December 5, 2013
We’re in an age when scientists can detect the infinitesimally tiny particles that endow atoms with mass and are probing some of the deepest mysteries of biology, such as how experiences and memories can be passed down through an organism’s genes.
Thus, it may come as a surprise that we still don’t understand the mechanics of a relatively simple natural phenomenon: snow.
The formation of snowflakes—essentially, the idiosyncratic way that water crystallizes when suspended in our atmosphere—is an extremely complex process that still hasn’t been fully described by scientific formulas. “People think that a snowflake is just a frozen raindrop,” says Caltech physics professor Kenneth Libbrecht, who’s spent the past few decades studying the process of snowflake formation. “But that’s sleet, just little ice cubes, and not even close to what a snowflake is.”
Over the course of his research, Libbrecht’s work has grown to encompass art and science. He’s produced both scientific papers and hundreds of beautiful photos of natural snowflakes (which he’s published in several different books and had featured on U.S. postage stamps), and also devised ingenious ways to artificially grow snowflakes in a lab to study their formation in microscopic detail.
But it all started, he says, with a trip back to his childhood home of North Dakota. “I was visiting my family back there, and I went outside, and there was all this snow on the ground,” he says. “I suddenly thought, ‘Why don’t I understand more about these snowflakes?’”
That led Libbrecht to begin studying the dynamics of snowflake formation in his lab, in between researching more esoteric subjects like turnable diode lasers and the noise released by supernovae. “I realized that a lot about snowflakes is just not very well understood, and that ice is a pretty inexpensive material to work with,” he says.
The formation of even a single snowflake is a complex event at the molecular level. In nature, it begins when a cloud’s water vapor condenses into water droplets. Even at temperatures below freezing, though, most of these droplets typically stay in liquid form, because they need a particle upon which to freeze: either a dust particle or a few water molecules that have
arranged themselves into the hexagonal matrix that characterizes ice.
Once droplets begin crystallizing on a central particle, though, the process accelerates rapidly. With a crystal nucleus in place, the supercooled water molecules in the surrounding water droplets readily condense on the crystal, adding to its growth in a geometrically regular way. By the time the large crystal (which we call a snowflake) has left the cloud, Libbrecht estimates that it will have abosrbed the water from about 100,000 nearby droplets.
All that might sound simple, but as Libbrecht and other scientists have discovered, slight changes in the circumstances of these crystals—the cloud’s humidity and temperature, for starters—can lead to radically different-looking flakes. To better understand these dynamics, Libbrecht realized, he needed a way to observe the actual growth process of snowflakes. Without a way of embedding himself in a floating cloud, he decided to develop a method for artificially growing snowflakes in his California lab.
“To get an individual crystal growing in such a way that it looks like a snowflake is not easy,” he says. “If you want frost—just a bunch of crystals all growing at once—that’s pretty simple, but individual crystals are trickier.”
Libbrecht’s process, developed over the past few years, is done in a cold chamber and takes about 45 minutes in total. He starts with a completely clean piece of glass, and scatters many microscopic ice crystals onto it. With a microscope, he isolates a particular crystal, then blows slightly warmer humid air onto the glass. The water vapor condenses on the seed crystal, just like in a real cloud, eventually forming a visible snowflake.
Working with this process, Libbrecht has determined the temperature and humidity levels that lead to each particular kind of snowflake. “I call them ‘designer snowflakes,’ because you can change the conditions as you grow them and predict what they’ll will look like,” he says. Among other things, he’s found that a snowflake with a thin edge grows faster, causing the edge to sharpen even further, ultimately leading to a relatively large flake. Snowflakes that begin with blunter edges, however, grow more slowly and remain blunt, leading to blocky prisms, rather than elegant plates.
Eventually, when Libbrecht wanted to publish a book on his work, he discovered that, although they were good for their time, most of the photos of snowflakes available were out of date, like those taken by Wilson Bentley in the 1930s. In response, he began photographing them himself in high resolution, using specialized equipment and at times colored lights to give the clear flakes increased color and depth.
The answer, it turns out, is a math problem. If you define a snowflake as a mere ten molecules of water, then it’s possible for two different flakes to be identical at the molecular level. But for a full-size flake, he says, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d fine two identical ones that occur naturally—the same way that the odds of two identical human fingerprints are exceedingly small. “Once you start making things even slightly complicated, the number of possibilities grows astronomically, and the probability of even having two snowflakes that look remotely alike drops to zero,” he says.
