Mary Lou Jepsen On The Science of Art and The Art of Science
Mary Lou Jepsen was recently named one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in May 2008 for her work in creating Pixel Qi, and her previous work in creating One Laptop per Child where she was the founding chief technology officer and its first employee. Notably Mary Lou invented the laptop's sunlight-readable display technology and co-invented its ultra-low-power management system. Critically, she architected the XO laptop and transformed it into mass production. Mary Lou's earlier contributions have had world-wide adoptioin in successful HDTV, projector and head-mounted display products. In 1995 she co-founded the Microdisplay Corporation and served as its chief technology officer through 2003. Until the end of 2004, she was a group executive and the chief technology officer of the display division at Intel Corporation. Mary Lou holds a Ph.D. in Optical Sciences, a B.S. in Electrical Engineering (with honors) and a B.A. (req.) in Studio Art all from Brown University as well as a Master of Science in Holography from the MIT Media Lab.
Question: What is the interplay between art and science in your work?
Jepsen: Art is about technology too. I mean the great artists were technical over history. Leonardo or, boy, whatever you think of, Ansel Adams was also a chemical engineer and I just did art because I thought honestly the electrical engineering curriculum, my parents were helping pay for college and they wanted me to get a degree in electrical engineering and I thought it would have suppressed-- it was suppressing every ounce of creativity I might have had and I’m not really saying I had much, but I sort of did art just for therapy because I think that in the early years in science or perhaps particularly in engineering education it’s quite a grind. It’s really boring and I just remember like these incline planes. I grew up on a farm and you’re supposed to study like how a box slid down an inclined plane with a certain friction and I just thought I’ve never seen a box slide down straight and the friction. It always falls off the inclined plane in a different way. Why doesn’t this model that? And I was so frustrated with the way my experience was of the engineering curriculum. I took the art and really it’s because I fell and I made my first hologram when I was a kid and wanted to understand about it from all sides. But artist say-- it’s funny because I spent a lot of time in the art world after that. Artists say engineers solve problems other people give them to solve and artists say they solve their own problem. They call engineers technicians and they include like MIT professors as technicians and I kept saying well “Don’t call an MIT professor a technician unless you intend to insult that person” but whatever. It’s just different languages. There’s a lot of the freedom in art combining with the techniques and skills that you learn in engineering that you can combine and I think that it makes a lot of sense to combine them. A lot of people, especially young in college in the early years that are practicing art often don’t have much technical skill and they keep saying, “Well, we can’t have that because then it’ll delude my vision and I can’t do it.” No, you can actually learn how to do it and then you’ll have a more informed vision. So I sort of disagree but there’s a study, there was a study about artists showing-- some of the conceptual artists do their great work when they’re young and a lot of the artists that were more about technique, Cezanne for example did his best work when he was older and that there’s sort of the experimentalist versus the conceptual sort of, wow, a totally way to look at the world where the technique actually isn’t important. It’s perhaps in fitting with that. I wish I could remember. There’s a book on it. I can send you a link. I can look it up.
Mary Lou Jepsen points out that the great artists of history were often scientists, and vice versa.
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