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Science in the Galleries

Philip Ball
Consultant Editor, Nature

Figure 1. A plate from Haeckel's Kunstformen der Nature (1904).

Figure 1. A plate from Haeckel's Kunstformen der Nature (1904), a source of inspiration to Art Nouveau designers such as René Binet (click image for larger version)

The 'more than meets the eye' exhibition at the V&A Museum, which runs throughout September and October, sets out to explore some of the links between art, design and science that are suggested by the V&A collection. Devised in a collaboration between the V&A, the international science journal Nature, and the Royal Society, it is a major component of the 'creating SPARKS' festival coordinated by the British Association.

This event coincides with the BA's annual Festival of Science, held this year at Imperial College. 'creating SPARKS bills itself as 'celebrating creativity at the frontiers of the sciences and the arts'. It involves activities at all the South Kensington museums, the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Geographical Society and the Albert Hall.

An impressive, even daunting, combination. Yet do the sciences and the arts really share common ground and goals? Do they have anything to say to one another? Why is it worth trying to build bridges?  C.P. Snow had no doubts about the validity of such an endeavour when in 1959 he first spoke of the 'two cultures'1 . The polarization between art and science, he said, 'is a sheer loss to us all. It is at the same time a practical and intellectual and creative loss.'

The myth of the pure

We will surely see in the 'creating SPARKS' festival a great deal made of that third aspect: creativity. This is the fashionable way to unite arts and sciences: to talk about similarities in the creative process. Identifying a strong element of intuition and subjectiveness in the scientific process, and more than a dash of the rational in artistic creativity, many see a congruence between the two.

This is appealing as far as it goes; but one wonders how far that really is. There is something a little absurd in the idea that scientists do nothing but sit in offices theorizing creatively, or devising creative experiments. The notion fits neatly with that of a 'pure' science concerned solely with deducing how the world works, unconnected to the messy business of 'applied science' or technology. This Platonic view is commonly espoused by academic scientists, but seldom coincides with the way they actually practise their profession.

The V&A Museum might be considered as presenting a monumental riposte to the similar distinction between 'pure' and 'applied' art. It is surely an irony that one of the links between science and art is that this spurious division shares similar origins in both cases. That origin must be sought in the Athens of classical Greece, where, according to the mathematician Norbert Wiener, 'the communication between artisan and philosopher was perhaps at the lowest level it had attained or was to attain in civilized times'2 . Craftsmen were often slaves, and at best lowly members of society. Pericles in the fifth century BC repealed an old law that allowed skilled artisans to become Athenian citizens.

Medieval culture inherited this outlook. Its universities taught the abstract 'Liberal arts': geometry, astronomy, rhetoric, music. Practical 'sciences' such as alchemy and crafts such as painting were conducted outside the academic system. In idealizing Leonardo da Vinci as the Renaissance man, as comfortable with mathematics and geometry as with art, we risk forgetting that his eagerness to ally painting with the abstract aspects of natural philosophy was an attempt to advance the status of painters (such as himself) by making painting a Liberal Art. To do so, it was necessary to downplay the craft aspects, such as the preparation and handling of pigments.

The art of making

It is with such considerations in mind that, in 'more than meets the eye', we have aimed to place as much emphasis on the practical as the conceptual links between the arts and the sciences. Thus the first of the ten stages (Eye-Openers) of the trail considers processes of fabrication. Technologically this is a hugely important area, and many scientists devote their research to the invention of better ways of making things. The artefact might, for instance, be a drug molecule - which, to a chemist, is as much a crafted, three-dimensional object as a bust is to a sculptor. The chemists has to find ways of adding atoms and groups of atoms to a basic framework, or removing or rearranging them, so as to build up the molecule piece by piece. Extending the battery of techniques for chemical synthesis is one of the most vaulable and creative contributions that a chemist can make to his or her profession. In his novel The Monkey's Wrench, Primo Levi described this as akin to the work of the engineer - 'only we rig and dismantle very tiny constructions'.

In chemistry, form dictates function: the pharmaceutical properties of a drug molecule, for instance, are often exquisitely sensitive to its shape. But some chemists create new molecules more for the sheer joy of it than for any practical purpose, relishing the challenge of making an object because of its beauty. Such efforts commonly serve a useful end indirectly, in stimulating the development of new methods for synthesis; but the impulse can be primarily an aesthetic one, just as a craftsperson can lavish much more attention on an artefact than its eventual function really warrants.

