Foto: Hielco Kuipers (

‘Formulas emphasise the beauty of nature’

Sterre van der Hee,
24 mei 2018 - 10:02

There’s no need to fear the formula, says UvA physicist Ivo van Vulpen (44). Together with his colleague Sense Jan van der Molen (Leiden University), Vulpen initiated the ‘wall formulas’ paintings in Leiden as a way of visualising famous physical calculations.

Whenever he walked through Leiden it was hard to ignore them: the poems stretched out along the walls. Written in French, Spanish, Swedish, Farsi, ‘They are beautiful poems’ says Van Vulpen, ‘often about love or nature. And they made me curious. I wondered what if we could do something similar with formulas.’ Six paintings have so far been completed. They have four more to go.

You say a formula is like a poem.

‘Yes. Like poems, formulas emphasise the beauty of nature. They show us how it works: why objects fall, why the sun stops shining. We are fascinated by them at the university, and by putting sharing them in the public sphere I feel we are giving back to society.’ 


Why did you choose Leiden?

‘Many important formulas were discovered in Leiden. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, for example, discovered that which explains superconductivity for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize. All the formulas we’ve used were discovered by someone who lived here.’


Are you going to expand the idea to other cities?

‘Leiden in unique because so many of the formulas that still appear in textbooks across the world were discovered there, but we would like to roll the idea out abroad with one or two formulas per city. Science is a worldwide effort, and this is bigger than Leiden alone.’