The Ambiguous Colors of Nanotechnology – Issue 26: Color

Kate Nichols leans her delicate face against the glass of a chemical fume hood in a University of California, Berkeley lab, peering into a beaker filled with a pale yellow liquid—“like a well hydrated person’s pee,” she says, laughing. The yellow brew is a fresh batch of silver nanoparticles. Over the next week, the liquid will turn green, then turquoise, then blue as the particles morph in shape from spheroids to prisms under the influence of time and fluorescent light. Post-docs and grad students elsewhere in the nanotech lab are synthesizing nanoparticles for research on artificial photosynthesis and quantum dot digital displays. But not Nichols. She isn’t a scientist, but an artist, gripped by color.

About 15 miles away, in her studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, brightly colored pigments sit on a crowded shelf next to the nanopaints she made in the lab: vials of yellowish and brown solutions containing varying sizes and concentrations of silver nanoparticles. On a nearby wall opposite a large oil painting of close-up fish scales hangs a group of small sculptures she calls “Figments.” Each is made of two triangular pieces of glass covered in nanoparticle paint, and joined by a hinge. They look…

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