Microscopic masterpieces

Moon Kim, a material science engineering professor, stands beside a piece of art in his exhibit on Jan. 24 at the Davidson-Gundy Alumni Center. The exhibition featured art composed of nanolevel imagery. Photo by Michael Stout | Mercury Staff.


With a resume full of accomplishments in nanotechnology, a UTD professor who spends his time researching elements on an atomic scale has managed to see the art within the atoms.

Material science engineering professor Moon Kim started taking images of his work in 1985 using electron microscopes. Since then, he amassed a collection of NanoArt featuring works as small as 0.8 nanometers. In contrast, the average width of a human hair is 75,000 nanometers. NanoArt is a new field involving the use of electron microscopes to capture interesting elements and reactions on the atomic level.

On Jan. 24, the Davidson-Gundy Alumni Center displayed Kim’s collection, featuring bright colors emitted during molecular bonding and neatly arranged atoms forming familiar pictures, such as the American flag.

“While doing research, you may find some features that are interesting and may not have scientific value, but are aesthetically pleasing, so then you need to take them and you need to add them to your collections,” Kim said. “I’ve been doing that for a long period of time, so now I decided to put it out for the people in this exhibition.”

Kim added the novelty of the field gives him freedom in capturing images because he doesn’t have to conform to any artistic precedent. The images are captured using transmission electron microscopy that passes electrons through a specimen to form an image. Electron microscopes create grainy black and white images that can be colored and printed.

“This is a new genre because a lot of microscopists, or scientists, from time to time came across interesting images, and they were displayed,” Kim said. “But starting a collection with different materials and imaging modes is kind of new.”

When Kim began capturing images, he said he didn’t intend to have them on display, and took pictures during ongoing research because he found it interesting. As the popularity of the art form grew, garnering enough attention for an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art, Kim discovered imaging competitions for NanoArt. Kim entered various competitions and found success in the JEOL Transmission Electron Microscopy Image Contest, an annual competition hosted by the manufacturer of the laboratory instrument, where he recently won the 2017 Grand Prize.

Kim added the trouble is curating the art and choosing which images need to have color added. Even though Kim has gone on to win awards, he said the goal of his art has always been to get everyday people to understand and appreciate science.

“It’s not easy to connect ordinary people to science and engineering because there’s a perception that science and engineering are not easy subjects,” Kim said. “But then everybody’s familiar with art, so one way to connect art and science together is this art form that everybody can enjoy.”

In addition to his art, Kim has published two books, including “Hello, Nano,” a children’s book meant to teach younger generations about nanotechnology, and “Art and Technology,” focusing on the historical ties between art and science.

Kim’s exhibit also included a virtual reality nano-world, allowing users to explore atoms and learn more about nanotechnology, as well as an app that displays holograms of atoms and molecules on smartphones. According to Education Week, the debate between STEM and STEAM, which incorporates the arts into STEM fields, has been going on for the past decade. Kim said he supports STEAM education and that it can help STEM majors.

“When trying to figure out how to take and disseminate images in the best way possible, having artistic insight helps you, it’s not going to distract you,” Kim said. “It’s a good thing, rather than being a hindrance.”

As for the future, Kim said he’s satisfied with his NanoArt, and doesn’t plan on branching out to other fields anytime soon.

“NanoArt has allowed me to communicate with the general public in a way,” Kim said. “And so far, as it is, it makes me busy enough.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *