Sunday, July 26, 2009


I've been photographing flowers this spring and summer. It's something my granny often did, although she would get to work with her watercolors or oils after the prints came back. Like her, I'm interested in a flower's color palette, but the objects I'm studying are pollen grains. It's a refreshing break from the hard-nose science that these past months have brought.

This Casablanca Lilly is a recent addition to my meditation rock garden. It stands tall over the eclectic menagerie of stone shapes, colors and weathered textures, each carrying a bit of history that I use to launch episodes of time travel. The Lilly seems to be getting along well with the adjacent horseradish patch (which, for various reasons, is what I would certainly be if I was a plant).

Its copious pollen will give me much to study. Ah, if only its fragrance would repel the millions of mosquitos that our wet summer has spawned!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tadpole rescue

This week I finally found time to open our swimming pool. It's not really used for swimming; rather, the pool serves as a testing ground for waterproof camera gear and aquatic sampling contraptions. I have also been known to take an underwater snooze in it (wearing scuba gear, of course).

Above the water, a 100-ft. pine tree is inconveniently situated on the East side of the pool. It's a real nuisance, shedding countless numbers of needles in the fall, depositing nostrils full of pollen in the spring, and dripping buckets of sap in the summer. More than one pine cone has conked me, usually precipitated by a frisky red squirrel giggling overhead.

Normally, the pool is tightly covered when not in use. A thick tarp keeps out sunlight, leaves, and critters all fall, winter, and spring, which makes it easier to get the pool ready for the relatively short (~10 week) swim season here in Albany. Last winter's ice storm, however, broke large branches from the pine tree, which ripped big holes in the cover. In came springtime sunlight, and months of profuse algal growth supported large populations of various waterbugs and squiggly mosquito larvae, which in turn fed loads of toads and frogs. The reproductive appetites of the latter led to the subject of this entry.

No tadpoles were harmed in the making of this blog

Hundreds of tadpoles greeted me as the pool cover was removed. I treasured tadpoles as a boy; it was so amazing to watch them develop in our makeshift aquaria: tiny legs sprout, tails shrink, and eventually they'd hop out onto the kitchen counter. Perhaps that's why I didn't have the heart to chlorinate the pool and kill the little critters. Instead, I scooped them out and let them go in a nearby pond, patting my back for being such a compassionate human being. (Better safe than sorry, I suppose: should a certain reincarnation myth ring true, maybe we're not fishes before birth -- perhaps we're tadpoles!)

Cutting down a huge pine requires skill and a large crane

Once I got the cover off and the tadpoles out, I hired a tree expert to remove the pine. A large crane and a few skilled men had the job finished in a couple of hours. Nothing was put to waste: the trunks are now planks, the branches now mulch.

And the tadpoles are now either fish food or frogs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stereoscopy and a wet kiss

June has been a monstrously busy month, and it's only half over! Another grant proposal went out the door (er, the internet cable), two research papers were submitted, and the North American Section of the International Society of Protistologists meeting was held in Bristol, Rhode Island, where I gave the Past President's Address.

The title of my talk was "Why Should a Cell Need a Shell?" I won't get into details here, but to illustrate the selective advantage of particle agglutination (i.e., primitive shell-building behavior), I showed three-dimensional SEM images of agglutinated shells from "living fossil" species of Foraminifera. I'm not sure if the audience agreed with my scientific arguments, but it was a hoot to see some of the world's finest scholars wearing goofy spectacles.

Protistologists viewing red/blue anaglyph images

It has also been an unusually wet month, which has not been good for evening walks but has yielded lush lawns and gardens. And lots of toads and frogs. I'm particularly fond of a pair of tree toads inhabiting the back yard. They show up everywhere -- cuddled beneath the lid of the BBQ grill, clinging to windows, snuggled under the pool cover -- and at night they bellow the loudest RIBBETT! you can image. It cracks me up that this pair (I guess they're a couple?) squat next to each other and RIBBETT! full blast into each other's ears all evening. "Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? How about now?"

