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Just as we reduce the visible spectrum to seven colours, we divide the electromagnetic spectrum into seven zones. The middle zone - the smallest - is the only one we call visible, but in truth they are all visible to us now.
From July 5th to July 11th, over the course of seven lectures, Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly, The School of Looking, take each type of light and tell the inspiring, and often tragic, human stories of the men and women behind its discovery, while considering a wide range of artistic, aesthetic, and ethical questions related to their uses.
The vision and scope of these lectures is immense, swooping from the vastness of the cosmic microwave background to the nano scale of a gamma ray, and is based on research undertaken over the last year as Cleary and Connolly prepare a major new visual art exhibition for the Crawford Gallery of Art, to open in October 2020, in collaboration with Tyndall National Institute, IPIC, and supported by the Science Foundation Ireland Discovery programme.
DAY ONE (JULY 5) - THE NATURE OF LIGHT
The quest to understand light stretches from antiquity up to the present day, and even now all its mysteries have not been fully elucidated. Along the way many mind-blowing theories were advanced. Some proved to be true, many others were disproved, but each step lead to a deepening understanding of light in all its forms.
To introduce this series of lectures covering the entire electromagnetic spectrum The School of Looking consider some of the concepts that scientists, artists and philosophers theorised to explain light, and marvel at the incredible feats of imagination required.
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DAY TWO (JULY 6) - GAMMA RAYS + X RAYS
“The Press assures its readers that there is no joke or humbug in the matter. It is a serious discovery by a serious German Professor.” London Standard, 1895, in relation to the discovery of X-ray Photography.
The late 19th century was a time of huge innovation, with new scientific advances appearing in the press on a monthly if not a daily basis. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-Ray and developed a technique for taking photographs through solid matter, risking his health and that of his wife in the process, and Paul Villard identified another sort of penetrating ray, later called the Gamma ray, while playing around with a radium sample lent to him by colleagues Marie and Pierre Curie.
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DAY THREE (JULY 7) - ULTRA VIOLET
UV radiation was discovered by Johann Wilhelm Ritter in 1801, who dubbed it “Chemical Rays”, observing that the radiation induced a chemical reaction in photographic paper. Similar to visible light but with a shorter wavelength, Ultra Violet light is visible to many animals, including foraging birds and insects.
Flowers have pigments that reflect UV, just as they have pigments that reflect visible light, and these pigments are visible to the UV sensitive eyes of navigating bees. But what do these colours look like? How can we represent or even imagine a colour that a bee can see but that we cannot?
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DAY FOUR (JULY 8) - VISIBLE LIGHT
We call the central band of the electromagnetic spectrum, the part that we and some other primates see, “visible light”, but in fact most animals do not see colours as we do. Mammals (horses, dogs, cats...) are mostly dichromats, and see wavelengths in the blue and yellow areas of the spectrum, while many of the reds, purples and magentas that so enrich our visual experience remain invisible to them.
The Mantis Shrimp, a marine creature with a tiny brain but four times as many colour receptors as we do, could potentially see many millions of colours that we couldn’t even imagine. But while we can establish what animal eyes have the capacity of seeing, we have no way of knowing how the animals process this information, and what “visible” means to them.
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DAY FIVE (JULY 9) - INFRARED
Infrared radiation (IR) is a type of radiant energy that is invisible to our eyes but that we feel as heat. It is implicated in climate change as it gets trapped close to the earth by a layer of gasses. Visionary Irish scientist and alpinist John Tyndall first proved the connection between atmospheric CO2 and what we now call the Greenhouse effect in 1858. He observed that the radiant heat from the sun could easily pass through our atmosphere, but heat radiated from the earth had more difficulty getting back out.
He deduced that it was a different form of heat, which he called “obscure heat”, and wrote in 1896 “…The longer waves of the obscure heat cannot get through water, and I find that all transparent compounds which contain hydrogen are peculiarly hostile to the longer undulations.”
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DAY SIX (JULY 10) - MICROWAVES
Microwaves are in fact the only electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths comparable to our human scale: between one millimetre and one meter. We associate the word with our time because of the humble kitchen appliance that goes by the name, but it’s true significance is on an entirely different scale. Microwaves have shown us the horizon of the observable universe: the first light that our universe ever produced which has travelled for 13.7 billion years.
During its journey through expanding space the energy from this event faded beyond the red of the visible spectrum and comes to us as invisible light. Its evenness on every side confirms that it all began with a single hot, dense, simple event. The Cosmic Microwave Background is perhaps the only sacred relic of science.
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DAY SEVEN (JULY 11) - RADIO WAVES
The Italian Minister of Post and Telegraphs scrawled “Alla Lungara” across a letter requesting funds to develop a wireless telegraph machine, received from Guglielmo Marconi in 1896. The hospital for the mentally ill in Rome was on Via della Lungara at the time, so “Alla Lungara” clearly meant “to the mad house”.
Marconi’s invention went on to change the world, laying the foundations of a communications revolution that still continues. Despite the vast range of radiotelegraphy that we use today (radar, remote control, television, satellites, cell phones, wifi…) “radio” will always evoke the early years of broadcasting, an alchemy of magical coils and crystals that somehow captured energy from thin air.
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FINAL DAY - Q&A
Have any thoughts to share or questions to ask? Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly will be on hand to wrap up the lecture series and talk about their upcoming exhibition Invisible Light at Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.
THE SCHOOL OF LOOKING
The School of Looking was founded in 2018 by artists and architects Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly to create innovative and exciting participatory art projects inspired by visual perception, science and technology. Anne & Denis exhibit regularly throughout Ireland and abroad, with support from the Arts Council of Ireland. They share their time between Paris (where their work has been shown in the Pompidou Centre) and Ireland, where they are recipients of the AIB Art Award.
The aim of the Vision Revolution is to borrow these eyes that science has made to see all the invisible light that illuminates the universe, and to use them as if they are not a scientist’s but an artist’s eyes.
Vision Revolution is sponsored by Boston Scientific Clonmel.