Category Archives: Art

Appreciating the Colors

A few days ago, I was really sick of the flood of assignments that I had to deal with, so I decided to devote some time to my hobby for a change.  Drawing is one of the best things I like to do most, and for coloring I use colored pencils habitually because of its convenience.  However, on that day, I was already tired of holding a pencil and felt like holding a paintbrush instead.  So I pulled my watercolor set that was not used for a long time from my room.  Then I thought, “Although I own many painting tools, and have noticed of words like pigments, I’ve never wondered how these actually work.  If I could figure out what is happening inside these paints, that knowledge will not only be useful when I paint, but it should also form a bridge between the world of science and art in my mind.”  So I decided to use this opportunity to do a research on how chemistry is involved in the manufacturing process of paints.

(Figure 1)

Each paint manufacturer has their original composition – a basic recipe for their products – that is designed to keep the costs under control and to get the best possible handling attributes for every pigment in the watercolor line.  However they often use the same ingredients. (Figure1)

(1) One or more pigments, which will add color to the paint.  (2) A brightener, white or transparent crystals that will brighten the dried paint.  (3) A binder, as known as gum Arabic or synthetic glycol that makes the paint to form a film when dried.  (4) A plasticizer, often glycerin, to help the binder to redissolve.    (5) A humectant, traditionally simple syrup or honey but now often inexpensive corn syrup, to help the paint retain moisture.  (6) An extender or filler, such as dextrin, to thicken the paint without affecting the color.  (7) Manufacturing additives, such as dispersant and preservatives.  Dispersants prevent clumping of the raw pigment after manufacture and speed up the milling of ingredients.  Fungicide is added as a preservative and suppresses the growth of mold or bacteria.  (8) Finally, the water, which dissolves or suspends all the ingredients, carries them onto the paper, and evaporates when its work is done.  (MacEvoy, 2005)

After looking at the function of each ingredient in watercolor paint, and found out that pigment is the one in paint that’s actually creating all kinds of vibrant colors, I got curious and did some further research on pigments.  Pigments are very fine powders that have their own color, chemical, and physical properties. (Matsukawa, 2002)  They are usually of mineral or organic origin although some, such as lead white, are artificially produced. (Janson, 2013)  For example, Cobalt blue that artists use it for high quality blue, chemically is a Cobalt(II) aluminate, CoAl2O4, a product of reaction between Cobalt(II) chloride and Aluminum chloride.  The two substances undergo a “sintering” process, that is, they are grinded together, then heated to form a bond. (Chemicalland21, 2013)

For this reason, chemical reactions play an important role in the manufacturing stage of paints to offer us a wide range of colors.  However, once the paint comes into action, the chemical reaction can mess around with our artwork.  I assume that most of the artists would have encountered this problem at least once: One puts his work on sunny place to let it dry, then he notices a slight color change when the artwork compared to when it was still wet.  I read an interesting article about Van Gogh’s painting losing their shine due to chemical reaction, reciting that, “The yellow pigment, used by Van Gogh has been undergoing a chemical reaction when exposed to ultraviolet light (including sunlight) that turns the outer layers of the painting brown. …This sunlight triggers a chemical reaction that turns the bright yellow into a dirty brown. “(Welsh, J) This change of color was caused because the Chromium in the yellow pigment had gained electrons due to the UV light from the sun, hence reduced to Chromium(VI) to Chromium(III).

It is such a wonder that chemistry can both enhance and spoil the beauty of art.  This research had raised my knowledge as an art student, and more importantly, it also made me want to dig more into the world of chemistry, in other words it strengthened my curiosity.  In my opinion being curious about what kind of science is involved in the real world is necessary for IB chemistry students.  In conclusion, this research had taught me that being vividly aware of science behind any subjects can benefit us in many aspects.


