May 21, 2013
Sometimes the connection between art and science is clear. When Barry Jacobs, a psychology professor at Princeton University, and Casimir Fornal, a research scholar, took a micrograph of a mouse’s hippocampus (shown above), they felt compelled to call it Starry, Starry Night, after the 1970s song by Don McLean about Vincent van Gogh. The dark, star-like bursts in the golden image are glial cells in the brain called astrocytes (“astro” meaning star in Greek).
A jury of photographers and scientists recently selected Starry, Starry Night and 42 other images for the 8th annual Art of Science exhibition at Princeton University. Each spring, the competition calls for Princeton students, faculty, staff and alumni to submit “images produced during the course of scientific research that have aesthetic merit.” This year, three winners selected by the jury, three people’s choice winners and 37 other works highlighted in the exhibition, currently on view at the Friend Center on Princeton’s campus, were chosen from an impressive lot of 170 entries hailing from 24 different university departments.
Worms and proteins, crystals and flames, even a compelling view of a fruit fly ovary are the subjects of the recent Art of Science images, which all in some way tie into this year’s theme: connections. “Some areas of research involve obvious ‘connections.’ Neural networks, for example, or the Internet. In other areas of research connections are more nuanced but just as valid. Fractal patterns in nature, the deterioration of architectural monuments due to the effects of acid rain, bridges, the wake that a jet of cool air generates as it passes through a hot flame, a qubit, the chemical signals than induce embryonic development,” according to the contest’s Web site.
In a statement released by the university, Adam Finkelstein, a computer science professor and one of the show’s organizers, expressed what he considers the strength of the Art of Science exhibition—its ability to create a new way of seeing for both artists and scientists. “At the same time,” said Finkelstein, “this striking imagery serves as a democratic window through which non-experts can appreciate the thrill of scientific discovery.”
Here is a selection from the exhibition:
May 14, 2013
The chemistry of the ocean is changing. Most climate change discussion focuses on the warmth of the air, but around one-quarter of the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere dissolves into the ocean. Dissolved carbon dioxide makes seawater more acidic—a process called ocean acidification—and its effects have already been observed: the shells of sea butterflies, also known as pteropods, have begun dissolving in the Antarctic.
Tiny sea butterflies are related to snails, but use their muscular foot to swim in the water instead of creep along a surface. Many species have thin, hard shells made of calcium carbonate that are especially sensitive to changes in the ocean’s acidity. Their sensitivity and cosmopolitan nature make them an alluring study group for scientists who want to better understand how acidification will affect ocean organisms. But some pteropod species are proving to do just fine in more acidic water, while others have shells that dissolve quickly. So why do some species perish while others thrive?
It’s a hard question to answer when scientists can hardly tell pteropod species apart in the first place. The cone-shaped pteropod shown here is in a group of shelled sea butterflies called thecosomes, from the Greek for “encased body.” There are two other groups: the pseudothecosomes have gelatinous shells, and the gymnosomes (“naked body”) have none at all. Within these groups it can be hard to tell who’s who, especially when relying on looks alone. Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are using genetics to uncover the differences among the species.
This effort is led by zoologist Karen Osborn, who has a real knack for photography: in college, she struggled over whether to major in art or science. After collecting living animals while SCUBA diving in the open ocean, she brings them back to the research ship and photographs each in a shallow tank of clear water with a Canon 5D camera with a 65mm lens, using three to four flashes to capture the colors of the mostly-transparent critters. The photographs have scientific use—to capture never-before-recorded images of the living animals—and to “inspire interest in these weird, wild animals,” she said. All of these photos were taken in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Mexico and California.
Although sea butterflies in the gymnosome group, like the one seen above, don’t have shells and are therefore not susceptible to the dangers of ocean acidification, their entire diet consists of shelled pteropods. If atmospheric CO2 continues to rise due to the burning of fossil fuels and, in turn, the ocean becomes more acidic, their prey source may disappear—indirectly endangering these stunning predators and all the fish, squid and other animals that feed on the gymnosomes.
For years, sea butterflies were only collected by net. When collected this way, the animals (such as Cavolinia uncinata above) retract their fleshy “wings” and bodies into pencil eraser-sized shells, which often break in the process. Researchers then drop the collected pteropods into small jars of alcohol for preservation, which causes the soft parts to shrivel—leaving behind just the shell. Scientists try to sort the sea butterflies into species by comparing the shells alone, but without being able to see the whole animals, they may miss the full diversity of pteropods.
