09 June 2011

Excuse Me, Miss... There's Some Science in My Art

“Give the STEMers some credit,” I said in a recent post. There is a lot more to science and engineering than formulae and schematics. Working in a lab and developing new technologies requires artistic sensibility, dynamism, and an all-around creative drive.

I was thinking about this – art in science – when I visited the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design last month.

My cousin (the wildly talented Molly Radke) recently graduated from the MIAD with a degree in communication design and my wife and I wanted to see her senior exhibit. It was great fun. My son loved the colors and textures. My wife enjoyed being back amongst her people – artists and designers. And I found the experience very interesting from an education perspective. Seeing the culmination of a fine arts education on display was an opportunity to think about the multiple pathways to a successful postsecondary education.

But, I digress.

As we left the gallery, I noticed an impressive project done by a young animator and illustrator named Kaycie D. Her thesis was titled Elements. In its full glory, Elements is a complete representation of the first eighty-eight elements (hydrogen through radium) on the periodic table with each element represented by an animated character.

ELEMENTS by Kaycie D.

Pretty cool, right?

The full arrangement of characters is really eye-catching. But, more impressive still, the individual graphics do a great job of giving each element a face and personality. In a sense, Kaycie D had made the same argument I was making about bringing creativity into science – but in reverse. She brought science into her art. I loved it.

The project reminded me of much of the content in The Poisoner’s Handbook, written by one of my favorite people, Deborah Blum. Technically, the heroes of Blum’s story are two scientist reformers, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. Structurally, however, the book is organized around a series of poisonous elements and compounds. Somewhere between her structural choices and detailed accounts of the havoc each substance creates in the human body, Blum's elements emerge as characters in their own right – each one more sneaky and deadly than the last.

I couldn’t help looking for some of my favorite TPH elements in Kaycie D’s cast.

When used as a poison, Blum explains,
arsenic will collect “in the liver, spleen, kidneys,
heart, lungs, brain, stomach, intestines, and
even in the muscle walls themselves.”
“Mercury, for all its glimmering silver
elegance, is a messy killer” that leaves
the kidneys “dribbled with blood, mushy with
cellular breakdown and grayish in color.”

 “Thallium tends to move rapidly
along the Potassium-uptake channels
into the nuclei of cells… disrupts cell
metabolism and splinters apart chemical bonds”
resulting in hair loss and, well, death.
Radon is a toxic gas that
results from the radioactive decay
of radium. It can be found in the exhaled
breath of radium victims such as the
famous Radium Girls.

Not all the Elements are trying to kill you. Some of Kaycie D's characters are serene (Oxygen), some are playful and peaceful (Iridium and Yttrium), and some are just awesome (Carbon). It is hard not to enjoy the variety. At the top of my list are bloated Bismuth, do-gooder Iodine, electrifying (and kinda skanky) Silver, greaser Chromium, creepy-@ss Indium, and sassy Nickel.

Alas, I digress once more.

I'm pretty sure I hit on her in a bar once....
It didn't go well.

I simply wanted to give a nod to the talented, hard-working people in the arts and humanities. Much like the STEMers who display creativity and imagination in their labs, writers and artists make space for science, technology, engineering, and math in their work. And, quite frankly, these folks often make the biggest effort and most progress in bringing science to audiences outside the university.

Just think of the possibilities for introducing the periodic table, chemical compounds, and elementary physics to children (or anyone intimidated by the “hard sciences”) if we fully explored the opportunities for bringing science to art and art to science. The two-way relationship between art and science is a reminder that teaching, learning, and knowledge do not always fit into neat little boxes and departments. The potential for collaboration and shared inspiration is endless.


  1. Great post, Justin. Thanks for the heads up about this project. So spot on about the potential of collaboration and recombination. Reminded me of this talk by Jay O'Callahan about the power and importance of storytelling .


    The Elements project nicely established a story and a fresh perspective. Good stuff.

  2. I love these Elements designs, Ed. And this is a terrific post (even without the very kind reference to Poisoner's Handbook). Great to see you doing such good work!

  3. Really enjoyed this post, Justin.

  4. Lovely… the elements' symbols are not very accurate, though, as Radon should be "Rn", not "Rd"!