MacEvoy, B. (2005). how watercolor paints are made. handprint. Retrieved from

Matsukawa, N. (2002). What is PIGMENT?.  All about painting materials and Techniques. Retrieved from

Janson, J. (2013). The Anatomy of Pigment and Binder. Vermeer’s palette. Retrieved from

AroKor Holdings Inc. (2013). COBALT BLUE. Chemicalland21. Retrieved from

Welsh, J. (February 14, 2011). Chemical Reaction Darkens Van Gogh Luster. LiveScience. Retrieved from

Images Cited

MacEvoy, B. (2005). schematic backbone composition of a modern watercolor paint. handprint. Retrieved from

Hafizov, I. (n.d.). pigments. Chemistry Explained. Retrieved from

Green Fluorescent Protein: the Art and the Science

This summer I took a course at Rutgers University in New Jersey called GFP: the Art and the Science. It was taught by a biochemistry professor, Dr. William Ward (who had started his own company, Brighter Ideas Inc., to help others realize the potential of GFP), and supposed to be quite difficult. I gleaned this by the topics we were required to write about to get into the program. A lot of them weren’t things that normal students would know off the top of their heads, and questions often had terms like ‘chromophore’ and ‘cyclic tripeptide’ in them. We were supposed to be investigating GFP, a relatively new protein.

Our task was to use biochemistry purification techniques to purify a crude sample of GFP. Dr. Ward and his assistants had inserted the gene for GFP production into e. coli, produced numerous bacteria colonies and put the colonies in to a blender. The result was a green, cloudy, viscous mixture of dead, disembodied bacteria, DNA, other proteins, and ribosomes, etc. These were referred to as ‘contaminants’. Because we only wanted the GFP this meant that we would have to get rid of everything else, which would be difficult. One of the techniques used was chromatography, which is a method for separating substances based on certain criteria, such as charge, polarity, hydrophobicity, density, size, shape, affinity, and solubility. We used ammonium sulfate precipitation, hydrophobic interaction chromatography (HIC), ion exchange chromatography (IEX), and high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) to purify the crude GFP sample. After each round of purification we used a spectrophotometer to measure the purity of our sample. We ended up purifying the crude sample, which was only about 25% GFP, to a sample that was nearly 100% GFP. But how to these purification techniques that we used work? Why are they so effective?


Nearly pure GFP on a UV light


samples of the purest GFP


collecting samples of GFP as it elutes from the chromatography column

Ammonium sulfate precipitation is a method used to purify GFP by altering its solubility. It solidifies GFP into a mass that does not easily dissolve in water. Therefore, when the crude GFP sample is centrifuged, the GFP separates from the more soluble contaminants by forming a pellet on the bottom. HIC purifies the sample by resulting in only the molecules that have a similar hydrophobicity. IEX purifies the sample by resulting in only molecules with a similar charge. Hydrophobicity and charge are two important characteristics of GFP. By purifying the crude GFP sample using by using these two criteria, a high level of success was ensured.

However, you may be asking yourself why GFP is important. If scientists are interested in purifying it, this must mean that it is worth isolating for further study or for further applications in real life. GFP is special simply because it glows green when exposed blue light. It first came to the public knowledge when a Japanese organic chemist and marine biologist, Osamu Shimamura, decided to investigate what allowed aequorea victoria jellyfish to glow green. He was the first person to isolate GFP from the jellyfish and find out which “part of GFP was responsible for its fluorescence” (Zimmer, Marc). He, along with Roger Tsien and Martin Chalfie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the year 2008 for the “discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein GFP” (, 2008), which only demonstrates the level of interest it has created in the scientific community. GFP can be modified for a large number of uses – it has been used to create glowing animals/pets, used as a marker in a cancer cell to track the activity of cancer in certain situations, and used in brains to create fluorescent multicolored neutrons which result in beautiful rainbow pictures of brain activity. It is even possible for GFP to be manipulated to express different colors. However, in order for GFP to be used in this fashion GFP must first be isolated, purified and studied, which is why the success of our purification was so important. Only by purifying it can the true potential of GFP be realized.

Works Cited

  1. “Martin Chalfie – Autobiography”. 24 Jul 2011
  2. Zimmer, Marc. “Green Fluorescent Protein – GFP History – Osamu Shimomura.” Connecticut College: Home Page. Web. 24 July 2011. <>.
  3. Zimmer, Marc. “Green Fluorescent Protein – Cool Uses.” Connecticut College: Home Page. Web. 24 July 2011. <>.

Some pictures:

The rainbow of GFP colors

The rainbow of GFP colors


A “brainbow”


glofish – genetically modified pet fish

Image Sources

  2. google images
  3. Green Fluorescent Protein: page

The Wonder of Fireworks

Fireworks. Everyone has seen them and/or used them. More recently, during Chinese New Year break, I watched as people bought fireworks by the box-loads and set them off with the excitement of 6-year old boy playing with an action figure he got for his birthday. As the constant sound of fireworks continued for days, even on the last night before school as I was trying to sleep (and as I write this post), I wondered how do fireworks work and why do we get so excited by watching them?

The mechanism of aerial fireworks is much like that of a rocket. In its simplest form, it is made up of two stages. The first is the propulsion section that is filled with gunpowder with a small hole in the bottom, which when combusts, releases the products carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas out of the hole to send the firework high into the air (this is sometimes replaced with compressed air, for safety reasons). The second stage contains the bits that you see as clouds of color. A fuse leads into the section that ignites the black powder, exploding the container (which is what you hear), sending the “stars” containing the salts in all directions giving off the colors as they do so. This is where the chemistry comes in. The colors are produced when atoms in the metal salts absorb the energy of the explosion, exciting the electrons. The electrons move to a higher-energy state and as they return to a lower-energy state that is more stable, they emit the light that we see (as demonstrated by the Bohr model). The amount of energy released depends on the compound used, and this in turn determines the color of light emitted. The colors range from red at the least amount of energy emitted to purple at the other end of what is the visible light spectrum.


So, now that we know how they work, why the fascination? If we were to use logic and reason as a way of knowing in this situation, we would find that it is quite pointless wasting both time and money to light explosives just to see the pretty colors that they create. After all, it is just a bunch of heated salt flying through the air after the explosion of a rocket. However, it is the creative side in us that causes this wonder of fireworks. It is a combination of sense perception and emotion that lead us to watch these shows of explosive art. Yves Pépin, a fireworks artist, puts it this way: “I think one reason people continue to be fascinated with fireworks is that they remain incomprehensible, even though people know how they work. They are a chain of chemical reactions that begins with a spark on the ground and ends in flashes of light several hundred meters in the air. But there is something sufficiently nature-defying so that it remains magical.” Thus, we appreciate fireworks much in the same way as we do art. It is the irrationally in us, that makes us spend millions on satisfying something that logic and reason just cannot explain.


Finally, what does this means for us IB Chem students? It means that the concepts that we are learning in class are not just to memorize and re-iterate for a good grade, but are actually used in real life in a very relatable way. As these fireworks displays continue for the next few days, until the people setting them off run out of money or the stores run out of fireworks (whichever comes first), we can look at these fireworks with the thought that we know the science behind them. Furthermore, this is an example of us asking why we do certain things and linking the science behind it. It is part of the quest to continually ask What? and Why?

Works Cited:

Up to 11: The Science of Feedback

“Well, its one louder, isnt it? Its not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten.” – Nigel Tufnel, This is Spinal Tap
“Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten.” – Nigel Tufnel, This is Spinal Tap

You’ve probably heard it before. That loud, howling, bloodcurdling noise in the middle of a speech or presentation that sends everyone in the room putting their hands over their ears and recoiling away in horror, effectively bringing all activity in the room to a screeching halt (excuse the pun). That, ladies and gentlemen, is called feedback, and in the eyes of many, arguably ranks as one of the worst sounding things in the world, right up there with the sound of fingernails raking a blackboard or any one of Justin Bieber’s songs. At the same time however, have you ever found yourself listening to “My Generation” by The Who or “I Feel Fine” by The Beatles and wondered what exactly those buzzing, mechanical sounding noises that end the former and open the latter were? That too, ladies and gentlemen, is feedback, and in the hands of the right person, it can rank, to some people (myself included), as one of the most curiously cool (and somewhat mind-blowing) noises in the world. But what exactly causes feedback? And why does it sound so good in some cases and so horrible in others? That is down to the creation of a looped signal, with the creation of which being shown in the following diagram:

