“I’m wearing a 20-carat diamond on my necklace. What, you can’t see it? Believe me, it’s gorgeous!” Imagine if all our jewelry was invisible. What would it be worth? Artist Diemut Strebe wanted to find out the answer to this question. What is the intrinsic value of an object? Of a work of art? As resident artist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she was in a unique position to use science to experiment with value.
Brian Wardle, an MIT colleague in the department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, had been working with carbon nanotubes (CNTs), but he hadn’t been looking at the optical properties. Diemut had the idea of growing CNTs on a really big diamond to see what would happen. Would the diamond disappear? If the CNTs hadn’t worked, she would have used an alternate method, but the experiment was a success.
What are CNTs?
CNTs encase the diamond in the blackest black on earth, darker even than the much-vaunted Vantablack. The nanotubes, tiny hollow carbon cylinders, create a microscopic ‘forest’ on the shiny surface of the diamond. When a photon enters the forest structure, which mainly consists of empty space, it is encaged and bounces around until it dissipates as heat. The CNTs absorb 99.965% of the light. Diemut loves pointing out the paradox that diamonds are also made of carbon, and are the shiniest, most light-reflecting objects on earth.
Finding a Diamond
Finding a donor for the really big diamond was a bit of a stumbling block, but after being turned down by luminaries such as Tiffany and Cartier, who were not amused at this playful idea, she came across Larry West, of L.J. West Diamonds in Midtown Manhattan.
Larry was immediately intrigued by the question. “It’s definitely a unique project. I’ve always had a special love for physics, and I thought I’d be a scientist.” Diemut had struck gold. Or rather, yellow diamonds. Larry took over the family business when his father died and became a leader in the colored diamonds business. When Diemut called him, he knew, “This was destined for me.” He donated a brilliantly gorgeous, $2 million yellow diamond to the project.
Keeping the Diamond Safe
But it’s not all fun and games, making 16.78 carat diamonds disappear. MIT’s insurance only covered the diamond while it was on site undergoing its transformation. At other times, she had to pick it up and take it home. She ended up sleeping with it under her pillow, to make sure it was safe. “Imagine the red blush on my face if I opened the drawer and it’s not there!”
A Magic Act
The result is perplexing, especially once mounted as an elaborate exhibit at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Diemut said, “The whole display is an enormous show to present nothing. A black dot, that’s all. Nothing to see. It’s well-defined with a silhouette. But nothing to see.” A magic act.
Other Science Magic
An innovative thinker, this is not Diemut’s first rodeo in the intersection of art and science. She previously used Vincent Van Gogh’s DNA to grow an ear! What a sense of humor.
Brian’s work led to another application for the CNTs, when Diemut put him in touch with Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist John Mather of NASA, whose work helped cement the big-bang theory of the universe. Mather is now using the CNT technology to coat gigantic starshades used to search for exoplanets. Hence artistic expression has led to useful scientific applications that may lead to discoveries into the mysteries of the universe.
World-Traveling Invisible Diamond
The Redemption of Vanity art exhibit will be on display at NYSE until March 2020. After that, the invisible diamond will take a trip to Japan to spend some time at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. But Diemut won’t carry it in her pocket this time. Perhaps it will fly via chartered jet.
Take your own free private tour at https://www.the-redemption-of-vanity.com/. Decide for yourself what this disappearing diamond is worth.