My classes at SAIC are designed to give students a liberal-arts-physics experience that challenges them to think in new ways, reflect on their own worldview, and engage critically with current debates that involve science. Here are three classes I am currently excited about:
This is an innovative studio-science course that I co-teach with artist Paola Cabal. The course combines a science class on the physics of time and space with an interdisciplinary studio class in which students make works responding to that science.
This is a lecture-discussion course that tackles science content in the context of current events and controversial issues. The course introduces the physics of the nucleus, the types and effects of radiation, and the science behind nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Signature features of this course include a class blog and weekly discussion of current "nuclear news," an emphasis on "nuanced questions" that do not have straightforward textbook answers, and essay assignments that require students to marshall their scientific knowledge in support of their own opinions on current nuclear policy topics.
Waves is an inquiry-based lab class. We study phenomena related to sound, light, water waves, and vibrations. We then apply the same concepts to gain insights into quantum physics and a range of current scientific research topics, from biosonar to gravitational waves. In this class, students work in groups to design their own observations and experiments to try to answer open-ended "research" questions that often originate from their own curiosity. The insights and sketches recorded in student lab notebooks are incorporated into lectures and discussions.
I oversee the science curriculum at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Science courses are offered within the Liberal Arts department and are part of the general education that students receive alongside studio instruction. I am always seeking scientists with an interest in innovative pedagogy for non-science audiences, so please contact me if you are interested in finding out about open teaching positions.
I have had a number of projects working at the art-science boundary. I was a founding co-organizer of the ongoing Conversations on Art and Science event series, back in 2011. I also started the SAIC Scientist in Residence program. Both of these are now overseen by colleagues, but I remain involved.
Many many of my colleagues at SAIC situate their work in some relationship to both art and science. We have been working for some years to put together a full-blown curriculum pathway to also allow students to specialize in art-science discourse. One of the biggest problems with this effort has been what to name it, which speaks to the complex and nuanced set of ideas in play. More links will come, when we make more progress with this effort.
Meanwhile, for my own contributions, I have organized many events over the years (including a particularly fruitful one on quantum physics in 2018, called Quantum Unlearning ). I also have collaborated on art-science pedagogical and spinoff curatorial projects (most notably with Paola Cabal) and on occasional art projects (e.g. this installation with artist Kyle Bellucci Johanson).
I started my career as an experimental physicist. I was initially driven by wanting to know how physicists could make the extraordinary claims that they do, given that most of what they study is distantly removed from everyday experience. I worked at different times in the subfields of nuclear and particle physics and observational cosmology, spanning the extremes of scale from the quantum to the cosmic. Contributing to large collaborative teams, my emphasis was usually on the processes used to transform raw information from detector systems into knowledge about the world, especially the argumentation used to account for sources of uncertainty in the measurement process.
The thing is, the culture of physics was (and is) distinctly sexist and biased towards specific models of what a physicist should do, say, look like, and sound like in order to be successful. I was a successful early-career physicist, at a fairly high level in the field. But, my everyday work life was awful. In addition to the ways that being different was itself a problem, constant low-grade sexual harassment was almost institutionalized as part of lab culture. Flagrant examples of gender, racial, and other forms of bias were routine. If I questioned any of this, my fitness to participate and my passion for physics were quickly questioned in return. Or, the problems were dismissed with appeals to a scientist’s unquestioned objectivity. At the time, that answer triggered nothing less than a complete crisis of faith in objectivity. I lost a lot of sleep trying to work out who and what I could trust.
The upshot, for me, was that being a female physics researcher just sucked. I felt like I could be adequately “tough,” but to stay in the field meant spending my professional life angry. Anybody who has a PhD in physics has a lot of career options. To take one of them (teaching at an art and design school) was, for me, a way to vote with my feet against institutionalized gender bias and a toxic disciplinary culture. I admire the many individuals who have faced a similar situation and decided instead to stay and fight to make things better. But personally I never thought that I had the answers, so to take on the responsibility for trying to fix things would have meant spending my time on psychology and sociology, not physics. And physics is where my heart was (and is, if in a different way these days).
