Body of Evidence: Artist works with silver nanoparticles dispersed in hexane


(PHOTO: Artist Kate Nichols, with her nanoparticle art / Kristen Philipkoski)

When Kate Nichols traded her paintbrush for a pipette, she had to accept a few changes in the way she created art. First, control and predictability went out the window. Sometimes her new medium — nanoparticles dispersed in hexane — behaved, sometimes it didn't.

"It is docile and containable at times, unruly and given to bursting uncontrollably from my pipette at others," Nichols said.

In science, such unpredictability leads to failed experiments. Reproducibility is king in science; it's vital if a researcher wants to prove what he or she is seeing isn't just a fluke. Scientific journals require many repeated identical results before they'll publish a scientist's work.

But in art, it's just the opposite. Uniqueness is most important. Reproducing art only devalues it, so Nichols' inability to predict what her materials might do next only made the work more compelling.

In just such an unpredictable moment, the 2010 TED fellow happened upon a method of creating mirrors. While trying to create a dark background for her silver nanoparticles on glass, she inserted microscope slides that had been rendered black by a layer of silver-gelatin photographic emulsions.

"When I inspected my work," Nichols said, "I was surprised to see my own eyes staring back at me."

She ended up with objects that changed depending on what was reflected in them, which riffs on another concept in science. Often when a scientist examines particles, they are somehow changed or destroyed, whether it's with an electron beam or a light microscope. The same goes for Nichols' mirrored pieces — what one sees is destroyed and changed moment to moment with the changing reflection.



Above, Calibrate (photographed by the artist): silver nanoparticles, glass and wax. The exhibit was at the Materials Research Society annual meeting in San Francisco in April. In this piece, mirrors coat class tubes filled with silver nanoparticles.


Above: Body of Evidence 3. Photo by Don Felton.

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