12:06
TEDGlobal 2013

Fabian Oefner: Psychedelic science

Filmed:

Swiss artist and photographer Fabian Oefner is on a mission to make eye-catching art from everyday science. In this charming talk, he shows off some recent psychedelic images, including photographs of crystals as they interact with soundwaves. And, in a live demo, he shows what really happens when you mix paint with magnetic liquid--or when you set fire to whiskey.

- Photographer
Fabian Oefner creates stunning visual representations of natural forces. Full bio

An image is worth more than a thousand words,
00:12
so I'm going to start my talk
00:16
by stop talking and show you a few images
00:18
that I recently captured.
00:21
So by now, my talk is already 6,000 words long,
00:42
and I feel like I should stop here.
00:46
(Laughter)
00:48
At the same time, I probably owe you
00:51
some explanation
00:53
about the images that you just saw.
00:54
What I am trying to do as a photographer,
00:57
as an artist, is to bring the world
00:59
of art and science together.
01:02
Whether it is an image of a soap bubble
01:05
captured at the very moment where it's bursting,
01:08
as you can see in this image,
01:10
whether it's a universe made of tiny little beads
01:13
of oil paint,
01:16
strange liquids that behave in very peculiar ways,
01:18
or paint that is modeled by centrifugal forces,
01:22
I'm always trying to link those two fields together.
01:27
What I find very intriguing about those two
01:31
is that they both look at the same thing:
01:33
They are a response to their surroundings.
01:36
And yet, they do it in a very different way.
01:39
If you look at science on one hand,
01:43
science is a very rational approach
01:45
to its surroundings,
01:48
whereas art on the other hand
01:50
is usually an emotional approach to its surroundings.
01:52
What I am trying to do is I'm trying
01:56
to bring those two views into one
01:58
so that my images both speak to the viewer's heart
02:01
but also to the viewer's brain.
02:05
Let me demonstrate this based on three projects.
02:08
The first one has to do with making sound visible.
02:13
Now as you may know,
02:18
sound travels in waves,
02:19
so if you have a speaker,
02:21
a speaker actually does nothing else
02:24
than taking the audio signal,
02:26
transform it into a vibration,
02:28
which is then transported through the air,
02:31
is captured by our ear,
02:34
and transformed into an audio signal again.
02:36
Now I was thinking,
02:39
how can I make those sound waves visible?
02:41
So I came up with the following setup.
02:45
I took a speaker, I placed a thin foil
02:48
of plastic on top of that speaker,
02:51
and then I added tiny little crystals
02:54
on top of that speaker.
02:56
And now, if I would play a sound through that speaker,
02:58
it would cause the crystals to move up and down.
03:01
Now this happens very fast,
03:05
in the blink of an eye,
03:07
so, together with LG, we captured this motion
03:09
with a camera that is able
03:13
to capture more than 3,000 frames per second.
03:15
Let me show you what this looks like.
03:18
(Music: "Teardrop" by Massive Attack)
03:22
(Applause)
04:03
Thank you very much.
04:08
I agree, it looks pretty amazing.
04:09
But I have to tell you a funny story.
04:13
I got an indoor sunburn doing this
04:15
while shooting in Los Angeles.
04:18
Now in Los Angeles, you could get a decent sunburn
04:20
just on any of the beaches,
04:22
but I got mine indoors,
04:24
and what happened is that,
04:26
if you're shooting at 3,000 frames per second,
04:27
you need to have a silly amount of light, lots of lights.
04:30
So we had this speaker set up,
04:35
and we had the camera facing it,
04:37
and lots of lights pointing at the speaker,
04:39
and I would set up the speaker,
04:42
put the tiny little crystals on top of that speaker,
04:44
and we would do this over and over again,
04:47
and it was until midday that I realized
04:49
that I had a completely red face
04:52
because of the lights pointing at the speaker.
04:55
What was so funny about it was that
04:58
the speaker was only coming from the right side,
05:00
so the right side of my face was completely red
05:03
and I looked like the Phantom of the Opera
05:06
for the rest of the week.
05:08
Let me now turn to another project
05:11
which involves less harmful substances.
05:13
Has anyone of you heard of ferrofluid?
05:19
Ah, some of you have. Excellent.
05:23
Should I skip that part?
05:26
(Laughter)
05:27
Ferrofluid has a very strange behavior.
05:29
It's a liquid that is completely black.
05:32
It's got an oily consistency.
05:34
And it's got tiny little particles of metal in it,
05:37
which makes it magnetic.
05:40
So if I now put this liquid into a magnetic field,
05:43
it would change its appearance.
05:46
Now I've got a live demonstration over here
05:49
to show this to you.
05:53
So I've got a camera pointing down at this plate,
05:59
and underneath that plate, there is a magnet.
