Verse Reaction: art in chemistry

This week’s blog post has been written by Outside In artist Mary Courtney, who is currently the Artist in Residency in the Chemistry Department at Warwick University. Here, she talks about what she has been working on so far, and her ideas for the future.
Resting legs and the fish bubbles

Mary Courtney, Resting legs and the fish bubbles

“Twice a week I walk down a long narrow corridor that gives off a low humming sound, and turn the key into an office opposite the ‘Room of Arms.’ This room has about eight elongated rubber arms that arise out of a glass and metal container with a satisfying array of buttons and dials, like something straight out of a Surrealist’s dream. Sometimes these arms hang like rag dolls waiting for something to happen and sometimes they reach out at ninety degrees and quiver. It is part of the enjoyment of my day peering into the Room of Arms to see what is going on and hearing the strange clicks and loud hums that leak from there. To the chemists it is all very ordinary – and they seem amused that I am so taken with what they call ‘The Glove Box.’ I’m here on a 10 month part-time residency as an artist in the Chemistry Department of Warwick University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. I am an alien interloper visiting. And I do feel like an alien. It is a marvellous place for an artist to visit.

Mary Courtney A continuous line of scanning tunnelling thinkingcrop

Mary Courtney, A continuous line of scanning tunnelling thinking (a drawing of part of one of the microscopes)

In the rooms that peel away from the long corridors are the research labs and chambers that contain all manner of microscopes and equipment – optical microscopes, scanning tunnelling microscopes, atomic force microscopes, and scanning electron microscopes. I’m yet to grasp all the names of these different

Faduma Maddar NADH oxidation_Deposition surface

Faduma Maddar, NADH oxidation deposition surface (Toast in Space)

magnifiers of reality, but for anyone like me with a machine metal equipment technical fetish, then you’ll have died and gone to heaven. If I get a grip on myself and calm down, I would say in more measured tones that this equipment is very visually interesting and is asking to be drawn. What is unsettling is that most of the microscopes don’t look like microscopes, as in they don’t look like the ones that are familiar from school biology labs. One of their microscopes wouldn’t fit into my living room and it looks like a cross between a submarine and an octopus. Of course I’m madly taking photographs to do drawings of these and if I was only doing this there’d be more than enough to keep me occupied.

emma ravenhill calcium_sulfate_crystal_interferometry_(1)

Emma Ravenhill, Calcium Sulfate Crystal Interferometry

There is a more pressing priority though. It is the images that these microscopes make or take. Nearly all of the thousands of images generated by the chemists and their machines are never seen by anyone else, not even other chemists, and certainly not the public. This vast untapped mine of images of matter and reactions at the micro and even tinier nanoscale, is what Professor Patrick Unwin and myself are keen to explore – we want to pick out the most beguiling or beautiful images that would otherwise never be seen, and we want to bring these out to share with the public. Our vision is that people might one day be as familiar with images from chemistry as they are with images of the universe from Hubble.

Hello from the Arm Room

Mary Courtney, Hello from the arm room

And there really are some amazing images. Our aim, through this collaboration, which we have called ‘Verse Reaction,’ is to share the strangeness and wonder of the stuff our world is made of, the stuff that is out of range of ordinary sight. A large part of my residency therefore is meeting individual research chemists, hearing about their work, trying to gain their trust and seeing if they would like to be part of this endeavour. There has never been an artist in the chemistry department before and so there is an understandable mix of genuine interest and caution. In the three months to date we’ve already gathered together a remarkable set of images. For me it has been a revelation, seeing molecules up close, seeing the ordinary white pill of Paracetamol transformed into a glowing crystal jewel and Ibuprofen as a delicate Japanese drawing.

Hand hot glass robot

Mary Courtney, Hand hot glass robot

Shown here are images from two Crystal Research Chemists. Faduma Maddar’s Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide oxidation deposition surface, which we think looks like ‘Toast in Space.’ The vibrant colours and textures of the yellow-headed upside down cartoon type character is by Emma Ravenhill. It is Calcium sulphate crystal interferometry. In the autumn we will show these and other images from the chemistry micro-world accompanied by sounds and voices of Chemistry in an audio-visual digital exhibition on the big screen in the Warwick Piazza.

The idea was crystallising himself

Mary Courtney, The idea was crystallising himself

There is something else – the making of haiku style short poems as reactions to some of the images. And over the next few weeks, in collaboration with two of the Research Chemists we will have a go at inscribing a haiku, ‘Poem on a tooth,’ using a sweet sugary drink. We will also use the Electrochemical Probe Microscope to attempt to grow some words, yes – grow them! – as microscopic crystals.”

Click here to see more of Mary’s work

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2 thoughts on “Verse Reaction: art in chemistry

  1. What a wonderful insight. Really enjoyed this post – as both a chemist and an artist I have never allowed one path to cross the other but now you have given me food for thought. Thanks and good luck!

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