Q&A with Owen Murphy (aka The Laser guy)

By: Elliot Jaffe, Junior Undergradaute

Owen Murphy is an electronic enginner by day and a lser show specialist by night. This year, we have invited him to the ArtLab Exhibition to present a laser lights display April 11 at the Wond’ry (RSVP today!). He is currentyl an electronic engineer at Thorlabs Quantum Electronics where he develops electronics for complex optical engines used in optical coherence technology imagin systems. He also contributes to circul design, developing automate test aftware, and is involved in regulatory compliance. Given his vital role in FOCAL POINT: Lights, Lasers, and Lesnses, we were curious to find out more about Owen’s sources of inspiration and history, and of course how this current endeavor speaks to both aspects of art and science. 

Would you describe yourself as an artist? Based upon your engineering background you certainly have a handle on scientific material. Is art more a venture or more closely tied to your own work?

I would consider myself more of an engineer than an artist since I spend most of time designing electronics, but working on laser displays is definitely an artistic venture for me.  It’s great to have an artistic outlet like this, and I’m really appreciative of you guys for bringing me out to show off my work!  

How did your technical career come to incorporate artistic elements?

I had always been a tinkerer as a child, but I first got into electronics specifically through music.  I started playing guitar in middle school, and quickly found out that I could build your own guitar effects pedals.  I spent a lot of time when I was younger scanning the internet, looking for schematics for effects designs, not really knowing what I was looking at.  When I went to college, I studied electrical engineering in part to get a better understanding of the electronics I had been working with.  After I graduated, I ended up working at two different companies that built laser light show projectors.  

How are the displays which you will be creating inspired and made possible by both a scientific and artistic methods? 

Laser shows, in my opinion, are perfect examples of combination of science and art.  The invention of the laser in the 50’s and the 60’s was really the culmination of a lot of work in quantum physics and material science, so laser shows are definitely made possible by the hard work of dedicated scientists (plus lasers just look really “science-y”).  Having worked for a few companies that develop new laser light show equipment, I can tell you that the technology used for laser displays is constantly changing.  And while the medium (lasers) is directly coupled to some pretty complex science, laser shows are absolutely an artistic endeavor.

What motivated you to merge the two subjects?

Music has always been a major part of my life, and I was luckily able to find a job after college that meshed my technical education and my love of music, specifically in a live environment.  I was initially brought in simply to help out with the electronics design, but I tried my hand at actually programming shows, and it turned out I had a knack for it.  Though I no longer run laser shows professionally, I was able to work on some really interesting, fun, and high profile work.  In addition to music festivals, sports events and concert tours, I was the laser programmer and operator for the TV show America’s Got Talent (AGT) for three years in a row.  My company even won an artistic award from the International Laser Display Association for the work I did on AGT.

How would you say that each side of this art-science dichotomy informs the other?  Are there ways in which artistic approaches have influenced your perception of what is possible with sciences, and vice versa?

I personally design electronics for a living, and I have always considered it a creative endeavor.  A lot of people look at something like electronics, and think that because there is a lot of math involved, or that because it is such a technical discipline, that it’s all about following formulas and plugging numbers into equations.  But there really is a lot of creativity that goes into it. When I get a list of requirements for a new design, there are usually many different ways to achieve the goal, and a lot of time, it involves thinking outside the box.  Looking at it in a broader way, the history of science is littered with extremely creative people making important discoveries.

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