First NWO Communication Award goes to wall formula project by physicists from Amsterdam and Leiden

University of Amsterdam

Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen have won the very first ENW Communication Award from research funder NWO for their wall formula project. The prize, that aims to encourage scientists to communicate about their work, comes with 10,000 Euro.

The first ever wall formula: Einstein’s field equation on the wall of the Boerhaave Museum. Copyright: Muurformules / TEGEN-BEELD

Even foreign media such as El Pais and the magazine New Scientist have written about it: the huge murals with physics formulas that have appeared in the streets of Leiden in recent years. It is a project of physicists Ivo van Vulpen (University of Amsterdam & Nikhef) and Sense Jan van der Molen (University of Leiden), together with the artist collective TEGEN-BEELD.

Unique

A unique way to disseminate science to the general public, according to research funder NWO. Therefore they have granted this project the very first ENW Communication Award. This new prize will from now on be awarded yearly to scientists who have dedicated themselves to disseminating science. The award includes prize money of 10,000 Euro, to be spent on the project. The winners will officially receive the award during the annual Veldhoven physics conference in January 2021.

‘We are very happy with this’, responds Van Vulpen, who came up with the wall formula idea. ‘Our idea and hope is that these murals will make people curious and wonder about them.’ The wall formula project arose in 2014 from a comment by Van Vulpen during a science café. Van Vulpen lives in Leiden and is well acquainted with the wall poems of the TEGEN-BEELD foundation. Artists Ben Walenkamp and Jan Willem Bruins of this collective have already painted over a hundred poems on blind Leiden walls, in various languages, from English and French to Sanskrit, Russian and Hindi.

Another of the wall formulas in Leiden: the Lorentz Contraction.

Beautiful and intriguing

‘I really liked those poems, even the ones in languages ​​that I don’t speak myself,’ says Van Vulpen. ‘That reminded me a bit of physics formulas. Those, too, are condensed, pointed formulations of phenomena which most outsiders cannot immediately fathom. But they are just as beautiful and intriguing, and hopefully they also creates a desire to know more about them.’ When Van Vulpen discussed his idea a day after the café with his colleague Van der Molen of the Leiden University, he immediately became enthusiastic too. They approached the artists of TEGEN-BEELD, and the project was born.

Their first mural was Einstein’s field equation, the formula for spacetime curvature from the general theory of relativity. This formula appeared on a wall of the Boerhaave Museum in 2015, a century after the publication of the theory itself. Eight formulas now adorn Leiden walls. The plan is that there will be ten. Other cities have also been inspired by this project. Two wall formulas have now been painted in Utrecht, and there are plans for similar projects in Groningen, Prague and Vienna. Van Vulpen: ‘Groningen and Utrecht took initiative themselves, although they did contact us. We ourselves are now in the process of taking the step to go abroad, to connect European university towns in a novel way.’

Amsterdam

One question remains: when can we expect the first wall formula in Amsterdam? Van Vulpen: ‘It would indeed be really nice if Amsterdam also joined! I already mentioned this once during a talk at the UvA, but no-one has picked it up yet. There are enough walls, enough artists and enough energy in Amsterdam. We just need to choose a formula and find someone who will organize this.’

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