Searching for the building blocks of life in space
The 2017 art trail theme is STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths. This year Queen Mary University worked in partnership with the E17 Art Trail. I had the wonderful opportunity a being paired with astrobiologists Dr Izasken Jimenez-Serra and Dr David Quenard from Queen Mary University London. I was delighted to have the opportunity to interpret their work in clay and to help them share their work with new audiences. Over 200 people came to our talks, workshops and art exhibition.
Researchers from Queen Mary University of London, Dr. David Quenard and Dr. Izaskun Jimenez-Serra came to talk about their discovery and its implications. They have found more than 70 amino acids in meteorites and comets. Also, they found ice with the same isotope as found on earth. This implies that water came from comets which landed on earth bringing with them both water for ocean formation and amino acids. The conditions for creating more complex chemistry on earth were now ideal – warmth from the sun, liquid water and movement created by the tug of the moon on the ocean creating tides.
Fascinated by how life evolved from rock, I started investigating the elements that make up clay and glaze materials, that are also found in humans and have a biological role. I found that all the elements that were in my materials were also essential constituents of the human body – silica, alumina, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and also the highly reactive element, lithium.
Inspired by this synchronicity, I made a sequence of cups each with 1% more Lithium carbonate than the one before mixed into the body of the clay. This lowered the melting point of the clay, so that each cup slumped slightly more than the one before. Lithium carbonate is found naturally in the human body (in tiny amounts!), but it is also used as a medicine in the treatment of bipolar disorder as a mood stabiliser. The dosage is critical – not enough and there is no clinical benefit, too much and the side effects are catastrophic! The difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose; just as the small changes in the ‘dose’ of lithium carbonate caused the progressive collapse of my ceramic cups.
Kill or cure 2017 Amanda Doidge. Photograph by Paul Tucker
Photograph Stephanie Waterman. Introducing Dr David Quenard’s talk to the eager art trail audience. E17 art trail visitors were fascinated and asked so many questions that we overran by an hour!
I was delighted that we were able to find a way to make these astonishing ideas accessible to a young audience.
Workshop number 1. Everyone found this workshop to be a really helpful way of learning about chemistry. It started with the rule of how many electrons each element ‘likes’ to have.
Hydrogen 1 white
Oxygen 2 red
Nitrogen 3 blue
Carbon 4 black
We invited the participants to combine these elements together any way they like following these rules. Any combination of elements following these rules will exist somewhere in the universe! If the combination is possible then it exists! So children were trying to follow the rules, building their own molecules in 3 D and then Dr David Quenard or Dr Izasken Jimenez-Serra would tell them what molecule they had created! Then they were shown how to make some of the pre-biological molecules discovered by Dr David Quenard and Dr Izasken Jimenez-Serra in their research. This elegantly explains why even in space simple molecules can be found. Word got round and in later workshops we had to extend the table to double its size!
“I was really impressed with this workshop. Dr David Quenard and Dr Izaskun Jimenez-Serra kept everyone engaged and made the concept of the molecules found in space very accessible. As a science teacher I particularly liked the way they invited the children (and adults) to invent their own molecules, using the rules of chemistry. Sure enough, the plasticine and tooth-picks turned into models of real molecules that had names and could be found in space. A much more exciting and memorable way than telling them what to build in the first place.” Katherine, E17 art trail build your own molecule workshop participant.
Discussions in the studio, making process. Photograph by Stephanie Waterman
Discussions in the studio with the art trail audience! Photograph by Stephanie Waterman