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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science Education"
April 21, 2006

Sharon Burgmayer
"The Chemistry of Art"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Participants: Al Albano (Physics), Sharon Burgmayer (Chemistry), Anne Dalke (English), Ann Dixon (Serendip), Briana Feston (Archaeology), Wil Franklin (Biology), Paul Grobstein (Center for Science in Society), Selene Platt (Centers Office), Rebecca Pouy (Physics), Elliot Shore (Information Services).

Sharon began by describing the history of her new course on "The Stuff of Art." It came out of her passion for color (inorganic chemistry is "where the color is"), and had been whetted by examples long used in core chemistry courses, such as the way in which color operates as an index to conductivity (i.e., the amount of energy it takes to push electrons is related to color). Color also operates as a clue to the composition (type) of molecules, and can be measured to reveal their structure (i.e., how they are arranged in space). Christiane Hertel, of the History of Art Department, encouraged Sharon to Christiane Hertel, of the History of Art Department, encouraged Sharon to design a course tracing the "materierality in art"; preparatory work for the course was supported both by the Center for Visual Culture and the Center for Science in Society.

The course uses two texts, which both focus on materiality and substance: Philip Ball's Bright Earth (which observes that the "modern chemical industry was spawned and nurtured by the demand for color"), and James Elkins' What Painting Is, which argues that the experimental aspect of working in lab is analogous to working in an art studio. Elkins' book is "not about technical knowledge," but "emphasizes the touchy-feely nature of both alchemy and art"; it links the rise of oil painting to the work of the alchemists. Elkins traces some of the numerology that went into ancient ideas about both art and chemistry, and explores the studio as a "kind of psychosis" (given the amount of repetition involved, and the "irrationality" of the exploratory process). He discusses the "steplessness" of discovery (Sharon was asked whether this formed a sharp contrast to the "assumed steps" of chemical research, and was reminded that although "art and chemistry overlap, they aren't identical"). Elkins differentiates between the antiseptic nature of studying and the messiness of doing it, of "getting your hands dirty"; this distinction is reflected in the curricular structures of the College.

In the medieval age, artists and alchemists were often "the same people, the makers of pigments. Instead of learning words, painters learned substances."Alchemy was an "art that knew how to make a substance no formula can describe." Chemistry is not taught that way today, but that's what chemical research involves. Sharon arranged the course chronologically (this differs from the usual chemistry course, which begins "either with unit conversions or building molecules"); it "has no math." This semester, seventy prospective students shopped the class, which was cross-listed in Chemistry and History of Art. Because of the labs, enrollment was limited to 20. In deciding on criteria for selection, Sharon gave priority to art history majors (for whom the course really was designed), and to those w/ experience doing art. If the course were aimed at chemistry majors, it would be much more technical and sophisticated. The aim here is to "get outsiders involved in doing chemistry"; there are "upsides and downsides" to this focus.

The course does not count towards the chemistry major, nor does it serve as the chemistry prerequisite for biology or physics majors; it would also not be suitable as a pre-med course, because it doesn't cover the traditional content required of these disciplines and of medical programs. Students do acquire knowledge of how to use some chemical equipment. Since the majority of the class are first-year students, who gain some appreciation of science, the course might well function as a "gateway to science," which will "not be completely foreign" to them by the time they finish the class. It was observed that a similiar initiative has arisen in the humanities: a focus on the "history of the book," which includes the "materiality of how it is made and marketed."

Experiments include metal transmutation (how copper is "turned" into silver and gold), synthesis of pigments (e.g., making viridian), and making pastels. In the lab practical exam, students have to recognize what substances they need, have a knowledge of equipment to carry out the process, and understand the chemical reaction they they are producing. For example, in one question, they must realize the pragmatic goal of making a blue and a yellow pigment, then mixing them to make green. Students come to understand that a fresco is "a rock manipulated to turn back into rock": they come to appreciate the role of the carbon cycle in the ecosphere. They also "look @ things deteriorating"; by soaking a fresco with sponge saturated in salt water, they can see the damage that salt can create in that porous material. The "last historical bit" of the course involves the development of dyes, and their relation to fashion (mauve was the result, for instance, of a failed experiment in making quinine). Students learn how dyes came to be used as stains for tissue, and as antibacterials; they see how the dye industries became the pharmaceutical industries.

Throughout the course students develop an appreciation of how the comparative palettes evolve in different eras; the chronology of the course emphasizes how new colors in art correlated with the discovery of new elements. The medieval palette only had a dozen elements; modern art used one-half to one-third of the periodic table. The earliest pigments were rocks (inorganic); the more modern colors more organic, and although new ones can be made, the more recently discovered elements are too unstable for use in art. After covering the history of the evolution of color in art, students learn methods of analyzing painting; they use spectroscopy and microscopy to understand how to detect pigments. Another experiment involves learning about the chemistry of photography, by making a pinball camera from an oatmeal can, producing a negative and making a print. Two of the students in the course, who joined our discussion, described their final projects: making frescoes using different binding material (all of them worked; which ones will last?) and trying out different methods of making alizarin (a deep red pigment from madder roots pieces).

The "big downside" for this "fun course in chemistry" is that there is "no book for the chemistry piece." The texts Sharon selected give a narrative, but there is "nothing quantifiable" in them, and chemistry texts would be "totally inappropriate" for this course: they have too much math, and it's not possible to "jump in and out of them" as necessary.

Discussion turned to the question of whether this is "a generalist course," "a course for blending science other stuff" (because of its overlap with " humanistic interests" and the real world). Or is it "really a speciality course," aimed at people in art, who will most benefit from "becoming more familiar with substances"? Is it "like an apprenticeship with an artist," since it involves gaining appreciation of substances (which is the "beginning of chemistry")? Or does it give people in art, who are "purposely ignorant of chemistry," a "broader perspective on how chemistry relates to their life"?

The mission of the Center for Science in Society is "to show that science should be part of the tool kit" of everyone; this involves "helping everyone feel more comfortable with the tools of science." Sharon's course teaches some scientific approaches and methods, those most relevant to art. A student in a print-making class, for instance, in which "no one knew what was happening," found it beneficial to "make the process conscious." Another student remarked in her course evaluation that she now knew how to make better choices of pigments when creating her art.

Sharon was "amazed at how fearless" the students were in this course. She had presumed that "science phobes" would be afraid of conducting the lab procedures, but they seemed far less afraid of making mistakes than science majors generally are. They didn't think in terms of what was "right or wrong," but rather in terms of "what might happen." Is this is a useful general outcome of the course? Helping to change the idea that chemistry is a "rather rigid getting something right"? Might a more exploratory stance actually be a more accurate experience of "doing chemistry"?

Discussion of these ideas continues on-line. The final brown bag session of the semester will take place next Friday, April 28, when Peter Brodfuehrer will speak about the "Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Science Education."

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