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The chemistry between science and art

periodic table, abstract visuals of science and art

Most educators often look for curriculum links across disciplines as a way of showing how each discipline can enhance understanding and appreciation of the other disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach has been creatively realised during the International Year of the Periodic Table, celebrated this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the Dimitri Mendeleev periodic table. Among the projects produced is Mary Soon Lee’s book of 118 haiku about the periodic table, one poem for each element and a closing haiku for element 119 (not yet synthesised). There’s also Jane Stewart’s tribute in macramé, in which the biochemistry graduate has intricately knotted each element using metallic crochet thread.

In Melbourne, Quantum Victoria, a Centre of Excellence and Innovation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education for primary and secondary students and teachers, commissioned a series of 51 images illustrating the birth of the universe through the creation of the elements. The project was the brainchild of Soula Bennett, the Director of Quantum Victoria and President of the Science Teacher’s Association of Victoria, who envisaged a union of art and science for permanent display in the centre.

An elemental journey through the periodic table is an opportunity for Victorian students and teachers to connect with one of science’s most significant accomplishments, as seen through an artistic lens,’ says Soula.

Careful thought was given to each of the selected 51 hexagons. Soula and her team chose elements that are known to students through the many hands-on experiments and investigations occurring in science classrooms in Victorian schools. They also wished to celebrate well-known scientists, such as Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and, of course, Dimitri Mendeleev.

Artists Damon Kowarsky and Hyunju Kim captured the scientific characteristics the hexagons from a non-scientific perspective, incorporating images that connect the viewer with objects and events that have mapped human endeavour and identity. Damon extensively researched each element before drawing the works by hand and collaborating with fellow artist Hyunju Kim, who undertook the colouring.

A number of the works include distinctly Australian features, such as the illustration for nitrogen, which features the acacia tree, known for its nitrogen-fixation ability. ‘Wherever I could, I tried to bring in pieces of Australian nature and culture because I want our students to know that the periodic table is a part of their everyday lives,’ says Kowarsky. Other pieces illustrate the element’s cultural or historical relevance, such as the aerial view of Hiroshima that features in the artwork for uranium. Kowarsky encourages schools to use his illustrations in the classroom and across a variety of studies as a way to engage students in the beauty and creativity of science and its relationship to other fields.

Quantum Victoria is one of six Science and Mathematics Specialist Centres in the state that engages students and teachers in contemporary science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning experiences. Programs at these centres are aligned to the Victorian Curriculum and VCE Science and Mathematics study designs, and are differentiated to meet a variety of student abilities.

This article draws upon Ariana Remmel, ‘The art of the periodic table’, Australian Science, July/August 2019.