Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cosmic consciousness

My second favorite thing to do in life: visit an art museum. (Well, maybe it's the third favorite thing to do.)  It's always a magnificent walk through time that helps fill notebooks with thoughts and impressions for future pondering ...

Have you ever wondered why it is it that one gets pulled to certain artworks, while others get merely a glance? For example, while peering at the treasures in the Frick Collection or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, I've had an unusual fascination with enamel plates by the "Master of the High Forehead."

Taking notes on the Master of the High Forehead's enamels
This person, or group of people, made the 16th-century equivalent of "art for the masses." (In other words, it was affordable to people other than the clergy.) The name says it all - the faces depicted in these works have unusually high foreheads.

Circumcision of Christ, enamel on copper plate, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The faces also have eerie-looking ringed eyes. Yuk! But for some reason I'm drawn to them, too.

Eyes of the Master
I've been trying to understand why these curious little plates garnered as much interest as masterpieces by El Greco and Kandinsky. I felt as though I knew the Master's work ... where did that feeling come from?

ah HAAA! Now I remember: as young boy, my absolute favorite TV show was Space Patrol ("Planet Patrol" in the US). I've revisited this program thanks to Youtube. It turns out that the Neptunians - bad guys on Space Patrol - look a lot like the odd characters depicted by the Master of the High Forehead. It's no wonder why the Master's work held such fascination.
A Neptunian (at right) keeps Marla, the Venusian secretary, captive
I recall lectures in Psych 101a/b where it was postulated that the mind can reformulate embedded memories and project them as current feelings and impressions; this poorly-understood process was mystified and presented as "cosmic consciousness" (i.e., a consciousness of "the life and order of the universe") by late 19th century psychologists.

I wonder if the artists involved with crafting the Neptunians had ever seen works by the Masters of the High Foreheads? I'd love to have this conversation with them ... and with Richard M. Bucke.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Surprise!

I'm following up on the previous post, where porcelain fragments were ground to dust and then viewed at various scales. We always seem to focus on that's in front of us when viewing porcelain objects. That is where the "action" is - the form and texture of the piece and, perhaps most importantly, the glazed image(s). How often do we bother looking at what's inside or behind an object? (I never do.)

  
Obverse of Christina's porcelain fragment

Back side of the fragment
When first examining Christina's donated fragments, though, I discovered something remarkable on what would have been the "reverse" of the piece - a foraminiferan called Pyrgo!

Close-up of the fragment -- containing a Pyrgo!
I don't know how it was formed -- maybe it was an oblong bubble in the ceramic slip that burst upon heating?
False-color image of the ceramic Pyrgo

I've spent some time pushing watercolors around with Pyrgo on my mind, but nothing emerged as impressive as what I found on Christina's fragment.


The lesson? Sometimes "looking deeply" involves looking from all angles -- including from behind.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Seeing, Not Believing: Landscapes at Various Scales

I've had the pleasure of collaborating with some amazing artists over the years. One of my favorites is South African ceramic artist Christina Bryer. Her porcelain works comprise intricate geometric patterns. They are nothing short of stunning, and spawn comparisons with some of nature's most elegant architects (i.e., Foraminifera, of course). Another favorite is Katherine Glenday (who wrote the poem recently posted here). Katherine's ceramic vessels are materpieces of form and make beautiful music, too. A few years ago, both artists kindly donated some "kiln failures" for use in an art/science project but, sadly, what we had in mind didn't materialize. Nevertheless, I found them handy in other ways, per below:


Broken fragments of porcelain art donated by Katherine
I like to explore the concept of scale - it's part of my work as a scientist, but it's something that humans often have a hard time with. For example, temporal scales beyond about a century ("several lifetimes") are difficult to reconcile. We can't imagine vast stretches of time, such as a few million years in the past when our ancestral hominids roamed the earth. It's easier and more comforting to reject science and think in a young earth timeframe. (That's my rationalization for certain religious fundamentalist beliefs.)

Likewise, linear dimensions often baffle the mind. Under ideal conditions, most of us can see sub-millimeter objects. Smaller objects than that, however, become a leap of faith without the use of microscopes. To help young students understand the concept of scale (and or fun), I took a piece of porcelain and ground it to dust using a mortar and pestle.

