September 28, 2012
Jim des Rivières was two years into photographing exotic butterflies, when he realized he ought to turn his attention to moths. Generally speaking, the moth is considered to be the butterfly’s homely cousin. “But the beauty of moths is really quite surprising,” he says.
Since 2002, des Rivières has created breathtaking portraits of about 300 species of moths living in and around his home of Ottawa, Canada. His collection illustrates the great variety of moths, from the Lappet Moth to the Parthenice Tiger Moth to the One-eyed Sphinx (yes, that is its actual name). Each of his large-format prints draws out an individual species’ intricate details—iridescent eyespots, fringed antennae and appaloosa-like spotting.
More than 30 of des Rivières photographs will be on display in “Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large,” a year-long exhibition opening tomorrow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Des Rivières is a computer software engineer by day and a moth collector by night. In the early years of his project, he traveled by car to various wilderness areas within 50 miles of downtown Ottawa. He’d set up an 18-inch fluorescent lamp on stand, similar to those found in bug zappers, and shine it onto a white sheet. Then, he’d wait. “The beauty of the black lighting technique is that the moths come to you,” says des Rivières.
Since then, des Rivières has rented a cottage on Lac Bonin, about 15 miles north of the city. He uses this cottage as a field station during the moth collecting season, which runs from mid-April, when there is “fairly thin pickings,” to early November. “The biggest profusion of species come out in late May and early June in our parts,” he says.
At the cottage, des Rivières checks his “moth trap” three or four times a night; he has his best luck collecting between 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. He plucks the moths off the white sheet and puts them in little pill bottles. The photographer then identifies each species he has caught using Papillons du Quebec, a book with color plates of all the butterflies and moths of the area, and other field guides. A couple of moth species have eluded him, but, for the most part, des Rivières has captured the incredible biodiversity in his region. “I have found most of the large, colorful species,” he says.
Creating the Images
Once des Rivières has collected a moth in a pill bottle, he puts the bottle in his refrigerator. The cool temperature calms the insect; then, to kill it, the photographer transfers it to a jar filled with ethyl acetate fumes. Des Rivières places the moth upside-down on a piece of Styrofoam and pins it into place. “The antennae get very fragile, very quickly,” he says. “Generally, small species take about a day to dry, and larger species maybe two to three days.” As soon as the moth is rigid, he unpins it and scans it on an Epson 4870 flatbed scanner.
Des Rivières magnifies the moths by 10 to 30 times, with his prints measuring upwards of two-by-three feet. To give visitors a sense of the actual size of the moths, which measure about one to six inches from wingtip to wingtip, the American Museum of Natural History has included a display case in its exhibition, containing specimens from its collection of all 34 of the species photographed.
The Art of it All
The inspiration for the exhibition’s title, “Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large,” came from the Two-Spotted Looper Moth. To the naked eye, the moth appears brown. But when magnified in one of des Rivières’ prints, it becomes clear that the brown is really a mixture of green, purple and orange scales, woven like a carpet or tapestry, on the moth’s wings.
“Each of the individual species is such a wonderful arrangement of colors, shapes and textures,” says des Rivières. “When people refer to my pictures as works of art, I correct them. The moth is the real work of art. If anything, I am trying not to get in the way of people seeing what these creatures actually look like. What I am doing is allowing people, through the magnification, to see what is out there and what has always been out there.”
“Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large,” produced by the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, is on display at the American Museum of Natural History through September 29, 2013.
September 26, 2012
So many images created in the name of science are brilliant works of art. Magnetic resonance imaging, for instance, produces beautiful reconstructions of the human brain, with all its neural tracts traced in different colors. And, when a geologist photographs a thin slice of peridotite, lit with polarized light, the sample resembles brightly-colored stained glass.
This idea of scientists seeing the artistry in their work certainly hasn’t been lost on Wellcome Images, the world’s leading collection of photographs, X-rays and illustrations chronicling the history of medicine. Each year, the Wellcome Image Awards celebrate the cream of the archive’s new crop of pictures, chosen, as Catherine Draycott, head of Wellcome Images, says, “for their scientific and technical merit as much as for their aesthetic appeal.”
This year’s batch of 16 winners, on display at the Wellcome Collection in London through December 31, depicts cancer cells, bacteria, the connective tissue from a person’s knee and even the surface of a living human’s brain.
“They offer people a chance to get closer to science and research and see it in a different way, as a source of beauty as well as providing important information about ourselves and the world around us,” added Draycott, in a press release.
Here is a sampling, with some scientific explanation to help identify what exactly it is that you are seeing.
