Talk #34, 7/25/07

Science in the Service of Art and Art in the Service of Science, Part Three

John Asmus

In fields such as studio art, art conservation, archaeology, anthropology, music, and architecture it is often understood that many of the advances emerge from the introduction of new developments from science and technology. Scientific research is often justified on the basis of its past as well as potential future fallout into other endeavors as diverse as medicine, manufacturing, and the humanities. The diffusion of scientific innovation into the practice of art conservation has been punctuated by the introduction of a series of diverse technologies. Trace element and isotopic analyses, infrared imaging, ultraviolet fluorescence inspection, advanced coatings and adhesives, scanning electron microscopy, and photon/electron microprobes are notable examples. For the past thirty years various laser technologies have demonstrated utility in the practice of art conservation, as well. These include photon cleaning and divestment, holographic display and nondestructive analysis, surface characterization through laser fluorescence, radiation scattering and absorption, as well as laser-induced ultrasound. At the dawn of laser technology’s introduction into the art conservation field (1972-74) the Center for Art/Science Studies (CASS) was established at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) with the hope of accelerating and broadening the diffusion of scientific developments into art conservation practice. Surprisingly, one of the first events in the CASS/UCSD transpired when a Visual Arts Department student employed a primitive laser statue cleaner to “correct” a silk-screen print. In the course of maintaining her laser this art student discovered a dramatically improved method for aligning the complex optical beam train by utilizing her artistic training. A few months later another CASS/UCSD student in the Photographic Arts Program (while modifying a ruby laser to experiment with theater-lighting special effects) discovered an improved laser beam-profile diagnostic technique. These two, seemingly trite, examples of scientific serendipity “in reverse” are not isolated anomalies. History is replete with instances of art coming to the aid of science and technology. Examples include Samuel Morse’s drawing upon his skill as a painter in support of his electrical engineering research, the collaboration of Michele Besso and Albert Einstein in the formulation of Special Relativity, Picasso’s vision of wave-function collapse in Quantum Electrodynamics, and Jay DeFeo’s depiction of Big Bangs and Black Holes while cosmologists were focusing on Fred Hoyle’s steady-state continuum theory of the universe.


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Summary of the Presentation