There is a special relationship between art and technology that has impacted the way that we live, think and envision what the future may bring. Pioneer science fiction writers such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Isaac Asimov, to name a few, introduced ideas that were well beyond their time, fuelled by their experience, passion for science and ability to artistically link fact to fiction. Although science fiction writers often paint scenarios that go beyond the reachable scope of science in a given era, their works are written like dreams of scientific capabilities and adventures. Film adaptations bring these novels to life and artistic interpretation takes the fiction into a new dimension.
The curiosity of exploring an idea through science fiction writing, takes the writer into creating solutions to imaginary problems. Much like Sir Isaac Newton inventing the mathematics he needed to solve the problem he had. If solutions are drafted using logic and basic scientific principles, but include an individualism-factor, they can be omitted from scientific articles in order to maintain the notion of scientific credibility. It is therefore not surprising that a clear division is made between science fiction and science writing. However, apart from the entertaining nature of these novels, films or artworks, we are mostly interested about the feeling of being part of the artist’s mind, such that we can connect with them, and be influenced to think out of the box and bend science. Here we explore how scientists and inventors are inspired by art and how it changes the way science is communicated, applied and developed.
How does art play a role in scientific development? In most cases, art is an expression of its creator’s imagination, ideology or experience. Leaving aside the specifics that allow us to interpret artworks, it’s the art forms that are executed using a calculated method that are most relevant to this discussion. The most notable examples are the sketch collections of Leonardo da Vinci, combining art and science, undoubtedly showing a desire to understand, envision and innovate . His apparent ability to merge science and art earned him the chance to work as an engineer.
Sketching gave da Vinci a certain degree of freedom to record and experiment with clearly defined ideas and bring a concept out of his mind and closer to a perceived reality. Although some of his concepts were less practical at times or feared to be impossible to accomplish, many of his designs were brought to life years later. His works, like his interpretations of flight and flying machine concepts, are considered to have inspired the technology that we depend on today. But as an artist, it was his passion to understand and express his thoughts that converted him into a different kind of inventor, one with an acute insight into the scientific method without being part of a scientific community. Obsessed with flight, he searched to find a way to understand the factors that made it possible for birds to fly.
Although the flight mimicking mechanism of wing flapping common to birds had been previously described, da Vinci’s ornithopter sketches showed the use of cables, levers and pedals, which are quite similar to fly-by-wire aircraft, whose rudder and aileron control is granted using a series of wires that run between an aircraft’s wings and the controls in the cockpit. The use of cables and pulleys proved to be quite efficient, controlling the inputs made by the Captain and First Officer, that Boeing’s 777 and 747-400 rely on the traditional, mechanical Primary Flight Control System, which is used along with the hydraulics and system electronics .
When it comes to aviation, the minimal requirements for flight include aerodynamic wing and fuselage design, material of choice and keeping aircraft dimensions proportional to the thrust required to overcome the weight of the aircraft, generate lift and maintain a minimum speed in flight, taking into account air resistance, otherwise known as drag. With the physics of flight well established by the application of Bernoulli’s Principle drafted in 1738 and having defined designs that are proven to work, engineers can focus their attention on improving their aircraft in other ways without overhauling the entire plan. The 747, powered by four engines and able to carry over 400 passengers in a partial double-deck configuration, earned the name Jumbo Jet and revolutionised air travel when it was introduced in 1969, with capabilities unparalleled to any other commercial jet in its time. The 747 became a symbol of engineering success, showing its stance in aviation by transporting the President of the United States and being used by NASA to transport the space shuttle, which was secured on top of the fuselage.
Although large aircraft can be seen as feats of engineering, like the Antonov An-225 Mriya (cargo) or the Airbus A380-800, their roles are specific to a flight route or passenger numbers and due to their large dimensions the aircraft are limited to operate in and out of airports that can support them. In today’s world, the success of long distance aircraft is given by fuel efficiency, the on-board technology for pilots and the overall comfort for passengers. Boeing introduced the 787 Dreamliner promising all those factors, calling their aircraft the most fuel-efficient and spacious in the market, aimed to replace production of the highly versatile 767. Focusing on fuel-efficiency, Boeing made some changes to wing design that resulted in a more streamlined body. The efficiency however was made possible by switching from aluminium components, which are widely used in aircraft, to composite materials made by layering carbon fiber, plastic and other composites on top of each other, creating a matrix of fibers that allow structures to be stronger, yet remain lightweight. Keeping the aircraft light means that less power is demanded from its engines during take-off and flight, appealing to airline companies who aim to reduce fuel costs. During development of the 787, the aircraft endured long, gruelling tests to establish the effectiveness of the composite materials and design. This allowed engineers to detect design flaws, which were extensively corrected before the aircraft was approved for commercial flight. Although the delivery of the 787 was delayed repeatedly by Boeing and there was controversy over the quality and production, the team was able to produce the aircraft that had been envisioned years before and sets the direction of airline manufacture for the future.
