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The Art of Science On Display at NIST Exhibit at JHU

NIST CNST - Carbon Nanotube Electron Tomography


The words “nanotube” and “art” don’t usually appear in the same sentence.

Yet at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, they do. NIST, headquartered in Gaithersburg, is debuting in September an art exhibit at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus called “MICRO/MACRO.” The collection of approximately 20 images was pulled together by Kelly Irvine, art director for NIST, as she shows that art and science are inextricably connected.

“I have been collecting and processing research images for use in articles about cutting-edge NIST research for 18 years now. Occasionally, I see images that I feel are visually outstanding, independent of their scientific significance, and it struck me that as a collection, such images would make a beautiful exhibit,” Irvine said. “If reproduced at a large size, they might at first glance appear to be abstract art but upon closer inspection, captions will explain their scientific significance.”

Most of the artwork for the exhibit is micrographs, which are photographic images taken through a microscope. The micrographs generally are taken by the scientists in the course of their research. In some cases, color is added to the image to provide clarity in understanding the research. The images are blown up for the exhibit.

Among the highlights:

  • A micrograph of a very thin, multi-layered ceramic membrane. The membrane was produced by NIST as part of developing standards for calibrating the stiffness of tiny beams, smaller than a human hair, which are used by scientists to “feel” and map surfaces with sub-nanometer precision. “This image has a lot of movement,” Irvine said. “It appears to glow and undulate across a range of colors.

    Scatterfield MRI
  • An image created using a microscope and a technique called “scatterfield imaging” to produce a pattern that depicts estimated uncertainties in experimental data when measuring nanometer-scale structures. “I like how its symmetry and rippling quality are punctuated by bits of fuchsia that pop out from the cool blues and greens,” Irvine said.
  • An image showing a colorized 3D reconstruction of the shape and network structure of carbon nanotube bundles as originally imaged with electron tomography. The colors, derived from an image-processing algorithm, are defined by the sizes of the bundles. Carbon nanotubes—essentially sheets of graphene rolled up into straws—have potentially useful properties, and better understanding them could lead to the manufacture of optimal materials for thermal management, mechanical reinforcement, energy storage, drug transport and other uses.


The exhibit will be on display from Sept. 6 through Nov. 11 at JHU in the lobby of the 9605 Medical Center Drive building. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

NIST officials hope the exhibit helps the local community better understand the federal agency, which advances measurement science, standards and technology with a goal of enhancing economic security and quality of life.

“People in the community know we’re here, yet they may not really know the type of work we do,” Irvine said. “I am hoping such an exhibit will serve a dual purpose as art exhibit and as an outreach effort to increase our community’s awareness of the cool research happening at NIST.”

She added: “I hope [viewers] experience a really cool and intriguing art exhibit that takes them by surprise. It’s appealing, it’s powerful, it’s colorful and they will find out information about NIST they didn’t know before.”

CATEGORY: The Arts, In The Community