I met Michelle Francl-Donnay, writer of Quantum Theology, in 2008, when she came to one of our craft shows. She was my first “from blog to real life” encounter. Michelle found Stratoz’s blog, because she too was going to Wernersville Jesuit Center for a silent retreat, and they began commenting on each other’s blogs. She wanted to meet us, and ended up smitten with my Spiral Mandala, and purchased it for her prayer space. Thanks to Michelle, Stratoz’s work has traveled to Japan and Rome. She is a delightful combination of Ignatian spirituality, thoughtful writing, and Professor of Chemistry. Be sure to check her out at Quantum Theology!
Prof. Margaret Brimble, Chair of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Auckland, has a desire to create beautiful and difficult molecules:
Today, the creative process Margaret Brimble uses to build molecules may be compared to a game of chess: “In what we call ‘molecular chess’, we have this beautiful molecule and we have to work out how to make it. We set our strategy, but inevitably things go wrong. You move backward, you go forward, you change to get around problems. Eventually, you do have your molecule, as you capture your king in the game of chess.”(interview with Anne Bougel)
She has worked with shellfish toxins, extremely complex molecules, identifying ways to use them in fighting ovarian, renal and breast cancers, as well as treatment for hypertension, epilepsy and pain. I found her work just after reading Michelle Francl‘s fascinating article on beautiful molecules in the March 2012 issue of Nature Chemistry. She defines elegelant molecules as ones which are “. . .symmetric; unexpected; revelatory of unseen mysteries; have a touch of sabi, a patina of history; a rich set of associations that stimulates our imaginations; useful; logically simple; sometimes whimsical — and sometimes profoundly graceful.” As an artist, I resonate with this lyrical description of beauty, whether of molecules or mosaic, and love that Margaret Brimble sees beauty in the molecules she seeks.
For those who are curious, among Michelle Francl’s top 10 beautiful molecules are ethanol(the wonders of Belgian beer), insulin, and snoutane(with its wonderfully apt name.) For the rest, check out her post The Most Zen of Molecules.
October 7th is Ada Lovelace Day, and the Finding Ada Project. Ada Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on an Analytical Engine in 1842, and Lovelace wrote something akin to the first programs for this forerunner of the modern computer. Ada Lovelace Day was founded in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson, a social technologist, journalist and writer who was tired of the tech industry’s excuses regarding the lack of women speakers at conferences.
Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike. The inspiration for Ada Lovelace Day came from psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who carried out a study which found that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models.
I knew I wanted to use this photo from my and Stratoz’s visit to the Smithsonian, of a glass-cutter’s jacket made of Kevlar, which was invented by Stephanie Kwolek, as part of her work at DuPont, in 1965. Being glass artists, we were both drawn to this jacket! The holes, though counter-intuitive, are to ventilate the Kevlar, which is heavy and hot. The image of a bullet proof vest since it came to the market in 1975 has become part of our culture, but the fact that a woman invented the fiber has not. Stephanie Kwolek was born in 1927, in New Kensington, PA(a Pennsylvanian!), and loved to draw, and wanted to be a fashion designer. Then she considered medical school, and took chemistry in preparation and loved it. There were opportunities for her because of WWII and the need for women to work in the sciences, while men were at war. She was hired by DuPont, and tenaciously stayed after the war was over, and in fact until she retired.
Kwolek worked with polymers, and was experimenting with ways to reinforce tires, and found a polymer that wouldn’t melt, and when she added a solvent, it didn’t have the usual consistency of molasses, but more like water. Intrigued, she took it to the man in charge of the spineret, who was not interested in spinning something that flowed like water, but she persisted, and finally he consented, and it spun beautifully. I love the evolution of her dream of designing to fashion, to spinning polymers that eventually became the substance five times stronger than steel, and can stop a bullet, and has saved over 3000 lives.
Marie Curie is probably the one scientist people can name who was a woman. She spent years her life searching for an element that showed few signs of existing, boiling bags of pitchblende in a huge crucible, with an iron rod taller than she was. She discovered radium, and she and her husband Pierre received a Nobel Prize for this in 1903. In 1906, Pierre was killed by a horse and carriage as he crossed the street. I became intrigued by her story several years ago, and wrote a series of poems about her life, and even then, before I became a visual artist, I was drawn to the visual sense, the glow and sparkle of radium in the dark.
