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

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 ...