Cam Lates: Art under the microscope at the Whipple Museum

Published on 20 Dec 2016


Written by Jess Bartlet

Last Wednesday I was lucky enough to be treated with looking around The Whipple’s fantastic gallery after hours, perusing historic orreries, astrolabes and globes. Little did I know that by the end of the night I would have created my own mini-masterpiece.

Experts from The Whipple Museum were on hand to showcase some of the most historic landmark progressions in microscopy, including a 19th century replica of the first real microscope made by Dutch draper, Anthonie Van Leeuwenhoek. They also had Robert Hooke’s magnificent c.1665 first edition Micrographia. Known as the ‘godfather of microbiology’, Robert Hooke coined the word ‘cell’ and brought the microscopic world into focus in Micrographia with exquisite artwork of ‘minute bodies’ (now more commonly referred to as micro-organisms).

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Darwin’s microscope at The Whipple Museum (credit: Paul Allum)

After the tour, we moved on to hear from modern glass artist, Jenny Walsh, who has recently finished an MA at Central Saint Martins in Art and Science. She gave us a fascinating overview on the core-form method of glass formation and how to change its composition for scientific use. Although most people are probably aware that glass is made from sand, the intricacies of the process are commonly a mystery. However, Jenny’s talk took us on a superb journey of discovery; from learning about how to lower the melting point of sand (silica) using a ‘flux’ (soda or lime) in order to increase the ‘plasticity and playfulness’ of the resulting glass, as well as highlighting the amorphous structure of glass that gives it properties of both liquids and solids. Have you ever noticed how in Cathedral windows the glass is thicker at the bottom than the top? That is because the glass is acting like a liquid - slowly being pulled by gravity towards the ground.

Glass is an astounding material, with countless applications. It can occur naturally in a volcanic form - known as obsidian (ask any keen Minecraft player). Because it is inert, Glass can be used for medical purposes; for example bioactive glass is used in calcium bone formation in dentistry.Participation at the Whipple Museum

Participation at The Whipple Museum (credit: Paul Allum)

After we were suitably enamoured by the subject of glass, we then had the opportunity to make their own microscopic glass artworks using glass frit, dichroic glass and twisted cane on glass slides, which would then be taken away to be fired in a kiln. All the glass had to be glued on, which dries transparently, otherwise the embellishments can ‘walk’ in the kiln.

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My glass artwork slide (credit: Paul Allum)

Humans have been making glass for thousands of years and without it things might look very different today. Glass has played a significant role in scientific discoveries;  without it we wouldn’t have been able to  develop sophisticated lenses for microscopes and telescopes. And in our technology-led world now, think about how many of us probably use or interact with items of glass everyday; for example in our watches, and mobile phone interfaces. It has allowed us to view further than we have ever imagined before, and who knows what further innovative uses could be found for it. I extremely enjoyed learning about the historic scientific and artistic implications of glass. The event was meticulously organised and I met some fantastic like-minded people. I would thoroughly recommend attending the Cambridge University Lates.

Further reading about the history of glass:

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