Expressing Science Through Art

Kate Nichols. Through the Looking Glass 1. Silver nanoparticles on glass. 24 x 45 inches, 2011. Photo credit: Donald Felton

Cover image credit: Kate Nichols. Through the Looking Glass 1. Silver nanoparticles on glass. 24 x 45 inches, 2011. Photo credit: Donald Felton.​

When I look back to the past, it always seems to be a simpler time. Luminaries such as Leonardo Da Vinci were scientists, scholars, artists, and everything in between (wikipedia has a list of such legendary figures, including Archimedes, Benjamin Franklin, and Nikola Tesla). Maybe there was just less knowledge floating about in the world, so it was easier to learn and forge a way into the unknown, or maybe these people were just truly brilliant. But their work permeates through history and even shapes our daily activities, from going to a museum to turning on a light bulb–everyone knows their names and at least a fraction of what their achievements were.

In PhD land, however, I find that it is easy to become truly lost in ones’ work, to focus on one insular research question at the exclusion of the wide world. Maybe this tunnel vision occurs because in order to do anything novel, a PhD candidate has to learn so much about their developed field to contribute anything worthwhile. Or maybe they just want to graduate in under five years. And that’s fine. But when my grandmother asks, “What exactly is it that you do, dear?”, sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to explain it.

At its basest form, I find that art is communication. Maybe it communicates the artist’s self-expression, or emotions, or an idea. But all these communicated thoughts contain information. And sometimes, it is easier to communicate science through a drawing, sculpture, or even a play than it is to use words on a page. Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia, gives a wonderful description of entropy and can’t help but educate both the initiated scientist and the unexpecting audience member in a fresh, new way. But it also tells an engaging story that is about much more than science.

In this vein, I wanted to know what ways graduate students can effectively communicate science, specifically art.

I am privileged to know Kate Nichols, an artist collaborates with the Alivisatos lab to synthesize silver nanoparticles for her art. One of her interests is “structural color”, which occurs when light interacts with a specifically structured surface, causing a variety of colors to appear. Many times the structure is on a nanometer length scale (on the order of one-billionth of a meter).  In her art, visible light, which has wavelength on the nanometer scale (a few hundred nanometers), will interact with loosely held electrons on the surface of metallic nanoparticles, causing them to oscillate. This oscillation strongly scatters and/or absorbs light of specific wavelengths, causing the nanoparticles to appear colored to the naked eye. Slight variations in the size and shape will change the frequency of the oscillation, and the color that they appear to be; this effect is called surface plasmon resonance, and is exhibited by many metal nanoparticles.

The reasons she does her art is much more complicated than simply educating people about science, and she doesn’t always explain the science that goes into her art at her shows. But she does see a continuum between artists and scientists:

“The development of modem science owes a great deal to craftsmen and artists. Practices such as engaging with the physical world to make and measure materials to promote reproducible results began with artisans and were adopted by practitioners of the New Philosophy, or science, as we know it. I like invoking these ideas in my artwork by splicing Victorian-era mirror making and proto-photographic processes with contemporary nanoscience, for example. Make no mistake: there are profound differences between the ways in which artists and sciences engage with the world. But I find the ways in which art and science intertwine, unravel, and hold each other in tension to be a source of inspiration for my work as an artist.” 

Some of the first “nanoscale” synthesis of gold nanoparticles was discovered by medieval glass blowers–obviously they didn’t know the science behind how they made red-stained glass windows, but the red color comes from the surface plasmon resonance of spherical gold nanoparticles. Another interesting point she made was that many artists had courtly patrons that funded their work and allowed them to explore the limits of their craft, analogous to how government agencies and private funds keep scientists employed. They directly fund the experiments we wrote in our proposal (and our own fun “Friday experiments”).  As for reactions to her art, she says, “It is my hope that in encountering my work, people will find themselves intrigued and a bit confused, that they will ask themselves why they see what they see, and that this questioning will lead them to ponder the physical world, however briefly.” Maybe they will look up structural color in butterfly wings or the science behind colors in stained glass. This curiosity is the begining of science.


Kate’s Website:


Kate’s TED Talks:


My own experience with the art/science intersect took a different trajectory. When I was in undergrad, I was interested in both chemistry and theatre, but there was very little overlap. So my senior year, I approached the the head of the Chemistry department at Brown, and suggested that some students at Brown didn’t take chemistry classes because there is no core curriculum at Brown. I suggested that having a night of chemistry demonstrations might increase interest in the sciences, and encourage more people to take science classes. In truth, I just wanted to light things on fire in front of a crowd of people. I was told that I could have the largest lecture hall for a night, make use of any chemicals in the undergraduate stockroom, and have an additional budget of $500 (speaking of burning money), as long as I could get my experiments to pass Environmental Health and Safety’s standards.

So I gathered up a bunch of friends, and with the help of a senior lecturer, we set up a series of experiments to demonstrate a variety of different chemical and physical concepts. About a hundred Brown students attended, as well as a few students from the local Providence community. I feel that the experiments that reached the audience the most weren’t the ones that involved exploding or lighting things on fire (those were my favorite though), but the ones that the audience could identify with; especially making gummy worms. It was something that they had eaten in the past, and something that they could come on stage and touch–for them it was a complete circle; they had seen how to make a food that they perhaps assumed comes prepackaged in a plastic pouch.

I don’t mean to limit fine art and theatre as a vehicle to explain science–they can be much more than just a tool to communicate ideas. But they are adaptable mediums, and scientists should use art to explain their research and the importance of what they do. Lectures and papers can reach some community members, but many people find academics boring, and it is essential that scientists find new, effective, and creative ways to get people interested in or begin to understand the physical world around them.

Some videos of the experiments I helped put on for the Night of Chemistry at Brown University in April of 2012:


Flame Tests:


Bending Laser Light:


Nitrocellulose (fireballs):


Flaming Money:


Gummy Worms:


pH Changes:


Liquid Nitrogen:


Luminol (Glow Sticks):


Elephant Toothpaste:

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