Friday, 27 March 2015

Atomic Radio: Where Art Meets Science

ATOMIC radio was a six-part radio series, exploring the relationship between the arts and the science of X-ray crystallography, featuring conversations with artists, designers and scientists, new writing and original sound artworks.

I was intrigued by this approach, since many of my own interests stem from the convergence of science and fiction, albeit from the starting point of SF. Rather than looking for the science content in fictional works, episode 2 in the series considers the fictional elements in the invisible sub-microscopic world of crystallography. The founding of the science of X-ray crystallography by father and son team William and Lawrence Bragg, in 1913, led to the development of new techniques for studying molecular structures, which also involved the construction of large scale models. In the years after World War II, proteins, viruses and other molecules were being studied and modelled in greater detail and numerous different variations of the same structures were produced. This was prior to the 1953 determination of DNA by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin. The Hidden Structures Exhibition at the Science Museum (7 March 2013 to 1 January 2014) drew from its large collection of molecular models to celebrate the the history of these structures.

In the episode, an interview with the exhibition's curator, Boris Jardin, revealed that there are different ways of approaching the task of modelling thousands of atoms, and that it is a design problem as much as a science problem. Metal rods and plasticine were among some of the more unusual materials used. It was also interesting to hear about just how different models of the same molecules could turn out to be, as in the images featured here. Commenting on the task of representing atomic structures, Jardin paraphrased the famous biological illustrator, Irving Geiss, who said that fiction must be added in order to convey truth. In other words, a degree of invention is what can lead to scientific breakthroughs like the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The series was part of the Resonance 104.4 FM Science Museum residency and the 2014 International Year of Crystallography. The themes are based on Emily Candela's AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award research between the Royal College of Art and the Science Museum.

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