A crude but useful way of categorizing methods of fabrication is to distinguish the additive from the subtractive: the object is made either by adding or removing material. A painting or a tapestry is additive, for example: patches of pigment are applied to canvas or paper. Eye-Opener 1 of the trail points out that this process can be much more complex than is immediately evident to the eye, illustrating how the paintings of Old Masters are constructed from several carefully judged layers of pigment, from the ground and underpainting to the final glazes that modify or add lustre to opaque layers beneath.

Subtractive fabrication includes sculpture in wood and stone, abundantly represented in the 14th and 15th century European galleries. Potters and ceramicists have the advantage of being able to deploy both approaches - adding clay here, removing it there. Some of the items in gallery 22 nicely illustrate these approaches arrested before completion - for example, in Giovanni Bologna's roughly assembled terracotta model of a river god, or Bartolomeo Ammanati's unfinished sculpture of Leda and the Swan.

Both additive and subtractive methods can be found in advanced technologies. One major focus of fabrication techniques in technology is miniaturization: making electronic and mechanical devices at ever smaller scales. In the computer industry these efforts are motivated by the greater computer power that follows from fitting more transistors and other components on a silicon chip. Traditionally, integrated circuits are made first by additive steps and subsequently by subtraction. The various materials that constitute miniaturized transistors are laid down in extremely thin layers on a silicon wafer; then acids are used to etch some of the material away through a mask patterned on the uppermost surface, carving out the devices and wires.

But defining the separate components subtractively by etching them from a block has its limits, determined largely by how finely detailed one can make the masks. The industry has already more or less reached the size limit that current technologies will allow: circuit features just a tenth of a thousandth of a millimetre across. Some researchers believe that further miniaturization will have to be achieved by a purely additive approach: building up circuits from inidividual molecules. This should in principle extend the scale of miniaturization down to the size of nanometres - millionths of a millimetre. Efforts to perform fabrication and engineering at such scales are known as nanotechnology.

Learning from nature

At several points on the trail, we explore parallels between processes in nature and those in art and design. In Eye-Opener 1, for example, there are analogies between the use of templates and moulds for making copies and the way that the chromosomes are replicated when a cell prepares to divide. In Eye-Opener 6, which considers deception and verification in art, we discuss how some species deceive their predators by adopting the markings of other, poisonous creatures - a phenomenon called Batesian mimicry. Eye-Opener 4 looks at mutations in art and nature, considering the mythical roles of chimaeric creatures and asking whether these inform and colour attitudes towards transfer of genes between species in biotechnology.

But the interplay between art and nature does not proceed at the level of analogy alone. In Eye-Opener 8 we discuss the way in which artists and designers (most memorably in the Art Nouveau movement), engineers such as Gustave Eiffel and Robert Le Ricolais, and contemporary scientists have all adopted motifs and designs found in the natural world. In science and technology this is known as biomimetics. The fabulously patterned shells of microscopic marine organisms studied and drawn by German biologist Ernst Haeckel in the nineteenth century (Figure 1) inspired both artists and architects, and the Eiffel Tower is thought to be modelled on the way that bone's porous structure is shaped to withstand stress. But biomimetics has emerged particularly emphatically in the science of the past few decades: there are now countless examples of technological solutions inspired by nature, ranging from new materials to solar cells and drugs. A newly created display in gallery 70 collects together some examples of biomimetic materials and structures.

One of the challenges in developing a trail of this kind is how to introduce sometimes complex scientific ideas in a manner that does not seem too greatly at odds with the V&A's ambience, nor too laboriously pedagogical. One danger is that an apparent demand on the visitor to learn unfamiliar new concepts, juxtaposed against artefacts whose beauty speaks for itself, risks reinforcing rather than confronting preconceptions that art and science are worlds apart. No doubt we will soon discover whether we have struck a reasonable balance. But the main objective is not to 'teach' the visitor anything but to encourage him or her to appreciate that there are many different windows through which one can look at the V&A collection, and that one need not discard one hat and put on another the moment one crosses Exhibition Road.


1. Snow, C.P., The Two Cultures, 1959, Cambridge University

2. Wiener, N., Invention, 1993, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Further reading

'more than meets the eye' exhibition booklet, distributed free with the exhibition from 6 September 2000.