Radioactivity meets Ravilious
Craft and science seem unlikely bedfellows, but knowledge of physical sciences informs glassmaking and ceramic manufacture. On the other hand, chemistry laboratories are equipped with hand-blown glass apparatus and ceramic crucibles, used in research.
Cross-cultural understanding and exchanges of ideas can be fruitful, as seen in a recent exhibition at the Royal College of Art in London. IMPACT! showed the results of 16 collaborative interactions between UK research scientists working in a variety of scientific disciplines and RCA Design Interaction students, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Nuclear Dialogues devised by designer Zoe Papadopoulou, working in collaboration with nuclear physicists Professor Francis Livens (Manchester University) and Dr Neil Hyatt (Sheffield University), stopped me in my tracks. It's a wittily engaging craft work, designed to help bridge the gap in public understanding of nuclear energy, which uses a table set for afternoon tea to stimulate discussion between local residents and scientists in areas where new nuclear power plants are planned.
Papadopoulou customised ten ‘found’ tea plates, decorating each with a line drawing showing a different benefit of nuclear energy, which are arranged on ten customised placemats decorated with hand-traced local maps showing sites of future power plants. A plate showing a heated greenhouse, reminiscent of Eric Ravilous’s 1930s Garden design for Wedgwood, sits on a placemat showing Bradwell, Essex. So far, so cosily domesticated, but also set on the table is a baked cake on a green glass plate, alongside which a Geiger counter clicks audibly and ominously.
The ‘Yellow-Cake’ recipe was devised by Papadopoulou, in collaboration with the physicists. It contains bananas (chosen for their high potassium content) and Brazil nuts (selected for their high radium content). The potassium and radium in the cake and the uranium contained in the 1930s ‘uranium glass’ plate, emit radiation that, although above the background level of environmental radiation, is essentially harmless. Their aim is to raise public awareness of the benefits of nuclear energy and its negligible risk to public health.
‘It’s a better way of engaging with people’s concerns than a sterile public consultation,’ says Professor Livens. ‘Working with Zoe Papadopoulou has shown us a different form of creativity than science, and we’ve enjoyed the visual jokes and multi-layered puns evident in the final installation.’
‘Nuclear Dialogues’ and several other IMPACT! projects will be exhibited during the Cheltenham Festival of Science (9-13 June).