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Plastic bottle

March 14, 2000

A public radio commentary

If you love art my honeymoon will appall you. My wife and I, both engineers, toured Munich, Vienna, and Prague visiting one art museum and even there we saw only one painting - instead we looked at the art of engineers.

We spent four hours learning how steel is made at the Deutsches Museum -- Munich's incredible technology museum. In Vienna we skipped most of the art to visit the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts to study, with fascination, metal chairs and cigarette boxes. In Prague we examined carefully the colored aluminum lining the subways.

Appalling, no doubt, to any art lover, yet to me the products of engineers have much in common with those of artists. For example, when I take a two liter pop bottle from my fridge, I think of a painting at the Museum of Modern Art called Christina's World, the American masterpiece of a women lying in a field. The graceful contours of the two liter pop bottle echo the graceful lines in this painting Christina's World. The plastic bottle and the painting are the products of two brothers - Nat and Andrew Wyeth - and the influence of their father, a great illustrator.

The father taught Andrew, the painter of Christina's World, to master simple details. One day Andrew was painting and his father walked in and said "You've lost your simplicity." He used his thumb to simplify a shadow and, as Andrew said, "He made it sing" - this simple detail brought the painting to life.

Andrew's brother, Nat, also spend his childhood learning detail and simplicity from their father. Of course the result isn't in museums or galleries, but in your fridge: It's engineers art, it's that two liter plastic pop bottle.

Nat, although he came from a family of painters, became an engineer. Which to Wyeth's father, a painter, was just fine. He said, "An engineer is just as much an artist as a painter."

In the 1960s Nat Wyeth created his masterpiece by asking himself "Why isn't plastic used for beverage bottles?" He went home filled a plastic detergent bottle with soda, and left it in the fridge over night. By morning the container was swollen from the "fizz" leaving the soda. Wyeth thought, "No wonder they don't put carbonated beverages in plastic bottles. They're too weak." Wyeth realized that to make stronger plastic he needed to weave the long strands of molecules - the molecules making up the plastic - into a kind of a net, a tic tac toe pattern. But how to do this on the tiny scale of molecules?

When he mentioned this to a top scientist he was told him "had as much chance as balancing a steel ball on the end of a needle." Wyeth, though, succeed by using the simiplicity he'd learned from his father: Nat used a puff of air to weave the molecules and to create his masterwork. In a mold, shaped like a bottle, Wyeth lowered a tube of molten plastic. He shot air through the plastic to splatter it all over the mold making a tic-tac-toe pattern weaving, on a tiny scale, a net of strong plastic and giving birth to the graceful contours of the plastic soda bottle - contours related to the simple lines his brother's painting Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.

So now you can be like my wife and me: The next time you feel like going to the Museum of Modern Art, instead, just open your fridge.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises