Portrait of the Atom as a Force Diagram in Space: Kenneth Snelson’s Digital Excursions

Kenneth Snelson’s large-scale sculptures of steel tubes and wires have gained international recognition in exhibitions and collections worldwide. However, Snelson’s interest in the construction of matter has also produced an entirely different line of work on a submicroscopic level: his on-going art work “Portrait of an Atom.” These lesser-known investigations into the properties of structure led him to use digital technology years before the official advent of “the age of digital media.” His early experiments with 3D visualization and technology have in various respects gained new relevance in the context of today’s digital arts – most notably in regard to the now much-discussed relationship between the arts and sciences.

Snelson’s artistic work has always been fueled by scientific interests, particularly those of physics. Based upon the principle of tensegrity, a hybrid of the terms tension and integrity, Snelson’s trademark sculptural structures are concerned with the essential forces of nature. They are investigations of the nature of structure and the structure of nature and one of their striking qualities is their structural purity and integrity – results of the intellectual rigor Snelson applies to his work.

In the 20th century in particular, the exploration of the nature and principles of space has been a major concern of art, culminating in the question of how space can be articulated. In their seemingly limitless and weightless combinations, Snelson’s sculptures create the illusion of a defiance of gravity that expresses a kind of irony crucial to the messages of new meda. The defiance of gravity belies the materials of which the defier is constructed. The sculptures capture the tension in the juxtaposition between closed and open systems. At the same time the perfection of connection becomes an underlying motif. All of these aspects – the openness and closure of systems, connectivity and the transcendence of physical laws – also happen to be crucial issues in digital art today, reflected by the myriad possibilities offered by the simple alternation of ones and zeros.

Since the 1960s, Snelson has pursued his investigation of force relationships on an atomic level and worked on developing a portrait of the atom. Snelson’s atomic structures have taken different forms, from drawings to models built out of various materials, and since the modeling of properties on an atomic level ultimately requires dynamic visualization, it seems logical that he early on used 3D graphics as a tool for visualizing his ideas about atomic structure. In the 1980s, Snelson decided to buy the state-of-the-art computer at that time – a Silicon Graphics 3130 with Wavefront software – and started to create 3D versions of his atomic model, sometimes as stereoscopic atom landscapes. The technology at the time was barely affordable and rendering the models took him up to 15 hours.

As his large-scale tube-and-wire sculptural work, Snelson’s portrait of an atom ultimately is a force diagram in space. His atomic model originated from his experiments with the binariness of magnetic fields: building magnetic spheres of various sizes that reverse-rotate in a checkerboard pattern, he made the connection between groups of magnets forming spheres, the periodic table and the numerical patterns shells and subshells of atoms exist in. Snelson realized that one can build rigid magnetic spheres out of 2, 5, 8, 10, 14, 18 or 32 magnetic disks. Apart from the number 5, this sequence corresponds to that of the periodic table. He concluded that once one has reached one of these structures in the progression through the periodic table, one has to start a new, larger sphere and new period.

Snelson’s portrait of the atom both deviates from and combines the scientific models of atomic structure. Modern atomic theory has its basis in the theories of the chemist John Dalton (1803) and was further developed by other scientists, among them Kekulé von Stradonitz, A.W. von Hofmann, and the physicist J.J. Thomson, who discovered the electron in 1897. The first successful model of the interior structure of an atom was proposed by Niels Bohr in 1913. Bohr described electrons as particles that follow definite orbits and his visual model provided us with the universally recognized logo and graphic representation of the atom.

The idea of electrons as particles was later on superseded by the understanding that electrons have the properties of waves. The model developed by Prince Louis Victor de Broglie (1892 -1987) depicts the spinning electron as forming a matter wave. Absorbing light, the electron reaches a higher energy level and an additional wave is incorporated in the larger orbit. De Broglie’s wavelengths surround the nucleus at the plane of the equator, so that his model ultimately is a flat one. It can be understood as the bridge between the Bohr and the modern charge cloud model that was refined in 1925 by Erwin Schrödinger who managed to incorporate most of his predecessors’ insights into a single theory. On the basis of quantum mechanics’ understanding of particles as waves, Schrödinger developed the electron wave function, which describes the probability of finding the electron inside the atom at a given time. Since an electron is electrically charged, the probability of its distribution within the atom is known as charge cloud. In the charge cloud model of the atom, dark regions indicate high probability of finding the electron while light regions indicate low probability.

