There exists a natural affinity between iconography and chemistry. Chemistry, in contrast to physics which leans towards abstract mathematical representation and biology with natural form, relies on symbolism which has a very concrete expression through the physical reality of the elements themselves. It is very much a science of the senses but its sights and smells are at a remove from nature and are penned into a symbolic universe much as the alchemists remained sealed in their laboratories in search of the Philosophers' Stone. Thus the chemist, like the alchemist before him, hopes that by reducing nature to its simplest elements and then putting them back together to gain mastery over it. With this end in view, chemistry has evolved as a science based on the symbolism of the chemical elements which are individually loaded with attributes which can inspire artistic expression. These attributes take many forms, historical, geographical, sociological, economic, physical properties and appearance. These attributes ramify when an elements hermetic isolation is breached and it combines with other elements to produce materials with new properties. There are 109 elements, their standard arrangement is in octaves where the properties of each note are to some extent repeated by heavier elements within subsequent octaves. Because nature is awkward and does not like perfect analogies, after the first two octaves subsequent octaves are disrupted by the introduction additional blocks of elements between the second and third notes for the next three octaves. The sixth octave remains to be completed and awaits the discovery of new elements.
Murray Robertson has produced a striking new representation of the chemical elements drawing on the symbolism that surrounds them from the commonplace, nickel in baked beans, to the mythological, Oppenheimer's invocation of Shiva as the genie behind the destructive power of the element plutonium. The images work on a number of levels. As artwork they are wonderfully executed and provide a feast for the eyes. Such striking representations of the elements bring an appreciation of the complexity of the chemical reality which underlies the universe, and promotes the subject as being exciting and full of potential. If it were but possible to fully understand and manipulate this symbolic universe the key to life might be found. The icons used to represent each element are just the surface representation of something that is ultimately unknowable in its entirety. However, the surfaces of these symbols have an arcane aspect which makes us want to look deeper, to experience the element as a living symbol rather than a list of numbers: such as boiling point , atomic radius, first ionisation potential, valency, charge density. The complexity of the physical nature of the elements underlies the images and the image like a cypher compells us to decipher. The importance of this collection of images is that it tells a story, science is not just something remote practised in laboratories but is our modern mythology-we use it to interpret our world and it is a story that continues to unfold. To this end it is very important that art and science are not viewed as separate. Einstein said that the most important quality possessed by a scientist was imagination. In 109 elements we have the alchemist's dream of gold and the philosopher's stone in a modern aspect which we can but hope symbolises a new golden age.
Dr David Watson
Senior Lecturer in Analytical Chemistry