Science in culture

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Medal remodelled

Dutch artist Mirjam Mieras has designed the new Biochemical Society Award.


When we learn that a major scientific society is to award a medal to a star performer, we know roughly what to expect. Following Renaissance precedent, the medal will resemble a large coin, often with a portrait of a past luminary on the front and some kind of symbol or representative device on the reverse. It is likely to be made of bronze, or more expensively of silver or even gold. It will be suitably inscribed and come in a presentation case. The new biennial medal of the Biochemical Society shatters all these expectations.

The society, for whom I have been acting as adviser, have gone for a bold choice. They have commissioned the Amsterdam artist Mirjam Mieras to bring her innovatory vision to bear on the task of designing something that pays homage to the essence of medallic design while departing from the stock conventions. The artist, for her part, has been determined to avoid the obvious clichés — most notably the ubiquitous double helix of DNA.


Mieras has established herself as one of the most innovative medallists in the world. She studied sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the Hague, and first made her mark as a medallist when she won the Fédération Internationale de la Médaille competition in the Hague in 1996. Her winning Moon and Mouse medal challenged the norm, using unusual materials — cloth, tin, glass and photographs — and making clever play around the circular motif, involving lenses, size and distance.

For the Biochemical Society she has produced a design that at first sight looks so minimal as to convey little. Once the recipient has slipped off the sleeve, reticently inscribed in shiny black on matt black, he or she is confronted with a heavy steel slab, relieved only by a translucent Plexiglas block at its centre. Once the block is slipped out, a steel ring invitingly protrudes, courtesy of a hidden spring. When the ring is removed, we can see that its edge carries inscriptions. “RESEARCH RAISES QUESTIONS” runs around half of its rim, while the other half tells us that, “QUESTIONS GUIDE RESEARCH”, inverted in orientation. The letters A T, C and G — for adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine, the four bases of DNA — are highlighted in typical, textbook colours.


In a manner characteristic of much Dutch design, its apparent simplicity masks a complex set of subtle meanings and invites spectators to seek their own associations. Its precision-engineered, high-tech nature sits happily in the world of contemporary science. In dialogue with Keith Gull, then chairman of the society, she was directed to cuvettes as a point of unexpected reference for the Plexiglas block. The symmetries, asymmetries, mirroring and inversions function particularly well in relation to the characteristics of many molecular structures. Such relationships are less the result of conscious adoption of scientific motifs, and more the consequence of intuitive affinities.

More broadly, Mieras finds that the circle, particularly in the context of its square container, presents possibilities that are at once bounded and limitless. Indeed, she confesses that she is “seduced by the circle”. As she says: “It took me a long time to understand the beauty and the rules of the circle. There is no beginning or end. A circle has no top or bottom, The top and bottom are determined by the observer. A medal is a three-dimensional circle. The optimum three-dimensional circle is a ball. The minimum three-dimensional circle is a pancake. All art medals lie somewhere between these two extremes. The possibilities are unlimited. I wonder if we are making use of all these possibilities. We must not lock up medal-making in tradition.”

Mieras' stance, which respects the inherent rules of beauty of the genre with which she is working while seeking radically new solutions, is more in keeping with the ethos of research science than the conventional medallic image of a grandee (generally male) in austere profile.

The Biochemical Society Award 2002, designed by Mirjam Mieras, will be awarded to Bernard Dixon and Steven Rose for their contribution to science communication. Mieras' medals will be exhibited at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, from 22 November to 22 December 2002.

Visualizations: The Nature Book of Art and Science is a collection of essays edited by Martin Kemp (published by Oxford University Press and the University of California Press; £20, £35).

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Kemp, M. Science in culture. Nature 419, 116 (2002) doi:10.1038/419116a

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