Capturing the invisible

X-Ray diffraction

This weekend sees the international launch of this year’s Big Draw, an initiative to encourage people of all ages to draw. It’s happening across Oxford on Saturday 19 September, and we are getting involved with a rather unusual take on drawing…

PrintFor our X-Ray Line event we are interested not in the things that are easily seen and drawn, but in things which are normally invisible. Atomic structures, subatomic particles, crystal lattices and chains of molecules: these are structures revealed only through special processes, but which provide great inspiration for the creation of drawings and sculpture.

The idea of making the invisible visible comes from our current special exhibition, Dear Harry, which looks at the life and death, in World War One, of Henry Moseley, a physicist whose work on the X-ray spectra of elements in the early 20th century helped to determine atomic number and bring new rigour to the periodic table of elements.

Ushering in Moseley’s work was the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, which led to a whole new field of experimental techniques including X-ray spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography. This opened up an invisible world of atomic and molecular structure.

Electron density model of penicillin molecule (inv. 17631) resulting from crystallography experiments carried out by Dorothy Hodgkin in Oxford

Electron density model of penicillin molecule (inv. 17631) resulting from crystallography experiments carried out by Dorothy Hodgkin in Oxford

The forms, structures and patterns revealed by these techniques have inspired artists and designers to create a variety of works, notably by the Festival Pattern Group for the 1951 Festival of Britain. For the Big Draw launch we’ll be looking at these forms and inviting visitors – especially adults, but open to all – to use a range of source materials to help construct a three-dimensional model reflecting molecular structures.

There are some wonderful images that derive from those early X-ray experiments in crystallography and spectroscopy prompting wonder and philosophical speculation – they are great images in themselves. Our X-Ray Line event is deliberately intended to appeal to adults – why should kids have all the fun! – Chris Parkin, Education Officer at the Museum

Cloud chamber - Tom Cox

Cloud chamber by Tom Cox

There’s drawing too, of course. Shadow drawings will be created through a light projection and screen, suggesting an analogue to the experimental process of interrogating structure with light, or indeed X-rays. And the Museum’s camera obscuras will be set up outside the Bodleian’s Weston Library, pointing at some of Oxford’s famous architecture, so visitors can experience the magic of drawing with this simple yet powerful optical tool.

Chladni plates

Chladni patterns will be revealed by Annie Wright

We have some collaborators coming along as well. Two artists from Oxford Brookes University’s MA course in Social Sculpture will be presenting related themes from their own work.

Tom Cox’s ‘Temporal Becoming’ is a piece which invites participants to experience the mysteries of the cloud chamber and the patterns induced in it by tiny charged particles. Annie Wright is interested in elemental composition and hidden patterns in materials and will be demonstrating the intriguing phenomenon of Chladni patterns.

So head to the Museum on Saturday 19 September, investigate the invisible and hopefully become inspired to create some drawing and sculpture of your own.

For the Love of It

28 April – 2 August 2015


By Robyn Haggard

Do you have any particularly fond memories of science or scientific objects? It turns out that when we put our minds to it we can often recall many. For the last couple of months we have been collecting memories for our small exhibition, For the Love of It. It’s a celebration of people who did scientific work for, well, the love of it, and it is curated by history of science students at the University of Oxford.

Man with microscopeThe physical exhibition, which opens today (28 April 2015), showcases five personal memories provided by visitors to the Museum. These are illustrated with objects from the Museum’s collections to link the development of scientific instruments and ideas with our experiences. It also contains the historic stories of two scientific enthusiasts, Charles Boyle (1674–1731) and Washington Teasdale (1830–1903). These passionate men celebrated science away from a professional setting just as many of us do now, by collecting and enjoying scientific objects.

We also have a For the Love of It blog, which is the place for us to share more science-related personal stories and fond memories that have been contributed to the project. The subjects of these memories vary widely, and help us to see how science plays a role in what we often consider to be non-scientific activities. Think of the illuminated globe in a child’s bedroom, or the metronome used to keep time in a musical performance. Both these devices have been developed from scientific principles, but often we do not think of them as ‘scientific’ things.

Man with globeWe hope to be able to collect a range stories from visitors to the Museum and via the blog we’ll show that you don’t need to be a scientist to enjoy or interact with science. If you have a story do let us know via the site and we’ll try and illustrate it with a relevant object from the Museum’s collection of scientific instruments.

There’s more: My Memories of Science is a public event that we are hosting on Saturday 2 May and Sunday 3 May during Museum opening hours (12-5pm). We will be encouraging visitors to think about memories that they could add to the project, but it is also a chance for you to bring along your favourite scientific object to share and create new memories with. We hope to see you there!