Category Archives: art

Art of Science

Dear imaginary readers, can you look at nature and find its intrinsic beauty? That is what artist has always done, producing different visions and reproduction of the natural world.

What about scientists? Are they able to reproduce the hidden aesthetics and symmetry of it? Well, to me, the answer is necessarily yes. In the past a scientist was often an artist as well.

Think about Leonardo, for example. Visual art has been important for the scientific community as a way to share knowledge, results, and new achievements (see also my previous blog post Science drawings at the Royal Society).

The fact that art and science are  interconnected is still true. The authors of the images exposed at “Art of Science”, edition 2014, organized by the Princeton University, are mainly researchers, PhDs students, and undergraduates students. The exhibition aims to show the link between science and art, even when the artistic side of it comes out in a random accidental way.

The images displayed are the products of research projects, and they are chosen both for their aesthetic excellence and for their scientific or technical interest.

They have the power to raise attention on the process of the scientific research, and attract the general public, giving them the opportunity to appreciate the overlapping of science and art, and the secret beauty of the micro and macroscopic world seen with the eyes of scientists.

These are the four winners:

  • First Place
Watermarks, by Sara Sadri (postdoctoral researcher
  • Second Place
Fungus among us, by James S. Waters (postdoctoral researcher)
  • Third Place
Portrait of the artist in the air shower, by Yasmin Afsar (graduate student)
  • People’s choice
Fruit fly factory by Yogesh Goyal (graduate student), Bomyi Lim (graduate student), Miriam Osterfield (post-doc), Stas Shvartsman (faculty member of staff)

You can admire all the images participants at the “Art of Science” 2014 and the online galleries from previous years here.

The copy of the copy of Marie Curie’s picture

Dear imaginary readers,
I’m to be blamed for neglecting my blog for so long. I hope you will forgive me.  Today, the 6th of January, is a bank holiday in Italy, celebrating a nice lady who comes on a broomstick (for that reason someone says she is a witch), to deliver sweets and small gifts. She is known as Befana. In her honor, I will offer you a story that I would label as “image’s plagiarism“. The female figure I’m going to talk about is not an imaginary person and not a witch. On the contrary she is one of the most famous and important scientist of the history, even though she uncovered properties of elements that have special,  nearly magic properties.

Let me introduce her by a photo.

manyaCb&wFrontzack (1)
Paul Schroder’s 2011 picture

I’m sure a big part of you are very confident in their answer. Marie Curie. Well, actually, the person in the picture is not Marie Curie, even though the scene, dress style, background and glassware were modeled after a famous Marie Curie’s picture taken in 1912.

The photographer who snapped the photo in 2001 is Paul Schroder, and the model is Susan Marie Frontczack, a professional storyteller and actress, who travelled across the US for 13 years to perform her monologue “Manya. The living History of Marie Curie”.

marie in laboratory 1912 (1)
Original picture of Marie Curie, 1912.

There is nothing wrong with this picture. The problem is that the image was used as stamp’s theme in many different African countries, such as Togo, Zambia, and Republic of Guinea, in order to celebrate the famous Polish scientist.

Zambia’s stamp honoring the 100th anniversary of her Nobel Prize in chemistry, 2011

Susan Marie Frontczack  has mixed feeling about the stamps. From a certain point of view they prove that she does good job as an actress, on the other hand she is not happy about the use of the picture without permission.

Poster for Frontczack play

She explained the purpose of her work in the following interview, released for the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Actress and storyteller Susan Marie Frontczak visited CHF in April as part of the first-ever Philadelphia Science Festival. Her one-woman show, Manya: A Living History of Marie Curie, depicts the life of the Nobel laureate from childhood to the discovery of radium. Frontczak left an engineering job at Hewlett-Packard to pursue storytelling and theater. Since 2001 she has transformed herself into such historical figures as Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Shelley, and Irene Castle for audiences around the world. Before her performance Frontczak spoke with Chemical Heritage’s Anne Fredrickson about her craft.–AF   

AF: What first attracted you to Marie Curie’s story?

SMF: When I was nine or ten years old, I read a juvenile biography of Marie Curie that had an image of her with a whole mountain of rock, with her digging through it to get this tiny little piece of radium. That image really stuck with me; even then I admired her perseverance.  

AF: You’ve said that it can take two to three years to develop your living-history characters. What was the process for Manya?

SMF: I wrote the script based on her writings, her letters, her vocabulary, and my understanding of her life. I went to Paris. I got permission through her granddaughter to look at the archives, hold her lab book, and look through her letters. And I read everything I could get my hands on. Historical accuracy is of high importance to me. I wanted the piece to be scientifically accurate but also understandable to nonscientists. I wanted people to realize, “Oh, this was a real human being.”

I also had to figure out my own justification for Marie Curie to stand up and talk to an audience for forty minutes or two hours. It’s not the kind of thing she would volunteer to do. That’s why Manya is set in 1915. During the war Curie actually solicited funds from people—not 100 or 300 or however many there are in my audiences—but from a handful of people sitting in a parlor. I pretend [the crowd is] this handful of people, there to help support the Red Cross and its mobile X-ray units, which Marie Curie helped develop. I let that be the framework: “You said you’d come to this fundraiser so long as I tell you my story. All right, I’ll tell you my story.” That’s an artifice, but through that framework we go back in time with her.

