Mural science projects by Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen win communication prize

1 December 2020

Nikhef physicist Ivo van Vulpen and his Leiden colleague Sense Jan van der Molen have won the first ENW communication prize from research financier NWO for their wall formula project. The prize, intended to encourage scientists to communicate about their profession, amounts to 10,000 euros.

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

Research funder NWO also found a unique way to disseminate science to the general public. That is why this initiative receives the ENW communication prize. This communication prize will be awarded for the first time this year to scientists who have dedicated themselves to translating scientific research to a wider audience. An amount of 10,000 euros is attached to the prize, to be spent on the project. The award ceremony will take place during the annual Veldhoven Physics Congress in January 2021.

We’re really very happy with it’, responds Van Vulpen, the creator of the wall formula idea. ‘The idea and the hope is that people will become curious and amazed by these murals’. The wall formula project originated in 2014 from a remark made 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 walls in Leiden, in all sorts of languages, from English and French to Sanskrit, Russian and Hindi.

I liked those poems, even in languages I don’t speak myself,’ says Van Vulpen. That reminded me a bit of physics formulas. These too are condensed, pointy formulations of phenomena or phenomena, which most outsiders cannot immediately fathom. But they are just as beautiful and intriguing, and hopefully this will also give rise to a wish to know more about them. ‘

When Van Vulpen discussed his idea with his Leiden colleague Van der Molen, he was immediately enthusiastic. They approached the artists of TEGEN-BEELD, and the wall formula project was born.

Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen with the Oort mural science painting in Leiden.

The first formula appeared on the exterior wall of the Museum Boerhaave in 2015: Einstein’s Field Comparison, the formula for space-time curvature from the General Theory of Relativity. That was exactly a century after the publication of the theory itself.

Eight formulas now adorn Leiden walls. The intention is that these will become ten. Other cities have also been inspired by this project. Meanwhile, two wall formulas have been painted in Utrecht, and there are plans for similar projects in Groningen, Prague, and Vienna.
Van Vulpen: ‘Groningen and Utrecht started from scratch, although they did contact us. We ourselves are now making the step abroad, in order to connect the university cities in a new way’.

The Leiden wall formulas are part of a city walk through “Sleutelstad” Leiden, the route of which can be found at www.muurformules.nl, plus backgrounds on the formulas.