Art of Science – Giant Columns

Giant Columns Katharine Cashman Sep 2015

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.

The winning entry for September is “Giant Columns” by Professor Katharine Cashman, a professor of Volcanology from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Giant Columns Katharine Cashman Sep 2015The “giant” part of the title will be clear to anyone who recognises the location of this photograph: the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. This is an apt location for the interaction of art of science, as the National Trust‘s Giant Causeway website explains: “Flanked by the wild North Atlantic Ocean and a landscape of dramatic cliffs, for centuries the Giant’s Causeway has inspired artists, stirred scientific debate and captured the imagination of all who see it.

The columns, of which you can see the tips, extend many metres beneath the photographer’s feet. The Giant’s Causeway is made of rock called basalt that was once hot lava flow. As Professor Cashman explains: The hexagonal form of the column is the result of (uniform) contraction as the basalt cooled. The water ponded on top of the columns highlights the concavity of the top surfaces, a characteristic of crack surfaces that form perpendicular to the columns. These natural fracture patterns create nice “stepping stones”, the Giant’s Causeway.”

This process is called columnar jointing, and I was lucky enough to see another result of it when I visited Iceland a few years ago. Seeing the basalt columns jutting out from a black sand beach was one of the highlight of my trip. They’re absolutely stunning. Columnar jointing isn’t unique to rocks though, as one very surprised Reddit user discovered in their coconut oil!

Hexagons are recurring riffs in nature. Snowflakes and honeycombs are among the best known, but they’re certainly not the largest. That award easily goes to a giant hexagonal cloud surrounding the north pole of the planet Saturn. Each side of this tremendous structure exceeds the diameter of the Earth. How the hexagon persists is still being debated by astronomers, but a new model revealed just this month may take us closer to the answer.

Next month’s image shows the elegance of rumpled sheets on the nanoscale…

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; Judges’ vote, People’s vote, and Schools’ vote. Each category had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize, and a runner-up. Giant Columns was runner-up in the Judges’ vote. Image used with permission. 


  1. Paul Braterman

    A wonderful site. And I’m proud, being only a dilettante geologist, of having spotted the palaeosol between lava flows, proof of elapsed time between them:

    1. eccoyte (Post author)

      Thanks Paul, that’s great!


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