Final Metal

Physics professor Sidney Nagel held up two forks: one metal, one plastic. “Who would like me to stick this one in there?” Nagel asked, gesturing with the metal fork to a nearby electrical socket. “No one? What about this one?” He held up the plastic fork. “Doesn’t matter, right?” This was the opening exchange last Tuesday, as a small group of University of Chicago faculty, staff, and students squeezed into a white room hidden in a  corner of the Smart Museum to hear four presentations on the broad theme, “Metal at Work.”

Indeed, only a topic as broad as “metal” could attract scholars and experts in history, computer science, and physics together in one place at one time. Participants sat in a circle in the middle of the room, surrounding a smattering of metal objects decorating various ledges and tables. On one side of the room sat a shiny sterling and ebony tea service, designed by Bauhaus master Marianne Brandt. The other side of the room featured a variety of textured sand-casted aluminum kitchen items from West Africa, including a crushed soda can and a long copper pole.

Mark Herald, an Experimental Systems Engineer in Mathematics and Computer Science, began the discussion. Holding up a few indiscernible metal knick-knacks of varying colors from “the days of [his] life as an astrophysicist,” Herald casually explained the astrophysical origins of metal in “layman’s terms.” Some of the participants nodded along, evidently following the discussion; others assumed a glazed look but still made sure to nod occasionally so as not to reveal their lack of astrophysical savvy.

After Amy Lippert’s subsequent talk on the Bauhaus tea service, African history professor Emily Osborn began a lively presentation of aluminum kitchenware. She explained that, in West Africa, restaurant workers often kept empty soda cans to grind into shavings and sell to artisans for casting. As she spoke, she picked up a large, luminescent spoon and a plain, club-like mortar and passed them around the room. After the Bauhaus-tea-set-induced tactile deprivation, participants gladly reached out to feel the spoons and ladles. Smiles crept across faces as desires to touch were indulged, and participants ran their fingers over the objects’ raised chevron and honeycomb patterns. Some participants bobbed their hands up and down, remarking how light some of these objects seemed compared to American kitchen utensils.

Each participant attended the workshop with specific agendas: art historians asked about “materiality,” and anthropologists questioned whether metal artisans possessed “empirical” knowledge of metal’s scientific properties.

Nagel ended the presentations with an anecdote about the creation of the MRI machine. Because of the strength of the machine’s central magnet, he explained, the remainder of its components could not contain metal. Scientists had to experiment with other materials: “And that’s when I thought to myself, ‘Oh my goodness; everything around us is made of metal!’” he said. After such a vaguely-defined colloquy on the uses of metal that possessed the mysterious power to draw in and occasionally rivet a diverse audience, magnetism seemed an appropriate note for Nagel to end on.