Wolfgang Pauli (1900 -1958) further developed the complexity of the charge cloud model by introducing the exclusion principle, which assumes that no two electrons can be in the same orbit around the nucleus at the same time. Within the charge cloud model, this means that only two electrons can occupy the same charge cloud at a given time, one moving clockwise and the other counterclockwise.

In Kenneth Snelson’s model, we find the atom, or rather its energy surface, represented by spherical forms in space. The electron has more orbital possibilities than in other models: it can move equatorially as in the de Broglie model but can also spin in a “halo” orbit; the electron circles do not necessarily surround the nuclear equator but can inhabit small-circle halo-like rings on an electrical shell. While charge clouds can intersect and overlap, Snelson’s rings cannot. The basic assumption of Snelson’s model is that the electron’s orbit can move off-center: he presumes that all the electron has to do is maintain its wavelength at whatever level or shell it finds itself in.

While Snelson’s model of the atom hasn’t made it into the official history of atomic models, it has received interest from scientists at various points in time. It seems natural that the concern for structure that is an underlying narrative of Snelson’s work has led him to incorporate the scientific perspective on the subject rather than ignoring it. However, the endeavor to combine an artistic and scientific approach to a subject is often met with suspicion in both the artistic and scientific community.

The issues Snelson has addressed in all of his work connect to themes that are relevant in the age of digital media and his blurring of the boundaries between art and science may be the most prominent one of these themes. The digital age has the potential to bridge various gaps between art and science and, at least theoretically, to bring them closer to each other than they have ever been. The digital world doesn’t allow for clearly delineated forms of inquiry anymore and continuously induces overlaps between arts and science. Both realms now have to address issues surrounding representation in 3-dimensional (networked) spaces, information and data management, issues of interfacing as well as ethical implications of their explorations.

The assumed split between art and science to a large extent relies on a definition of the supposedly different objectives of these two realms. While science – according to its traditional definition – is based on validation of findings, proof, and objectivity, art supposedly belongs into the realm of the non-scientific, of speculation, subjectivity, sensual/emotional experience and a freedom of expression beyond accuracy. This definition was partly self-imposed and partly created for art and science to keep them neatly compartmentalized. However, it deliberately seems to downplay that scientific research always starts with hypotheses, speculation, and experimentation and that subjectivity is necessarily a part of it.

The beginning of the 20th century was a time of revolutions in science as well as art. Quantum mechanics, particle physics, the theory of relativity as well as depth psychology moved science into an increasingly theoretical and abstract realm, beyond the evidence of the senses and nature as the integral element and ultimate object of explanation.

It has frequently been argued that these scientific developments have led to an increasing abyss between the arts and science since the latter went off into a realm that was predominantly theoretical and less concerned with sensual experience. However, it can also reasonably be argued that in the beginning of the last century, art underwent a similar revolution as science and that the respective developments in the two realms were closely connected and to a large extent mirrored each other. The fractured perspectives of cubism and the four-dimensionality of relativity are just one example of this mirroring process.

In the digital age, the technologies of representation in art and science are constantly converging. This is partly due to the fact that digital media allow to visualize what couldn’t be represented before. Many data sets are intrinsically virtual, that is, they refer to processes that aren’t visible or graspable, be it the money market, the transferal and transmission of data via networks or atomic structure. Both the arts and the sciences are continually in search of visual models that allow for dynamic mapping of these processes. Science now more and more relies on simulation in its use of 3D visualization, VR and immersive environments. Art is exploring the same environments – sometimes using scientific data – in an attempt to construct realities and ways of communicating.

One of the most important issues Snelson’s portrait of an atom raises is ultimately one of representation. Representing used to be primarily object-oriented – what is represented as what is seen. The word “model” used to signify a mechanical, palpable object; today, the term is also commonly understood as a hypothetical or mathematical construct. As art, science has created its own language and metaphors that are fluid constructs rather than static entities and need to be seen in the context of issues of representation. The representation of the atom in Bohr’s model is not scientifically accurate, yet it has profoundly shaped our idea and image of the atom – mainly due to its visual beauty and simplicity.

Kenneth Snelson’s work poses the question of how scientific knowledge may be translated into aesthetics, and whether there are possibilities for new visuals without simple visualization. His sculptural work creates a dialogue on the interaction between the actual and the hypothetical – which potentially is of great benefit to both the arts and sciences. By pursuing scientific interests with artistic methods, Snelson has been probing the nature of representation itself and the way artistic and scientific models of representation both reflect and structure the awareness of our culture.