╳ Science And Art Intersect

The fusion of art and science can yield some very interesting results. Clad in a white lab coat and safety goggles, Kate Nichols blends in seamlessly with other members of Paul Alivisatos’ Nanotechnology Research Group at the University of California, Berkeley. But Ms Nichols is no ordinary grad student - she’s the Lab’s ‘Artist in Residence.’ Upon receiving an email from Ms Nichols, Professor Alivisatos was so intrigued by her concepts that he invited her to work in his lab, making Nichols a pioneer in her own right.

Kate Nichols has spent a great deal of time mastering the art of brewing solutions of nanoparticles–particles so small that their widths might span a few dozen to a few hundred atoms. But while the others are concerned with tweaking the physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials, Kate is exploiting their visual characteristics in the name of art. "I was thrilled that someone wanted to work at the intersection between art and science," says Alivisatos, a pioneer in the relatively new field of nanotechnology and the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "These are two domains of human activity that are inextricably linked, but often are portrayed as being opposites."

Nichols learned about ‘nanotechnology’ listening to science programming on the radio, which helped break the silence of her days in the studio where she worked full time as a painter. The concepts brought back to mind an idea she had filed away years earlier: structural colour, or the colour produced through geometry, architecture and design rather than by the chemical compositions of pigments.

One way to achieve structural colour is by constructing thin, multilayered surfaces, much like a Flemish oil-painting technique Nichols used quite often. Carefully overlapping up to 20 or 30 layers in a single painting allows light to briefly permeate and dance among the pigments, bestowing an ethereal quality to her depictions of the human body. But even the thinnest layers of oil paint were orders of magnitude too thick to create true structural colour.

"I did a lot of reading before I joined the lab, but I didn’t really know what would prepare me for that experience. I think I focused too much on reading at first," Nichols says. Her biggest breakthroughs came from a tactile, hands-on approach to learning: "It was similar to being a painter’s apprentice… following around grad students and Post-Docs and watching what they did, taking notes, repeating things over and over again, making mistakes and learning from them."

"It was frustrating for me as an artist. I’m used to producing things.” Finally she decided to let the nanoparticles do what they wanted to do naturally. "I had all these nanoparticles in a liquid and started thinking about what liquids are good at, so I played with the fact that liquid finds level," she says. She sucked solutions of nanoparticles into glass capillary tubes and torched the ends, sealing the particles in a vacuum. At first, triangular silver nanoparticles gave the solution an even, turquoise hue; but molecules in the liquid knocked into the nanoparticles and gradually rounded their corners - much like a river slowly smoothes the edges of a stone. As the nanoparticles transformed from triangles to discs, they turned royal blue and settled to the bottom of the solution.

Nichols speculates that it's possible the triangular particles could become spheres, which are an energetically favourable shape. Or they could aggregate and become bulk silver, in which case they might look like specks of dust floating in a clear liquid. "Their unpredictability is part of their charm," Nichols says. "These pieces are participating in the science instead of just using the science."

But as a painter, Nichols is also concerned with making her pieces last forever. While the future of the capillary tubes remains to be seen, she has created other pieces out of glass plates that have a better shot at standing the test of time. Nichols coats the plates with silver nanoparticles and then stacks several plates on top of each other, backed by a sheet of mirrored silver. The particles have optical properties that paint pigments don’t: While pigments work by reflecting certain wavelengths of light and absorbing others, the silver nanoparticles reflect blue light while transmitting red, orange and yellow. The transmitted light is in turn reflected back to the viewer, so the dominant colour of the piece changes depending on the colour of the incoming light, or even on what—or who—is in front of it.

"This opens up a lot of questions about what colour really is," Nichols says. "And I think that’s really engaging. I hope my work causes more questions than answers."

Images (top to bottom)

3.5 x 5 inches, Silver nanoprisms, glass capillaries, plywood

Suspension 4 Detail
4.5 x 3 inches Silver nanoprisms, silver nanospheres, glass capillaries

Suspension 4
4.5 x 3 inches Silver nanoprisms, silver nanospheres, glass capillaries