Kevin MacKenzie, who manages a microscopy facility at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, found a moth fly on his kitchen wall. He decided to take a closer look at the fly under a scanning electron microscope and, in doing so, produced this somewhat menacing image (above). Moth flies, commonly referred to as drain flies, deposit their larvae in sink and bath drains. The flies grow and emerge from the drain, as this one likely did, when they reach adulthood. From anterior to posterior, this fly measures only four to five millimeters. But, under intense magnification, one can see the tiny hairs that cover the insect’s body.
To create this image of a chicken embryo, Vincent Pasque, now at the University of California, Los Angeles, cracked open part of an egg’s shell so that he could inject a fluorescent dye into the embryo’s vascular system. The embryo’s heart pumped the dye throughout the veins and arteries connecting it to the yolk sac. In the center, you can see the embryo’s brain, heart and slender body.
Here, thanks to time-lapse photography, one can see how a cancer cell undergoes mitosis, or cell division, over the course of 16 hours. The red blobs are the DNA in the HeLa cells, and the bright blue represents the cell membranes.
This photograph of the surface of a human brain (selected as the grand prize winner) captures the intimate view that a neurosurgeon had while operating on an epileptic patient. “The arteries are bright scarlet with oxygenated blood, the veins deep purple and the ‘grey matter’ of the brain a flushed, delicate pink,” said Alice Roberts, an anatomist and one of the judges, in a press release. “It is quite extraordinary.”
September 21, 2012
The other day I wrote about five horrendously inaccurate scenarios in science fiction movies, all selected by David Kirby, a trained geneticist and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. If you missed it, Kirby’s list touched on asteroid predictions, natural disasters and a cloning incident—all bogus, when dissected by a scientist.
I had heard Kirby talk about the history of science advising in the TV and film industries at “Hollywood & Science,” a recent webinar hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Directors hiring scientists to review the science they portray on screen goes back to the 1920s and 1930s. Kirby is actually quite forgiving when it comes to science fiction movies heralding from those early decades. The “bad science” those movies sometimes portray is not always the fault of filmmakers, Kirby says; in many cases, it is due to the limitations of technology or simply a reflection of the state of scientific knowledge at the time. For instance, Destination Moon, a sci-fi flick from 1950, was one of the first to show space travel in a somewhat realistic way. However, the astronauts could not wear clear, goldfish bowl-type helmets, as they did in real life, because they created too much glare for the camera.
Today, filmmakers have little excuse for error.
The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences, actually matches TV and film professionals, even video game makers, with science consultants for free. “We have Nobel Prize winners on speed dial,” said Ann Merchant, deputy director for communications at NAS and a fellow panelist. “We were told, if we built it, they [directors, screenwriters, etc.] would come—and they did.” Since the program was launched in November 2008, it has received three to five new calls a week and arranged a grand total of 525 consults. The movies Iron Man, Tron, Spiderman, Prometheus and The Avengers and TV shows Fringe, The Good Wife and Covert Affairs have all benefited from the service.
Here are Kirby’s top five “science done right” moments in film:
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
“For its time, 2001 is one of the most, if not the most, scientifically accurate film ever made,” says Kirby. Stanley Kubrick, the film’s director, hired former NASA space scientist Frederick Ordway to serve as his science adviser. One of the greatest lengths that Kubrick went to is in acknowledging that gravity doesn’t exist on a spaceship. “Kubrick actually decided to acknowledge this fact by building an artificial gravity wheel for the spaceship,” says Kirby. “On a long-distance space flight, you need to spin it to get the centrifugal force to simulate the idea that there is actually gravity, something pulling you down. That is what this thing did.” The prop cost $750,000 (equal to $5 million today) and took six months for Vickers Engineering Group to build. “That shows incredible commitment to scientific veracity,” says Kirby.
2. Finding Nemo (2003)
As I mentioned in my previous post, animators painstakingly removed all bits of kelp from the coral reef scenes in Finding Nemo after marine biologist Mike Graham of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California, explained that kelp only grows in cold waters. But, as Kirby points out, this is just one of many measures the filmmakers took to ensure scientific accuracy.
According to an article in the journal Nature, Adam Summers, then a postdoc in fish biomechanics at the University of California, Berkeley, and other experts he recruited gave lessons during the movie’s production on a wide range of topics, including fish locomotion, how fish scales reflect light and the mechanics of waves. Director Andrew Stanton attended the lessons along with animators, producers, writers and character developers involved with the project. Robin Cooper, head shader for the film, gets extra credit though. She actually reached her arm into the blowhole and mouth of a beached, dead gray whale to take some photographs. This way, when Nemo’s dad, Marlin, gets sucked into a whale’s mouth and blasted out through its blowhole, she could accurately portray the inside of the whale. “I’m just amazed at how rigorous these people were,” Summers told Nature.
