This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film's multimedia channel features exclusive video interviews with leading figures in the physics community.

Visit our multimedia channel to see the latest video.

Michael Banks: June 2010 Archives

Showcasing fakes at the National Gallery in London

By Michael Banks

It might seem a strange idea to have an exhibition showcasing fake works of art as well as pieces that have been significantly modified over time. But that is all part of a new exhibition at London’s National Gallery looking at how science can help to restore art as well as spot fake art pieces.

Yesterday I attended the opening of the gallery’s new exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. The exhibition, which is free to enter, is open to the public starting today and runs until 12 September.

We were shown around the exhibition’s six rooms by Ashok Roy, the National Gallery’s director of science. Each room in the exhibition explains how science is used to establish the originality of art pieces. This could be by using X-ray or infrared radiation to discover hidden drawings beneath the layers of paint to Raman spectroscopy, which can be used to identify the make up of pigments that are used in the paint.

One of the first paintings Roy showed us was The Virgin and Child with an Angel – in the first room of the exhibition dubbed “deception and deceit” – that was created in the 15th century by the Italian painter Francesco Francia.

To give the appearance of ageing, cracks were drawn on the painting

The painting was given to the National Gallery in 1924 and thought to be an original. However, after another, smaller version of the same painting appeared at an art auction in 1954, art historians deduced that the work owned by the National Gallery was a copy.

Roy showed that the copy was actually quite elaborately done. Indeed, when researchers studied it using infrared radiation they saw a carefully drawn outline underneath the painting as if it was an original.

Roy and his team then examined it further by taking a small sample from the top right-hand corner of the painting to deduce what elements were involved in the pigments. They discovered that the painting had been covered by a material called shellac – a resin that can simulate the appearance of age.

With the help of a microscope they also noticed “cracks” in the painting that had been drawn on to give it a look of authenticity. All the evidence pointed towards a fake painting that had likely been made in the middle of the 19th century.

As well as the ability to spot copies or fakes, another interesting aspect of the exhibition is to see how paintings have been modified over time to satisfy changing tastes.

Woman at the Window before and after restoration

Woman at the Window, created by an unknown Italian artist between 1510 and 1530, shows a young brunette woman looking out from behind a curtain. When the image was carefully restored by removing a varnish and then a surface paint, it revealed that the brunette woman was actually a blonde whose expression had also been changed. As scientists deduced that all these changes were performed in the 19th century, Roy says that it was probably carried out to satisfy Victorian tastes of the day.

Another painting in this room is a portrait of Alexander Mornauer, which was finished between 1464 and 1488. The painting was acquired by the gallery in 1990 and had a blue background – a colour that was not used widely in the 15th century. Roy and his team analysed a small sample of the background to find that it contained prussian blue – a pigment only invented between 1704 and 1710.

But it is not only chemical analysis of pigments or infrared radiation that are used to test the authenticity of paintings. Roy showed a work in the “mistakes” room – A Man with a Skull – that was acquired by the National Gallery in 1845 and was supposed to be a painting by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger.

Researchers studied what the blue pigment contained (used as the background in the top left image) in the portrait of Alexander Mornauer and removed it to reveal the original background

Rather than peering into the layers of paint on canvas with X-rays or infrared radiation, researchers instead looked at the painting’s frame. As the panel of the frame was made of oak, Roy and his team carefully measured the widths of individual tree rings on the frame to estimate the date when the tree was felled.

By comparing their measurement with a master chronology of oak tree ring growth, Roy and his team could estimate that the tree used for the frame was felled around 1560. As Holbein died in 1543, it was concluded that the painting was not by him but by the Flemish painter Michael Coxcie.

The final room in the exhibition is devoted to recovering works of art. One of the images on show is Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael. Until 1991 the whereabouts of Raphael’s original masterpiece was unknown as only copies survived. One such copy was held in Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

The National Gallery’s director, Nicolas Penny, was surprised that the painting was held in a rather elaborate frame given that it was a copy. So the painting was sent to the National Gallery’s team of scientists who studied it with infrared radiation to reveal a very detailed drawing underneath the layers of paint. The infrared image also showed subtle changes in the costume and the background landscape in the original drawing to how it finally ended up, indicating that Raphael changed his mind as he worked – ruling out the possibility that it was a copy.

By Nick Thomas

John Flansburgh and John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (Courtesy: Jayme Thornton)

If you are in London or Cambridge this weekend then you might want to pay a visit to the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday or the University of Cambridge’s Babbage Lecture Theatre on Sunday to see the US alternative rock band They Might Be Giants perform to their legions of loyal UK fans.

If you pop along to the gig do not be surprised to hear a number of songs with science lyrics. The New York based band has successfully combined entertainment and science education with their latest album entitled Here Comes Science, which was released last year.

