Art of Science: June – Your New Desktop Background
Science is amazing. Science is advancement. And sometimes, science is art. Each month this year Memetic Drift will feature a winning image from the University of Bristol’s Art of Science competition 2014.
Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” is one of the most famous pieces of Japanese artwork. The rich, vivid blues of the rolling waves and Mt Fuji behind them come from a very special dye. Prussian Blue was imported from Germany in the 1830s when The Great Wave was created, and it was highly prized for its intensity and resistance to fading. Other famous artists such as Turner and van Gogh have also made great use of the dye.
Prussian Blue, composed of iron and cyanide, also has an important place in the history of science. It is “the first of the modern, totally synthetic pigments, arising only as the result of a deliberate chemical reaction; it has no natural equivalent.“.
The very first time it was made was anything but deliberate, though. Colour-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach was putting together a standard red dye when he borrowed an ingredient from someone else in his lab. It wasn’t quite what he expected, but it was much better! Bright, colour-fast and surprisingly non-toxic given how much cyanide it contains, Prussian blue was a artist’s dream. It was also much easier to make on large scales compared to the natural blue dye extracts that were currently in use. As we learned in January’s Art of Science, serendipity crops up time and again in both artistic and scientific discoveries.
It turns out there’s more to Prussian Blue than just a pretty colour, as science is revealing some hidden abilities. June’s Art of Science winner, Monika Jakinowicztook this stunning picture as part of a preliminary study into the nanoscience of Prussian Blue. This image was taken on a light microscope – indeed you can see the light bursting through the cracks in the dried dye.
Her work was part of a project with Dr Andy Collins from the Bristol Centre of Functional Nanomaterials. His research looks into a property some materials have called the photoacoustic effect. As the name suggests, photoacoustics is a connection between light and sound waves using certain materials.
Prussian Blue looks blue to us because it absorbs the red components of normal white light, reflecting the blue components into our eyes. When applied in a very specific way, this red-absorbing property can do something quite remarkable. If you shine a powerful red laser on nanoparticles of Prussian Blue in short pulses 5 billion times a second, the dye absorbs the light energy, rapidly heats up, expands and creates a sound wave.
So just by shining a light on Prussian Blue (albeit in quite an unusual way!) you can make it sing. Other compounds such as gold nanoparticles are known to be photoacoustic, but Prussian Blue’s cheapness and low toxicity make it particularly appealing. One major use for photoacoustics is in medical imaging, giving us ever more detailed insights into our inner workings.
Now is this art of science, or science of art? The boundaries are blurred, but I think we can agree the results are stunning! Next month’s image adds a whole extra dimension to the competition…
The annual Art of Science competition at the University of Bristol bridges the perceived divide between art and science, showing images which visually demonstrate that the pursuit of knowledge can be as beautiful as it is fascinating.
This year there were three prize categories; Judge’s vote, People’s vote, and Schools’ vote. Each category had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize, and a runner-up. Your New Desktop Background won 3rd prize in the Peoples’ vote. Image used with permission. Thanks to Monika and Andy for further information about this image and the research behind it.