"Kiss me, you fool!"

Their incessant, booming RIBBETT!s make me want to bend over and kiss one, just to shut them up. Ah, but what if the resulting princess retained her booming voice?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Square Trees and Lilliputian Architects

Trees at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in Albany are trimmed so that they mirror the monolithic architecture of New York State's government complex.

This spring, I've watched a particular cubic tree leaf from one of the few windows near my lab. I suppose that some might think it "cruel" to shape a tree this way; if so, you should see what artist Natalie Jeremijenko has done to her trees at Mass MoCA, or simply think of what every bonsai goes through.

Getting back to the plaza, I wonder if the "tree foraminifera" that we study would build similar monoliths if offered bricks and blocks? This is a serious scientific question: I've long held the notion that we could "train" cells to construct tiny devices. (The alternative concept that most engineers have adopted, i.e., self-assembly of components, is one of the bottlenecks, if not fallicies, of nanotechnology.) Tree foraminifera are magnificant sculptors and build micro-scale shells for a living. Why not teach them how to assemble our miniaturized goodies?

Notodendrodes antarctikos - a "tree foram" from Explorers Cove, Antarctica (photo courtesy Shawn Harper)

Since this post considers the concept of scale, we should be cautious when thinking about working at the level of foraminifera. These single-celled giants are voraceous carnivores; given the chance, they would probably trim our body parts so that we conform to their arborescent aesthetic.

And then eat us!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bleeding Hearts (iii)

Irradiate bleeding hearts with simulated sunlight ...

... capture their shadows ...

... add primary colors ...

... relive 1971

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bleeding Hearts (ii)

An insect in flight encounters a string of bleeding hearts.

Upon approach, it finds company...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bleeding Hearts (i)

Flowers mean springtime and summertime, love and loss.

A solitary bleeding heart has appeared in the garden, which has me thinking about the single-minded pursuit required for success in science. Long nights spent alone in the lab, peering through the lens of a microscope; frozen hours under Antarctic ice, encased in scuba gear. So caught up in the passion for knowledge that we forget to play; forget to tell loved ones how important they are...

Even in the company of others, bleeding hearts lack comfort. I wonder what insects see in them?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Albany bloemen

My brother's family is living in Holland for the next few months. Today we share a little color, as Albany celebrates its Dutch heritage with 200,000 tulips.

Boys, Girls, Art & Science

I've been giving science talks to school kids for over 20 years. I tell them stories about working and living in Antarctica, and weave in some bits of knowledge about marine ecosystems, animal behavior, and climate. After spending 45 minutes with 20 bubbly students, I'll wink a smile at the teacher and leave the classroom feeling confident that our world is being left in good hands.

As part of their learning experience, the younger children are usually tasked to compose "thank you" notes or drawings, which teachers then send to me. These tokens of gratitude are treasure.

It's always fun to see which stories the kids focus on. Toilets, diving, dynamite, pycnogonids, and penguins top the list. When viewing the subjects of their art, one thing that I can predict with >95% accuracy is the gender of the child.

I bet you can, too...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Seeing Red, Feeling Warmth ... and Healing

Winter is over - finally! Along with the swarming of ants and the arrival of robins, a red peppering on the deciduous forest helps announce spring in Upstate New York. 

Sadly, though, last winter's ice storm left gaping wounds on most trees, especially the maples. Their red patina seems like a bloody stain on the forest's black skeleton. 

Maple tree flowers are not simply red. Put your nose to them and you'll see a mix of colors that code their structural complexity. Subtle yellow and green pistils are crowned by a burst of pale filaments, each of which is punctuated by a slate-blue anther. For fun, I'll explore the hidden hues of their pollen grains using a microscope. Dan Mazia, celebrated microscopist of the last 

century once wrote, "... think with the eyes and see with the brain. Deep revelations into the nature of living things continue to travel on beams of light."

In the lab, thinking and seeing are best done alone, and in silence. In the forest, I trust that beams of light will warm the trees and help heal the wounds of winter.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

InterfaCE IV(b)

Some images from opening night of InterfaCE IV.

Many thanks to Lynn Palumbo, Director of the Washington Art Gallery, for the invitation to show our work. I am personally indebted to DebS for her help setting up the installation, and to Wendy Bohlinger (a.k.a. Wendella) - photographer, friend, and advocate since our days studying invertebrate zoology at UAlbany.
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The scuba mantra "plan your dive and dive your plan" also works for setting up an art installation

Final touchup...

A view of the opening reception

"a place to rest the eye"

Wendy caught the light to transform graphite into ice

Thank you Wendella!

InterfaCE was supported in part by NSF grant ANT0440769 awarded to S.S. Bowser. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the The National Science Foundation. Nor any other life form/entity.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Concept of Scale

Collaborations between artists and scientists have yielded many intriguing projects over the past 20-plus years, as documented on the ASCI website. Having engaged in a fruitful art/science collaboration with Claire Beynon from 2005-8, the next step for our outreach program was to share this experience with elementary, middle, and high-school students. Enter the Capital Region Center for Arts in Education (CRCAE).

Based on our collaboration, artists Chris Moran and Pavlos Mayakis, together with poet Cara Benson, ran a CRCAE-sponsored art/science workshop for teachers last summer. This outreach project was recently put to the test: a classroom of bubbly bright 7th- and 8th-grade students in Holly May's English class at New Lebanon Junior/Senior High School were engaged in an art/science experience that explored the concept of scale. Expository writing was an essential ingredient of the program, providing another link between diverse curricula. Details will follow at the artscience alliance website; below are a few images to set the stage:

Thinking about Claire Beynon's interpretive artwork

Writing observations

Dr. B, artist Chris Moran, and writing instructor Holly May

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour, from one home in New York

Today marks Earth Hour, and I'll watch evening fall with a swarm of ants that emerge from our walkway each year.

Faithful as the equinox, these ants help mark springtime. Their emergence is, of course, a manifestation of their life cycle. Courtship, mating, new life, all timed to the start of this season.

I try to step over them while walking, working, and wondering.

In six hours our lights will extinguish; together with many other New Yorkers we add our voices (er, our absence of photons) in making a statement to world leaders about curbing climate change.

The ants are unaware of this, though. They are busy moving about, wandering between the pavers. Watching their bustle makes me itch. Or perhaps some of them have made their way up my pants.

It's 8:30, and the house is dark. The ants are barely moving, and I lay down next to the swarm. The night air is crisp and refreshing, but only a few stars poke through the clouds to light the sky.

Speaking of stars, I'll never forget my first evening wearing glasses: I was five years old, and couldn't wait to look at the Milky Way wearing them. (Being a product of the Space Age, I was a HUGE fan of astronomy.) But that first glimpse of the night sky with corrected vision remains one of the darkest moments of my life. Those warm fuzzy balls that painted nighttime since birth were really cold, lonely pinpricks of light.

The universe still seems much friendlier without glasses, so I take them off and share the night sky with the ants. Their eyes lack visual acuity as well - one of the many things we have in common.

It is now 9:30, and Earth Hour passes West to the next time zone. The ants are motionless. I think I'll leave the lights off, and join them in sleep.

P.S. Earth Hour +12

As predicted by meteorologists, rain has come. The swarm of ants is now a dispersion of corpses. I don't think the rain killed them; more likely, their life cycle was complete as nighttime fell.

Nevertheless, one takes pause.

Monday, March 23, 2009

InterfaCE IV(a)

Next week, InterfaCE IV will be installed in the Mildred I. Washington art gallery at Dutchess Community College, Poughkeepsie, New York. This version of InterfaCE will be placed on a 4x8-ft piece of canvas. I've been prepping the canvas these last few nights, enjoying the feel of gesso slipping off of a brush.

I ran down the canvas applying gesso, like wind skirts along the ice surface carrying streams of snow. The gesso texture will be barely perceptible when it dries, and will be further obscured by beakers and disks of photographs, micrographs, and paintings. Nevertheless, memories of wind-blown snow are at the forefront of this man's mind.

Tonight I made long, wispy strokes while applying the final layer, thinking about how the wind blows snow across the ice. It's so beautiful to watch, and to sit in. I've spent hours relishing its impact, and sometimes felt guilty about being in its way. But then I realize that millions of snowflakes were rescued by letting them coalesce into shapes on my parka and wind pants.

One day those shapes might reappear as InterfaCE V -- or perhaps they already have in the countless dreams that I don't remember.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Immersion in the Sublime

Work often takes me to extreme places, such as the outer space-like vacuum of an electron microscope or the frozen seascape of McMurdo Sound. Such places harbor limitless riches in sight, sound, and experience. They should be the domains of dreamers, poets, and artists.

When slipping through the thick sea ice and descending to its underside, a profound loneliness always  chills my heart. The thought that there is no other person in the entire Southern Ocean at that moment, compounded by the indescribable beauty of the icy aquatic space, defines the sublime to this man. Life sustained by a thin tube delivering air on demand. Life enabled by sophisticated under- and outerwear. Life viewed by a privileged scientist - a linear, analytical thinker, seeking a way to express this moment to others. A faithful rationalist who, for two decades, has extended his cold, wet hand toward the warmth of artists.

The Underside of Sea Ice
still frame of a Shawn Harper video

Glimpses of such underwater moments are portrayed in Werner Herzog's recent documentary, brilliantly captured by Henry Kaiser's lens. But the feeling I am trying to describe here is much more haunting. It is an isolation and a beauty like no other. I know intuitively that it is profound, even though I don't know what it is.

One day I hope to find an artist who understands this feeling and will help me express it. An artist who will help me share it with the world.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Still Point in Cell Motility Research

I study a group of single-cell organisms - the Foraminifera - that are incessantly busy. Within "foram" pseudopodia, which are the spiderweb-like projections seen in the photo below, one can watch (with a microscope) zillions of granules zipping to-and-fro; likewise, tiny particles picked up from the environment move back and forth along the pseudopodial surfaces. The rapid, bidirectional motion of these intracellular granules and surface-bound particles is a fascinating biological phenomenon I've been studying for a couple of decades now.

Watching this cellular hustle and bustle can make you feel frazzled and fried, particularly if you empathize with the foram. It has no still point in life as it prods and probes the environment for food and a mate. That is, no still point until a cell biologist enters its realm...

Phase contrast light micrograph of Allogromia with extended pseudopodia

I recall here a critical experiment performed as part of my dissertation research back in the early 80's. The question being asked was whether or not membrane surface motility, revealed by the movement of surface-bound latex spheres, was linked to a system of cytoskeletal elements called microtubules. (I'll blog about these miniscule protein tubes at a later time.) To find out, I was treating forams with various drugs that disassemble microtubules. The logic was simple: destroy microtubules and you stop cell processes that depend on them. My colleague Jeff Travis had already shown that these anti-microtubule drugs shut down intracellular transport in forams. Would they likewise stop the motion surface-bound particles? Late one night, alone in the lab, I was ready to find out.

Foram pseudopodia are a blur of activity. Seen here is a one-second exposure of pseudopodia imaged at high magnification. Because of the non-stop motion of intracellular granules, the 'pods appear smeared and uniformly dark; surface-bound latex spheres (1-micrometer in diameter) are seen as white streaks due to their movement along the 'pod surfaces.

