Almost every time I introduce myself to someone new and explain that I do materials science, I get the same response: blank stare, slight pause, then “oh, cool… but what does that mean?” I’ve figured out at this point that the slight pause is due to a bit of confusion – “materials” and “science” are both words that are in every English-speaker’s vocabulary, so my new acquaintance feels like he should know what “materials science” is, but somehow doesn’t.
The truth is that everyone should know what materials science is. Why? Because it’s the science of stuff! Stuff is all made from something – some kind of material. Materials scientists just study the science of, you guessed it, those materials.
So if materials science is the study of stuff, then the connection to art should seem fairly obvious. Art can be made of stuff. Art can be about stuff. Right?
Let’s take a closer look at a few of the ways in which materials science contributes to the content, composition, and conservation of art.
Last week I posted about “accidental art,” where scientific research findings just happen to be beautiful or aesthetically interesting. This happens quite frequently in materials science, partly due to the wide use of light and electron microscopy techniques for studying the micro-, nano-, or atomic-scale structure of materials.
Equally often, materials scientists with an artistic bent make use of their research tools and materials of interest to make absolutely breathtaking artistic creations. The Materials Research Society hosts “Science as Art” competitions to highlight some of these pieces (check out the Fall 2010 winners here).
Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science highlighted a story of materials science and engineering students who created the artwork shown above; while studying pollen to gain inspiration for clean engine design, the students realized that the pollen was just plain beautiful.
But science art is by no means limited to scientists in the lab. Interesting materials certainly serve as inspiration for artists as well: for example, Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama uses fascinating magnetic liquids called ferrofluids to make art (read more about her work here.) Ferrofluid is also the subject of the breathtaking image below by Felice Frankel at Harvard University and MIT:
In science, we call them materials. In art, they’re called media. Artists often choose a particular artistic medium based on its material properties. It needs to be sturdy? Make it out of stone. It needs to be transparent? Make it out of glass.
As materials scientists create new ways of making materials and manipulating materials properties, artists have a wider range of media and techniques to work with.
Beyond artistic creation, there’s a whole range of activities that go into the examination, conservation, and restoration of works of art. This delicate process requires a very particular combination of both scientific and artistic expertise and lends itself well to collaborative efforts, a great example being the conservation science program between the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University.
Friday’s post discussed the use of non-invasive analytical tools such as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to examine the composition of a particularly famous painting (ever heard of the Mona Lisa?) These kinds of tools allow conservators to examine how works of art were made and whether they have been modified.
There’s also always room to design new materials for art conservation, such as gels for non-destructive cleaning of painted surfaces:
While all of this barely touches the surface of what materials science can do for art, I think it gets my point across – it would be pretty difficult to have art without stuff.
Do me a favor – next time you’re watching pastry artists on the Food Network making five-foot tall sugar sculptures, think about the materials for just a second. Would you be watching so intently if you weren’t worried that the sculpture was going to shatter any second because you know that sugar is brittle?
That’s materials science.