November 27, 2013
In a courtyard outside the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington, there is small piece of ice, roped off. The sight is a curious one, for sure. What is so important about this single frozen mass that it warrants special treatment?
The question is one that Barbara Matilsky, the museum’s curator of art, hopes you might ask.
The ice is a dwindling sculpture, a site-specific installation called Melting Ice by Jyoti Duwadi, that less than a month ago stood firmly, a stack of 120 ice blocks each measuring 36 by 14 by 14 inches. The artist installed the cube in timing with the opening of the museum’s latest exhibition, “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012,” and left it to melt—an elegy to glaciers around the world that are receding as a result of climate change.
“Vanishing Ice,” on display through March 2, 2014, features 75 works by 50 international artists who have made icy landscapes their subjects in the past 200-plus years. The exhibition, in its array of various mediums, conveys the beauty of alpine and polar regions—the pristine landscapes that have inspired generations of artists—at a time when rising temperatures pose a threat to them.
It also shows how artists and scientists have collaborated to learn what they can about these dramatically changing places. In a few pieces, a contemporary artist documents the very location that another had decades before, for the sake of comparison.
As the exhibition’s narrative tells, ice has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. The very first known artistic depiction of a glacier dates back to 1601. It is a watercolor depicting the topography of the Rofener Glacier in Austria by a man named Abraham Jäger. But, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for artists, acting also as naturalists, to explore glaciated regions, fleeing the routine of everyday life for a jolting spiritual adventure. Their artistic renderings of these hard-to-reach locales served to educate the public, sometimes even gracing the walls of natural history museums and universities.
In the exhibition catalog, the show’s curator, Barbara Matilsky, claims that there is something sublime about these extreme places. In a sense, the snowy, glistening surfaces are ideal for reflecting our own thoughts. “Through the centuries,” she writes, “artists have demonstrated the limitless potential of alpine and polar landscapes to convey feelings, ideas and messages.”
The idea for “Vanishing Ice” actually came to Matilsky, who wrote her doctoral thesis 30 years ago on some of the earliest French artists to capture glaciers and the Northern Lights, when she began to notice a critical mass of artists working today heading off to high peaks, Antarctica and the Arctic. She drew some connections in her mind’s eye. Like their 18th, 19th and 20th century predecessors, these artists are often part of government-sponsored expeditions, rubbing shoulders with scientists. And then, as now, and their work reaches into scientific discussion as visuals that document scientific observations.
The recent art tends to illustrate the disheartening findings of climate experts. David Breashears, an American photographer and five-time climber of Mount Everest, for instance, committed himself to what he calls the Glacier Research Imaging Project. For the endeavor, he “retraced the steps of some of the world’s greatest mountain photographers. . . over the past 110 years across the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau.” Both his photograph West Rongbuk Glacier, taken in 2008, and Edward Oliver Wheeler’s record of the same vista, from a topographical survey of Everest in 1921, are included in the exhibition. The then-now comparison captures the glacier’s 341-foot retreat.
American James Balog approaches his timelapse photography with a similar degree of precision. His Extreme Ice Survey, also represented in the exhibition, strings together the images routinely snapped by 26 cameras aimed at more than a dozen glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska and the western United States. The footage speeds up, for our eyes, the melting that is occurring in these regions.
“Vanishing Ice” has been four years in the making, more if you consider Matilsky’s introduction to this genre of art in the nascent stages of her career. The curator of art at the Whatcom Museum composed a wish list of paintings, prints and photographs and negotiated the loans from institutions worldwide. What resulted is an impressive body of work, including pieces from the likes of Jules Verne, Thomas Hart Benton, Ansel Adams and Alexis Rockman.
The Whatcom Museum will host the exhibition through March 2, 2014, and, from there, it will travel to the El Paso Museum of Art, where it will be on display from June 1 to August 24, 2014.
Patricia Leach, executive director of the museum, sees “Vanishing Ice” as a powerful tool. “Through the lens of art, the viewer can start thinking about the broader issue of climate change,” she says. “Believe it or not, there are still people out there who find this to be a controversial topic. We thought that this would open up the dialogue and take away the politics of it.”
