One woman's accelerated art

Creating art with unusual materials isn't a new idea, nor is combining art with science. But how about using a particle accelerator to create art? Artist Alyce Rothlein Simon irradiated plastic blocks with a Dynamitron—Radiation Dynamics's trade name for its particle accelerator—to change their molecular structure and create beautiful patterns. I first learned about these objects 10 years ago, but only recently took the opportunity to learn more in honor of Women's History Month.

Alyce Rothlein Simon (1925–2011) worked as an artist in New York City in the early 1960s. She studied at various schools including the Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn Museum Art School, and Syracuse University. Besides acrylics, she also worked with oil paints, watercolors, and stone. In 1962 Dr. Kennard Morganstern offered Simon the facilities of his company, Radiation Dynamics, to use for her art. After two years of trial and error with different materials like wood, fabric, and Plexiglas, Simon found that acrylics were the best medium for her "Atomic Art."

Photo of artwork

Photo of art

Photo of art

With practice and precision, Simon used the particle accelerator to create patterns of lines similar to Lichtenberg figures. In 1777 Georg Christoph Lichtenberg discovered that he could use sparks to create invisible patterns on a plate that didn't conduct electricity. The branching patterns became visible after electrically charged powder was sprinkled on the plate. For her pieces, Simon controlled the basic form through her choice of block shapes and thickness. With assistance from the company's technical staff, she chose energy settings on the accelerator and placed shields around the target to manipulate the tool and anticipate the resulting figure. Dr. Bernard S. Finn, curator emeritus at the museum, described the science: "Such patterns can be produced when a high-voltage beam is discharged inside a non-conducting (dielectric) material. The electrons from the beam become trapped as long as the accumulated electric charge is not enough to break the bonds of the dielectric molecules." So, as long as the electric charge is not too intense, the acrylic remains in one piece.

Photo of woman with short curly hair, blue dress, and large equipment

The ensuing patterns could resemble any number of forms, such as a peacock or branches emanating from a tree. Simon's process entailed some unpredictability because of invisible defects in the acrylic or other factors that could affect the appearance of the piece or result in a failure. The pattern was inherently abstract in nature and could be interpreted in many ways by the viewer. When these acrylic blocks are illuminated, the resulting images are quite powerful. In 1969 curator Philip W. Bishop exhibited some of Simon's work in the Hall of Nuclear Energy at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History).

Black and white photo of entrance to exhibition

Photo of art

Photo of art

After the Smithsonian's exhibition, her work was displayed in other places. Some of those locations included Palais des Expositions in Geneva and the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. In 2004 Dr. Finn collected eight pieces of irradiated art from Simon for the museum's Electricity Collections, three of which are pictured above.

These fascinating objects, created through Simon's skill with high-tech equipment and guided by her artist's eye, resulted in a new type of art. The artist said her aim was to "help bring about a more vivid and clear understanding of the world in which we live." Looking at her beautiful work, I believe she accomplished her goal.

Connie Holland is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. She enjoys searching out shocking objects and learning more about them.