How nuclear physicists are changing the art world

Though not all art needs to be checked for forgery, it remains a problem in the art world that, until now, was combated mostly by art historians (and their studied but subjective knowledge). Now, ion beam accelerators allow scientists to take a crack at quelling art forgeries.

University of Notre Dame nuclear physicists Philippe Collon and Michael Wiescher have started using accelerated ion beams for art forensics.

"We really are a lab that is mostly devoted to nuclear astrophysics," Collon told DVICE. "But we've always tried to keep some of the activities that we do sort of on the applied side … It's sort of a side activity we do, because we think it's fun."

With ion beam accelerators, Collon can offer greater analysis of art than ever before.

"What it really allows us to do is go beneath the surface," he said. "For example, I can now begin examining the specific pigments," which allows him to determine if a piece is from the age it's claimed to be from, since some pigments have only existed in more recent times.

It can also be used for archeology too. According to a Notre Dame press release: "The amount of silver in Roman coins can indicate the degree of inflation in the ancient economy," and this technology can discover how much silver there is.

While this a great step forward for science, it doesn't do as many favors for the art historian.

"Nowadays with the various techniques and faking, just looking at a picture and saying 'it's a fake because it's not in the style,' is not enough anymore," Collon said. "It's a combination of various piece of the puzzle."

Regardless, Collon thinks it's a two-way street. Nothing is obsolete, but the fields will certainly change with technology.

"It's always difficult to give up one's expertise and accept another one," he said. "It's really a question of conversation between various field to come to a definite conclusion on something. I think scientists also have to listen to art historians."

Regardless of who plans on listening to whom, this is a great step for the art world that will do nothing but offer more information than ever before. Collon said the instruments and machines were not sensitive enough in the past, even though this has been a goal for more than a decade, so it's exciting we've finally reached a point where we can analyze our art without damaging it.

Though, it kind of puts a dent in my plans as a master art forger. Guess I'll stick to blogging. Alas.

Via Notre Dame