I had a listen to their latest album and talked to the band ahead of their UK visit as well as asking physicists what they thought about the rock group.

They Might Be Giants, who in 1990 released the hit song “Birdhouse in your soul” that reached the dizzy heights of number six in the UK charts, consists of duo John Flansburgh and John Linnell, who formed the band in 1982.

What makes Here Comes Science especially appealing is the use of music, rather than just lyrics, to educate about science. “We’ve been performing science and history songs for a long time and were intrigued by popular scientific ideas,” Flansburgh told

Some tracks from the new album are simply repetitious to supposedly reinforce a basic scientific principle, such as the difference between speed and velocity. “Even a cursory definition of scientific ideas can be a mouthful for kids,” says Flansburgh. “So we tried to explain them in an appealing way. In the song “Speed and velocity”, we just repeat the difference over and over, so by the end kids will know what each is.”

The song “Meet the elements” on the album is a quick tour of the periodic table, and cranks out properties for over a dozen common elements, while “Science is real” and “Put it to the test” outline what science is and how it is done.

Flansburgh says that he and Linnell sought scientific advice when composing the lyrics, and are aware that a few bloopers slipped through. But They Might Be Giants generally get things right in their songs, for example, making the correct distinction between a meteor and meteorite in “What is a shooting star?”

Walter Smith, a physicist at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, says that a few of the physics-related songs are “brilliant” and would even be appropriate for high-school or college students.

“I really appreciate their goal of getting young kids thinking and talking about science through music,” says physicist Jacob Blickenstaff of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Brian Malow, a San Francisco based stand-up comedian with a fascination for science in popular culture has enjoyed their music for years. “They have a song called ‘Solid liquid gas’ which subtly conveys the difference between the three with music,” says Malow, referring to the progressively higher vocal tones as the states of matter are introduced – analogous to their respective increasing molecular motions.

Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, has been following the band since the days of cassette tapes. “I first heard them when I was in Antarctica 15 years ago collecting meteorites, and several of the other members of my team had brought tapes,” says Consolmagno. “The songs on their new album are great fun, and that’s the most important message you can get across to kids: this stuff is as much fun as sports or rock-and-roll.”

Flansburgh is quite pleased with the reception the album has had. “The response has been extremely positive, especially from teachers,” he says. “The videos are on YouTube and teachers are using them in their classes. Because we’ve had so much success with our music for kids, we’ve been able to reach a larger audience than we ever could have imagined.”

So get down to London and Cambridge this weekend and see the band for yourself.

Inside the science globe (credit: CERN)

By Michael Banks

If you live near or are travelling to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva then you may be tempted to pay a visit to the “Universe of Particles” exhibition, which begins at the lab on 1 July.

The exhibition will be housed at CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation and will be free to enter.

The exhibition includes four main themes including “mysterious worlds” looking at the universe and its evolution and “the Large Hadron Collider” (LHC), which is all about the world’s largest accelerator at CERN, while “detecting particles” looks at the experiments at the LHC and “science without borders” is about international scientific collaborations and the spin-offs of particle-physics research.

The four zones each contain interactive games as well as audio and video “kiosks” inside “luminous spheres” that explain research done at CERN.

At certain times during the day the whole globe will become part of the exhibition and its walls will turn into a screen on which a six minute video runs recounting the history of the Big Bang.

The exhibition will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Saturday, and being free there is really no excuse not to go.

Can you tell the difference? (credit: US/LHC blog)

By Michael Banks

At first glance it looks like an average webpage from the arXiv preprint server – a website where researchers upload their papers before publishing them in a scientific journal.

But with article authors including “C H Fermi”, “S C Boltzmann”, or “L Heisenberg” you could be somewhat suspicious whether it is indeed authentic.

The website is snarXiv and has been created by David Simmons-Duffin, a PhD student in high-energy physics at Harvard University. It randomly generates titles and abstracts in high-energy physics taking into account the latest trends in the subject and presents them in an identical way as the arXiv server does.

Simmons-Duffin writes on his blog that he does not remember exactly why he decided to set up the website. However, he claims that it does serve some purpose.

For example, Simmons-Duffin notes that if you are a graduate student you can “gloomily read through the abstracts, thinking to yourself that you do not understand papers on the real arXiv any better”. And if you are a post-doc then you can keep reloading the webpage “until you find something to work on”.

Simmons-Duffin has even made a game where you have to spot the real title from the randomly generated one (the real one being a title from an arXiv paper and the random one a title from a snarXiv paper).

Try it for yourself. I managed to get 5 out of 8 correct, which ranked me rather unkindly as an “undergraduate”. (Other ranks include “better than a monkey” or “worse than a monkey” and it seems the top rank is “Nobel prizewinner”.)