'Unstable Structures' is a collaborative project by artist Rachel McBrinn, physicist Flaviu Cipcigan and product designer Sam Frankland. The project was initiated by Ian Sharman and Ross Galloway as part of SCART Connection, and was presented to an audience at Edinburgh International Science Festival 2014. The following texts are taken from 'Unstable Structures: A Material Exploration of Water', a limited edition publication containing participants reflections on the project.

Foreword by Ian Sharman & Ross Galloway

The crux of SCART Connection is passionate researchers communicating about their subjects.

We feel strongly that the classroom is a place to discuss, to have peer-to-peer communication, and verify understanding rather than simply a place to push facts. The presentations in this book are in the same vein - they are contextualisations of the researchers. They are relaying their journeys.

The SCART Connection project is a collaboration between Edinburgh College of Art and The School of Physics & Astronomy - both schools of the University of Edinburgh located respectively within the College of Humanities & Social Science and the College of Science & Engineering. Planning commenced in November 2013, following an award from the Edinburgh College of Art Devolved Researcher Fund. There was an opening event attended by fifty staff, researchers and students from across the schools in February, with talks from three distinguished researchers from each school, and a workshop to discuss respective research methodologies with respect to truth, rigour and originality.

These themes came from the main criteria headings of the Research Excellence Framework. The REF is said to ‘assess the quality of research in UK Higher Education Institutes’. The final criterion is actually a contortion of their 'significant' heading, because we all believe what we are doing is significant, so we morphed that slightly to 'originality'. Those attendees who decided they would meet the challenge took part in this collaborative research and exposition opportunity, examining the flavour of truth, rigour and originality across our research approaches. We are warping the HE research universe to create a wormhole between the galaxy of art and the galaxy of science.

The researchers visited each other’s spaces (both physical and intellectual), shared ideas and perspectives, and identified the contrasts and commonalities. They presented their discoveries to a packed house at Summerhall in April 2014 as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, in a stimulating and memorable evening.

The presentations started at the nano-level of the universe (that is, very small matter) and examined increasingly large scales in five stages, concluding with the mega-level of the universe. This book aims to capture just one of the these stages, sitting somewhere between the nano and the human scale.

To see how, we give you the researchers - educators and students - of the University of Edinburgh from its School of Physics & Astronomy and its Edinburgh College of Art.

Flaviu Cipcigan

Physicists are roughly interested in answering two equally important questions: what are the fundamental building blocks of nature (also known as reductionism) and how do these building blocks combine to give you the complexity and beauty of nature (known as emergence).

Most of physics up until recently has been focused on the first question. We learned that matter isn't a continuous blob of stuff, but made out of particles we called atoms. Then, we learned that these atoms are themselves made out of a tiny nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons. But, the nucleus itself is made out of protons and neutrons, which themselves are made out of quarks. And so we went down the rabbit hole, getting to higher and higher energies and smaller and smaller lengths. And this quest will continue, some say forever, like peeling the layers of an infinite onion. On the other hand, some believe there's a length scale where we can't slice space and time any smaller.

We'll see. In the meantime, what should we do with all these building blocks? Even if we understand how each works individually, it's their interactions that lead to the complexity of nature. And the interactions are truly complex - even predicting the behaviour of 4 interacting particles is too hard to do exactly.

Fortunately, to understand the behaviour of many particles we don't need to know exactly what each particle does. We only need to know what the particles do *together*. Imagine a crowd heading out of a building - you don't need to know what each person is doing as long as you know that the whole crowd is flowing towards one of the exits. It's the same for pouring a glass of water into a cup - you don't need to know what each molecule is doing to understand the flow of water.

So, to understand emergence is to build simplified mathematical models of how building blocks of matter interact. These models strip the building blocks to their essential components, resulting in a theory solved using a pen and paper, or, more common these days, simulated on powerful computers. In essence, we distil the interactions of atoms and molecules into a mathematical model we then simulate, performing a virtual experiment that proxies the real world.

This brings me to what I'm interested in: H2O, most commonly known as water. Even though water is such a common material, its behaviour is yet to be fully understood. And understanding its behaviour is essential for understanding the machinery of life. We're mostly water and, rather than acting as a passive substrate, water is active in shaping, stabilising and linking biomolecules together.

In the project I'm involved with, we've come up with a simplified description of water that we can simulate efficiently. Our model is unique in describing the behaviour of not just the molecule, but also of its electrons. In any substance, a water molecule will be surrounded by many other molecules, be it water or some other species. These molecules subtly change the arrangement of the electrons, which in turn changes the interactions between molecules. To truly understand and model these interactions, we need to capture this dependence on the environment. And this is exactly what our project achieved.

