The intersection of art and science can be found on a nanoscopic scale at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
For the month of August, the NanoArt of a few UNL STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students can be viewed on the third floor of the Nebraska East Union.
According to Stephen Ducharme, UNL professor of physics and astronomy, NanoArt is a growing form of scientific creativity that aims to capture natural or synthetic structures on a nano scale and add aesthetic elements to create a work of art.
The average width of a human hair is 50 micrometers. The nanoscale deals with structures that are about 1000 times smaller than that, most of which are invisible to the human eye.
Creators of NanoArt find the focus of their piece at the atomic level, using electron microscopes to illuminate their seemingly otherworldly subject. After taking an image of a nano-structure, artists use color along with familiar shapes to create images that may resemble a garden or a spring meadow.
“In nanoscience, we’re dealing with things you can’t see with the naked eye or even an ordinary microscope,” Ducharme said.
Ducharme specializes in materials and nanoscience and has been an avid organizer and supporter of the NanoArt competition.
The NanoArt competition was created in 2012, Ducharme said, offering STEM students a chance to showcase their artistic side every spring. Their artwork is distributed and judged during NanoDays at UNL, an annual, nationwide celebration of nanoscience.
Ducharme said judguing is based both on creativity and a short paragraph describing the science behind the artwork.
“The science is in the art,” Ducharme said. “Normally, we’ll say the art is representing the science. Here, we want the art to be supported by the science.”
After the competition, the artwork is stored at UNL and occasionally displayed for different audiences around Nebraska, most recently at the Nebraska East Union.
When displaying their NanoArt, Ducharme said they put together 15 pieces of past and present artwork to showcase as an exhibit.
UNL NanoArt has been displayed in spaces such as the Burkholder Project in downtown Lincoln, Innovation Campus and the Hastings Museum.
Xiaopeng Zheng, a graduate research assistant in mechanical engineering and mechanics, conducts research with materials and nanoscience and said he admires NanoArt that can be seen in Jorgensen Hall and the Nebraska East Union.
Zheng, although not a nano-artist himself, is familiar with the technology and nanoscience used to create images of such small structures. He said nanoscientists use transmission electron microscopy and scanning electron microscopy to view synthetic structures.
“[For nanoscience], we use scanning electron microscopy to see the detailed morphology of the film that has the nanostructures,” Zheng said. “We can see the image from the top surface, and we can see a cross-section image to obtain the thickness.”
Nano-artists selectively sculpt their nanostructures before capturing an image using scanning electron microscopy.
Electron microscopy, Ducharme said, is essential for taking detailed pictures of structures as small as individual atoms without damaging them.
“Those images are reconstructed indirectly,” Ducharme said. “We send a beam of electrons, see how they bounce around and with some algorithmic techniques, you can get your image.”
One of the most important aspects of post-production is the addition of color, chosen carefully by the artist.
“These are almost all false colors,” Ducharme said. “We’re not using light, so you use [false color] to highlight.”
Ducharme said the basic data will be a two-dimensional image with a topographic map. Artists can turn that into coloration by using that data to determine which elements they want to be colored.
The addition of color to these nanoscopic topographical maps is left entirely to the artist. Whether the artist is trying to convey a better scientific message using color, or simply adding color for aesthetic purposes, the choice is up to them.
Creativity in nanoscience and other scientific fields isn’t always entirely aesthetic, and according to Ducharme, it's pertinent to cultivating a better understanding of different scientific ideas.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Ducharme said. “The more information you can conveniently convey, the better it’s going to be. It’s going to save you a lot of writing and allows people to take a more holistic view.”
Ducharme said NanoArt is a growing realm of art for this very reason, as it allows a scientist a better way to convey scientific (or artistic) messages.
Scientific magazines and journals all use different forms of art to portray scientific ideas in a more approachable way, offering a better understanding for those reading a full written paper. Ducharme said NanoArt is a great way to communicate scientific ideas on the cover of a journal.
“We derive satisfaction from our work being appreciated, and I think the tools are making it more possible to achieve this form of visual scientific communication,” Ducharme said.