Louvre Researcher to Talk Art, Physics

October 29, 2010 - News Release

Art and physics will meet in a University of Guelph lecture next week by Thomas Calligaro, a researcher at Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France, located in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

He will present "A Particle Accelerator to Unravel the Mysteries of Art and Archeology" Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. in the science complex atrium. His talk is sponsored by the Guelph-Waterloo Physics Institute and U of G’s ASTRA (Arts, Science and Technology Research Alliance).

Calligaro will discuss the use of ion beams for non-destructive, non-invasive examination of works of art, including Renaissance paintings, medieval stained glass, Mesopotamian gemstones and even a pre-Columbian rock crystal skull.

The French researcher analyzes his data using software developed by Guelph physicist Iain Campbell. This fall, Campbell visited Spain to train scientists in using that software, his most recent such trip to Europe. The Guelph professor led a similar training session organized at the Louvre by Calligaro in 2005.

Campbell has used his GUPIX software to study a variety of things, including air pollution, rocks and fish otoliths. “Thomas Calligaro was one of the first to apply it to objects of cultural heritage,” he said.

That application resonates with Guelph physicist Diane de Kerckhove. This year she completed installation of Canada’s first high-resolution scanning proton microprobe. She has already used that instrument — housed in the basement of the MacNaughton Building — to look at ancient Roman coins from a collection at McMaster University.

Probing the coins’ surface layers, de Kerckhove mapped amounts and locations of gold, silver, copper and other metals. That information can provide clues to historians and archeologists about how the coins were made and even about trade patterns and the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The work at Guelph this summer meshes with other techniques such as X-ray fluorescence used to examine ancient coins, said Brandi MacDonald, project manager at McMaster’s Institute for Applied Radiation Sciences.

“Understanding the metallurgical composition of the coins allows us to trace back potentially where this silver or gold would have been mined in the Roman Empire,” said MacDonald, a trained anthropologist. “We can look at how they would have been using those different mines and how that changed over time.”

Mapping metal content also shows researchers how later coins were debased with less valuable metals as the empire declined, and can even distinguish between coins minted in Rome and in the furthest reaches of the empire, she said.

Added de Kerckhove: “These objects are important to us because they tell us something about human history. It’s rare to find such a perfect marriage of science in the service of art.”

For more information about Calligaro's lecture, call Linda Stadig at 519-888-4567, Ext. 37598.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, at 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or lhunt@uoguelph.ca, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or dhealey@uoguelph.ca.

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