Xiangjun Shi: Why Do I Study Physics?

Physics and animation are not often bedfellows, but in the hands of Xiangjun “Shixie” Shi, they seem as natural a pairing as space and time.

After getting a nice PR bump from Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich, we thought it’d be a good idea to pick Shixie’s brain about her graduation project and her unique joint degree program at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Q&A with Xiangjun “Shixie” Shi

Let’s start with the obvious: Tell us who you are and what you do.

My name is Xiangjun Shi; people call me Shixie. I am an animator, and I freelance at various studios.

You were part of the inaugural joint Brown/RISD program, right? Can you explain that program to us? Why is it special?

The Brown/RISD Dual Degree Program is a five year program where students complete a Brown degree and a RISD degree of their choice simultaneously. It’s a new opportunity for students with cross disciplinary interests, and an especially great opportunity too, since it allows direct enrollment in two top institutions.

For art students investigating the beauty in science and science students seeking in an artistic perspective, this program is perfect because it allows them to pursue both fields in depth and discover their own connections.

There is no limitation on the degree combinations, too. I am part of the first graduating class, and every member completed the program with interesting degree combinations: civil engineering and furniture design, electronic music and film, environmental studies and industrial design. Mine were physics and animation.

Right, you got a Physics Sc.B from Brown and a Film/Animation/Video B.A. from RISD. How did you choose those fields of study?

They are both masochistic subjects, really. Tons of work, tons of gratification at the end.

I did not know what I was going to do with Physics and Animation when I choose my majors. I just really liked them… I have enjoyed physics tremendously even before college.

I felt physics’ explanation of the world makes sense. With every piece of law falling in place, problems can be resolved mathematically. Physics knowledge brings a sense of resolution that keeps me hooked on the subject.

Animation, on another hand, became my go-to method of expression because I found it extremely powerful and versatile. It is a time-based medium. A good animation takes the audience on a very persuasive journey.

Physics and animation seem rather disparate. In your mind, are they connected somehow?

I really like both physics and animation. They connect in some ways — I can animate movement better because I sort of understand acceleration and gravity. But other than that, they do their own thing.

Occasionally, during quantum class, the teacher would explain something, and I would feel like my brain momentarily froze and ground shifted under my feet — an awesome feeling. I wanted to make others feel this way too, and animation is the best method I know — and arguably the only one I can think of that has so many transformations to explain my feeling in a physics class.

How did you come up with the idea for your thesis?

I wrote a lot of draft versions of the script and did a lot of research. I was not entirely sure what I would be discussing in my animation.

The script evolved from women in science, to how physics is the best science ever, then to a long rant of how college physics is difficult. It took me a while before settling to simply wonder at the duality of this universe.

Do you feel that, generally speaking, animation is a useful tool for education?

Yes, I feel animation would be a useful educational tool. The ability to play with time allows the medium to explain things very clearly, and most importantly, animation has the capacity to persuade audiences with visual, audio and special effects.

Once the subject is visually intriguing, we have the audience’s attention for quite a while, which is essential to education!

What’s next for you? What are your plans for the future?

I am working on the script for my second film. In the future, hopefully I will be able to keep making little personal animations about science while I trot in and out of the workforce as a freelancer. Eventually, I hope to start my own studio!