Soft Science

Madeleine Bow Jun Leibovitch
Weld Lab


The prompting question asks, “Can you see beauty in your science?” but often I think this sentiment about the intersection of science and art makes one question if art can be born from science; I’d like to pose that science can thrive and be born from creativity and art. 

This piece is a photograph of my labmates, some “lab snacks” boxes from Newport and Thorlabs that they fill with actual snacks for researchers (companies that sell physics-related hardware parts), custom colorful optics hardware parts that I recently ordered for our experiment that my labmates are peering through and playing around with, and a mural that I designed and pained to go over our experiment’s optical table (with help from friend and fellow physics grad student Isha Anantpurkar). The mural is of banana leaves and heliconia flowers, inspired by CW Stockwell’s iconic Martinique banana leaf wallpaper. The banana leaves are an ode to a general banana theme in our lab, as we are working on building a novel optical tweezer machine for the manipulation of individual, and degenerate quantum gases of potassium atoms. 

As a woman with an artistic background working in an Atomic, Optical, and Molecular (AMO) experimental physics laboratory, I am used to and familiar with the environment that results from working in a heavily male dominated physics space. I think my subconscious way of asserting my own identity in the lab ends up being things like ordering colorful machine parts and painting art pieces to go around the lab. Everything about physics lab culture is so funny and honestly just kind of silly to me. We get physics-themed fortune cookies that come in the Newport snack boxes labeled “Photon Food,” which have fortunes saying things like, “Contrary to popular belief, increasing the number of monitors on your desk won’t increase good data.” It’s crazy. 

In a quick google search, looking at papers such as this one:, or just polling the general American public (AKA every time I tell someone I am working on my PhD in physics), it’s pretty evident that physics is viewed as hard, inaccessible (“Oh nice, I can’t ask you questions about your research though because I stopped understanding physics in high school”), masculine, mathematical, definite, lawful, and so on. But my belief is that the isolated and formal nature of physics does not represent the absence of cultural influence, but is instead a direct manifestation of it. Conversely, in my physics practice, I have found everything I do to be deeply creative, innovative, culturally relevant, and defined by our social, political, and interpersonal world. Every way that a physicist is perceived, and every assumption about what a physicist looks like or does is directly linked to the stereotypes of how physics is culturally defined. These stereotypes make it feel strange for people who don’t fit as well into that mold to exist in the physics environment.  

Before I was an aspiring physicist, I have always wanted to be an artist. I want to communicate that my scientific investigations are inherent to and a direct result of creativity, beauty, and art that I hope to foster in my lab and everywhere that I get to do physics. Art and creativity are vital to my scientific practice. I love the nature of physics discovery and every way that it connects to the world and our relation to one another in this universe. I express this with this snapshot of my lab highlighting my mural that I created for my workspace, and remind myself of what I get to see every day when I work with my peers investigating and studying our beloved physics.