions — that is relevant for many processes in nature. For instance, weather is unpredictable beyond one or two weeks because of this fact.

His scientific artwork was displayed alongside those of 11 other finalists during a gallery and award night at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) on December 11. About 75 people attended the event, cohosted by Science in Society (SiS), one of more than 50 University Research Institutes and Centers at Northwestern.

“There are deep connections between art and science, from the creative processes used for each to the ways these disciplines help us interpret the world,” said Michael Kennedy, SiS director and a research professor of neurobiology. “This contest celebrates the cutting-edge work that Northwestern students, staff, and faculty are doing each day in the laboratory, as well as the creative energy of ETHS art students who view scientists’ images in clever and imaginative ways.  The dialogue between scientist and artist — for the benefit of both — is truly what this contest is about.”

In late November, ETHS invited image contest finalists onto campus for two days of classroom visits, during which the researchers discussed their scientific explorations, careers, and the artistic pieces. The visits inspired more than 40 student artworks, which were also displayed at the December 11 event.

“I really enjoy explaining my research to high school students and other non-astrophysicists,” said Zach Hafen, who worked with Alex Gurvich, both doctoral students in Claude-André Faucher-Giguère’s astrophysics lab, to create second-place finisher “Galactic Bloom.”  Hafen and Gurvich are also members of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

As part of a multiyear National Science Foundation program, Hafen engages with Evanston and Chicago high school students on a weekly basis.

“I think the ETHS students enjoy the opportunity to talk with Northwestern researchers,” said Hafen. "When communicating science to a broad audience it's especially important to make sure the audience is interested and enjoying the conversation."

Earlier this year, Gurvich was awarded prestigious fellowships from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program and Blue Waters National Center for Supercomputing Applications, respectively.

Complex Science, Award-Winning Art

What appear to be orange brush strokes atop a light blue background in Zhang’s “Tidal Basins” are actually more than 50 million pixels, each representing a different initial condition of a simple network system. So although the image may seem random or abstract, it’s not.

“The fate of the system (blue or orange) is solely determined by its initial conditions (position of the dot), meaning you only need two initial conditions — the X and Y coordinates — to determine whether a dot is blue or orange,” said Zhang, a member of Adilson Motter’s lab in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “It is impossible to measure initial conditions like these to infinite precision in the real world, and because the orange and blue dots are so intermingled, we often cannot predict the fate of a system even if it is deterministic.”

In Zhang’s system, there are two possible long-term dynamics: the dots are colored orange or blue according to which one the system converges to when starting from that initial condition. It is always possible to find a blue dot arbitrarily close to an orange dot and vice versa. In physics, such structures are called “riddled basins.”

“It is a great honor to have won this contest and I’m looking forward to sharing the beauty of science with more people throughout my career,” said Zhang. “My research focuses on complex systems, and from time to time I will observe very counterintuitive behaviors from the system under study. Gradually turning these surprises into insights, and then gaining deeper understanding of the system, is a process that I continue to enjoy.”

Beauty of Science Finalists

1st place
Riddled Basins by Yuanzhao Zhang
PI: Adilson Motter

2nd place
Galactic Bloom By Alex Gurvich And Zachary Hafen
PI: Claude-André Faucher-Giguère

3rd place
Nano Shooting Stars by Liban Jibril
PI: Chad Mirkin

4th place
Delicate Transformation by Srishti Arora and Michael Frim
PI: Michelle Driscoll

5th place
Blooming Gelatin by Jimmy Su
PIs: Ramille Shah and Jason Wertheim

The complete list of winners and an image gallery can be found here.

Student Art Showcase

For the first time in the nine-year history of Northwestern’s scientific image competition, student artwork was also honored during the awards ceremony. Inaugural winners included:

1st place
Maya Schaefer-Fiello

2nd place
Leah Oppenheimer

3rd place
Aliyah Bryant

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