Light Box – bringing together culture and science

Research Policy Office
Friday 19 August 2016

Light Box celebrates light in all its aspects – solar, sacred, scientific, nourishing, and poetic. Produced as a result of meetings between Professor Crawford and McBeath and contemporary physicists whose work centres on light, the work juxtaposes a series of new haiku with specially taken photographs. The relation between poems and pictures is often teasingly oblique: neither simply illustrates the other. Instead, they ‘resonate’ together, each enhancing the other.

Exactly 150 years ago the great Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell published his most influential paper on electromagnetism (a paper crucial to Einstein). Maxwell had a scientific instrument called a ‘light box’. Nineteenth-century scientists sometimes wrote of light ‘resonating’. The new Light Box was produced after the poet and the photographer met leading physicists who work in optoelectronics.

Robert Crawford and Norman McBeath discussing using coumarin as part of a new photographic process.

‘One of the physicists was the late Professor John W. Allen, who led a team that invented the world’s first practicable LEDs in 1961. Though his early scientific papers are now archived in the Science Museum in London, John Allen’s story is not well known. When Crawford and McBeath met Professor Allen, he showed them some of his early LEDs, which were then called ‘crystal lamps’. Norman McBeath’s remarkable portrait photograph of John W. Allen is part of Light Box, and the accompanying haiku sums up Robert Crawford’s sense of this modest, tenacious inventor who, more than fifty years after his innovative work on LEDs, was still in 2015 developing in St Andrews new ways of working with light.’

Another pioneering scientist involved in Light Box is Professor Ifor Samuel, who leads the Organic Semiconductor Optoelectronics Research Group in the School of Physics & Atronomy, and whose work has involved perfecting new light-emitting materials. Several members of Professor Samuel’s group worked with the poet and photographer. One of the physicists, Vietnamese chemist Hien Nguyen who has synthesized for the first time a new form of the chemical coumarin, made her discovery available to Scottish PhD student Stuart Thomson who worked with Norman McBeath to use this chemical for the very first time in a photographic process. The result was juxtaposed with a haiku entitled ‘Aton’ (named after the Aton or Aten – the ancient Egyptian sun god) and features in Light Box.  

Light Box is available to view in the Special Collections Department of St Andrews University Library, but it is also published free online in a digital version:

More about Light Box:

Commissioned by the University of St Andrews for the UNESCO 2015 International Year of Light and launched at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 23 February 2015, Light Box is an artistic collaboration between poet Professor Robert CrawfordSchool of English, and photographer Norman McBeath, many of whose photographs are in the collections of the National Portrait Galleries in London and Edinburgh.

Following on, the ‘Loch Computer‘ project brings together writers, artists, computer scientists, humanities scholars and digital curators to ponder the meaning of remoteness and connectedness in the digital age. It is funded by a Scottish Government Arts & Humanities Research Network Award from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The project crosses traditional boundaries between arts and sciences, as well as between scholarship and creative practice.

The project led to an exhibition at the Edinburgh College of Art, and an artists’s box book by Robert Crawford, The Book of Iona, published by Birlinn Ltd.

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