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New USNA Chemistry Course Blends Science and Art

Posted on: November 12, 2013 08:00 EST by LT Harry Qui

This spring, the midshipmen will have the opportunity to take a new class, one that will reveal the unexpected relationship between chemistry and art.

Each year, faculty members in the USNA chemistry department use their summer break to pursue a wide range of activities, such as full-time research, participating in the STEM program or personal and professional development. For Dr. Joe Lomax, it was an art workshop at Bismarck State College sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The workshop was a highly competitive program where professors from around the country gathered and shared knowledge on chemistry and art.

Chemistry and art. Two subjects that seem to be on different spectrums, yet they are integrally related.

We live in a world full of colors. Our ancestors were not at all content with monochromatic cave paintings. Thus, a search for suitable dyes began. Many of the early dyes were composed of metal particles. For instance, the ancient Egyptian paint, red ochre, is composed mainly of iron oxide. Since ancient times, art and chemistry have been forever linked.

During the five days at Bismarck State College, each participant had the opportunity to work on various “art” projects and learn how they were related to chemistry. The workshop topics ranged from soap making to papermaking to dying cloth. Each lab allowed participants to be fully engaged in the whole process, from making their own reagents to forming the final products.

This workshop was particularly significant to Lomax because of what he had previously learned from a family member – an organic chemist who works at the conservation division of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Through conversations, Lomax gained an in depth knowledge of many inner works of art and chemistry. At the workshop was able to have a more hands-on experience.

Lomax’s new course, Art Conservation Chemistry, is a 200-level course open to first, second and third class midshipmen. The class will include weekly labs, lectures from subject matter experts outside the Naval Academy, a field trip to an art conservation lab, and multiple hands-on experiments, including dying cloth, working with pigments and paints, photography, working with fused glass, chromatography and spectroscopy.

We encounter art and chemistry every day. Learning how the two complement each other will only make us better appreciate their intricacy. 

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