It takes several hours to set up these experiments and, quite frankly, they're dangerous because they involve handling tiny amounts of some very potent compounds. It is not simple work, either: nimble hands, like those of an artist, are needed to seal perfusion chambers and assemble the intricate apparatus. Also like artists, an eye for the aesthetic is needed in order to record observations in ways that colleagues will appreciate. I remember my mentor Sam McGee-Russell saying "If it looks good, mate, the results will be more convincing." My other mentor, Conly Rieder, always said "Bowser, if you want to get a job in science, you better take pretty pictures!" We'll call it effective visual communication.

The stillness following drug treatment is manifest as sharp images. In this two-second exposure, the motionless granules inside the pseudopods are clearly seen. So, too, are the static, white latex spheres.

The result of this experiment was yes: take away microtubules and you stop membrane surface motility. Not to be too melodramatic, but the thrill of this discovery screamed in the silence of that evening, and I'll never forget its impact on my psyche. It was a still point for me (and literally for the foram) -- an "ah-hah!" moment shared with no one until the video recordings were shown to lab mates the following morning. The question I was addressing was based on the collective wisdom of hundreds of scientists over many decades, but this experiment was mine alone. Conducted alone, at night, just the way that science was "supposed" to be done. A still point indeed.

Few things are more beautiful than gleaning basic knowledge about the workings of the natural world. To me, it defines the sublime. And revealing that truth is art.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Compare and Contrast Art and Science

While we are off the ice, I'd like this blog to serve as a vehicle to comment on art/science collaboration. I'll begin with some of my (mis)perceptions:

My childhood impression was that scientists toil alone in a lab until the wee hours of night, striving for "ah hah!" moments. Solitude is something I've always been drawn toward, and a career in science seemed like my calling. But reality turned out to be far different. After 25 years as a biologist, I've learned that collaboration is the rule. I've now worked elbow-to-elbow with over 97 different scientists, and have published only two solo-authored papers; the others reflect joint efforts with these colleagues. I'm not complaining: the frantic exchange of ideas (and occasional cusses) inherent to healthy collaborative work is invigorating. And I've had enough moments of solitude doing experiments in the wee hours of night to touch my still point.

Until recently, I've harbored the impression that artists do indeed work alone in the studio, often 'till late at night, to ultimately produce a solo exhibition. (The exhibition being the art equivalent of science publications.) But is this really true? If so, it would clearly set art apart from science.

Since 2005, I've been collaborating with Claire Beynon on various art/science projects - mostly based on our joint work in Antarctica. In Albany, I've collaborated with artists Chris Moran and Elinor Mossop on related art/science ventures. This work has brought us in contact with Cynthia Pannucci and ASCI (Art & Science Collaborations, Inc.), and from these associations it has become clear that collaboration can be a powerful approach in art, just as it is in science. The Sound Still exhibition that Claire participated in a number of years ago is a good example.

An early Beynon-Bowser collaboration: DNA sequence of
Gromia and scanning electron micrograph of its gametes

Another childhood myth busted? I'd like to hear from other artists (and writers and poets...)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tribute to a Friend

Today I lost another friend.

Karolyn Buttle was a microscopist with the High Voltage Electron Microscope facility at the Wadsworth Center. She always had a bright smile and was eager to assist with research challenges. I learned of the severity of her illness after seeking help with an art/science project. Despite the pain she was enduring, Karolyn immersed herself in the work and within a few days we had 3-D reconstructions of silver grains; with further refinement by her colleagues, these became the basis for a stunning art installation now on display at Mass MoCA.

Karolyn was a gifted, compassionate, and courageous woman. She will be greatly missed...

Karolyn's obituary can be found here. She also developed a web site where friends can visit and share memories.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Farewell to an Ice Colleague

This week I lost a dear friend and colleague, Dr. Matt Florczyk, to a long illness.  I first knew Matt as a graduate student in our Biomedical Sciences program, and later as an ice hockey teammate with the Albany Lab Rats. He was an incredibly gifted young man, both athletically and intellectually, with a warm, compassionate personality. 

