Can Art Make Nanotechnology Easier to Understand?

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The new exhibition, which is presented at the museum's Children's Gallery, is the first time nanoscientists and media artists have joined together to explore the cultural ramifications of the new technology. "We're jacking into the labs not to explain the science, but to engage it," said Vesna.

At one exhibit, visitors observe a live view of the inner cell that's projected onto the surface of a table. They can move, manipulate, and reorient individual atoms in a way that is similar to operating the Scanning Tunneling Microscope.

The center of the exhibition replicates a large inner cell. Inside it, visitors use their shadows to manipulate and re-shape projected images of a particular form of the carbon molecule, known as a "buckyball." Even the slightest movement affects the buckyballs, replicating atomic behavior.

Perhaps the most intriguing installation incorporates a sand mandala (a cosmic diagram and ritualistic symbol of the universe that is used in both Buddhism and Hinduism) from the museum's exhibition on Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhist art.

The method that Buddhist monks use to create sand images, particle by particle, resembles the arrangement of individual molecules in nanoscience.

Images of a grain of sand are projected in evolving scale from the molecular structure of a single grain to the recognizable image of a pile of sand. In this bottom-up method of visual image building, the mandala slowly emerges.

Mind-boggling Potential

In the Quantum Tunnel, the images of visitors' faces are projected on two opposing walls. When visitors activate a camera, their image is captured and projected on the nearby wall. As the visitors walk through the connecting corridor to the opposite end, the two projected images are juxtaposed and become fractured into particles and waves.

"I don't expect people to understand quantum physics," Gimzewski said. "But I expect them to notice what happens when they go through the exhibit. I'd like them to ask, 'What does this mean?'"

Nanotechnology is still in its infancy. But its potential, experts say, is mind-boggling, ranging from a virtual presence in space to the repair of the human body with replacement parts. Over four billion dollars (U.S.) was invested globally in nanoscience in 2001.

"Nanoscience will eventually revolutionize and impact upon every single aspect of our lives, including the arts," said Gimzewski. "It brings all the sciences together at the level of the atom. It is completely new in the way we fabricate and make things."

The "nano" exhibition opened this month at the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art and runs until September 6, 2004.

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