3. Contact (1997)
Warner Brothers filmed some of the scenes of this movie, adapted from Carl Sagan’s book Contact, at the Very Large Array, a New Mexico branch of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. (Remember the huge white dishes facing the skies?) Bryan Butler, then a postdoc researcher at the site, served as a science advisor.
In the film, scientist Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, tries to make contact with extraterrestrial life. According to Kirby, her actions are largely in line with SETI, or search for extraterrestrial intelligence, protocol. “The setting, the dialogue, the way that they are trying to confirm what they are seeing, is real,” says Kirby. “They have to call someone in Australia and say, ‘hey, can you see this too?’ They have to wait for it to be confirmed by somebody on the exact other side of the world before they can actually confirm that it is real. All that type of stuff was accurate.”
4. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
In this sci-fi thriller, based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same title, a team of scientists studies an alien virus that infects and kills humans. “There is a scene where they are trying to figure out how big the microbe is that they are dealing with. From modern eyes, it ends up being a very slow, boring scene, but that is because it is realistic,” says Kirby. “It is this idea of, ‘Let’s try two microns. Oh, that’s too big. Let’s try 0.5. Oh, that’s too small. Let’s try one.’ The science in it is accurate. They are experimenting, but it doesn’t make for very gripping cinema.”
5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Russell Crowe played the brilliant, schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. However, the actor had a hand double. Dave Bayer, of Barnard College’s math department, wrote all the mathematical equations so that they had “a natural flow,” according to Kirby.
September 19, 2012
It is quite possible that a child’s first exposure to a coral reef is in the movie Finding Nemo. So, with this in mind, shouldn’t filmmakers strive for accuracy? For the Pixar movie, animators painstakingly removed all the kelp from reef scenes after a marine biologist told them that the seaweed would not grow in warm waters.
Similarly, what if the closest a person gets to an astrophysics lab in his or her lifetime is in watching Jane Foster, the astrophysicist played by actress Natalie Portman in the 2011 superhero film Thor? You would want the viewer to see the types of equipment typical for an astrophysics lab and hear Portman use some correct terminology, right?
The scientific community surely does.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently hosted “Hollywood & Science,” a webinar focused on the importance of having scientists and directors work together. David Kirby, a senior lecturer in science communication at the University of Manchester in England and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema, kicked off the hour-long session with a presentation on the history of science advising in the film industry.
Since the 1920s and 1930s, filmmakers have employed scientists to read scripts, hang out on sets and provide feedback during production. Directors and producers “want you to feel that the show is grounded in science, that it is plausible,” said panelist Kevin Grazier, a NASA scientist and adviser for TNT’s “Falling Skies,” Syfy’s upcoming series “Defiance” and the forthcoming space movie Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Science fiction has some science and some fiction, naturally. ”So, you have to remember that the goal is not to get it perfect necessarily. You get it as right as you possibly can while still telling a good, compelling story,” said Grazier.
After the webinar, I spoke with Kirby, who is well-versed in the science of many popular movies, about some of the most egregious errors. Here is his short-list of movie moments that make him, and other scientists, cringe:
1. Armageddon (1998)
Director Michael Bay did consult with NASA on this action-packed end-of-the-world movie starring Bruce Willis. “So, all the spaceships are great. They film scenes inside the Kennedy Space Center—those are great,” says Kirby. “But the actual scenario around the asteroid is pretty ludicrous.” In the movie, a NASA scientist, played by Billy Bob Thornton, informs the president that an asteroid “the size of Texas” will hit earth in 18 days. “That line of dialogue is just crazy,” says Kirby. “Any astronomer would tell you, if you have an asteroid the size of Texas, it would have been visible probably years before.”
In a critical review published in the journal Nature, Kevin Zahnle of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, wrote:
Armageddon‘s science is simply silly. A few quickies: (1) only the three largest asteroids can be described as “the size of Texas”; (2) at 18 days before impact, a Texas-sized asteroid would be as bright as the stars of Orion’s belt, yet somehow it evades discovery until then; (3) the energy required to split the Texas-sized asteroid is 1010 megatonnes, roughly a million world nuclear arsenals; and (4) an 800-foot drill-hole (everything in Armageddon is bigger) hardly seems like much compared to the vastness of Texas.
Reportedly, the film’s science adviser Ivan Bekey tried to convince Bay to change both the size of the asteroid and the time estimate for its impact on Earth, but the director refused. “We didn’t think the audience would believe something five or six miles long could kill the earth,” said Bay, according to production notes.
