3D printing could soon help students to understand physics better. With the help of a 3D printer theoretical physics could come to life, because the printer has the ability to print out complicated systems in order to let students watch physics as a model.
Image: the museum object that inspired the researchers. By WertelOberfell.
This is a project by researchers from Imperial College London. The idea came up when co-author Dr Tim Evans, a theoretical physicist at Imperial, visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There he saw the first-ever 3D printed object the museum had acquired. “The object was a table inspired by the tree-like structures found in nature, which is an example of a branching process that is commonly encountered in complex systems in theoretical physics. This led me to thinking, what other processes familiar to physics could be turned into a 3D printed object?”
They used a mathematical model that described how forest fires can be started and created an object of 8 cm3 in only 8 hours for just around 12 pounds. They couldn’t have chosen a better name for the project, which is called “Sculplexity”, a contraction of sculptures and complexity. Physics can be quite complex, because they are often made up of many parts that interact on different time and length scales.
In the forest fire study each part was standing for a certain state of a tree, which could either be alive, dead or burning. “The basic idea is simple,” says Dr. Evans. “A 3D printer builds up its object in layers. So the height of the object can be thought of as time. Suppose you have a mathematical model which defines a flat, two-dimensional picture that evolves in time – typically this will be a grid with some squares full and some empty. The mathematical model will define at each point in time what the printer should print at one height. The next step in the model will then define what to print on top of the first layer, and so forth. The result is a 3D object which shows how the mathematical model has evolved over time.”
The model that resulted wasn’t without faults, but Dr. Evans thinks the experience has allowed them to “identify the obstacles, formulate solutions and inspire the physics community to get creative”. The Dr. said: “In our own group at Imperial we are trying to explain heart beat anomalies by looking at simple models for the behavior of individual cells in heart muscle – it’s possible that this could be visualized using 3D printing. Most models that represent the spread of disease could also be visualized. There may be many other possible examples and we just hope our rather literal translation from theoretical model to 3D printer output stimulates others to get creative.”
You can download the study from the European Physics Letter webpage.