Aircraft designers like aviation legend Burt Rutan use small prototype paper or plastic made planes to test if their design can glide, testing the fundamental physics of aerodynamics and strictly keep to the limitations of spacecraft, which like the space shuttle, must glide after re-entry due to the absence of thrust engines. With a remarkable ability to envision durable, lightweight aircraft that are less conventional and often strange-looking, Burt Rutan successfully designed and tested SpaceShipOne, a sub-orbital spacecraft that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004, which was later developed into SpaceShipTwo, built by The Spaceship Company founded by Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic). Interestingly like Boeing’s 787, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which is designed for commercial space travel at a luxury of $250,000, uses a meshwork of carbon fiber composites and glue, increasing the durability of the aircraft and allowing it to be lightweight and capable of maintaining its structure during re-entry. For the average aviation enthusiast, commercial and utility planes are just at the tip of the iceberg. Beneath lays a sandbox of ideas, tools and technologies that will advance the science and have space designated aircraft for human spaceflight. The venture into space has been a topic that has fuelled the imagination of science fiction writers, aviation enthusiasts and scientists. Inspired by the unknown, we have learned that the travel into space opens our frontiers and would make us experience a world that exists outside of our own and perhaps answer the ultimate question of “are we alone in the universe?”. A small taste of space travel has been given by game developers, notably the developers of The Kerbal Space Program, which use real-life physics to simulate space travel, given that you can design the appropriate aircraft that exits the atmosphere. Games that challenge and inspire as well as be scientifically accurate can spread the interest in space travel, aviation and aerospace engineering, increasing the engagement between the new generation of enthusiasts and professionals. In 2015 Red Bull hosted a Paper Plane contest, which gathered motivated students from across the world to design their plane and compete for the championship title. Events like these are important not only because it helps drive the science and technology further, but the thrill of the given challenge may inspire creativity and innovation, yielding new designs that had not been envisioned before.
However, folding paper into planes has not been the only source of inspiration of spacecraft design. The art of folding paper originates in Japan and has been a staple of Japanese culture. Origami, which originates from ori meaning folding and kami meaning paper involves the folding of paper to create 3-dimensional objects like boxes, flowers or cranes. Although the practice has modernised over the years, traditional origami discourages the use of scissors, adhesives or tearing of the paper to re-shape its original form. Although limiting the use of these tools may seem like a disadvantage when trying to create an object with defined cuts, we learn to appreciate the nature and personality of the paper we have to work with, and with a careful, mathematical approach, it can be creased into a new shape. Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura described a method known as the Miura Fold, in which paper could be folded in a way, such that its creases form a geometric pattern of parallelograms.
This method allows rigid structures with large surface areas to fold easily in a similar way that joints in fingers allow for a hand to be clenched or grab onto an object. The Miura Fold has been extensively used in artworks, but its most commendable application is in aerospace engineering. The Japanese Space Programme has used the Miura Fold to design solar panels for satellites, which need to be packaged tightly while in transport, but be able to restore its original large surface area when deployed in space. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology has also implemented the use of origami folds in designing solar arrays, giving the Miura Fold a chance to be explored to help develop new technologies.
We live in a world whose future is constantly being re-imaged and shaped. The creativity of an artist helps solve current problems, envision new technologies and turn imagination into great inventions. Space exploration may be getting some new ideas, but in terms of shaping our future, innovation does not stop there. Interior designers have contributed to our lives by creating space-saving furniture that folds away easily, so that a round table that can be re-shaped into a square for easy stowing. We mustn’t limit ourselves to what we think can be shaped into a new form. It doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be an object that is tangible or something that we can travel on or use in our house. The most fundamental element of life can be re-shaped and used for more ways than seemed capable at first. Carbon molecules, which are a universal element common in all life forms, can be arranged differently, creating structures that fit a certain purpose. The two most known allotropes of carbon are graphite and diamond, the latter known for being one of the strongest materials on earth, created when several carbon atoms are packaged tightly. However, if carbons were to be arranged in a sphere made up of pentagon and hexagon faces, it would create a nanomaterial known as Buckminsterfullerene. The discovery of this arrangement was credited to researchers at the University of Sussex and Rice University in 1985 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition for the discovery of a new order of molecules (fullerenes) was awarded to Robert Curl, Richard Smalley and Harold Kroto in 1996. The fullerene structure gave way to new developments in targeted drug treatments, aiding in the delivery of drugs to cells. With a rise in nanotechnology and genetic engineering, scientists are constantly searching for ways to re-shape life, provided that all the tools have been given by nature. Scientists have made great advances with the use of genetic engineering and continue to show that innovation can be reached by using a proven design and testing the boundaries between imagination, art and science.
Pictures obtained from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Licence.