November 25, 2013
There are tribal tattoos, photorealistic tattoos, celtic tattoos and biomechanical tattoos. Then, there is a whole genre called anatomical tattoos. Chris Nuñez, a tattoo artist and judge on Spike’s TV show Ink Master, has said that this style is all about “replicating a direct organ, body part, muscle, tissue, flesh, bone in the most precise way you can.”
Danny Quirk, an artist working in Massachusetts, is doing something similar, only his anatomical tattoos are temporary. He creates body paintings with latex, markers and some acrylic that appear as if his models’ skin is peeled back.
The project began in 2012, when Halloween provided the occasion for Quirk to paint his roommate’s face and neck. From there, he made other anatomical paintings on the arms, backs and legs of willing friends, and his photographs went viral.
“The paintings started off very rough around the edges, having a ripped skin aesthetic,” says Quirk, “but as they grew, I started making them more anatomical, showing the adipose around the cuts and proper layering of nerves and vessels. I really started making medical illustrations in a new and different way than what was done before. I made ‘living lectures’ for lack of a better term.”
Quirk has his sights set on a career in biomedical illustration. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 2010, with a bachelor of fine arts in illustration, and then applied to medical schools. Without having some of the necessary science prerequisites, he wasn’t admitted, so he got a little creative. Kathy Dooley, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, asked Quirk to do 10 to 15 illustrations for her class, and he did a little bartering, trading the artwork for a spot in her doctorate-level gross anatomy course. It was in this class that the artist got to dissect a cadaver.
“Let’s just say, the books are much prettier than the real thing. In the books, everything is color coded and pretty, where as in the labs, everything was grey, with the exception of tendons, which have a beautiful, silvery iridescent shine to them,” he says. “I learned first hand that despite its drab hue, the body is a fabulously constructed machine. It’s like lace that can stop bullets—the intricacy of its inner workings are so fine and delicate, and yet the strength and durability behind each structure is unreal.”
Quirk likes to say that he now dissects with his paintbrush. To some extent, the subject of a painting is determined by the model, and his or her features, he explains. If he has a volunteer with a particularly muscular neck, he’ll add his flourishes there.
“When you find bony landmarks, it’s just a matter of hooking the right muscles up to the right places on the bones, and coloring it in from there,” says Quirk. Of course, the time he spends on any anatomical painting depends on its size and complexity. A full rendering of a model’s back, with not just superficial musculature but also the deep intrinsics, can take up to 14 hours to complete, though the average illustration demands about four to six hours.
One of the advantages of Quirk’s anatomical body paintings is that they dynamic, compared to other biomedical illustrations, which are static images. ”I paint my anatomy very precisely, making sure to match up origins and insertions, so that when the model moves, the painting moves with it, really illustrating what happens under the skin,” he says.
Quirk is trying to arrange some guest speaking gigs at schools, where he’d use his body painting to teach anatomy. He is also working on a timelapse video of a painting in progress, overlaid with educational notes.
“Aside from that, I really want to find a bald head,” he says.
November 21, 2013
Washed up on the remote beaches of southern Alaska are plastics of every shape, size and color. There are detergent bottles, cigarette lighters, fishing nets and buoys, oil drums, fly swatters and Styrofoam balls in various states of decay. They come from around the world, adrift in rotating sea currents called gyres, and get snagged in the nooks and crannies of Alaska’s shoreline. Set against a backdrop of trees, grizzly bears and volcanic mountains, these plastics are eye-catching, almost pretty—and yet they are polluting the world’s oceans.
The garbage, dubbed “marine debris” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. It destroys habitats, transports nonnative species, entangles and suffocates wildlife. Animals mistake the garbage for food and, feeling full, starve to death with bellies full of junk. For humans, the problem is more than cosmetic; marine debris endangers our food supply.
In June 2013, a team of artists and scientists set out to see the blight firsthand. Expedition GYRE, a project of the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska SeaLife Center, traveled 450 nautical miles along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska to observe, collect and study marine debris. A companion exhibition, opening in February 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will showcase artworks made using ocean debris.
For the artists on the GYRE expedition, each day in Alaska was filled with scientific briefings, trash reconnaissance and individual pursuits. All four artists—Mark Dion, Pam Longobardi, Andy Hughes and Karen Larsen—are known for work that explores environmental themes and, more or less explicitly, the pleasures and perils of plastic.