It took about an hour to make dust out of Christina's pieces of ceramic
I sprinkled this dust onto a polished aluminum "stub" and coated it with a thin film of gold to make the dust conductive. Using a scanning electron microscope, the powder looks like rocks and boulders strewn across a mountain highway following a landslide.

Small pieces of dust at the sub-millimeter scale viewed by scanning electron microscopy

Micrometer dust on millimeter dust
And with a little more magnification, we see that each piece of dust is decorated with finer dust particles which are at the micrometer scale.

Nanometer dust on micrometer dust
And if we zoom in on each of the tiniest particles shown above, we see that they are, in turn, littered with even tinier particles. Using different instruments we could proceed down to the atomic scale, and with other types down to the subatomic. It's all there to be seen, and it's all real.

In the same vein, it should be no leap of faith to appreciate that we can accurately date the age of the earth, or the age of the universe for that matter, and accurately chart the evolution of our species from life's simplest forms. Again, the evidence is all there to be seen, and it's real.

But this is not a lesson about belief. What strikes me here is that each microscopic landscape is a vista worthy of exploration and expression in the hands of artists. We just need the right tools to see with, and the skills to depict our findings in ways that are comfortable to live with. It seems so obvious that combining art and science is a powerful, straightforward way to educate young minds.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Of Hearts and Red

Antarctica
by Katherine Glenday

Our thoughts form us
And like the forams
And the caddis creatures
We live in our
Patterned habits

I can run with this
And do
Away from text and fact
And the common herded wayfare
Of thought and learned behaviour

It is too dense for me

I am overwhelmed already
And the truth of it
Scampers off somewhere
And snarls in the brambles
Beneath the woods
Of a forest of trees

I would rather drop my sounding bells
Below a frozen sea
And watch with my long distance heart
As my friends swim them down

To sing an angelus
On the ocean bed

Here all things are weighed
In the company of creatures
Who build their hearts on the sleeves
Of their houses.

Dreaming of ice

Winter at last! Besides the snow and cold, there's lots of ice. With proper footwear and care, ice is a lovely substrate. I spent many years walking on sea ice with Yaktrax on my sneakers, or CCM Tacks on bare feet playing ice hockey. (Aside: The former got me much further in life than the latter.)

While walking in the parking lot at work, I noticed dozens of curiously-shaped ovals, circles, and irregular ellipses of white adorning the pavement. They were crusts of salt that outlined the location of briny puddles from motorists driving on salted roads.


A dried salty puddle (left); Explorers Cove shoreline (right)

Close inspection of these white lines brought back memories of the Explorers Cove shoreline as seen from a helicopter. Even in a parking lot one can find unexpected dreamscapes.

A few blinks, though, snapped me back to reality. The underground parking lot with surprising outlines of white now feels dank and ugly. Sadly, looking at these salty shapes now ignites images of respiratory linings discolored by tar and other products of tobacco smoke.


Sometimes an eye for detail is a damnation.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Turning nomenclature on its side

Today it's snowing like it should be during winters in Albany - some predict as much as two feet (~61 centimeters) will coat the ground. Slippery under foot, slippery under treads, I'll need some traction to walk home from the lab tonight. Which got me thinking about feet and how we, as biologists, name things. Many types of single-celled organisms have structures that serve as "feet" at the functional level. But when naming body parts, structure seems to trump function. Don't ask me why - this is probably a rule made by the ancients. Unfortunately, when I talk to young students about the work we do, the terms used in the lab seem strange and unfamiliar. Like the term "pseudopods," which literally translates to "false feet." The term "aperture," which is a hole in the shell, is another one that glazes over young eyes.



Structural definitions imposed on a shelled protist
 
One theme I've been touching on lately is that protists like forams use these "feet" for feeding as well as locomotion. Sort of like a dog holding a bone (or chewy chew treat) with its feet while it happily muches, belly on the floor.

Terms turned sideways
 I wonder if adding a little humor will help give kids get both the structural and functional concepts? But then again, they'd have to know what "maw" and a "paw" are. Ugh, it's time to brave the weather and slide home on foot ...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Art/science collaboration - summary of some past work

I just completed another collaborative research proposal with some really smart colleagues. The application includes a novel art/science collaboration to help promote scientific literacy. Let's hope it gets funded!

