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Artists and scientists use the same visual tools, such as drawing and photography, to understand the unseen or previously incomprehensible. Both are driven by a desire to categorise nature, to identify patterns and to define shared examples of common types, such as clouds, molecules or plant species.

However, as we will see in the following three stories, which feature in Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter, their interpretations have not always agreed.

Plants on Paper: Communicating Botany

In the 19th century botanists sought to understand the essence of plant species. The development of photographic techniques expanded the tools available to capture different aspects of an idealised specimen. However, some visual representations were considered of greater value than others to the scientific study of plants.

'Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions', is the first ever photographic book. It was produced by Anna Atkins between 1843 and 1853 to provide images to accompany contemporary books on algae. Algae was a topic of increasing interest to botanists at the time, but it was hard to create images of these tiny organisms by hand.

'Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions', by Anna Atkins, (booklet) 1843-1853
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Atkins pioneered a new photographic process, a cyanotype, in which paper brushed with photosensitive chemicals turned a vivid blue when exposed to light. Any specimen laid directly onto the paper left its impression as a white shadow.

Atkins had unusual access to scientific knowledge for women of the time, attending lectures by pioneering photographers John Herschel (who developed the cyanotype process) and William Henry Fox Talbot, to whom she presented this copy of her book.

The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects so minute ... has induced me to avail myself of the beautiful process of Cyanotype.

Anna Atkins (1843–53)

Herbarium sheets are the most common means of recording a plant on paper, as dried specimens provide botanists with direct visual comparisons. But they are fragile and not easily shared. Surgeon Sir John Lister and his wife Agnes collected specimens while touring eastern Europe in 1883.

Each is labelled with its Latin name following the categories commonly used by all botanists from the 18th century. The labels appear in both Joseph’s and Agnes’s handwriting, showing the project was a joint effort.

Specimen of ‘Anemone Alphina’, collected by Joseph and Agnes Lister, 1883
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Talbot was the English inventor of photography, spurred on by frustration at his inability to draw accurately. Like Atkins, he saw the potential for using new photographic processes to capture botanical detail.

He developed a technique called photoglyphic engraving, intended to overcome the fact that some of his early experimental photographs faded. Photoglyphs used sensitised gelatine to fix the image to the surface of a metal plate that could then be etched, inked and printed onto paper. He tried using a range of English flora, including ferns, grasses and dandelion seeds.

Photoglyphic engraving from a copper plate made by William Henry Fox Talbot of a fern 'Adiantum capillus-veneris', about 1854
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Form of knowledge: The Mathematical Model as Muse

Théodore Olivier designed these mathematical models in 1830 to teach geometry. They were much more effective than two-dimensional images for communicating the shapes of complex three-dimensional surfaces.

Different coloured strings, weighted with lead beads hidden in the wooden bases, could be distorted and rotated, revealing a variety of surfaces simultaneously. They were produced in significant numbers and sold across the world as teaching tools.

The Science Museum has several examples made by the French company Fabre de Lagrange.

Conoid string surface model, made by Fabre de Lagrange, 1872
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As mathematical theories developed these models fell out of favour. After the First World War, they were displayed in galleries and museums as historical curios. There they reached another audience: avant-garde artists, who found in them not guidance for abstract thinking but inspiration for exploring shape and form. In the 1930s, artists from the surrealist and constructivist movements, including Man Ray and Naum Gabo, started incorporating strings into their work.

In Britain Henry Moore became fascinated with the Théodore Olivier mathematical models on display at the Science Museum as an art student in the 1920s. Moore was stimulated by their sculptural possibilities, noting that ‘it wasn’t the scientific study of these models but the ability to look through the strings as with a bird cage and to see one form within another which excited me’.

Barbara Hepworth started making plaster sculptures incorporating colours and strings in 1939. These were inspired by mathematical models she had seen at Oxford University and her interest in scientific theories. In London she was part of a colony of artists and intellectuals who tried to synthesise science and art including fellow British Modernist artist Moore and eminent crystallography John Desmond Bernal, who wrote an introduction to Hepworth’s first solo show. Together they advocated for a type of abstract art that embraced new forms, materials and methods of construction. They published their argument in the 1937 book Circle. Hepworth continued to incorporate strings in her work after the Second World War, as she placed increasing emphasis on nature and the landscape.

Hepworth sculpture in The Art of Innovation
Barbara Hepworth's 'Sculpture with Colour and Strings, Bronze, 1939/1961 (cast in 1961 from plaster of 1939) on display in The Art of Innovation

In 1936 the London Transport Board (now Transport for London) published two posters designed by Edward Wadsworth to promote the South Kensington museums.

Wadsworth was also inspired by the abstract forms he found within the Science Museum collections and chose a late-19th-century plaster model of a cubic surface representing an equation and propeller as his subject matter.

Wadsworth had trained as an engineer before moving into art when he enrolled at the Slade School for Fine Art in London. He continued to engage with technology throughout his career.

London Transport poster, by Edward Wadsworth, 1936
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Imagining Matter: Einstein’s Legacy

The unknowns of the universe have stimulated the imaginations of artists and scientists. Their work explores the visible and invisible matter that surrounds us and questions our place in the cosmos.

Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, first put forward in 1915, remains one of the most important scientific theories of our time. According to the theory, space and time are not fixed but form a flexible fabric that is bent by massive bodies. General relativity explains the force of gravity as a result of this bending of space-time, which causes passing objects to follow curved paths.

Scientists have used the theory to help account for dark matter, an unobservable material that is believed to form a large part of the universe.

Einstein

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world. 

Albert Einstein, The Saturday Evening Post (26 October 1929)

General relativity predicts that light from distant stars should bend as it passes near to the Sun, slightly shifting where the star appears in the sky. During an eclipse the sky around the Sun is dark enough to photograph this shift.

In 1919 British astronomer Arthur Eddington organised two expeditions to view an eclipse and test Einstein’s theory. This image of the solar corona provided the first observational evidence, with the horizontal lines showing where stars, usually behind the sun, have become visible. The results made Einstein an international celebrity.

Solar corona during an eclipse
Glass plate negative of the total solar eclipse at Sobral, Brazil, May 1919

Einstein’s theory continues to drive scientific enquiry. The Gravity Probe B experiment was designed to test two predictions of general relativity: that a massive body such as the Earth should warp and twist the space-time around it.

Four spheres like this one – among the most perfect ever made – were set spinning on a spacecraft precisely pointed towards a guide star. Scientists spent seven years analysing the mission data to see if the angles of the spheres’ spins were altered by the warp and twist. The final experimental results were announced in 2011 and confirmed Einstein’s predictions.

Gravity Probe B gyroscope, 1992-1995
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Art has often been used to visualise science and suggest ways of thinking about ideas that in themselves seem abstract and exotic. Contemporary artist Cornelia Parker has often drawn on ideas in physics, collaborating directly with researchers or taking inspiration from popular accounts of science.

In 'Einstein’s Abstracts', made when Parker was artist in residence at the Science Museum, she took high-magnification photographs of chalked letters from a blackboard that had been preserved in the History of Science Museum in Oxford. These letters were written by Einstein, who gave a series of lectures at the university on 16 May 1931. Seen close up the dusty chalk grains on a black background resemble images of space.

For Parker this process gave her a greater understanding of Einstein’s work, explaining that ‘looking so closely at his chalk marks ... helped me comprehend what was previously unintelligible’.

A photomicrograph of chalk marks made by Einstein © Cornelia Parker, Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London Image source
Einstein’s Abstracts, Cornelia Parker, 1999

The Art of Innovation

Scientists and artists have searched for meaning in the matter that surrounds them, whether it be plants, clouds or abstract mathematics. Visual tools are key to both to interrogate, control and communicate their ideas about the world.

As we have seen in these three stories, not all new ideas are accepted immediately and depend strongly on the social, political and cultural environment of the time.

Further reading

  • David Thistlewood (ed.), 'Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered' (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996)
  • Iwona Blazwick, 'Cornelia Parker' (UK: Thames and Hudson, 2014)