More recently, scientists such as Osborn and Smithsonian researcher Stephanie Bush have begun collecting specimens by hand while SCUBA diving in the open sea. This blue-water diving allows her to collect and photograph fragile organisms. As she and her colleagues observe living organisms in more detail, they are realizing that animals they had thought were the same species, in fact, may not be! This shelled pteropod (Cavolinia uncinata) is considered the same species as the one in the previous photo. Because their fleshy parts look so different, however, Bush is analyzing each specimen’s genetic code to establish whether they really are the same species.
This string of eggs shot out of Cavolinia uncinata when it was being observed under the microscope. The eggs are attached to one another in a gelatinous mass, and, had they not been self-contained in a petri dish, would have floated through the water until the new pteropods emerged as larvae. Their reproduction methods aren’t well studied, but we know that pteropods start off as males and once they reach a certain size switch over to females. This sexual system, known as sequential hermaphroditism, may boost reproduction because bigger females can produce more eggs.
This pteropod (Limacina helicina) has taken a beating from being pulled through a trawl net: you can see the broken edges of its shell. An abundant species with black flesh, each of these sea butterflies are the size of a large grain of sand. In certain conditions they “bloom” and, when fish eat too many, the pteropod’s black coloring stains the fishes’ guts black.
Not only is the inside of this shell home to a pteropod (Clio recurva), but the outside houses a colony of hydroids—the small pink flower-like animals connected by transparent tubing all over the shell. Hydroids, small, predatory animals related to jellyfish, need to attach to a surface in the middle of the ocean to build their colony, and the tiny shell of Clio is the perfect landing site. While it’s a nice habitat for the hydroids, this shell probably provides less than ideal protection for the pteropod: the opening is so large that a well equipped predator, such as larger shell-less pteropods, can likely just reach in and pull it out. “I would want a better house, personally,“ says Osborn.
Gymnosomes are pteropods that lack shells and have a diet almost entirely composed of shelled pteropods. This species (Clione limacina), exclusively feeds on Limacina helicina (the black-fleshed pteropod a few slides back). They grab their shelled relative with six tentacle-like arms, and then use grasping jaws to suck their meal out of the shell.
This post was written by Emily Frost and Hannah Waters. Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
May 10, 2013
The worlds of architecture and scientific illustration collided when Macoto Murayama was studying at Miyagi University in Japan. The two have a great deal in common, as far as the artist’s eye could see; both architectural plans and scientific illustrations are, as he puts it, “explanatory figures” with meticulous attention paid to detail. “An image of a thing presented with massive and various information is not just visually beautiful, it is also possible to catch an elaborate operation involved in the process of construction of this thing,” Murayama once said in an interview.
In a project he calls “Inorganic flora,” the 29-year-old Japanese artist diagrams flowers. He buys his specimens—sweetpeas (Lathyrus odoratus L. , Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis L.) and sulfur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus Cav.), to name a few—from flower stands or collects them from the roadside. Murayama carefully dissects each flower, removing its petals, anther, stigma and ovaries with a scalpel. He studies the separate parts of the flower under a magnifying glass and then sketches and photographs them.
Using 3D computer graphics software, the artist then creates models of the full blossom as well as of the stigma, sepals and other parts of the bloom. He cleans up his composition in Photoshop and adds measurements and annotations in Illustrator, so that in the end, he has created nothing short of a botanical blueprint.
“The transparency of this work refers not only to the lucid petals of a flower, but to the ambitious, romantic and utopian struggle of science to see and present the world as [a] transparent (completely seen, entirely grasped) object,” says Frantic Gallery, the Tokyo establishment that represents the artist, on its Web site.
Murayama chose flowers as his subject because they have interesting shapes and, unlike traditional architectural structures, they are organic. But, as he has said in an interview, “When I looked closer into a plant that I thought was organic, I found in its form and inner structure hidden mechanical and inorganic elements.” After dissecting it, he added, “My perception of a flower was completely changed.”
His approach makes sense when you hear who Murayama counts among his influences—Yoshihiro Inomoto, a celebrated automotive illustrator, and Tomitaro Makino, an esteemed botanist and scientific illustrator.
Spoon & Tamago, a blog on Japanese design, says that the illustrations “look like they belong in a manual for semiconductors.” Certainly, by portraying his specimens in a manner that resembles blueprints, Murayama makes flowers, with all their intricacies, look like something human-made, something engineered.
