Chemistry-Inspired Art, Bite-Size Research

Clark poses with “Braille.”

August 1, 2011 - Washington, DC

From Chemical and Engineering News, August 1, 2011, p. 56

By Jeff Huber

Right now, inside the museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) in Philadelphia, two of the strangest eye charts in the world are hanging next to each other. One is made entirely of braille characters, and the other features a list of the chemical elements. The charts look almost like something out of the office of an eccentric optometrist who practices alternative medicine. But they’re not. Rather, the two charts compose “Braille,” a piece that Nova Scotian artist David Clark created after being inspired by Dmitri Mendeleev, the father of the periodic table.

The installation “reminds you that all the senses are needed in chemistry,” says Marjorie Gapp, curator of art and images at CHF. Since February 4, Gapp and the museum have curated Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, an exhibit that celebrates works, such as Clark’s “Braille,” that are inspired by the chemical elements. The exhibit is part of CHF’s International Year of Chemistry festivities.

To Gapp the art displayed in Elemental Matters goes a long way toward telling the central science’s full story. “Chemistry is so much more than a laboratory,” she tells Newscripts. “These artists help you experience chemistry in a different way.”

Take, for instance, Susan Alexjander. For her exhibit submission the composer, based in Lake Oswego, Oregon, identified eight chemical elements that are essential to life (e.g., hydrogen and carbon). She then mapped the magnetic field–induced oscillations of the nuclei in these elements, called Larmor frequencies, to audible frequencies with a synthesizer, making music (C&EN, Oct. 5, 2009, p. 43). Alexjander’s soundtrack plays throughout Elemental Matters, providing the exhibit with, as Gapp puts it, an “ethereal” atmosphere.

To Alexjander the exhibit’s merging of chemistry and art makes perfect sense. “There are so many artists that use science as an inspiration, and I think there are more scientists that are being inspired by art,” she says. “I just see science and art getting closer and closer.”

Elemental Matters runs at the museum at CHF until December 16.

Link to C&EN (Subscription required)

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