As a child, one of my favorite things to do in the car on a rainy day was to watch the raindrops race each other down the window. I’m sure I’m not the only one; there are at least 4 Facebook pages dedicated to this activity. I’d pick one raindrop and cheer it on, excitedly watching as it collided with other drops, snowballing into a super-drop that barreled down the window. Sometimes I won, most times I didn’t. But why is this simple activity so captivating?
Michael Brown’s Meanderings
Michael Brown, a sculptor, designer and installation artist based in San Francisco, asks this question in his own piece, Meandering. He is a prime example of an artist working at the intersection of art and technology, often working with “museums to design exhibits that focus on inspiring greater interaction with the visitors through the use of innovative and engaging exhibition techniques” (Michael Brown). His art moves people to explore natural phenomenon, such as flowing water.
Meandering is an interactive sculptural piece that first displayed in the exhibition on Environmental Art at The Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1993, then again in 1997 at the Sensitive Chaos show, which explored physical-world phenomena. The ICC website describes it so:
Water flows down a tilting sheet of glass. The resistance of the surface of the glass and the cohesive nature of the water cause the water to meander like the currents of a river. Visitors can adjust the tilt of the glass. The currents of water act as lenses refracting the light source, giving rise to optical effects.
Little information can be found on Meandering; it is only briefly mentioned by Wilson (240), and that is the single online description of it. But I was drawn to this piece because of the nostalgic familiarity. Maybe the raindrop race was so fascinating as a child because of the unpredictability: sometimes you could guess where your raindrop would run next, but often not. You’d like to think you could predict its path, but it’s far more difficult than it seems on the surface. Jim Crutchfield, a dynamic systems scientist, offers an explanation:
Things that are seemingly structureless are uninteresting. At the other end of the spectrum, a completely straightforward, obvious statement of fact is not engaging…human interest increases—as you increase the ambiguity. Things in the world that are really intriguing draw you in. (Wilson 256)
Raindrop races and Meandering lie within that perfect balance of simplicity and ambiguity.
The Universal Implications
How does water flow? It’s a delicate interplay of gravity and the topography of the land, driven by kinetic energy. But the key point is, it has to flow downhill. By allowing visitors to tilt the glass sheet, people can affect how the water flows in Meanderings. They can see how the angle of the surface affects how the drops move, and the motions may remind them of a slow, winding river that crawls all over the land.
I think it’s fascinating that the movement of something as large as a river is reflected in one of its smallest components—water drops. It’s a reminder that even though everything is made of infinitely smaller parts, there’s a universal connection between the whole and the parts, the massive and the microscopic, and the idea of the whole is embodied in all its parts.
One of the most profound examples of this idea is the structure of brain cells and the universe. They’re eerily similar. Even though a large part of this week focuses on the atomic and subatomic, it’s also important not to lose sight of the larger ideas as we delve in the fractions of the universe.