As can be seen here, the audio input (the things being said) that goes into the input device (the microphone) is amplified and sent back out through the output device (the speaker), through which it is then projected to the audience. However, if the amplified audio signal emitted from the speaker is picked up once again by the input device, the signal is amplified again and sent out through the output device once more, thus creating an infinite loop where the audio signal passes  (a looped signal). The howling noise that is created as a result of the establishment of the loop, however, is due to the speed by which the loop is created, as the signal generally travels fast enough for the audio signal to create its own frequency. The frequency of the howling noise is in turn affected by the distance between the input and output devices, with higher frequencies arising from a closer proximity between the input and output devices, as the signal travels faster if it has less distance to cover. The final thing to consider is the type of audio input being put into the input device in the first place. For instance, a musician deliberately trying to emanate feedback would play audio input that we deem as being generally more pleasant than perhaps, a microphone tap, thus creating a generally more pleasant sound.

But what’s the big deal? Personally, as a guy who likes listening to and discovering new music constantly, I feel that understanding how certain sounds found in music are caused is an integral part to being able to appreciate the elaborateness and ingenuity behind the sounds created by some of my favourite bands. Indeed, learning about the causes of feedback has made me come to view some of my favourite musical acts as being “scientists of sound”, generally because it has brought me to understand that some of those ethereal sounds I hear on some albums were the result of some serious manipulation of physics. In addition, it’s also brought me to realise just how much an understanding of science can help to make everyday things, such as music, seem that much more interesting, allowing me to appreciate them better. So the next time you listen to your music, just take awhile to think about what exactly the people you’re listening to are doing to create those sounds. It really does make the music that much better.


Clark, Robert L. “What Causes Feedback in a Guitar or Microphone?: Scientific American.” Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific American. 4 Apr. 2005. Web. 14 Feb. 2011. <>.

“HowStuffWorks “What Causes That Howling Sound in PA Systems?”” Howstuffworks “Electronics” Web. 14 Feb. 2011. <>.

Scientists who are artists

This week I was had the opportunity to look at the work of Nori, a Year 2 IB Visual Arts student. As a Chemistry teacher, I was particularly interested one of his areas of influence –  Biology.  Cloning, artificial life, and genetic diseases, are very much part of the language of our times and Nori showed through his work an awareness of the need to be scientifically literate, and to be being able to understand the news of the day as it relates to science. Using his knowledge gained in IB Biology he explored the relationship between cellular form and function.  I would have to agree with him when he wrote

“the double helix structure is the most amazing diagram in biology. It is a powerful symbol of what makes us who we are.”

As part of exploring societal issues, my interest was sparked when he stated in his journal

“Why can’t countries cooperate? Why can’t leaders understand people with different policies?”

and then went on to visually explore these big questions through WATER, which according to Nori is

the ideal diplomat because can mix with many substances.

This really got me thinking about the connections between art and science and how artists can be influenced by the visual images and symbolism in science. I was curious to find other artists that use scientific knowledge to create works of art.

hemoglobinI was drawn to the technical skill and scientific knowledge of artist Julian Voss-Andrea .  Voss-Andrea started out studying Physics at University in Europe and after pursuing a graduate research in quantum physics  moved to the U.S. where he rekindled his passion for art. His sculptures are amazing (photo of Heart of steel (hemoglobin) – left and buckyball above). His intention is clear, and his sensitive use of materials and technical skill both as an artist and scientist are very much evident in his installations.

Another connection between art and science of a different kind is the company hybrid medical animation.  Their mission is to merge topnotch art with biology.  I think of Nori’s golgi apparatus and mitochondria compositions when I look at their work because of the beautiful way they use science, art, music and technology to create amazing illustrations, animations and installations to help people understand science. The huge DNA installation above is made of metal cubes and the illustration below shows golgi apparatus collecting proteins and lipids from the endoplasmic reticulum.

Despite the significant differences in how knowledge is created in art and science Nori has helped me see how the visual arts can be used to convey the imagination of scientists and the beauty of science beyond that which our senses can perceive.  Art and science provide a complementary way of making sense of the natural world – a balance and perspective that gives knowledge a richness and depth.