Case study: optics
The art of continuous transformation
How does an industrial physicist end up in an arts faculty working on historic printing processes – and why? Susanne Klein tells Joe McEntee all about it r r a n k M e n g e
Back when the 18-year-old Susanne Klein was considering her subject options for university, friends and family assumed that it wa s a s t r a i g h t f o r wa r d p i c k b e t we e n a d e g r e e in law (her father was a barrister) or German literature (her strongest subject at school). It turns out they were half-right. Klein did i nd e e d f a c e a b i na r y c h o i c e – j u s t n o t t h e o n e that everyone had anticipated. “When I went t o r e g i s t e r a t un i v e r s i t y, I wa s n ’ t s u r e whe t h e r to opt for German literature or physics,” she explains. “I flipped a coin, that’s literally how I decided, and once it landed for physics I figured why not – this will be much more of a challenge. I ’ve never looked back.”
Since then, it’s fair to say that Klein has made a point of defying convention. In her student days, she admits to being driven to succeed, at least in part, by the somewhat unenlightened guidance of one physics professor. “He actually said to me ‘physics is not for girls, you are on the wrong course’,” she explains. “I thought to myself: ‘you old bastard – I’ll show you’!”
Spurred on, Klein has taken the path less travelled as a professional physicist, pushing and crossing boundaries between industry and academia, theoretical and e x p e r i men t a l r e s e a r c h , a s we l l a s h e r h omeland in Germany and adopted home in the UK – long before Brexit was even a word. In her la t es t inc ar nat ion, K l e in f inds her sel f at another interface – this time between art and science – as an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) manufacturing fellow in the Centre for Fine Pr in t Research at t he Univer s i t y of t he West of England (UWE) in Bristol.
Based in the UWE arts faculty, the fellowship sees Klein heading up a five-year
Printworks Susanne Klein and her research team at the University of the West of England are giving 19th-century printing processes a 21st-century makeover.
project (2018–2023), funded to the tune of £1.2m, with the goal of reimagining two 19th-century printing processes – Woodburytype and Lippmann photography. These historic technologies have been largely forgotten as they were not commercially competitive, despite the fact that they produce prints far superior to anything available today. “My task is to find out how they did it and then give these processes a 21stcentury makeover so that they are cheaper, faster and more accessible,” Klein explains.
That makeover seeks to exploit Klein’s diverse research experience – spanning colloidal chemistry, optics and 3D printing – as well as an extensive network of industry and academic contacts developed over two decades working as a senior scientist at Hewlett-Packard (HP). If she and her team are successful, the resulting high-quality, continuous-tone printing processes will likely find a range of high-end commercial applications: from original works of art and designer fashion to the packaging of luxury goods and unhackable anticounterfeiting for pharmaceuticals and credit cards.
So what’s life like working as a scientist surrounded by artists? Klein sees a lot of hands-on knowledge, craftsmanship and deep understanding among her UWE colleagues, adding that “people are very generous with that knowledge”. However, boundaries remain between the two cultures. “Science is almost forgotten in art,” she says. “There is a real block, in the sense that a lot of people who study ar t hated science in school.”
For Klein, though, this feels like an opportunity. By helping arts students and researchers to understand the science better, she reasons, it should be possible for them to deliver better outcomes in their art. “If you know how to make your inks and how colour is generated, for example, you don’t need to experiment so much – there is less t r ial and er ror.”
Physics World Careers 2020
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