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


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

Monday, April 22, 2013


Weathered boulders near Bay of Sails, Antarctica
Earth is a beautiful place filled with creatures that harvest photons, exploit chemical gradients, and consume the bodies or byproducts of other creatures. Each organism (or perhaps more properly, each colony of organisms) grows, reproduces, ages, and dies. In the process, they cycle elements and, for a time, leave their signatures. This dynamic process is what we call life. As so many luminaries have said before, Earth is truly a living planet. Many of us contemplate this concept each April 22nd.

Antarctica illustrates most, if not all, aspects of the living Earth: from undersea environments teeming with micro-, macro-, and mega-scale organisms, to physical forces slowly eroding boulders left behind by the last ice age, liberating elements and exposing new habitats for life. One need only sit (or float) and take it all in. Compared to our world, the "physical" seems more "physical" here and life seems more resilient.

Nothing is fragile, except the unprepared human. And, at times, even the "prepared" human psyche.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Beginnings ...

As an undergraduate, I never thought much about the parallels between art and science. It took a pal of mine - Anthony Tassarotti - to lead me down that path. At the time, I was a student in Sam McGee-Russell's electron microscopy class, and "Tony" was deeply involved with photography. When he saw some of my micrographs, he went into the darkroom and started making some "crazy prints" (my words at the time).

Anthony's rendering of a carbon-platinum shadowed latex sphere

You never know where friendships will take you!

Friday, March 22, 2013

The mind of an artist

An artist colleague once remarked that if I was to understand how artists think, I need to reverse roles in life. With a perplexed look, and a "huh? what does that mean," he suggested that I try working in the lab wearing my scuba suit. The next day I followed his suggestion ...

Showing up for a day's work, ready to experience the artist's mind.

Most of the day involves paperwork (sigh).

But occasionally I get to use fancy equipment, like this low voltage scanning electron microscope ...
... or the Albany high-voltage transmission electron microscope ...
It was hard to see anything through a fogged scuba mask.
Dejected and less inspired about understanding artists, I return to the lab. Sorry, Jan, it's better to collaborate with artists than it is to think like one ...

(Thanks to Amanda Andreas for taking these photos and tolerating my humor)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Palms and incongruent connections

I've been reading Edward Heron-Allen's book The Language of the Hand, which was published in the late 1800's -- a time when palmistry, phrenology, and other pseudosciences were popular. Although such practices have been falsified by modern science, this rational biologist shamelessly admits to getting a thrill each time he cracks open a fortune cookie. Imagine how I would feel if this legendary foraminiferologist read my palm?

Mental sparks fly while reading Heron-Allen's text, and wildly incongruous connections are made. If afforded the opportunity to talk with him today, it seems likely that the discussion would center on how he reconciled his early years as a palm reader with his later years as a scientist. If he defended palmistry as a science to the end, then I would have to point out that the body is riddled with lines and patterns. Why restrict psychoanalysis and fortune-telling to those of the hand?

I'm curious: Notice the lines around the eyes of a young Sam Bowser:

These lines are physically closer to his spirit center; they should, by such proximity, be more revealing than those on his palm. (As I explore methods of meditation and related healing approaches, I've noticed that this sort of logic has been employed throughout the ages.)
  • Did they predict the years he would spend squinting in Antarctic summer sun?
  • Did they predict the chiseled grimaces of trigeminal neuralgia (TGN)?
  • Did they predict years of billowing mad-scientist laughter?
Perhaps these lines are simply the consequence of his genetic stock. (Some say he has his granny's eyes. Should this also be true for the lines of his hands?)
Those lines around his eyes have become more exaggerated over the years, and are now seen to possess certain bird-like attributes. Further curiosity: What do these crow's feet foretell?
  • More squinting in the Antarctic sun?
  • More episodes of TGN?
  • More unbridled laughter?

Eye lines revealed using highly sophisticated imaging algorithms, from images obtained while: (1) smiling, (2) resting, (3) experiencing unbearable pain, (4) laughing like a madman. Notice that the contrast of the eye lines accurately reflects emotional status. Note also that eye lines deflect at different angles relative to their resting position. I'm sure that all of this can be formulated into a new, highly "scientific" way to interpret the psyche and predict the future. Let me know if it's already been done - I don't want to waste my time!

These lines also mirror the patterns made by pseudopodia extended by foraminiferan protists. Perhaps this means that I will be a benthic foraminiferan in my next life? (No, I've made other plans.) Or perhaps I was simply destined to study these organisms...

Pseudopodia extended by the foraminiferan protist Allogromia laticollaris, initially photographed using differential interference optics, but then subjected to the same imaging algorithms used for enhancing eye lines. As can be seen by the concordance of pseudopodial patterns with my crow's feet, it's clear that I was destined to be a foraminiferologist!

This exercise proves to me that curiosity can lead to some strange connections. When depicted with skill, some might even call these connections art. In my hands, however, they seem more of a time sink. That is, until this Doctor of Philosophy improves his social status and makes some money by interpreting eyelines of the elite, as his hero Heron-Allen did so many years ago.

Imagine Dr. Bowser telling wealthy, curious souls their fortunes while they wink at him!(?)

Monday, March 18, 2013

The sheer joy of Antarctic Subaquatic Garbage Collecting

Sometimes things fall into holes and are presumed lost forever. Over the years, people working at Explorers Cove have dropped coins (for luck?), hand tools, cameras, nails, screws -- all sorts of things -- into dive holes. As divers, we enjoy discovering and recovering these "lost" items. It gives us a sense of satisfaction being Antarctic Subaquatic Garbage Collectors.

One time I found a penny on the seafloor (it was heads up) and gleefully handed it to Werner Herzog upon surfacing. Another time, Doug Coons and I recovered a 15-ft Jiffy Drill flight. (See this post on how they sometimes get hopelessly stuck in the ice and ultimately drop to the seafloor.)

Nothing can express the joy of Antarctic Subaquatic Garbage Collecting more than this picture of Cecil recovering a "lost" shovel. We used it for the rest of the field season, too!