Tiny Tech #35: Nanoparticles in Ancient Art

Today from the world of Tiny Tech:

Nanotechnology is considered an example of the latest in modern science. But you might be surprised to know that one particular kind of nanotechnology has been around for a very long time.

The Lycurgus* cup is a small glass goblet decorated with an image of the mythical king Lycurgus. It was made around 300 AD, possibly in Rome, and today is owned by the British Museum in London.

Amazingly, the cup is red-colored when lit from behind, but green when lit from the front. For many years, the reason was a mystery, but in 1990 scientists at the British Museum discovered the cup’s secret: in the glass walls of the goblet are millions of tiny nanoparticles made out of an alloy of silver and gold. The nanoparticles are so small that they scatter visible light in just the right way to create the different colors.

Today, certain kinds of cranberry or ruby glass also get their color from small gold nanoparticles embedded in the glass. But it’s not a new technique – the Romans knew how to do it 1700 years ago. So if you’re interested in nanotechnology, when in Rome – or elsewhere -- do as the Romans do!

Tiny Tech is made possible by the National Science Foundation and WUFT.  To learn more about Tiny Tech, go to tinytechradio.org.

Back to Script Archive