Mark Dion is, first and foremost, a collector. The New York-based artist often works in the mode of an antiquarian naturalist, arranging modern and historical objects in collections that resemble Renaissance curiosity cabinets. “This is kind of the way I know things,” says Dion, “by collecting, by having physical contact with actual material.”
On the black sand of an Alaskan beach, Dion created a collage of bottle caps, sorted by shape and color. It wasn’t a finished piece, by any means, but an effort to “learn by seeing.” He cast himself as the “proverbial Martian archaeologist,” trying to make sense of the detritus of human civilization based on its formal qualities.
“When stuff is strewn on the beach, it’s deposited by forces of nature [so that] it takes on almost a natural quality,” he says. “But there’s nothing natural to it. This is a way to restore it as a cultural artifact, an artifact which fits uncomfortably in these remarkably remote places.”
These places were remote even for Karen Larsen, the only Alaska-based artist on the trip. She viewed GYRE as a “fact-finding mission,” a chance to explore parts of the state that she hadn’t visited before. Larsen has created several environmental works such as “Latitude,” a large-scale installation made out of ice and snow, and “XGRN,” a graphic depicting the life cycle of a water bottle.
“Alaska is not as pristine as everyone thinks it is,” Larsen says. “No place is really that way anymore.” During the trip, she was particularly drawn to microplastics—colorful, beadlike particles measuring less than five millimeters in diameter. Stored in a jar, the artist’s collection of the plastic bits resembles confetti and, she says, evokes the “small changes in our plastic ways” that can have a big positive impact.
Dion noticed that the artists and scientists collected in a “parallel way.” Nick Mallos, a conservation biologist, collected bottle caps in order to trace their provenance, while Odile Madden, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, tested her plastic collection for toxicity. “Instead of becoming a science collection or an art collection, it just became one collection that we both [were] able to use for our different purposes,” Dion says.
Pam Longobardi collects, in part, to clean up. She feels compelled to remove as much trash as she possibly can. “Every single piece of plastic I pick up or roll or drag, that specific piece is not going to harm a wild creature,” she says. “It’s not going to be tangling a whale. It’s not going to be in a bird’s stomach or end up in fish or seals. That’s why I’ll do it, and I’ll bend over the millionth time and drag the material off the beach.”
As part of the expedition, the GYRE team assisted with the National Park Service’s clean-up, retrieving a full ship’s worth of marine debris. The top deck of the research vessel was piled six feet high with garbage—but there was still more, innumerably more, left on the beach.
Pam Longobardi is an artist, an educator and an unapologetic activist. Her “Drifters Project” employs marine debris as both medium and message. One piece called “March of Humanity,” for instance, is an array of 77 orphaned shoes, illustrating the wastefulness of human industry. In “Defective Flow Chart (House of Cards),” 1,300 pieces of Styrofoam, which Longobardi personally fished out of a cave in Greece, are stacked into a delicate shrine of seemingly ancient origin—though there is, of course, nothing ancient about it.
“I see the art as an arm of activism because it can activate,” Longobardi says. “I think art has work to do. It can motivate people, and it can be transformational.” She was the first artist to join the GYRE project and worked closely with Howard Ferren, conservation director at the Alaska SeaLife Center, to recruit other artists for the expedition and exhibition.
Her companions on the trip share her passion for conservation but nonetheless balk at the term “activist.” Andy Hughes, a photographer from Cornwall, England, supports environmental NGOs but describes his photography as “sitting on the fence” between art and activism. His 2006 book, Dominant Wave Theory, for example, features close-up portraits of forlorn pieces of beach trash. Mark Dion sees himself as an “artist aligned with environmentalism” and concedes the limitations of contemporary art in reaching the general public. Dion acknowledges that his work, exhibited in fine art galleries across the globe, tends to preach to a well-heeled and politically liberal choir.
Longobardi, on the other hand, regularly collaborates with advocacy groups, reads scientific papers, shares online petitions and otherwise pushes for environmental policy reform worldwide. Her work has brought her face-to-face with the violence done by marine debris, and she has studied the science extensively, albeit informally. “I don’t have any kind of censor or gag order on my thoughts and feelings about this,” she says. “I don’t have to wait until I prove it in a scientific paper to tell what I know.”
