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Art and engineering: do they mix? Yes they do!

Scientific award for outstanding artwork

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Physicist and engineer Colin Tregenza Dancer has been awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal for his contribution to British engineering.

Colin helps leading contemporary artist Paul Fryer to create works that bridge the gap between art and science.

Perpetual Study in Defeat

Perpetual Study in Defeat, 2006. Alternatively known as Star in a Jar, the plasma ball in the middle gently pulsates

Paul, who had been trying to make a lightning structure using Tesla coils, tracked Colin down online after finding he had previously built such coils as a hobby. Together they created Deus Ex Machina, which was subsequently bought by Damien Hirst for £27,000.

Since then they have continued their partnership, creating a broad range of work, ranging from the "red hot, cast iron skulls of The Pit and The Pendulum’ to the inertial electrostatic confinement or mini fusion reactor nicknamed Star in a Jar".

This work, formally called Perpetual Study in Defeat, posed huge engineering challenges, says Colin, not least how to spot weld a grid of tantalum wires to enclose a white-hot ball of plasma. But the effort was worth it, according to Colin who is a director of architecture in his day job at Metaswitch Networks.

“The slow breathing motion of the star, and the way its appearance evolves as the pressure changes, unfailingly draws people in to the work. In fact the first time I got the prototype working I stood and stared at it for over an hour myself! And when people finally break away, it’s often with a desire to understand more about both the engineering and science behind what they’ve just seen.”

You can read more about Paul and Colin's art here (pdf).

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