Joining the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. No institution is perfect, but interacting with artists has better equipped me with the tools to understand and critique the culture of my field, as well as to reflect on the meaning of physics itself in wholly new ways. Meanwhile, I have been supported to freely pursue my curiosities in a way that I never could before. It is an unbelievable luxury and privilege, and I am filled with gratitude every time I walk down the wide sidewalk on Michigan Avenue and meet the smiles of my students and colleagues.
If the reason you came to this page is to gauge my professional credentials, there is some information below that will prove that I was, at one time, a “legit” physics researcher. But now that I have tenure and I no longer need the support of any of my former mentors, I want to use my voice to say that I think that legitimacy is, like so many aspects of our participation in institutions and systems, stained. I’m proud of the work I was involved in, in the past (and I still get giddy and excited talking about neutrinos, or the CMB), but it is at best an uneasy pride, edged with sadness and frustration.
I worked on developing the first data analysis pipeline for the South Pole Telescope project, beginning in 2005. SPT is a microwave telescope detecting relic radiation from the early universe. Here are some of the papers I contributed to:
A measurement of the secondary-CMB and millimeter-wave-foreground bispectrum using 800 square degrees of South Pole Telescope data T.M. Crawford, K.K. Schaffer, S. Bhattacharya et. al, submitted to the Astrophysical Journal (2013).
The First Public Release of South Pole Telescope Data: Maps of a 95-square-degree Field from 2008 Observations K.K. Schaffer, T.M. Crawford et. al, Astrophysical Journal 743 (2011).
Measurements of Secondary Cosmic Microwave Background Anisotropies with the South Pole Telescope M. Leuker, C.L. Reichardt, K.K. Schaffer et. al, Astrophysical Journal 719 (2010).
My graduate research (at the University of Washington) was in the field of nuclear and particle physics, as a member of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory collaboration. For my dissertation I analyzed the so-called "day-night effect" for solar neutrinos, and my results were documented in the following paper:
Electron Energy Spectra, Fluxes, and Day-Night Asymmetries of 8B Solar Neutrinos from the 391-Day Salt Phase SNO Data Set The SNO Collaboration. Physical Review C 72 (2005)
To see more, here is my complete publication list from INSPIRE.
These are quick intros to some in-progress projects that deal with physics in a more broadly interdisciplinary space.
Working with experimental quantum physicist (and 2016 SAIC Scientist in Residence) Gabriela Barreto Lemos, I have been interested in the influence of quantum physics on contemporary art discourse, largely via Karen Barad's work. Gabriela and I have been working on ways to express the core "weirdness" of quantum physics that enable interdisciplinary conversations of this kind but also foreground the interpretational challenges that the field of physics has still not resolved. We prepared an initial version of this work for a symposium at SAIC in 2018, but a final published version is available here; Obliterating Thingness: an Introduction to the `What' and the `So What' of Quantum Physics.
Gabi and I are currently working on a followup to this piece that specifically addresses quantum entanglement and the ways the concept is employed in the humanities and social sciences.
With support through the Shapiro Fellows program at SAIC, I spent a bunch of time working studying the ways that physics diagrams use visual conventions and spatial relationships on a page to encode information about invisible phenomena. This work is perpetually in the unfinished/unpublished state but I will get there eventually! It is part of a broader investigation into the nature of representation and the philosophy and physics of information.
Over my 2016-2017 sabbatical year I drafted a manuscript for a (still untitled, and still in development) book on the physics of light. It aims to provide deep, conceptually rich insights into vision, the nature of light, the relationship between matter and light, and the behavior of light physical scales ranging from quantum to cosmic. It links everyday optics and visual experience to big, philosophically challenging ideas that come from modern physics. Instead of formal mathematics and a traditional step-by-step exposition, the book weaves together informal verbal and visual explanations on topically related concepts. The illustrations are integrated into the text, in an effort to foreground fundamental (and interesting) representation problems that arise when physicists attempt to describe and draw invisible natural phenomena.
I am currently completing this manuscript under contract with MIT Press.