Image Source: The Wellcome Trust
After a somewhat disastrous start to the day (I discovered accidentally melted pistachio kulfi all over the insides of the fridge while looking for breakfast) I cheered myself up by going to an exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, ‘From Atoms to Patterns’, about the ‘Festival Pattern Group’. The group consisted of major science and design figures who joined forces to create x-ray crystallography inspired design objects such as carpets, curtains or wall-papers for the Festival of Britain (1951).
Since the late 1930s the both scientifically useful and visually stunning results of x-ray crystallography of biological molecules had captured scientists. X-ray crystallography helped (and still helps) determine the arrangement of atoms within a crystal by looking at how x-rays are scattered from the crystal’s electrons. This later contributed to the imaging of the DNA model. For somebody who is not very familiar with this process, it was interesting to see how much handiwork (looking, interpreting, drawing, model-making, comparing with other images) is involved (or: was involved) in the crystallographic analysis of a material.
Comparing the scientists’ drawings with the reworked ones of the Festival Pattern Group’s designers, is downright amusing. The often quite messy, but functional sketches of the participating scienstists were translated into slick, stylised designs for functional objects with hysterical product names such as ‘Aluminium Hydroxide Tie’, ‘Pentaerythritol Carpet’ (does it explode when you walk on it?!) and ‘Insulin Wallpaper’ (my favourite designs were the Afwillite dress fabric and the horse methaemoglobin dress fabric…).
Image source: The Wellcome Trust
But it was even more interesting to see how both sides experienced the structures. The scientist leader of the group, Helen Dick Megaw, for instance, was inspired to ask designers to work with crystal structures by the ‘beauty of the designs which crop[ed] up’ in her laboratory.
‘I think the combination of really attractive patterns with the assurance of scientific accuracy would win a lot of attention.’
When the first designs arrived, she regarded some of them as ‘both scientifically and aesthetically successful.’ Altogether, 80 designs were produced by 28 ‘leading manufacturers’ of ceramics, glass, metal and plastics as well as textiles and wallpapers.
The perspective of the designers is particularly fascinating for me and is best represented in a quote by the designer Hugh McKenna on crystal structure diagrams:
‘They are most interesting indeed when examined at closer hand and offer almost limitless possibilities in the use of colour. We shall certainly carry out some experimental work soon, and I feel sure that with all round co-operation we could obtain very satisfactory results from this project.’
Other designers and manufacturers agreed that ‘this was rather an intriguing creative experiment, valid for its own sake’.
Compared with Max Perutz quote on the same subject (‘the final electron density map was so beautiful that I soon forgot the tedium of data collection’), the designers’ reaction sounds almost more scientific! ;)
Image source: The Wellcome Trust
The ethical side of the project was also very engaging and very timely. The exhibition highlighted that all scientists, apart from Helen Megaw, wanted to remain anonymous (this is the first time that their names have been revealed), because they feared for their scientific reputation. On top of this worry was the issue of research ethics: can we take fees for this or have ‘creative contribution’ rights? The example of Megaw’s correspondence with Dorothy Hodgkin illustrates how some, if not all scientist felt uncomfortable with this aspect of the participation and rejected both fees and rights. Hodgkin donated her drawings for free and refused to sign any official document.
The website also draws attention to an issue that is not so sharply outlined in the exhibition: the relationship to people’s ambiguous feelings towards ‘atomic’ achievements. On the one hand, nuclear science gave people ways of diagnosing and treating fatal illnesses, on the other hand, it brought horrors such as the ‘nuclear threat’. The emphasis was now beginning to shift towards nuclear physics as a science of ‘greater health, greater prosperity, greater security’. The friendly crystallography-inspired interiors potentially radiated (sorry, I couldn’t help using the word) a feeling of ‘snugness’, benignity and comfort to a population who had been exposed to the horrors of the atomic bomb only six years ago.
Source: The Wellcome Trust
In a short film, the design historian Mary Schoeser explains how the project was both supposed to benefit the British textile industry and British science as well as communicate an ambiguous science to the masses: ‘ordinary people’ (the exhibition had about 18.5 million visitors in total) were given the chance to ‘embrace and understand what is really an inexplicable and difficult science’. According to Schoeser, the patterns are a communication tool, ‘a new visual language that embraces people and brings them closer to the science of the second half of the twentieth century’. I found that they still perform this function in the twenty-first century by making you think about the many connections that play into science and the problematic decisions we face as researchers, scientists, designers, ‘ordinary people’, science communicators and our multiple personalities inbetween.
You can visit the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection until 10 August 2008 and/or online. I recommend the online videos! ;)
I like hanging out on this website of the Technical University of Vienna which shows how atoms are arranged on metal surfaces (I can see a new breed emerging: the ‘nano voyeur’…). What do I find so fascinating about these images?
1. It’s atoms! (well, sort of…)
2. These atoms arrange themselves in amazingly intricate and regular patterns – like fabric weaves or labyrinths.
3. The atoms in these images look like sweetcorn!
What I also like is the commentary accompanying these images. First of all, there is an Angela-friendly animation of how the machine works that obtains these images for us (it’s kind of like a record player basically). Then, an enthusiastic scientist tells us how atoms ‘bounce’, ‘get stuck’ or ‘wander about’ and engage in all sorts of other activities. There are also good examples of how these images help explain how things work in ‘our world’!
Sunflower Fragments 02 by Cris Orfescu
Another website I keep coming back to is the NanoArt site of the scientist/artist Cris Orfescu. My reasoning is that the next step after ‘nano voyeurism’ must be that you either want to obtain your own images from that scale – or want to be even less passive and mess around with ‘nano-matter’ (is that how a ‘nanoscientist’ feels? ;D). Well, you can kind of do that on the website, where Orfescu each year provides ‘the public’ with a series of nanoscale images, which you can manipulate in an artistic fashion and enter into a ‘NanoArt’ competition. Orfescu sees this process as a way of engaging people with the nanoscale or, more specifically, nanotechnology, which he believes will have an enormous impact on our life in the future. He invites questions in the form of artwork, but also seems happy to answer e-mails about his work as either an artist or scientist. Guess what I’ve been up to today… ;)