CDT Festival of Science and Art

by Jennifer Hack

Science and art are two disciplines that would not normally be put together, which is why the choice of theme for this year’s CDT Festival of Science “Science and Art-Exploring Creativity” presented an intriguing challenge. The festival‑in‑a‑day is an annual event, which is organised by a committee of PhD students from the 12 Imperial‑affiliated Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) and this year it took place on Friday 21st April in the Sir Alexander Fleming building of Imperial.

The planning of the festival happened over 5 months, during which we invited scientists and artists working at the interface between the two to come and speak about their work. It was also decided that we would install a “pop-up” art exhibition on the day of the festival, so we invited students from two of London’s art colleges, the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martens, to submit work on the theme “science and art” for the exhibition. Although it was a lot of organisation, the planning of the day went really smoothly and aside from a last minute purchase of black table cloths, everything was ready to go!

The day kicked off with an entertaining talk from polymer chemist Tony Ryan, who discussed about his collaborative work with the artist Helen Storey creating “Dissolving Dresses” and “Catalytic Clothing”. The idea of their work was to create beautiful pieces of clothing, whilst also raising awareness of how fashion has become a “throw-away” industry. Geraldine Cox, who is the artist in residence in the Imperial College Physics department, then talked about her fascinating work, inspired by Richard Feynman, creating art to represent the way hierarchies in nature, from humans to atoms, interconnect.

Tony Ryan discusses the idea behind his dissolvable dresses

Charlotte Jarvis, who stunned the audience by discussing two of her pieces of work, gave the final talk of the morning session. In “Music of the Spheres”, Charlotte worked with scientists to turn a DNA sequence into a piece of music, as well as creating soap bubbles from the DNA. We were lucky enough to commission Charlotte to display this piece at the festival, so attendees could experience the DNA bubbles first hand! She then talked about her work with scientists to grow a real-life cancerous tumour in a laboratory from her own stem cells!

Committee members test out Music of Spheres

Thankfully, this wasn’t enough to put attendees off their lunch and after everyone was refreshed, artist Anna Dumitriu presented her work investigating the relationship that humans have with microbes. Using living microbes, she has created stunning pieces of artwork and at the time of the festival, she was displaying her work in the Imperial College Blyth Gallery, so no doubt, some people headed over there to take a look. The final talk of the day was given by scientist Andy Beeby, a professor at Durham University. As a member of “Team Pigment”, he has been working with other scientists and historians to use light to investigate the pigments found in ancient manuscripts. Andy entertained the audience with the challenges of handling centuries‑old manuscripts without damaging them!

Following the talks, tea and coffee was served and guests were invited to take time to explore the art exhibition. Installed over four seminar rooms, the artwork ranged from slime moulds to black holes, virtual reality to big data mapping. Entries to the “Science and Art” competition were also displayed, where entrants had been asked to present their scientific research in the form of a piece of art. The speakers were asked to pick the final winners and the top prize of £200 was awarded to Margarita Kopniczky and two runner up prizes of £50 went to Andrew Simmons and Francesco Gianoli.

Attendees interact with the exhibition

The final session of the day was a heated panel discussion about the differences and similarities between the creative processes used by scientists and artists. Panellists came from both disciplines and it was clear that some of the methods used in creating science were identical to those used for creating art.

Panellists are ready to discuss the relationship between science and art

The discussion continued over a drinks reception in the foyer, where attendees could mingle with the speakers, panellist and exhibitors over a glass of wine or a beer. Overall, the event was really well received and the hard work of the committee really paid off. Just over a month after the festival, the committee have plans to keep the conversation between scientists and artists going, so watch this space for further science‑art collaborations!

The Facebook page for the festival can be found here, with more pictures of the day:

Words: Jennifer Hack

Pictures: Shengyang Chen