May 3, 2013
It started with hair. Donning a pair of rubber gloves, Heather Dewey-Hagborg collected hairs from a public bathroom at Penn Station and placed them in plastic baggies for safe keeping. Then, her search expanded to include other types of forensic evidence. As the artist traverses her usual routes through New York City from her home in Brooklyn, down sidewalks onto city buses and subway cars—even into art museums—she gathers fingernails, cigarette butts and wads of discarded chewing gum.
Do you get strange looks? I ask, in a recent phone conversation. “Sometimes,” says Dewey-Hagborg. “But New Yorkers are pretty used to people doing weird stuff.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s odd habit has a larger purpose. The 30-year-old PhD student, studying electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, extracts DNA from each piece of evidence she collects, focusing on specific genomic regions from her samples. She then sequences these regions and enters this data into a computer program, which churns out a model of the face of the person who left the hair, fingernail, cigarette or gum behind.
It gets creepier.
From those facial models, she then produces actual sculptures using a 3D printer. When she shows the series, called “Stranger Visions,” she hangs the life-sized portraits, like life masks, on gallery walls. Oftentimes, beside a portrait, is a Victorian-style wooden box with various compartments holding the original sample, data about it and a photograph of where it was found.
Rest assured, the artist has some limits when it comes to what she will pick up from the streets. Though they could be helpful to her process, Dewey-Hagborg refuses to swipe saliva samples and used condoms. She tells me she has had the most success with cigarette butts. “They [smokers] really get their gels into that filter of the cigarette butt,” she says. “There just tends to be more stuff there to actually pull the DNA from.”
Dewey-Hagborg takes me step-by-step through her creative process. Once she collects a sample, she brings it to one of two labs—Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, or one on campus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (She splits her time between Brooklyn and upstate New York.) Early on in the project, the artist took a crash course in molecular biology at Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, where she learned about DNA extraction and a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). She uses standard DNA extraction kits that she orders online to analyze the DNA in her samples.
If the sample is a wad of chewing gum, for example, she cuts a little piece off of it, then cuts that little piece into even smaller pieces. She puts the tiny pieces into a tube with chemicals, incubates it, puts it in a centrifuge and repeats, multiple times, until the chemicals successfully extract purified DNA. After that, Dewey-Hagborg runs a polymerase chain reaction on the DNA, amplifying specific regions of the genome that she’s targeted. She sends the
mitochondrial amplified DNA (from both mitochondria and the cells’ nuclei) to a lab to get sequenced, and the lab returns about 400 base pair sequences of guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (G, A, T and C).
Dewey-Hagborg then compares the sequences returned with those found in human genome databases. Based on this comparison, she gathers information about the person’s ancestry, gender, eye color, propensity to be overweight and other traits related to facial morphology, such as the space between one’s eyes. “I have a list of about 40 or 50 different traits that I have either successfully analyzed or I am in the process of working on right now,” she says.
Dewey-Hagborg then enters these parameters into a computer program to create a 3D model of the person’s face.” Ancestry gives you most of the generic picture of what someone is going to tend to look like. Then, the other traits point towards modifications on that kind of generic portrait,” she explains. The artist ultimately sends a file of the 3D model to a 3D printer on the campus of her alma mater, New York University, so that it can be transformed into sculpture.
There is, of course, no way of knowing how accurate Dewey-Hagborg’s sculptures are—since the samples are from anonymous individuals, a direct comparison cannot be made. Certainly, there are limitations to what is known about how genes are linked to specific facial features.”We are really just starting to learn about that information,” says Dewey-Hagborg. The artist has no way, for instance, to tell the age of a person based on their DNA. “For right now, the process creates basically a 25-year-old version of the person,” she says.
That said, the “Stranger Visions” project is a startling reminder of advances in both technology and genetics. “It came from this place of noticing that we are leaving genetic material everywhere,” says Dewey-Hagbog. “That, combined with the increasing accessibility to molecular biology and these techniques means that this kind of science fiction future is here now. It is available to us today. The question really is what are we going to do with that?”
Hal Brown, of Delaware’s medical examiner’s office, contacted the artist recently about a cold case. For the past 20 years, he has had the remains of an unidentified woman, and he wondered if the artist might be able to make a portrait of her—another clue that could lead investigators to an answer. Dewey-Hagborg is currently working on a sculpture from a DNA sample Brown provided.
