Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Mary Parlange
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Materials science meets art in San Francisco

'Smart metal' sculptures illustrate 8 years of art & science collaboration

Click here for a high resolution photograph.

After spending the night wilted and cold, a flower slowly lifts its head as a warm sunbeam spills in through the window. Unusual? Well, yes, because this flower isn't alive; it's a piece of shrapnel balanced on a metal stem.

This "flower of evil" is one of the gravity- and imagination-defying sculptures crafted by Etienne Krähenbühl using special materials known as shape memory alloys. The sculptures are the product of an unusual science-art collaboration and can be seen for the first time in the US from March 23rd to April 22nd at swissnex, the annex of the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco.

Krähenbühl lives with his family in the medieval Swiss town of Romanmoitier, in a sprawling house/workshop complex where fabulous sculptures and functional metal objects vie for space and entrance the eye. He has sculpted for more than 30 years, using many different kinds of metal. In 1996, on the trail of an intriguing "memory alloy" he had read about in a magazine, he paid a visit to Rolf Gotthardt's physics laboratory at the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) in nearby Lausanne. There he learned about alloys, or special metallic combinations, and discovered the microscopic world of the atom and the crystalline structure of metals.

The nickel titanium and other shape memory alloys he uses in the sculptures are sometimes called "smart materials" because they can remember and return to their original shape even after being severely deformed. These alloys are extremely useful in many industrial and everyday applications – in cardiac stents, glasses frames, underwire bras, orthodontic wires, laparoscopic surgical tools, the valves in airplanes' hydraulic systems, and devices that turn things on and off.

Krähenbühl uses these shape memory wires in a very different way, making sculptures that play with our perceptions. They move and react to wind and temperature. Some of them are musical, and all of them can be touched and played with.

A rigorous, careful science lies behind the creation of each piece, and Krähenbühl and Gotthardt spend many hours honing all the details in the EPFL laboratory so that the sculpture looks and acts the way it is supposed to.

Both the artist and the physicist will be present for the opening of the exhibit on March 23.


Editors, please contact Mary Parlange at mary.parlange@epfl.ch for more photos.

swissnex, the host of the event, accelerates the knowledge transfer between Switzerland and the West Coast. As part of its services to increase visibility for Switzerland, swissnex launches ideas, facilitates strategic relationships, host events and devises study tours and symposia from its offices and conference space at 730 Montgomery Street.

EPFL is one of Switzerland's two internationally recognized federal institutes of technology.

Related events:

  • Wednesday, March 23rd, 6:00pm Opening night at swissnex, www.swissnex.org for registration
  • Tuesday, March 29th 5;00 pm: Open house at swissnex, www.swissnex.org for registration
  • Tuesday, March 29th, 12:45 pm "Science and Sculpture: The Fabulous Discoveries of 8 years of Collaboration," Moscone Center, www.mrs.org/meetings/spring2005