This weekend I had the great privilege of being able to help out with a 2013 Manchester Science Festival Event (MSF). Now by help out I really mean stand near the front and look pretty for most of the time. And seeing that I’ve spent most of my life perfecting that skill I think I did a very good job of it. I also got to turn the lights on and off and again I have spent many years perfecting this ability so I was completely in my comfort zone.

So what was Chroma: Art Meets Science?

The official blurb from the MSF people is:

In Memory of ‘Chroma’ is a science-arts collaboration that responds to Derek Jarman’s haunting book, Chroma: A Book of Colour – June 93, written a year before the author’s death. Dr Frank Mair (Chemistry) and PhD researcher Jenna Carine Ashton (Art History & Visual Studies) explore the role of colour within science and visual art through live chemical experiments and a narrative of art, history, memory and science. This highly visual lecture-event invites you to revisit and remember Chroma, Jarman’s exploration of colour, made more poignant by the artist’s encroaching blindness due to AIDS-related complications.

Now this is a pretty good description of the afternoon. But here is mine………..

Jenna narrated vivid imagery visualised with striking colourful pictures displayed on a large screen above her head. Running through the colours from “black”, red, green, yellow, purple, blue, orange and “white” (there may have been more and in a different order). With each colour, with each proposition of how we perceive, observe and remember colours Frank would punctuate the talk with a brilliant display of science. Each live demonstration bringing the audience back to the colour and acting to store the subtext of the narration.

Now stop me if you think I am drifting into Vogon poetry based platitudes. I am trying not to. As a card carrying scientist the concept of art and science jouster position in my conciousness. In my clinical way I do not see the art but the science. From my A-level chemistry examination paper where questions on paints and Cobalt oxidation were given a “picture” has always been tied back to the colour……

… fact I have always argued I became a scientist because of colour. So it was for me interesting to see how these two worlds were to meet.

So how do you punctuate art with science?

Well the honest answer is with a great deal of time, planning and effort.

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Dr Frank Mair, RSC local representative, OutReach (not certain why I write it like that) person and of course University of Manchester senior lecturer (should be professor) is somewhat of a legend in the Flash Bang Chemistry world, Which gives you a small hint of the ways he brings science to life whilst linking it with themes of colour and art.

Just talking with Frank on the subject of “Chroma” a few weeks earlier triggered him to bring up one of his favourite artists Joseph Wright of Derby which then “SPOILERS” triggered a quick “google” to find some of the art work.

Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This scene was just one of the images Frank talked about during the show and rather amazingly he reproduced. Now I don’t want to steal Frank’s thunder here nor his “P” related jokes but I think this was probably the first time I had seen a phosphor lantern/sun live. It was truly amazing.

As a chemist it was a bit scary knowing what could go wrong and unfortunately being stood at the front heating a glass rod whilst Frank isolated the phosphorous to be placed into the lantern was a tad unnerving. But I had faith in Frank and I was not disappointed. Nor I must add were the audience whose hushed tones of “Oooooooooo” and “Arrrrrrrrrrgh” from the darkened theatre lit only from the light of the burning phosphorous was amazing.

But the show wasn’t all about burning phosphorous now was it?

20131026_192055No, no not at all. In fact in no particular order there was a thermite reaction in an attempt to make art, fireworks to show, red and green and spectroscopy using a cutting edge technology in the form of little OceanOptics USB4000 spectrometer (my tiny contribution) and classical 1950’s (perhaps earlier) prism based optical spectrometer. In fact live spectra were projected from both spectrometers showing the emission spectrum and quantum theory was discussed. Yes quantum theory discussed in an “art” talk!

20131026_191749Not forgetting classical sodium line. The warm yellow reminding us all of the street lamps glow. There were barking dogs and a rather amazing ammonium iodide display and then there was the quieter more subtle chemistry.

As Frank showed how to make the early pigments. Unfortunately I got the job of filtering the bloody things which sadly may have drowned out Jenna’s voice a bit whilst the Buchner flask and pump did its work.

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So having travelled through the show being shown how our minds when devoid of other information can be tricked to being amazed and stunned by hydrogen balloon explosions the audience were offered the chance to look through the old spectrometer, to look at the pigments and if they wanted to paint with them.

Post Show Fun

I think due to space most people didn’t get a chance to do any painting as such. They did have a good look at the filtered pigments, the yellow, blue, red (more pink) and orange made during the show. Most of them spent time looking into the spectrometer eye piece moving through the spectrum of the mercury lamp. Whilst Frank explained the difference between the tungsten lamp at the start of the talk and how the brain or perhaps eye is fooled into seeing white due to the line emission spectrum hitting the key colour regions of our eye.

Post Post Show Fun

So everyone had gone and well there was paint and brushes and cleaning up to be done.

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Hmmm, so of course instead painting and picture taking had to be done instead!

20131026_193034 And once painted what to do with the MSF sign? Frank thinks on while I snap……

20131026_192948I even tried my hand at being artistic.


Don’t mock me I said tried!

To Conclude

Q: Did it work?

A: Yes it did.

Q: Would you go again?

A: In a heartbeat

Q: Would you recommend it to a friend?

A: Of course

Q: Why?

A: Art is often said to be in the eye of the beholder and as Frank alluded to during the show it is the context which it is shown. If something is well lit, put on a stand and placed in a museum does that become art? So science is art but science without context can often be lost and through Chroma: Art truly did meet Science!


Watch out world this Saturday is FLASH BANG SHOW TIME!


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