I shall not kill myself, but among all these vehicles is there not one to make me share the fate of my beloved? I work my days in the laboratory. I am better off there than anywhere else. She won another
Nobel Prize, amidst grumbling that the first
was through simple brute effort, that Pierre
had done all the work. These words like alkahest—
alchemy’s universal solvent. She did not kill
herself, did not dissolve, testing the chemicals
of her grief. Pierre had hoped radium was a beautiful
color. Radium preserved as a chloride is as dull
as common kitchen salt. But this is in light—
in dark it sparkles. God also created night.
At the beginning of WWI, in 1914, when Germany attacked France, Curie realized that the ability to take X-Rays would make treating shrapnel and other injuries on the front much easier. With the same intense energy and passion she used to discover radium, she endeavored to raise money for radiology equipment and convinced manufacturers to turn cars into vans, and created 20 of what the French soldiers called “petite Curies“–mobile X-Ray vehicles which went to the front. This was an incredible feat, since most hospitals didn’t even have X-Ray departments at this point. Curie taught herself to drive, crammed anatomy books, and took her 17 year old daughter Irene as an assistant, along with a military doctor, and went to the front herself, all without Pierre, whom she missed immensely.
The material and personnel were multiplied
as if by enchantment. Marie’s WWI creation, “little Curies,”
radiological cars driven to the front, darkness intensified
by the bright bones. X-Ray machinery run by car motors,
in the hearse-like backseat, powering the journey beneath the skin.
She trained girls in techniques. Irene at seventeen
located shrapnel in a man’s thigh—the surgeon, he
did not believe her eyes, or elementary geometry.
Over a million men passed through, shattered multitude.
No fear. No protection from radiation—
We cannot say that word, weighing like a lead apron.
In this practical miracle, Marie saw it was good. The unsuspected amplitude that the application of pure scientific discoveries can take during war.
March 24th was Ada Lovelace Day. According to the site, Finding Ada, Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She wrote programmes for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine, despite the fact that it was never built. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.
Bloggers from around the world wrote about a woman in science or technology on the 24th. I had planned to be one of them but after a day at a craft show, I completely forgot. I chose Sally Prasch, scientific glassblower. I didn’t even know that such an occupation existed. Scientific glassblowers make custom glass laboratory equipment for chemists, and have their own professional American Scientific Glassblowers Society. East Carolina State has an interesting page of resources describing the work.
Sally Prasch took a flameworking class at 13 years old, and loved it, and went on to apprentice with a scientific glassblower. She went on to get a degree in Scientific Glass Technology from Salem Community College in Carney’s Point, NJ. This is the essence of Ada Lovelace day, the possibility of women discovering what they love to do, and being able to pursue it. There are only about 700 scientific glassblowers, and Prasch is among a handful of women in the field. She also creates artistic glass, bridging the worlds of science and art.
I had never heard of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, but came across mention of her in a radio show, Engines of our Ingenuity, narrated by John H. Lienhard on public radio. Dorothy Crowfoot was born in 1910, in Egypt, and one summer before college, helped her parents excavate Byzantine churches with her ability to reconstruct mosaic floors from fragments. She considered archaeology in college, but chemistry and her fascination with crystals won out, though there is an intriguing reference to her spending a summer combining both by studying glass tesserae from the mosaics of Jerash, Jordan.
Lienhard presents a compelling picture of Crowfoot, describing a day in 1934 when she, “found she had crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Down through a very active life she’s worked in pain, with hands and feet terribly twisted.
Only hours after she found that out, people in her lab made the first X-ray photo of a protein crystal. And she realized she could go from a pointillist X-ray pattern — a broken Byzantine mosaic — to the 3-D structure of a complex organic molecule. That day, she said, began in pain and ended in a vision.”
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin went on to win the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in x-ray crystallography, determining the structure of penicillin, insulin and B12. The beautiful drawing below is of insulin, made by Hodgkin, and presented to Dr. Helen Megaw, crystallographer and organizer of the Festival Pattern Group in Britain, 1951. Hodgkin refused to accept a fee for the drawing, or take copyright for a pattern perpetuated by nature.
Megaw loved pattern, and dedicated an exhibit as part of the Festival of Britain, to the wonders of scientific pattern, as applied to wallpaper, fabric, china and other domestic objects. She gave Hodgkin a linen pillow embroidered with the crystal structure of aluminum hydroxide as a wedding gift.
I love this idea of art as a way to express science. The beauty of our world goes beneath the surface.