“I have always had a love for detective stories, but never was part of one before. It has been an interesting turn for the art to take,” she says. “It is hard to say just yet where else it will take me.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s work will be on display at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on May 12. She is taking part in a policy discussion at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on June 3 and will be giving a talk, with a pop-up exhibit, at Genspace in Brooklyn on June 13. The QF Gallery in East Hampton, Long Island, will be hosting an exhibit from June 29-July 13, as will the New York Public Library from January 7 to April 2, 2014.
Editor’s Note: After getting great feedback from our readers, we clarified how the artist analyzes the DNA from the samples she collects.
May 2, 2013
An artist’s studio is usually a private space, and the hours spent with a paint-dipped brush in hand mostly solitary. So, the final products we gaze at on gallery walls are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the makers’ creative processes.
For Nathan Walsh, each of his realist paintings is a culmination of four months of eight to 10-hour days in the studio. Now, thanks to a new app, we can go back in time and see how his work came to be, stroke by stroke.
Repentir, a free app for smartphones and the iPad, provides a hand-controlled time-lapse of Walsh’s oil painting, Transamerica. It compresses months of sketching and revision into interactive pixels, allowing users to peel back layers of paint and deconstruct Transamerica to its original pencil sketches.
The app, developed by researchers at Newcastle and Northumbria universities in England, uses computer vision algorithms to recognize the painting in photographs taken from various perspectives. When you take a photo of any part of Transamerica (or the entire work), the app replaces your image with those captured in the studio as Walsh painted. Every day for four months, a digital camera set up in his York-based studio snapped a shot of his progress, accumulating roughly 90 images.
Users can view the painting’s layers in two ways. A slider feature at bottom allows viewers to see the piece in its beginning stages to the final product by swiping from left to right (think “slide to unlock”). They can also use their fingers to rub away at a given spot on the painting on the screen, revealing earlier stages in the process.
“Where their fingers have been, we basically remove pixels from the image and add pixels from older layers until they’re rubbed away,” says Jonathan Hook, a research associate at Newcastle who studies human-computer interaction. “It’s like how you add paint to the canvas—we’re doing the opposite.”
Repentir was unveiled this week at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing in Paris, an annual science, engineering and design gathering. This year’s theme is “changing perspectives.” Transamerica will be on display there until tomorrow, when it moves to the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, a realist painting collection in New York.
The app relies on a process known as scale invariant feature matching, technology that’s similar to that of augmented reality. Researchers trained the app against a high-resolution image of Transamerica to identify and create markers for certain features. These markers can then be used to find matching features in a user’s photo of the painting and the artwork itself—even in a tiny piece of it.
“If you take a picture of the bottom right-hand corner, it will find the features in the bottom right-hand corner of the image and match them against those same features in the source image,” Hook says. “If there’s at least three or four features matched, you’re able to work out the perspective and the difference in image position on those features.”
Ninety images worth of layers may not sound like a lot when you factor in today’s smartphone scrolling speeds, but if you’re viewing Transamerica in person, there’s more than enough of it to explore. The canvas measures roughly 71 by 48 inches. It would take a massive number of screen grabs to rub away the layers of the entire work.
Transamerica is a colorful composite of elements that caught Walsh’s eye during a trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Several years ago, Walsh traveled across America, stopping in major cities, including San Francisco, New York and Chicago, sketching and taking photographs of the urban landscapes.
Walsh says he’s often accused of stitching photographs together or touching up in Photoshop because of the realistic look of his paintings. He aims to convey a sense of three-dimensional space in his work. In Transamerica, the juxtaposition of different objects and designs create almost palpable layers of paint.
“There’s always an assumption that there’s some sort of trickery involved,” Walsh says. “Getting involved in a project like this explains literally how I go about constructing these paintings. It shows all the nuts and bolts of their making.”
Hook says the researchers chose Walsh’s work to expose those “nuts and bolts.” “Lots of people, when they see his paintings, they think he’s cheated, when in reality what Nathan does is just get a pencil and a ruler and draws these really amazing photorealistic pictures from scratch,” he says. “The idea behind the app was to reveal Nathan’s process and show people how much hard work he does.”
In this way, Walsh believes using Repentir in front of the actual work will make the gallery experience more educational for visitors. “For me, the exciting thing is that you’re getting close, as close as you can, to my experience of making the painting,” he says.
While the app is free, Hook believes the tool could lead to a new business model for artists. In the future, app users could purchase a print of a configuration of layers they like best.