AF: Are there other aspects of her life you hope people will take away from your performance?

SMF: Different themes run through the show—and they speak to different people. Some people, for example, don’t know she was Polish. They walk away thinking, “Gee, I had always thought she was French.” Some people pick up on the fact that she was a lifelong teacher, and some notice more personal themes: her constant struggle for laboratory space or the fact that the Curies did not like being famous. Marie Curie wrote that their “lives were altogether ruined by honors and fame.”  

AF: Your performances draw scientists, nonscientists, families. How do you manage such mixed audiences?

SMF: When my audience includes children, I make the program more interactive. And there are always some lovely ways in which the audience members inform each other. I love having scientists, especially chemists, in the audience. There is an excerpt from Curie’s writings that I paraphrase in the show: “We used the adjoining yard for chemical operations that produce clouds of hydrogen sulfide and other irritating gases. But when it rained, we brought these inside.” To the nonscientist it sounds very matter of fact. But as soon as I say “clouds of hydrogen sulfide,” the chemists in the audience groan. That lets the people who aren’t chemists know that it was dangerous and that she didn’t regard the danger. Having that mix in the audience means they really teach each other without realizing it.

 From the Chemical Heritage Foundation magazine, August 15, 2011.


In the future she would like to turn her one woman show in a movie. I wish her dream would become real soon!

Science drawings at the Royal Society

If you think about a modern scientist doing his job, you will probably imagine him/her operating complex and expensive cutting edge machines and computers, characterizing materials and structures through a SEM, and producing and disseminating evidences to support their theories and express their results in form of pictures, graphs and images obtained using sophisticated digital cameras and manipulated with innovative softwares. There is a good chance they will use a laser or, even better, a 3D printer.

For the youngest audiences in particular, it is very difficult to imagine that there was a time, when a scientist had to be good at drawing, or at least at finding someone able to do it in his place.

Early biologist, botanists, ethologists, and even chemists, were forced to use their artistic skills to understand and explain the rules of the world that they were trying to unlock. Some of them weren’t so scientific, in a modern sense, at the contrary their works are very imaginative, but they are still interesting, as the following books illustrations.

An image of the human forms (“The pearl of philosophy”) by Gregorius Reish, 1508. The book is a encyclopedic compendium of contemporary knowledge written for university students. Gregor (Gregorius) Reish (1467-1525) was a Carthusian monk and teacher.
A traveller surprised by a dragon. Illustration from “Helveticus Itinera Alpina tria…” by Johan Jakob Scheuczer 1723. In this book Swiss naturalist Scheuchzer (1672-1733) gives an account of his travels in the Swiss Alps and recounts tales of reported sightings of dragon-like creatures supposedly encountered by travellers.
A “dragon” made from fish parts. Illustration from “Serpentum et draconum historie (History of serpents and dragons)” by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1640. In his book, Aldrovandi, provided detailed descriptions of real snakes while debunking fake “monsters” stiched together from other animal parts.

The changes in the way scientists produce images and share them within their community and the public, was the subject of a day of hands on activities and lecture at the Royal Society, last Saturday, the 25th of October. The title of the event was “The Big Draw: Drawing Science” and was part as The Big Draw festival,

Young children, and curious adults as me, were “pushed” to take inspiration from rare scientific illustrations pulled from the Royal Society archives, exploring areas where science and art overlap.

Illustration of grief from “The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals” by Charles Darwin 1872. In this book, Darwin attempts to trace the animal origins of human characteristic and emotions including grief, anxiety, joy and despair.
Specimens of foraminifera (single celled marine organisms with shells) by Henry Bowman Brady (1835-1891), naturalist and pharmacist.
Lacerta gecko by William Clift, 1816. Illustration produced for the paper “Some account of the feet of those animals whose progressive motion can be carried on in opposition to gravity”, by Everard Home, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol 106 (1816) pp 149-155. The Lizard specimen was procured by Sir Joseph Banks, apparently from Java.
Spectra from light shone trough prisms. Optical diagrams showing light shone trough prisms and the resulting optical spectral patterns. Plate from the monograph: “Merkwurdige phanomene an und durch verschiedene prismen: zur richtigen wurdigung der Newton’schen und der von Goethe’schen farbenlehre (remarkable phenomena at and trough different prisms to correct Newton’s and Goethe’s theories of colours)” by Johann Friedrich Christian Werneburg (Nurember, 1817).
Hummingbirds, by William Matthew Hart, 1887. “Helianthea Osculans” Buff-tailed Starfrontllet (left) and 2Heliodoxa Xanthogonys” Guiana brilliant (right). Illustration from “A monograph of the Trochilidoe, or family of hummingbirds: supplement…completed after the athors death”, by Bowdler Shape, part V (London 1887). The posthumous supplement to Gould’s 1861 monograph of hummingbirds.
Observations of aphids, and a glass bead microscopes, by Antoni van Leeuwenhook (1632-1723). A red chalk drawing wich accompanied a letter sent to the Royal Society on the 26 October 1700, containing notes on insects observed by Dutch microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhook. Leeuwenhook investigated the structure of muscles and plants; the shape of crystals in grains of sand and much more. He was the first to describe microscopic organism living in water. We know them today as bacteria and protozoa. A replica single lens microscope, of the tipe developed by Leeuwenhook. The instrument’s small lens could magnify up to 250 times.

