A case of Mind over matter at extravaganza

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Academics go hand in hand with famous artists for unique displays

The UK’s tallest academic building will be transformed into a spectacular light show simulating complex chemical reactions during the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind.

The University’s iconic Arts Tower will be transformed into an eye-catching 225ft art installation, which will use computer-controlled lighting to create Chaotic Chemical Waves, during the 11-day extravaganza, which runs until September 28 .

Dr Jonathon Howse, from the University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, proposed the idea of combining science and engineering to show a chemical process and joined forces with Rotherham-based artist Mark Fell to bring it to life.

He said: “The first computer simulations of these chemical reactions were performed by Alan Turing, famous for breaking the Enigma code in World War 2.

“He proposed that chemical reactions may underlie pattern formation in nature such as the stripes on fish skin or the spots on leopards.

“It has also been shown that the irregular heartbeats associated with a heart attack are the result of similar spiral pattern formation in the electrochemical signals within the heart.”

The large-scale illumination will display patterns generated by the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, which can form spiral waves in a petri-dish and in the simulation, white corresponds to high concentrations of a particular acid used in the reaction.

The strip of lights on the Arts Tower is being used to represent these concentration changes along a line vertically through the simulation.

This event marks just one of a whole host of events taking place in the city as part of Festival of the Mind, which will see the University of Sheffield team its leading academics with the UK’s most famous artists and musicians, to bring academia to the streets.

The festival was first held in 2012 and is the brainchild of Professor Vanessa Toulmin, head of cultural engagement at the University of Sheffield and director of the National Fairground Archive.

Professor Toulmin said: “Festival of the Mind is all about being creative in order to make complicated subjects accessible to the public. We want people to witness how captivating knowledge and learning can be.

“However, none of our projects will over-simplify or ‘dumb down’ complex thinking and processes – we would never patronise the public by assuming a level of ignorance. Instead, we want to educate and celebrate exploring the unknown.

“It’s fantastic that both the University of Sheffield and our partners, Sheffield City Council, Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust, understand the importance of allowing knowledge to flow out of the university and into the city it inhabits and vice versa.

“This could easily become a template for other universities, in the UK and abroad.”

The schedule for the festival includes more than 150 city-wide events, 100 academics and more than 150 artistic collaborators, and is designed around the key themes of change, chaos, global, joy, resilience, and urban – with the Arts Tower light show playing a part of chaos.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, said: “I am delighted that the Festival of the Mind will once again bring to the city of Sheffield a superb feast of ideas expressed in ways which will delight local people.

“All are welcome to learn and wonder at this marvellous free festival which celebrates the spirit of creativity which is Sheffield’s heritage and a key to its future.”