A group of graduate students in physics at the University of Leicester recently poked a few more holes in the movie’s plot. According to their estimates, Bruce Willis’ character would have needed to detonate a bomb at least a billion times stronger than “Big Ivan,” the largest bomb ever detonated on earth, in the core of the asteroid in order to split it and send its halves barreling past the planet. He would have had to trigger the bomb considerably earlier too.
2. 2012 (2009)
In 2012, massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis plague the earth. Certainly, the screenwriters had the Mayan calendar in mind; to some, the ending of the calendar in 2012 portends the apocalypse. But, they also attempted to scientifically explain the rash of natural disasters. In the storyline, an astrophysicist in India discovers that a huge solar flare is causing the temperature of the earth’s core to spike. With a horrified look on his face, he adds—the neutrinos have mutated. ”It just doesn’t make any sense at all,” says Kirby. In fact, Irish stand-up comedian Dara O Briain spoofed the outrageous line in one of his skits.
3. The Core (2003)
Josh Keyes, a geophysicist played by actor Aaron Eckhart, gets to the bottom of a series of freaky occurrences—birds losing their ability to navigate, the collapse of the Golden Gate Bridge and people’s pacemakers simultaneously on the fritz—in this movie. As his colleague Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) says, “The core of the earth has stopped spinning.” To get it rotating again, Keyes and his team drill down into the center of the planet to light explosives. ”That one got totally reamed by scientists,” says Kirby.
4. Volcano (1997)
A volcano erupts under Los Angeles? “The entire movie caused scientists to go crazy,” says Kirby. When asked about the plausibility of the scenario, Ronald Charpentier, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, once wrote: “Volcanoes are located where there is a source of magma….Los Angeles and southern California may have a lot of potential for earthquakes, but are probably safe from volcanoes for a while.”
As Kirby writes in his book Lab Coats in Hollywood, the filmmakers took the script to Egill Hauksson, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology, for review. Hauksson read it but immediately insisted that Caltech not be associated with the film.
5. The 6th Day (2000)
Adam Gibson, a family man played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is cloned, and he is on a quest to figure out who is responsible. What’s atrocious, says Kirby, is the way the film depicts cloning. “The idea of clones coming fully formed with memories is pretty crazy,” he says. “That is total fantasy.” When an organism is cloned, its clone is not the same age and its mind is not a carbon copy of the original.
September 17, 2012
Since Vincent van Gogh painted “Flowers in a blue vase” in 1887, some of the bouquet’s bright yellow blossoms have turned an orange-gray. Conservators first noticed a gray crust on the cadmium yellow paint in 2009 and were puzzled by the discoloration. But, a group of scientists, in a study to be published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, has determined the culprit: Varnish.
Apparently, sometime in the early 1900s a varnish was applied to the painting with the intention of protecting it. “Varnish can become brown with age and thus can give all colors a more dark tone,” Koen Janssens, a researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, told LiveScience. But the van Gogh discoloration was different.
Painting conservators at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, where the painting is housed, tried to remove the varnish to reveal the painting’s true colors, as is often done. But the varnish and the cadmium yellow paint were inseparable. When the varnish lifted, so too did the mysterious gray crust.
The museum’s experts sent two tiny paint chips, less than a millimeter in size, to Janssens, a chemist and an expert in using X-rays to analyze pigments in oil paintings. He and his colleagues took the samples, fixed in Plexiglass plates, to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, and Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron in Hamburg, Germany. Using X-ray beams, they were then able to study the chemical composition of the samples.
The scientists concluded that a chemical reaction had occurred between the cadmium yellow paint and the varnish. As the painting was exposed to ultraviolet and artificial light, photo-oxidation occurred, freeing the cadmium and sulfate ions in the paint. The sulfate ions then reacted with lead ions in the varnish, which must have had a lead-based drying agent in it. As a result, anglesite, or PbSO4, formed. The cadmium ions also created a layer of cadmium oxalate (CdC2O4). The crusty orange-gray film over some of van Gogh’s yellow flowers is a combination of these two compounds.
This analysis is the first to reveal this particular reaction, but that isn’t to say that other varnished paintings containing cadmium yellow paint, a pigment introduced during van Gogh’s time, aren’t similarly affected. Ella Hendriks, head of conservation at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, complimented the way the art and science worlds came together to make this discovery.
“This study on the deterioration of cadmium yellow is an excellent example of how collaboration between scientists and conservators can help to improve our understanding of the condition of van Gogh’s paintings and lead to better preservation of his works,” Hendriks said in a press release. “Many of van Gogh’s French period paintings have been inappropriately varnished in the past, and removal of these non-original varnish layers is one of the challenges facing conservators on a worldwide basis today. The type of information provided by Janssens and his team is vital to support the difficult decisions that conservators often have to make regarding such complex cleaning treatments.”