Of Corrosion and Creation
By David Stone, PhD (Tohono O'odham Community College)
When I first left sculpture in mid-life to recast myself as a scientist I never mentioned my former work for fear that it would mark me as an outsider among the solidly lifelong members of my new chosen tribe. They would no doubt be unsympathetic to such an intellectually “soft” and superficial approach to interpreting my experience of the world. So I secretly crossed the divide between the “two cultures” as a fugitive and began my self-transformation from maker of forms to student of morphology.
Yet, I soon discovered that philomorphs (lovers of form for its own sake) on the other side were of the same spirit, and what we shared in common outweighed the differences in our methods. In fact, my penchant for seeking out innovative ways for creating form turned out to be a highly effective approach to scientific discovery and surprisingly - especially for me - led to publications, a PhD, patents, awards, publicity, and culminated in a revival of a sub-field we call “chemobrionics,” the orderly growth of solid structures within the seemingly chaotic swirl of chemical solutions. Discovering novel forms and form-generating processes is highly respected in science as well as art.
Ironically, I am again a kind of sculptor though instead of using hand tools to directly model clay I orchestrate electric and magnetic fields to influence the shaping of mineral precipitation. By chance I stumbled serendipitously into the meta-field of morphogenesis or self-organization, which includes the greatest known display of this phenomenon on earth, the evolution of life. It was only much later that I was able to look back from this broad perspective and see my own evolution as part of the pervasive and never ending creative emergence of new patterns from old. Changing careers while remaining a form maker became both a natural experiment and an example of the very process I wanted to study.
This personal change was catalyzed early on by one of the first courses I took after returning to the university among students who were mostly half my age. It was called, appropriately enough, "The Art of Scientific Discovery." This course, this journey toward a new mind, was led by Arthur Winfree, a highly eclectic, productive and innovative scientist. It was the only course he taught and he taught it every semester for many years. Students from all disciplines consistently judged it the best and the most important class they had ever taken. For me it was also life changing. What struck me most profoundly was the process of what might be called conceptual “bisociation” (Arthur Koestler’s term), the intriguing ability to illuminate one part of nature with another using the reflective mirrors of science, which was most clearly exemplified by the late Dr. Winfree himself.
We were required to do a “project” in the course, that is, to make a discovery. Winfree’s attitude was, “why not just do it now?” With practical experience in metallurgy through my sculpturing I knew that there was a process called electrodeposition that readily generates lots of interesting structures. The basic principles of this process were discovered (along with many other basic principles) by Michael Faraday, certainly one of the heroes in the art of scientific discovery. Much of the early development was done in Russia and some of the first applications were for sculptural purposes, including some masterful copper reproductions created by Italian artisans in the late 19th century.
In exploring this process I did indeed discover a new species of formation. Admittedly, I was trying to influence the growth of iron dendrites with magnetic fields, botched the solution and ended up where no self-respecting electroplater would ever venture with a cloudy, rusty witch’s brew. I didn't grow any dendrites at all but when I finally pulled the electrode out there were these strange, sinuous little tubes sticking off of it. Not finding anything about them in books on electrodeposition, I contacted one of the authors at a major national laboratory. After looking over my photos he called and said that after 40 years in the business, he had not seen anything like it and hadn't thought structures like this could be grown electrochemically.
As it turned out, others had seen similar formations occurring unexpectedly as a product of iron corrosion under certain rare conditions, such as in seawater that is highly alkaline or inside steam boilers when there is low oxygen and high ammonia in the water. But the only two papers I found describing those tubes were 20 and 30 years old and just mentioned them in passing while discussing other aspects of their corrosion research. No one had studied the tubes directly or really knew how they formed or developed a method to create them, let alone made progress in controlling their morphology, which as a sculptor was what immediately interested me. So it seemed that this was an interesting and little known phenomenon and every authority I contacted agreed that it was worth pursuing. In science the real work begins after making a discovery.
From the beginning I thought about possible connections to things biological. The tubes superficially looked organic and, indeed, had fooled one of the foremost authorities on biomineralization into declaring they were the tubular casings of the worms discovered at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. (A colleague had shown him my photos and asked for his guess of what they were.) I wondered if such structures had formed naturally in the ancient sea and could have served as some sort of template or framework for the aggregation of the first colonial cell clusters that gradually evolved the ability to self-organize into what we call sponges. This is not a very scientific way of thinking I now realize, but reflected my experience in using supporting armatures for modeling clay. However, in revealing my naiveté to marine biologists I came across one who directed me to Michael Russell in Scotland who is a geologist and origin of life researcher. He investigates certain mineral substrates, especially iron sulfides, as possible catalysts for the organometallic reactions that may have led to the first replicating protocells. Dr. Russell was intrigued with my results and thought that such formations might have a role to play in origin of life experiments. Tubular geological formations could have been the first natural test tubes that concentrated the ingredients of life.
I imagined a more indirect connection that would use the tubes as simplified, inorganic models for the biomineralization process of marine organisms that do build very similar looking tubes around themselves for protection. The iron oxide tubes I grew formed around bubbles of gas generated by electrolysis over the surface of a negatively charged electrode. Material is deposited around the bubbles as they emerge from the end of a tube and some of it remains on the rim. The tubes are thus made up of growth rings left behind by each bubble. By understanding the physical forces involved in this minimal form-building system we might be able to discover some basic principles that also apply to the work of much more complex living organisms. Assume the tube worm is a sphere (of hydrogen gas)!
Could mathematical models of the electodeposited tubes be applied to biodeposited structures? This question was taken seriously by Ray Goldstein, a biophysicist who saw the tube growth as a great example of a “free boundary problem” in which the surface of a growing solid structure is set by the fluid mechanics around it and he invited me into his lab where the process could be investigated in a more professionally scientific way. We began this research by filming the growth of the tubes while monitoring the chemical and physical conditions around them. A report of our research was eventually published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which as my first publication helped launch my career in science.
Since then my scientific approach to exploring form has led to other discoveries that are always intriguing and sometimes have significant practical value like a novel iron-based cement that captures CO2 during its curing stage. But I remain most enthralled by the strange and beautiful things that spontaneously coalesce within my bubbling concoctions, which are as intriguing as the sculptural visions that emerge within my imagination. It is an endless phantasmagoria of color, pattern, and structure all driven by corrosion, in which the destructive dissolution of iron can, under certain conditions, drive the formation of new and sometimes unique and unreplicatable structures. In truly artistic fashion I amplified (literally) the creative process.
Through the sacrifice of the existent for the emergence of the potential, even the rusting of iron can teach us about the archetypal dynamics of our world. Analogously, our own ever- growing past is both irretrievably lost and irrevocably generative of us. The electrochemical process of dissolving and growing forms, one into the other, is an ideal medium for expressing this fundamental transformation.