Eugenia Cheng had just cut a bagel into a Mobius strip and was explaining why a liquid could not assume the same shape, when a student posed a question: "That bagel looks like water coming from a waterfall," said Nico Camargo. "What if you froze water?"
Cheng considered, delighted at the proposal.
"A frozen Mobius strip," she mused. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"Art school," Camargo shrugged, grinning.
Art school — but one that is increasingly exploring the intersection of art and science.
The class, the first incorporating an academic subject into an art symposium, combines studio art and physics. At the graduate level, SAIC students are working with University of Chicago graduate students in physics, astrophysics and anthropology on projects like creating a 3-D fabric representation of the dark matter in the universe.
The work reflects growing interest around the nation. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Science Foundation held a summit in 2010 on how artists, scientists and technology experts can work together. The NEA has funded some 30 arts-science and arts-technology projects a year since 2011.
The Rhode Island School of Design, another of the nation's premier art schools, is heavily involved with efforts to enrich the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — by adding art, a concept called STEAM.
And at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art of Science Learning project is developing ways to teach science by using art. The initiative, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, brought together scientists, artists, educators and students in 2014 to develop projects like a healthy eating video contest, which were launched in 2015.
In a way, it is a return to classical tradition. Through much of history, artists were scientists, a role epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci. Only within the last 200 years have the two diverged into separate academic disciplines.
At SAIC, the efforts have been championed by the school's president, Walter Massey, a physicist.
"There's a lot of science in art," he said, from the reflection of light on various surfaces to the technology of materials used in making art.
But he wanted to explore the concept more deeply. He began convening faculty meetings to examine the similarities in the ways artists and scientists see the world and express what they consider truth.
The school now has a scientist-in-residence program. The first one, preceding Cheng, was David Gondek, a computer scientist who helped developed IBM's supercomputer, Watson, which is known for beating two champions on the "Jeopardy!" quiz show. SAIC offers Conversations on Art and Science, a public lecture series that recently featured Cheng. Students and faculty worked on data visualization in a course taught in collaboration with Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering.
To Cheng, a concert pianist as well as a mathematician, there is a strong connection between math and art.
"I work with abstract ideas; a lot of artists work with abstract ideas as well," she said.
In the "Articulating Time and Space" class, student Zoe Nyman sat perched on a stool and pushed herself to understand the relationship of abstract concepts to physical objects — specifically, whether a Mobius strip's shape was defined by a container or could be assumed by the material inside a container.
"Why can't coffee be a Mobius strip?" she asked at one point. "I'm asking seriously."
Cheng and physicist Kathryn Schaffer, the faculty member who teaches the course with artist Paola Cabal, took the question seriously. The conversation deepened into a discussion of the nature and limitations of mathematical theory.
Nyman finds physics and its abstract ideas of space and time deeply relevant. Her art, she said, "has a lot to do with the space around me and moments that I am within and experiences I am living in."
Camargo is also intrigued. For his next project, he is reading up on dark energy versus dark matter.
"Science is an area of interest, like lily ponds would be for Monet," he said.
The instructors revel in the class too. Cabal, a site-specific installation artist who proposed the course, has found it so intriguing that she did the physics homework along with the students.
"It's been really exciting to see some of the work the students have done," she said. "They've really generated some experiences that contextualize and visualize the physics in a way that feels very personal."
Schaffer finds that art students are eager to engage with the philosophical questions that first drew her to physics.
"They're interested in knowing for knowing's sake," she said.
For Cheng, teaching at SAIC is an extension of her work in bringing mathematics to wider audiences. Her short math videos on YouTube have been viewed more than 800,000 times, and her new popular math book, "How to Bake π: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics" will be published in May.
She doesn't expect SAIC students to master complex mathematics. But that frees her, she said, to introduce the kind of advanced ideas that she finds most exciting about her field.
"Although it's true that in the class we don't have the rigorous techniques to be able to really get to full grips with them, I always say you can appreciate listening to music even if you can't play it yourself," she said.
Charles Shields, a student in her math class, said he finds the ideas intriguing even if he can't always do the computations.
"My work is all about perception and depth," he said. "I want to see depth in dimensions that are beyond my understanding right now, to see something beyond our perceptions. Mathematics can do that."
For one of his projects, Shields made a stained glass work depicting rectangles of color spelling out "1+1=1."
Cheng initially did a double take, but loved it.
"There are mathematical systems where 1 plus 1 does not equal 2," she said. "There are some in which it's zero."
With graduate students, SAIC's involvement is with the University of Chicago's Arts, Science & Culture Initiative. The initiative funds research projects in which science students team up with those in the arts.
The collaboration has challenged and entranced them.
Visual depiction of Diemer's data was inherently thorny. Facio found himself asking, "If dark matter is invisible, then what are we doing? If it's not visual, what are we rendering?"
"Artists ask very different questions," Diemer said. "Isaac's first question (on looking at Diemer's 2-D rendering) was, 'What's the perspective here?' It was a totally different way to look at it, a visual way.
Said Facio: "It's challenging my studio practice; definitely challenging my technique; and it's really making me think beyond what I typically make. I'm creating something that has significance."
That is exactly how the program is intended to work," said Julie Marie Lemon, who launched ASCI in 2010 and is its program director and curator.
"They begin to teach each other, she said. "It makes better scientists; it makes better artists."