Ultimately, solving the problem of marine debris will require as much artistic conviction as it does scientific rigor. Art moves people in a way that even the most shocking statistics cannot. The GYRE expedition’s “stroke of brilliance,” according to lead scientist Carl Safina, was giving artists a platform to articulate the issue to a broad audience. “If the scientists alone had gone and said, ‘We saw so much trash and 30 percent of it was blue and 40 percent of it was green and 90 percent of it was plastic,’ it would be of no interest to anybody,” he says. “That’s the thing that I appreciate about the artists. Their work is instantly just much more accessible.”
Bringing it all back home
Somewhat ironically, the artists use beauty to call attention to the ugliness of marine debris. Plastics are attractive, arrayed in bright colors and shiny forms as irresistible in one instant as they are disposable the next. As Dion puts it, “these objects are meant to seduce.”
Longobardi’s art seduces too, using beauty as a “hook” as well as a dialectical “weapon”; viewers are drawn into her intricate creations, then unnerved to realize that they are made out of plastic trash. “What I’m talking about is so horrifying [that] to go straight to the horror of it, I would lose a lot of people,” she says. She is currently working on two pieces inspired by the GYRE expedition—one, a ghoulish plastic cornucopia that symbolizes the “squandered bounty of the planet,” and the other, a sculpture with a range of small to large plastics, including tiny toys and the lid of a BP barrel, all made from and representing petroleum.
Andy Hughes is creating what he calls “constructed photographs, more akin to painting.” His new work avoids metaphors of destruction and overconsumption, instead portraying plastic objects as “religious orbs, which float and inhabit sky, earth, beach and sea.”
For Hughes, the trip has lost none of its emotional potency. His memories come back to him, half a world away, whenever he puts on his Wellington boots. He had set out for Alaska expecting it to be “vast and empty,” but instead discovered that “it was completely alive,” teeming with millions of organisms. Hughes said that the beaches in Alaska actually reminded him of the ones back home in Cornwall.
Indeed, it felt strange to Mark Dion that they traveled so far to see a problem that hits every human so close to home. “The lesson of this trip is that there is no away,” says Dion. “There is no other place. Everything we try to get rid of, we find again.”
November 19, 2013
In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher published a book of remarkable images that captured the honeybee in an entirely new light. By using powerful scanning electron microscopes, she magnified a bee’s microscopic structures by hundreds or even thousands of times in size, revealing startling, abstract forms that are far too small to see with the naked eye.
Now, as part of a new project called “Topography of Tears,” she’s using microscopes to give us an unexpected view of another familiar subject: dried human tears.
“I started the project about five years ago, during a period of copious tears, amid lots of change and loss—so I had a surplus of raw material,” Fisher says. After the bee project and one in which she’d looked at a fragment of her own hip bone removed during surgery, she’d come to the realization that “everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg, visually,” she explains. “So I had this moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder what a tear looks like up close?’”
When she caught one of her own tears on a slide, dried it, and then peered at it through a standard light microscope, “It was really interesting. It looked like an aerial view, almost as if I was looking down at a landscape from a plane,” she says. “Eventually, I started wondering—would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?”
This idle musing ended up launching a multi-year photography project in which Fisher collected, examined and photographed more than 100 tears from both herself an a handful of other volunteers, including a newborn baby.
Scientifically, tears are divided into three different types, based on their origin. Both tears of grief and joy are psychic tears, triggered by extreme emotions, whether positive or negative. Basal tears are released continuously in tiny quantities (on average, 0.75 to 1.1 grams over a 24-hour period) to keep the cornea lubricated. Reflex tears are secreted in response to an irritant, like dust, onion vapors or tear gas.
All tears contain a variety of biological substances (including oils, antibodies and enzymes) suspended in salt water, but as Fisher saw, tears from each of the different categories include distinct molecules as well. Emotional tears, for instance, have been found to contain protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress.
Additionally, because the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close. “There are so many variables—there’s the chemistry, the viscosity, the setting, the evaporation rate and the settings of the microscope,” Fisher says.
As Fisher pored over the hundreds of dried tears, she began to see even more ways in which they resembled large-scale landscapes, or as she calls them, “aerial views of emotion terrain.”
“It’s amazing to me how the patterns of nature seem so similar, regardless of scale,” she says. “You can look at patterns of erosion that are etched into earth over thousands of years, and somehow they look very similar to the branched crystalline patterns of a dried tear that took less than a moment to form.”
Closely studying tears for so long has made Fisher think of them as far more than a salty liquid we discharge during difficult moments. “Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage,” she says. “It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”