While digging through the blogosphere to prepare my cv for the application, I came across a wonderful post that summarized a past project with New Zealand artist Claire Beynon. Its various pieces and the people it involved reminded me of the tiny threads of cytoplasm (i.e., pseudopods) that foraminifera use to go about their business.


The Antarctic foram Astrammina rara with its cytoplasmic network extended on a glass dish. The ramifying pseudopods are likened to an art/science collaboration, with the body of creative work encased by an elegant shell.
 
Daydreaming about the trajectories of its individual components (i.e., the many poems, musical pieces, and artworks that were generated) drew imagined parallels to organelles saltating within these pseudopods. And looking at this body of work as a whole, packaged within its posted "shell" - well, it really seemed to be no less than a live foram!

One thing is for sure: art/science collaboration is an effective way to ignite the imagination ...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Updated Cereal Killer

"Art is never finished, only abandoned." This quote is credited to Leonardo da Vinci and it appears he's right. At the last minute I flipped all the metazoan prey upside down so they looked dead at the hands (er, arms) of Notodendrodes. The piece was gifted to the staff of Health Research, Inc. after giving a talk about our research projects. They are displaying it in their lunch room, which seems fitting. 

Cereal Killer as it appears on display at Health Research, Inc.
 I don't want to abandon "Cereal Killer" until it's in a better frame. And then there's "Cereal Killer II" to work on, now that I've figured out how to make these things ...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cereal Killers

My colleagues and I give dozens of art/science talks to audiences ranging from 1st graders to senior citizens. They seem to enjoy stories about diving under the ice, watching penguins play, and how we go to the bathroom when it's minus 20. But when it gets to the science, do they really understand the important implications of carnivorous single-celled organisms? Don't ask me where the thought came from, but perhaps a play on words, together with an interesting piece of "art," would help. Ergo, I sat down to illustrate a cereal killer foram. First step: buy a bunch of cereal and resist the temptation to eat it all in one sitting. (I love cereal!)
 

Preparing the palette
I have scads of Japanese rice paper left over from the spitball amoeba project. Might as well adorn it with rice crispy cereal (plus other cerealicious shapes, sizes, and colors). NOTE: I consulted the literature and concluded that this is the first time a foraminiferan collage has been made out of cereal. I hope it becomes a new movement ...



Moving breakfast around
   Artist friends often mention the satisfaction it brings to "push around paint." I fully understand what they mean. It's also rewarding to squirt around glue, and brush around cereal. Lots of fun!
The cereal killer with metazoan prey - just like in nature! (Well, artistic license with the bugs.)
In the end, I depicted Notodendrodes antarctikos with plastic metazoans adorning its branches. It's not accurate, of course, but it was fun to make and serves to illustrate the concept: single-celled carnivores littering the seafloor, eating small invertebrates. Sometimes silly examples can spawn serious discussion that lay audiences can grab hold of and tear apart.

Just like a Notodendrodes with a juvenile starfish. Or me with five boxes of yummy cereal to eat!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Floridaminifera

Although regarded as marine creatures, Foraminifera (forams) are found just about everywhere it's moist ... or at least their genetic signatures can be found in DNA samples obtained  from moist places, like river edges and other freshwater habitats. But the sea pulls at us, and its rich abundance of forams visible to the naked eye titillate interest. Even outside Antarctica, I've been very curious to learn why certain species are abundant in "peculiar" oceanic places.

One foram that lives in a truly odd place is Shepheardella. It makes a living in the Florida Keys snaking in and out of the flesh of solitary fan seaweed.

Dried specimen of a fan seaweed, probably Avrainvillea nigricans

"Snaking" is an appropriate verb to describe Shepheardella's motion, because it is shaped like a snake. A tiny red snake.


Shepheardella snaking in and out of a piece cut from fan seaweed.



Here is what it looks like stretching out on a glass Petri dish, the way scientists usually study such specimens.



The scanning electron microscope gives us some idea of what its world really looks like, snaking through thickets of algal flesh.

I think Shepheardella is telling scientists that we spend too much time in vitro and not enough time in vivo.

Thursday, May 9, 2013