I shed blood with him during hockey games; tonight I shed tears, missing him on the ice.
Matt's obituary and information on a memorial fund can be found here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Today we celebrate the inauguration of our new President. It is a time of hope, and an opportunity for change. I will work comfortably with that thought.

There is much to do ...

Sunday, January 18, 2009


One theme of this blog, and of my website, is the intersection of art and science. I delight in conversation with artists, scientists, and educators who share this interest.

As you might gather from previous posts, Claire Beynon has been a constant source of inspiration in exploring the art/science interface. Our projects leave me puzzled at times, but they always foster playful curiosity. We are now collaborating with Schenectady artist/educator Chris Moran to help promote art, science, and their common element of curiosity through an upcoming workshop sponsored by the Capital Region Center for Arts in Education.

A puzzling moment (for me; Claire is amused) in the studio

Curiosity is a powerful driving force. In an evolutionary context, the adaptive significance of curiosity seems quite obvious: It prompts an individual to discover new resources (food, shelter, material goods), to find solutions to problems (e.g., cure an ailment), to select a compatible mate, and to occupy a comfortable social setting. At a personal or psychological level, however, curiosity presents many challenges. The risks and rewards of acting on our curiosity must be weighed carefully in order to optimize the outcome, which is the measure of success (and a definition of wisdom).

Modern science employs a well-scripted process - the scientific method - to act on curiosity. Adhering to this approach provides us with verifiable (more accurately, falsifiable) information which, in sum, has freed humanity from reliance on chance or superstition. Metaphorically, the scientific method provides us with the factual tools needed to navigate successfully the labyrinth of nature.

I wonder if the scientific method can help us explore imagined worlds, where outcomes are not necessarily the product of natural law? This question must have been asked a thousand times already. I'd love to hear from an artist who has formalized hypotheses, conducted controlled experiments, and analyzed the results with some measure of statistical significance.

More importantly, I'd love to know how they measure success. And I wonder if that success defines artistic wisdom...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cellular masonry (and intelligence?)

In 1878, agglutinated foraminifera were dubbed "nature's little masons" by A.M. Norman, a prominent British reverend and naturalist. William B. Carpenter, arguably the 19th-century's premier cell biologist, also pointed to the "skill" displayed by foraminifera in selecting materials to build their shells -- a characteristic that got Edward Heron-Allen in heated debates with colleagues over the definition of intelligence. (See, for example, his paper entitled Purpose and intelligence in the Foraminifera published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1914:1069-1070.) In future posts, I'll dedicate some space to Heron-Allen and examine the seemingly incongruous mix of science and mysticism that marked his career.

Four species of agglutinated foraminifera from the same handful of Antarctic sediment. Each species collects a characteristic range of grain sizes or type of mineral to build a shell.

Speaking of incongruous mixes, Claire Beynon's December 28th post juxtaposed a recipe for chicken kofta and my watercolor of Astrammina rara - one of the unicellular giants that we collect in Antarctica. About a decade ago, Joan Bernhard and I used straightforward statistical approaches to show that Astrammina "selects" sediment particles that range in size from 0.25 to 0.50 mm to use as the main non-compressible (read: hard) component of its shell. Since then, we and coworkers have noted that A. rara's shell usually contains a conspicuous, red-orange sand grain. This feature prompted ceramic artist Katherine Glenday to write a poem in which, to paraphrase, she describes A. rara as "the species that builds its heart on its house." I adore the beautiful aesthetic of that anthropomorphism! But it begs the question: does it really select one red grain, or is this simply a consequence of chance? If it is indeed displaying selectivity, what is the molecular basis of this cellular process?

As an expression of rote scientific curiosity, we'll do a bit of experimental work to explore this question and post some results here. In a sense, though, I almost don't want to know the answer. Why despoil a beautiful poem with a rational whitewash?