In addition to the importance that science illustrations have in documenting the path and development of some of the most important scientific discoveries and theories, they also suggest the hypothesis that drawing complex natural structure precisely, may help to better understand the details, and how they are related and interconnected to each other, forming a whole. In other words, producing your own images you will learn more about what you are studying.


A bean sprouting, by Marcello Malpighi FRS (1628-1694). This read chalk drawing shows the life a bean from germination to a seedling and features in Malpighi’s manuscript “Anatome Plantarum”, 1675. Malpighi was a physician and experimental biologist. Along with his contemporaries Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhook, he was a pioneer of the microscope.
Ammonite and other fossils. Illustrations in the “Posthumous works of Robert Hooke” edited by Richard Waller, 1705. Robert Hooke FRS (1635-1703) natural philosopher, architect and polymath, was the Royal Society’s first curator of experiments.
Letters to the Royal Society, by Sir Isaac newton (1642-1727). Newton began to write to the Royal Society in 1672 outlining the main result of his optical experiments. These included his work on light and colours published in the “Philosophica Transactions” and this original drawing of the reflecting telescope.

Because children like drawing, involving them in making their own scientific illustration, copying original drawings, complete animals half drawn, or building mosaics with the basic crystals shapes, can be both educational and fun!

Children and their carers enjoyed a dedicated area with activities and workshops, try their hands at drawing animals, making their on pop-up book, or having a dinosaur named after them.

Personally, I found the activities very interesting and it would be a good idea to carried them out in a school, to be used in support to the science curriculum or during after school or summer club.

James Mckay is a UK based illustrator, writer and designer, who entertained the kids and made personalised fantastic dinosaurs.
One of the fantastic dinosaur created by James Mckay.
One of the children works of art inspired by the material of the exhibition and the histories told by the experts.

During the afternoon two lectures took place, in one of the beautiful rooms of the Carlton House Terrace.

The first one was lead by historian Dr Sachiko Kusukawa, tutor and Fellow in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

The focus of the speech was on the intersections of art and science in the 17th and 18th centuries. Professor Kusukawa explored sketches, engraving and paintings that gave background to some of the images on display, and explained how they were used by scientist to guide their studies.

The second lecture, was more informal, and I really enjoyed it. The title was “Dynamic collaborations”, and was lead by Brian Sutton, crystallographer and professor of Molecular Biophysics at the King’s College of London, and glass artist Shelley James, originally trained in textiles, at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and then deciding to explore the themes of perception and reality from a more personal perspective, she studied printmaking at the University of the West of England. This lead to developing new techniques for encapsulating prints in glass with support from the National Glass Centre in Sunderland and Arts Council England. The symmetry and quasi-symmetry of crystals inspired Shelley to produce her 2D and 3D glass works. Professor Sutton and Shelley engaged the public with a conversation about how they ended up working together and what the differences and similarities in their vision of crystals are.

Shelley James during her speech with some of the models she uses to get inspired.
Shelley James 1
Essential Symmetry serie: Truncated Octahedron. In Greek philosophy the Octahedron is associated with the air element. Shelley James/blown by James Devereux and Kate Huskie. June 2014, hot glass and print. Image by Ester Segarra c2014

In a passionate and inspiring explanation professor Sutton told us the story of the Penroses tyles and the discover of a very special type of minerals that lead to a very important Nobel price for Chemistry in 2011 . In fact in 1984 the team of Professor Schechtman found that a crystal of a rapidly cooled alloy of aluminum and manganese,  was showing a 5 fold  symmetry (the so called “forbidden symmetry”). The team’s description of the atomic structure of a metal alloy ultimately forced scientists to redefine the term “crystal.”

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recognizes the discovery of quasicrystals, in which atoms are ordered over long distances but not in the periodically repeating arrangement of traditional crystals.

A new category of crystals whose patterns don’t repeat in the traditional way.

Nature never stops to surprise us!

Art of Science. The choice of the public

The sixth Art of Science competition hosted by Princeton University has already finished, and the 44 selected works were exposed from the 10th of May.

The following images are the three winners chosen by the public.

1- “Messenger Meshwork”. Shawn C. Little, Kristina S.Sinsimer, and Eric F. Wieschaus, Department of Molecular Biology.

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2- “Bridging the Gap”. Jason Wexler and Howard A. Stone, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

bridging the gap-peaople's second place


3- “Medusa”. Jamie Barr and Cliff Biangwynne, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Molecular Biology.

art of science-people's third place


To see all the works displayed during the exhibit go to the following website:

Enjoy it!