From Atoms to Patterns – Communicating Ambiguous Science

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! ;)


2 thoughts on “From Atoms to Patterns – Communicating Ambiguous Science

  1. This is such an interesting project I think – and it has some relevance for the stuff I’m trying to do in my own research, which is about the body’s invisibilities, erh geography, visualisation technology etc :) You may already have seen this but here in Oxford there is an (1) exhibit of Dorothy Hodgkin’s, depicting the electron density contour of a penicillin molecule on horizontal sheets of glass (in three dimensions) in the science museum. The reason it came to my mind while reading your blog, was that this particular sculpture later became the main inspiration for an artist ( who I am writing about in my own thesis. Anyway keep up the good work!

  2. Hmh. Last week, I went to a talk about art and science at the Transition Gallery

    in London with the artist Susan Aldworth ( ) and Caterina Albano from Central Saint Martins. Susan Aldworth also focuses on the brain in her work.

    It was interesting to hear how the body was talked about at different times in history: a mysterious realm that people try to map with different techniques, and different organs being bearers of aspects of the ‘spiritual self’ (e.g. the heart bearing the soul – or the brain bearing the soul/consciousness/self).

    Talking of organs as ‘bearers’ of something spiritual, I also recently came across this blog post of concerned Christians

    who seem to see a danger in reducing the brain and, with it, spiritual experiences, to ‘atoms, molecules and chemicals’. I wonder how the author would react to artistic representations which negotiate different positions about the workings of the brain…

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