Kate Nichols is a painter trained in 15th century Northern Renaissance techniques. But this week she will give a presentation at TED, perhaps the most prestigious big-think technology conference. Her topic? Nanotechnology.
It might sound bizarre, but when you listen to the story of Nichols’ quest to recreate the brilliant blue iridescence of the Morpho butterfly, her scientific presentation makes perfect sense.
Nichols learned painting as painters did in 15th century Flanders: by apprenticing under a master and learning to make her own paints. She became skilled at creating the type of complex colors only possible as light travels through thin layers of oil glaze. But she eventually found that no amount of layering could recreate the complexity she saw in the Morpho butterfly’s wings.
Studying with mathematician Judy Holdener at Kenyon College, Nichols discovered that the brilliance of the butterfly’s wings did not come from chemical coloring, as is the case with paint, but from the shape of super tiny structures inside the wing.
It’s called structural color, and it became Nichol’s goal to incorporate it into her work.
“I realized that I would have to use architectures much smaller than those you can create with thin oil glazes in order to generate structural color effects,” Nichols said.
Enter nanotechnology. Through some research of her own, Nichols realized she needed to work at the nanoscale. So she wrote an email to Paul Alivisatos, who runs a nanotechnology lab at the University of California at Berkeley (he’s also director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab).
In 2008, she became the first artist-in-residence in his lab.
I was reading an article about the colors of feathers on ancient dinosaurs. They could now distinguish color by the structure of the cells. Different color; different shape. I would guess the premise is the same.