Science, Vol 286, Issue 5442, 1093-1094 , 5 November 1999
Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould


“Although Italian scientists (unaware of Duchamp’s work) found and named this particular form of illusion as “the stereo-kinetic effect” in 1924, Duchamp apparently discovered this perceptual phenomenon independently in the early 1920s, and completed his first set of discs in 1923. Duchamp recognized that by spinning designs composed as sets of eccentric but concentric circles, a viewer would see the resulting pattern as a three dimensional form even through one eye alone, without the supposedly necessary benefit of stereoscopy! By the 1930s, Duchamp had constructed from his experiments a wonderfully whimsical set of 12 spinning images–from a goldfish in a bowl, to the eclipsed sun seen through a tube, to a cocktail glass, to a light bulb–in order to emphasize his discovery of these three-dimensional effects. (Ironically, as another example of harmful separation between truly unified aspects of art and science, art museums almost invariably exhibit these discs as framed, static objects on a wall–whereas they have no meaning, either artistic or scientific, unless they spin. We are constrained to present a similarly static image in this printed magazine, but readers can observe the discs in their proper motion at

Duchamp knew what he had done, and he explicitly regarded the Rotoreliefs as a contribution to science. He wrote to Katherine Dreier in 1935: “I showed it to scientists (optical people) and they say it is a new form, unknown before, of producing the illusion of volume or relief. … That serious side of the play toy is very interesting.” Moreover, Duchamp took great pleasure in the efforts of a professor who wished to use his Rotorelief discs to retrain the three-dimensional insights of soldiers who had lost one eye in the First World War. [At a recent talk, one of us (R.R.S.) demonstrated the rotating discs to a physics professor, blind in one eye for more than a decade, who almost wept for joy at his first sight of three dimensions in so many years]. Duchamp also understood the general basis of his illusion when he wrote in a letter: ‘I only had to use two circumferences–eccentric–and make them turn on a third center.’ ”

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