Kenneth Snelson Exhibition The Nature of Structure

The New York Academy of Sciences, January – April 1989

Portraying the Atom

by Kenneth Snelson

It seems clear that the mind hungers for pictures of everything – atoms, no less than trees, flowers and creatures. My fantasy atom has been with me for twenty-eight years, since discovering some fascinating patterns of current loop magnets on spheres. This odd bit of information sparked my curiosity. I began studying atoms and atomism and grew convinced that a better image of electronic structure was waiting to be found.

In my pictures you will see spherical forms in space, each sphere representing an individual atom or at least its energy surface. The nucleus – dense, heavy, and positively charged – lives at the center. Each electron’s cyclical path acts like solid matter to other electrons which also move in their own unique orbits. My orbits are matterlike whole objects, yet each consists only of the electrical particle racing rapidly in a circle as a matter wave. They are equipped with an electrical charge, gyroscopic momentum, orbital magnetism and intrinsic spin. They act upon one another through these forces as one object to another. My electron rings do not necessarily surround the nuclear equator, but can occupy small-circle halo-like domains on an electrical shell as well. They can manage this because, in the atom, electrons perform like matterwaves, not planets. Several orbits on a shell are capable of filling the atom’s spherical onion-layer surfaces by arranging themselves in equilibrium patterns. Pressing one to another like stones in a spherical arch, they are drawn toward the nucleus, but because of their mutual impenetrability they restrain one another in place.

These qualities, taken together, create a different picture from the usual light streak logo atom seen everywhere, or the balloon-form charge cloud images. All in all the atom of my fantasy is a finely designed, tiny, static-dynamic, electro-magnetic-mechanical device which, when disturbed, has the uncanny ability, unlike Humpty Dumpty, to revive itself in its pristine state in a matter of nanoseconds. It is the kind of atom a thoughtful creator might have cast while granting basic matter the same reasoned beauty as the rest of the universe.

In addition to writing about all of this, I’ve spent endless hours trying to give my atom vivid sculptural life. Some representations have had to do with magnetic interactions. They are simply mosaics, north-to-south, of ring shaped magnets assembled on spherical armatures. Rotating one magnet makes the rest respond and turn in unison like a chain of gears. In order to describe crystallographic arrays I’ve used braceletsize plastic rings, binding, them together at their edges, cell upon cell. I’ve also welded atom forms from stainless steel or crafted them with wood and glue.

All of these examples, so painstakingly done, were sadly disappointing and clumsy compared with the immaculate gossamer atoms of my imagination: dynamic structures composed only of wavelike traces, electricity, magnetism and angular momentum, all doing their atomic dance in quantized atomic space.

The mid-’70s brought the world computer systems which could make amazing forms in three dimensions. The catch was, their cost was in figures only NASA or DOD might afford. in the next few years as prices came down – at least to the level of a good sized yacht – memory, speed and software capabilities made gigantic leaps. Objects can now be constructed, composed in space, illuminated, textured, ray-traced and animated, features offering a phenomenal range of imaging techniques.

I began to weigh all of these new riches against my own increase in years and decided if I was ever going to create my fantasy worlds with this revolutionary technology, the moment was now. I searched for the best state-of-the-art system barely affordable – a Silicon Graphics 3130 with Wavefront Technologies software, a computer created, to do 3-D graphics and animation. And that’s how I became, uniquely, a one-artist, non-profit, computer graphics house – and all for the love of picturing the atom. A sampling of my results so far is in this exhibition.

As an artist’s tool, high end graphics computers are still luxuriously expensive, sensitive, often frustrating, not especially friendly to learn, fraught with booby-traps at every turn – and mercilessly, unconscionably time-devouring. POLESCAPE, for example, required 8,951,568 bytes of information. After days and days of composition and refinement, the computer itself required 15 hours to render the final image.

Not for everyone, then, the high end computer is best suited to the obsessive character. I’ve been enthralled by my graphics workstation a dozen hours a day for over a year. When doing its job properly it is a generous spirited, willing slave, entirely at case with requests that require it to stay awake all night in order to render a multimegabyte picture in time for breakfast. Even so, my dream of a fully animated tour through my invented submicrocosm will require more months, even years, than I ever imagined.