Lotus root hairs in cryo-SEM

Art and Science

Art and science are usually perceived as two opposing disciplines with very little overlap, but when they are combined such collaborations can sometimes create something unusually beautiful and unexpected.  There is certainly a lot of effort that goes into promoting interaction between artists and scientists these days; as is evidenced by some of the more recent programs and grants from organisations such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK. However, to this day there remains a divide that is rarely breached, despite the extraordinary insights that such collaborations are able to create.

Occasionally, artists approach science from subtly different angles than one might expect.  At one end of the spectrum, where art meets science in a very real sense, the physical layers of paint on an oil painting can be literally peeled away by methodical and systematic techniques to study their chemical makeup and origin, and bring us an understanding of how the artist used his materials in layers to create such masterpieces.  Here, the SEM is particularly useful and has proven its worth in the study of pigments and painting techniques.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we might find artists who collaborate with scientists on the photography and microscopy of biological specimens or base their works upon patterns in nature.  Such collaborations have been known to create stunning portfolios of images that serve to remind us that such interactions are well worth the effort.

As part of the BA Festival of Science in Norwich during September 2006, two local artists collaborated with the Institute of Food Research (IFR) to produce the exhibition “The Art and Science of Food Decay”.  For a copy of the booklet that was produced to go with this display, please contact our communications team (jic.communications@bbsrc.ac.uk) or you can contact the artists directly at www.julesallen.co.uk or shelley.waldock@hotmail.co.uk

A great example of a good collaboration between art and science arose when Rob Kesseler, a visual artist and Professor of Ceramic Art and Design at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, was awarded a three-year fellowship from NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), to work with microscopic plant material in the herbarium at Kew Gardens.  His work has been exhibited widely, with recent solo exhibitions at the V&A, the City Museum and Art Gallery Stoke.  He has also won some public commissions including an award-winning park landscaping project in the London Borough of Barking and a series of sculptures for the UK Cycle network along the route between Dover and Folkestone.  His work is based on the use of false-coloured, digital images of seeds and pollen, exploring the plant world at a microscopic level using the SEM, and is a good example of how the power of art helps to engage popular interest in the sciences.  Such collaborations are to be encouraged. For further information on Rob's artworks, visit www.robkesseler.co.uk

Sometimes, the forging of art and science can result in a product marketable to a wider audience.  As a recent article in "The Scientist” magazine described, electron microscopist, Eve Reaven, has been making silk scarves and ties with patterns based on subcellular structures such as mitochondria, Golgi bodies, the endoplasmic reticulum, hormone secretory granules, actin filaments, and centrioles since 1999.  She began selling her ties and scarves to colleagues at work and at scientific meetings she attended, but they are now also available to the public through her own web site.  To read the whole article, follow the link to http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23082/

We sometimes receive requests from artists or students from the local art college who are doing an art project based on microscopic images of cells or something similar and would like to visit the microscopy department for inspiration.  If you are a budding artist and have a legitimate request of this nature, please contact the Communications Team (jic.communications@bbsrc.ac.uk) in the first instance, telling us specifically (if you can) what types of images you might want to see.  We may be able to make arrangements for you to have access to some images but cannot guarantee a visit to the microscopy department per se, but we will try to help if we can.