06:02
Now I'm going to add some of that ferrofluid
06:06
to that magnet.
06:09
Let's just slightly move it to the right
06:17
and maybe focus it a little bit more. Excellent.
06:25
So what you can see now is that
06:30
the ferrofluid has formed spikes.
06:32
This is due to the attraction and the repulsion
06:34
of the individual particles inside the liquid.
06:38
Now this looks already quite interesting,
06:41
but let me now add some watercolors to it.
06:43
Those are just standard watercolors
06:47
that you would paint with.
06:49
You wouldn't paint with syringes,
06:51
but it works just the same.
06:52
So what happened now is,
07:10
when the watercolor was flowing into the structure,
07:12
the watercolors do not mix with the ferrofluid.
07:16
That's because the ferrofluid itself
07:19
is hydrophobic.
07:21
That means it doesn't mix with the water.
07:24
And at the same time, it tries to maintain its position
07:26
above the magnet,
07:29
and therefore, it creates those amazing-looking
07:30
structures of channels and tiny little ponds
07:33
of colorful water paint.
07:37
So that was the second project.
07:39
Let me now turn to the last project,
07:41
which involves
07:43
the national beverage of Scotland.
07:48
(Laughter)
07:50
This image, and also this one,
07:53
were made using whiskey.
07:57
Now you might ask yourself,
08:00
how did he do that?
08:01
Did he drink half a bottle of whiskey
08:02
and then draw the hallucination he got
08:04
from being drunk onto paper?
08:07
I can assure you I was fully conscious
08:11
while I was taking those pictures.
08:13
Now, whiskey contains 40 percent of alcohol,
08:16
and alcohol has got some very interesting properties.
08:20
Maybe you have experienced
08:24
some of those properties before,
08:26
but I am talking about the physical properties,
08:28
not the other ones.
08:31
So when I open the bottle, the alcohol molecules
08:33
would spread in the air,
08:37
and that's because alcohol is a very volatile substance.
08:39
And at the same time, alcohol is highly flammable.
08:43
And it was with those two properties
08:47
that I was able to create the images
08:49
that you're seeing right now.
08:52
Let me demonstrate this over here.
08:54
And what I have here is an empty glass vessel.
09:04
It's got nothing in it.
09:08
And now I'm going to fill it with oxygen
09:09
and whiskey.
09:13
Add some more.
09:31
Now we just wait for a few seconds
09:38
for the molecules to spread inside the bottle.
09:40
And now, let's set that on fire.
09:43
(Laughter)
09:45
So that's all that happens.
10:03
It goes really fast, and it's not that impressive.
10:05
I could do it again to show it one more time,
10:08
but some would argue that this is a complete waste
10:11
of the whiskey, and that I should rather drink it.
10:13
But let me show you a slow motion
10:17
in a completely darkened room
10:19
of what I just showed you in this live demonstration.
10:21
So what happened is that the flame
10:33
traveled through the glass vessel from top to bottom,
10:36
burning the mix of the air molecules
10:40
and the alcohol.
10:43
So the images that you saw at the beginning,
10:45
they are actually a flame stopped in time
10:48
while it is traveling through the bottle,
10:52
and you have to imagine
10:54
it was flipped around 180 degrees.
10:56
So that's how those images were made.
10:59
(Applause)
11:01
Thank you.
11:06
So, I have now showed you three projects,
11:09
and you might ask yourself, what is it good for?
11:12
What's the idea behind it?
11:14
Is it just a waste of whiskey?
11:16
Is it just some strange materials?
11:17
Those three projects, they're based on very simple
11:21
scientific phenomena,
11:24
such as magnetism, the sound waves,
11:26
or over here, the physical properties of a substance,
11:29
and what I'm trying to do
11:33
is I'm trying to use these phenomena
11:35
and show them in a poetic and unseen way,
11:38
and therefore invite the viewer
11:41
to pause for a moment
11:43
and think about all the beauty
11:45
that is constantly surrounding us.
11:48
Thank you very much.
11:52
(Applause)
11:53

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About the Speaker:

Fabian Oefner - Photographer
Fabian Oefner creates stunning visual representations of natural forces.

Why you should listen

Fabian Oefner is a photographer and artist who wants to blend the disciplines of art and science. His psychedelic images capture natural phenomena and present them in unique and eye-catching ways. To date, subjects have included sound waves, iridescence, even magnetic ferroliquids and fire. His aim: to create images that appeal to both a viewer's heart and brain.

Oefner's photographs have been exhibited in various countries and are part of private collections around the globe. Besides pursuing his own projects, he also works on ad campaigns. He works and lives in Switzerland.

More profile about the speaker
Fabian Oefner | Speaker | TED.com