Stanford Arts Institute launches Imagining the Universe program

Feb. 22, 2015, 8:12 p.m.

A broad array of departments are collaborating to bring Imagining the Universe, an eclectic program that explores cosmology in art and science, to the Stanford community this year.

Imagining the Universe is a year-long, campus-wide program organized by the Stanford Arts Institute that combines the arts, humanities and sciences to explore our understanding of the universe. Program events include a speaker series, musical performances, art exhibits and even a freshman course on cosmology.

“It’s everything from a poet coming to terms with the universe through language to a scientist detailing his or her research results,” said Sarah Curran, Programming Director for the Stanford Arts Institute. “Each has different perspectives which have lovely overlaps.”

Inspiration for the project came from physics professor Peter Michelson, who approached Matthew Tiews, Associate Dean for the Advancement of the Arts at the Arts Institute. He hoped to bring together a range of people across the University to create Imagining the Universe. After a series of meetings, each of the departments involved in the project contributed something of their own to the long list of events. The Arts Institute arranged much of the speaker series and provided marketing for the program.

Curran has been impressed with the response to the first half of the program. Events attract diverse audiences, including Stanford students, faculty members and community members of all ages.

“It’s so fun to see young faces in the crowd,” she said, noting that a few speakers have drawn in small children.

In addition to their public conversations, many of the featured speakers also hold discussions or workshops with a small group of students. One speaker, Tracy Smith, held a poetry workshop in which she critiqued students’ work. These chances for discourse are usually open to anyone with an SUID.

Also affiliated with the program is “Thinking About the Universe: What do we know? How do we know it?” a Thinking Matters course for freshmen taught by Michelson; Peter Graham, assistant professor of physics; and Thomas Ryckman, professor of philosophy. The course looks at debates around fundamental questions about the nature of the universe through the varying lenses brought by the professors.

Justice Tention ’18 said he enjoyed the diversity of perspectives the class offers.

“One professor is a theoretical physicist, one is an experimental physicist and the other is a philosopher, so they all have different perspectives on similar issues,” he said.

Discussions in class have been profound and deeply engaging for students.

Ryckman first had the idea for the course after he became inspired upon hearing of Michelson’s involvement with Imagining the Universe.

“Physicists’ understanding of nature is necessarily quantitative,” Ryckman said in an email to The Daily. “This is, of course, the glory of physics, but push any physical question far enough, and one comes to philosophy. In a sense, all science is then cosmology.”

Michelson embraced Ryckman’s idea and brought Graham on board, and the three developed the course over a year of informal meetings.

“[The course] teaches you to question underlying assumptions,” Tention said. “Today we talked about the implications of the multiverse. If it exists, it changes everything we know and study.”

Upcoming events in the program include a conversation with visual artist Matthew Ritchie on Thursday, Feb. 26 and a performance called “Cosmic Reflection,” which will feature the Stanford Symphony Orchestra playing under a backdrop of cosmic images from NASA.

“It’s unique for such a wide array of departments come together for a cohesive programmatic theme,”  Curran said. “It’s a real testament to the richness of the topic and the appetite of the Stanford community.”


Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at [email protected].

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers '18 is a senior staff writer and former Student Groups desk editor. A senior studying political science, she grew up on the beautiful island of Martha's Vineyard (yes, people really live there; no, she hasn't met Obama). Catch her ordering her fifth cup of coffee from Starbucks, singing with Everyday People, or watching Grey's Anatomy. Contact her at sortlip 'at'

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Summer Program

deadline EXTENDED TO april 28!