Using this model, one of the things I was interested in is the behaviour of the molecules and their electrons when crystallising in a form of ice called ice II. The ice you get in your iced tea we call ice Ih - it's the first one discovered and the water molecules adopt a hexagonal arrangement. Now, when you take ice Ih, compress it to about the pressures you get in the centre of the Earth and cool it down to -75ºC you get ice II. Or alternatively, you could go to Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons and scoop some from there - we believe there's a lot of it there. [picture of just the molecules]

To understand the behaviour of water molecules and their electrons in ice II, I ran a series of simulations at the pressures and temperatures ice II forms. Then, after writing some code instructing my computer on how to analyse the data I've got from simulations, one of the results was this image showing the intricate pattern electrons make. Blue regions show regions where electrons are depleted - there's less of them there than if the molecule were isolated. Red regions show where these electrons go - in these regions there's more of them than when the molecule is isolated.

Sam Frankland

As a product designer, a lot of my work is born out of trying to understand people’s problems and needs and translating them into an object or application that responds, and hopefully has some poetic resonance beyond simply servicing a need. My role in this project came out of my interest in making and the links between processes that enable things to be crafted and produced; be it through drawing, marking out, modelling or prototyping. 

It became quite clear early on in the project that there is a natural overlap between experimenting in the laboratory and in the workshop, there’s a common ground in the processes of testing, evaluating and refining.

Flaviu’s model immediately reminded me of an infinity symbol, which struck a cord as these processes can seem to form a continuous loop until a desired result is found. Working with this fascinatingly intricate model, we were interested in trying to replicate it as a physical object to better our understanding of the images we had seen in Flaviu's research. How would the form be affected by tooling and material choices, and would the outcome compromise it’s scientific truth?

Using digital tools I was able to add structure and manipulate and explore the molecules. The files could then be translated it into a 3D printed object by converting the models geometry into G Code, a string of x, y, z coordinates for the tool to follow. The model is cut every 0.177 mm which becomes a layer of extruded ABS plastic (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). I am fascinated by the process in which a series of mathematical equations translates into these forms that would be incredibly difficult to model physically or even digitally through conventional methods. The tools and processes create their own syntax, achieving remarkably similar outcomes from data sets using entirely different languages.

You would imagine that, given the rigour of the data provided by Flaviu, the outcome on the physical model would match that of the digital model but, for reasons that I won’t go into, the model came out with incomplete surfaces and errors. The mathematical truth of the model had to be altered to create a more accurate physical reproduction.
At the same time that this was going on we were interested in developing a model in a completely different medium, a material with particular analogous similarities with water. In the absence of Flaviu, Rachel and I approached the glass department, armed with some 2D printed images of the model. With the help of technician Ingrid and Kirstin her glamorous assistant, we set about creating a new alternate truth for the water molecule model. Through our dialogue, rigour and experimentation, we came closer to visualising this truth.

Rachel McBrinn 

In our initial discussions for the project, the question we kept coming back to was that of where the raw material lies. Is it in the data? Or the physical form? Perhaps, we thought, it is an idealised notion which can not be truly applied. So, if we can not reach a point where we consider a material to be untouched by interpretation, then how can one interpretation be more true than another?

Scientists have an obligation to the data, artist to the message, designer to the function, and maker to the form. So how to decipher the property of value: the thing which most describes the thing, rather than the thing itself. In looking, we must each determine a focal point, and make further selections within this area of interest, discarding an infinite resource in the process. As we implement this refined sequence of attentions, sharpening our focus on chosen details, we blur the outskirts of the picture. As we order a sequence, we disturb another. It’s a balance of looking closely, and keeping a distance.

In my research practice, I’m mostly looking through a lens. I am very consciously aware that the work I make is an interpretation, a version of something, neither right or wrong, sitting within the illusory space between the thing and the image of it. Interpretation is something I embrace, rather than try to minimise. Maintaining ‘truth’ in the sense of conveying something accurately is not normally a concern, as the viewer will take away so much more than the recognition of an object, a place, or a sound in their interpretation of the work, informed by their own personal archive, everything that they have seen before. My material is the footage itself, it is this that I wrestle with, tease, clip, carve and mould, adding one piece to another, shaping and squeezing until it’s just right, a process that is echoed in Ingrid and Kirstin’s methods in constructing the glass models.

Before picking up the first lot of glass, Ingrid simply sketched out a rough plan in chalk on the ground. She was keen to begin making without too much pre-planning, as you never quite know how the glass will behave. Better to begin, find out what happens, and adjust the plan accordingly, than to linger theorising possible outcomes. As with the 3D print, we had to make, revise, and remake several times, straying from the data as required whilst keeping the essence of the thing intact. We were left with a flawed and unstable structure, a likeness but not a faithful reproduction. So how to measure the value of such an article?

Consider these two statements:
Scientist: ‘I did a thing, but I didn’t get any science out of it.’
Artist: ‘I did a thing, but I didn’t get any art out of it.’

Whichever your native discipline, learning that something doesn’t work is still knowledge gained, reaching a dead-end is material to work with.