Could artists be persuaded to toss out their paints and brushes in favor of an electron microscope? It might happen, if they're seduced by the emerging creative field known as nano art.
Nano art (from the Greek word meaning "dwarf") consists of shapes and forms created at the molecular level -- or, in other cases, it refers to artwork that is inspired by the shapes and forms. It involves materials that are measured in nanometers, a measure equal to one-billionth of a meter. (A single strand of human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers thick.)
Think Disneyland's old "Adventure Thru Inner Space" ride.
Nano art based on science dates back to 1997, when researchers at Cornell University carved the world's smallest guitar out of crystalline silicon. The guitar is about as long as a blood cell and has six strings, each about 50 nanometers wide. Scientists later used a laser as a pick to play the strings of the nanoguitar -- at frequencies that were about 130,000 times, or 17 octaves, higher than a normal guitar.
In 2001, physicists at Osaka University in Japan created a 3-D, blood cell-sized sculpture of a bull using a technique called photopolymerization. The image is reminiscent of the Lascaux cave drawings of bulls and horses made by cavemen in modern day France about 16,500 years ago.
But nanotechnology isn't just a new art medium. Scientists have been using it to explore ideas from improved drug delivery systems to smaller and more powerful computers to low-cost, high-efficiency fuel cells that can use hydrogen as clean fuel.
Paul Rothemund, a senior research fellow at the California Institute of Technology, is a scientist turned artist.
He recently invented a technique called "DNA origami" that allows him to make patterns out of DNA strands that are far more advanced than a paper crane.
Rothemund created images of the ubiquitous smiley face that are about 100 nanometers wide, to show how a single DNA strand can be folded and stapled.
"I was trying to figure out compelling ways to light up people's brains and convince them that you really can make whatever you want," Rothemund said. "You can make a square or triangle and a variety of shapes that are exciting and familiar."
The technique, written up in the journal Nature, could become a new tool for scientists creating nano devices, Rothemund said. A physicist, for example, could use the "DNA origami" technique to build a quantum computer or a biologist could use it to organize proteins into a miniature enzyme machine, he said.
Rothemund said he plans on attending a conference in September on regular origami, which he doesn't know how to do.
ARTIST FASCINATED BY SCIENCE
Alexa Smith, 43, grew up with science fiction and space travel in the Midwest in the 1960s and has incorporated her fascination with it into her art.
The San Francisco artist has a degree in photography and has used nano themes in her art since about 1993.
One of the far-out promises of nanotechnology is that microscopic machines could someday be sent to modify a planet and make it ready for human living.
With this in mind, Smith has created art pieces that show what she conceptually thinks "terraforming," or the combination of nanotechnology and biology, would look like as materials are being created. The results are colorful, explosive images.
"A lot of people who saw the work said it was scary," Smith said. "They didn't know quite what to make of it."
A NEW RENAISSANCE?
Cristian Orfescu, 49, of Los Angeles, uses an electron microscope to create digital images of structures.
The images that came out of the 300,000-times magnification electron microscope are black and white, Orfescu said.
"There is no color, there is no light," the Romanian-born artist said. "The image is created by electrons, electrically charged particles that penetrate deeper into the structure. It creates images that are more in-depth and natural and 3-D than the photographic images. Photo images are created by particles of light."
Orfescu, who is a scientist by day and nano artist at night, digitally paints the black-and-white images on a computer and then prints them either on canvas or fine art paper with long-lasting inks. Orfescu, who has a background in painting abstract art, has shown his nano artwork at galleries and museums and has sold many pieces to collectors.
"We are now basically in a new renaissance with art and technological development," Orfescu said. "This new technology is going to be more and more a part of our everyday life.
"My art is a reflection of this technological movement. Nano art is a more appealing way to inform people about these new technologies."