When art meets science…

Hi, I’m Ashley, a researcher studying extra-terrestrial samples in the Cosmochemistry and Isotope Geochemistry group. Recently, along with my scientific research I’ve also been in contact with David Gelsthorpe, the curator of Earth Sciences at the Manchester Museum, to see how we can make better use of the museum’s meteorite collection (watch this space!). A few weeks ago this led to me receiving an e-mail from the curator of modern art at the Whitworth Art Gallery, asking if I could show Turner Prize-nominated artist Cornelia Parker round our meteorite collection and research facilities. Cornelia is in the early stages of putting together an exhibition for the gallery and is interested in making use of the many resources available at the university. Over the years I’ve given many tours to other scientists, schoolchildren and members of the public, but never a well-known sculptor!

The Gibeon (IVA) iron meteorite was found in Namibia in 1836. The criss-crossing features are known as a Widmanstatten pattern.

The group’s meteorite collection is small and contains samples of approximately 40 different meteorites, most of which are tiny fragments, powders or thin sections suitable for analysis in spectrometers such as RELAX. Although the collection is largely used for scientific research, we do have several samples that are suitable for people to handle. Most meteorites come from asteroids that formed just over 4.5 billion years ago and are older than the earth, making them  the oldest rocks you’ll ever touch!

The Allende (CV3) carbonaceous chondrite was seen falling to earth in 1969.

As Jenny (a PhD student in our group, working on meteorites) and I showed off the collection and laboratories, we soon discovered that Cornelia already knew lots about meteorites, even owning her own piece of Gibeon, an iron meteorite found in Namibia in 1836. It turns out that she has been making use of meteorites in her artwork for many years, often putting them into fireworks for public displays, and in the future would like to send meteorites back into space. Hearing about the destruction of these very rare and precious samples would give any meteorite scientist nightmares, but it was interesting to think about the influence meteorites have had on artists throughout history, from the ancient Egyptians turning them into jewellery, to modern artists such as Cornelia using them to light up the night sky.

Cornelia Parker (left) with group members Jenny Claydon and Ashley King in the TOF-SIMS laboratory.

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