September 9, 2013
Rod MacKinnon, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist at Rockefeller University, was at New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory studying the structures of human proteins, when his and Steve Miller’s worlds collided. Miller, an artist who splits his time between New York City and the Hamptons, was visiting Brookhaven to better understand the types of advanced imaging that scientists use.
The meeting inspired Miller to incorporate some of MacKinnon’s scientific notes and computer models into a series of paintings. It seemed logical to him to combine the creative output of an artist and a scientist. ”We’re all asking questions, trying to understand what forces make or shape who we are,” says Miller.
The pair had a similar interest, according to Marvin Heiferman, curator of an exhibition of 11 of Miller’s paintings now at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. “MacKinnon was investigating how potassium ions moved across cell membranes. Miller’s work engages itself with the crossing of borders as well: moving back and forth between photography and painting, shifting from micro to macro scale, combining representational and abstract imagery and what is theorized with what can be seen,” writes Heiferman in an introduction to the exhibition, aptly named “Crossing the Line.”
A large part of Miller’s career has been devoted to walking this line, between art and science. He has created abstract Rorschach-looking paintings from images of cancer and blood cells that only a scientist would recognize as such, and his “Health of the Planet” series consists of x-rays of plants and animals living in the Amazon rainforest.
So, what was it about MacKinnon’s research that transfixed the artist?
“Miller became fascinated with the visual nature, vocabulary, and tools of MacKinnon’s work: the graphic quality of his calculations and diagrams, the computer modeling he experimented with to grasp the three dimensionality of proteins, and X-ray crystallography technology itself,” writes Heiferman.
With these elements at his disposal, Miller produced paintings by layering photographs, drawings, silk-screened images and script written in MacKinnon’s hand. The works are pleasing at first glance, but because of their layers, they beg a deeper look. What do the underlying calculations prove? What do the graphs with asymptotic curves represent? And, what exactly is that sponge-like blob?
The paintings do not provide answers to these questions, but, in this way, they embody the artistic and scientific pursuit. The fun is in the scribblings and musings that happen on the way to the answer.
“Crossing the Line: Paintings by Steve Miller” is on display at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. through January 13, 2014.
July 23, 2013
The idea came to Volker Steger while he was riding his bike from Munich to Milan. For an upcoming assignment with an Italian magazine, the German photographer was instructed to take portraits of a dozen Nobel Prize winners in science. His subjects would sit on his kitchen chair, and, to bubble up their personalities, he would ask them Proust-style questions. But, what if after the commercial shoot, while he still had the Nobel laureates in his presence, he ran his own artistic experiment?
Steger gave it a whirl. He handed the scientists large pieces of white paper and some crayons and asked them, on the spot, to draw their award-winning discoveries. Once they finished, he photographed them with their sketches in poses of their choosing.
“The idea was, basically, to portray them in a way that was fun, personal and creative,” says Steger. “I wanted to visually link them directly to their discoveries.”
Pleasantly surprised with the results, Steger increased his sample size. For several years, starting in 2006, he attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual event in Lindau, Germany, where Nobel winners in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine meet with students and young researchers. He pulled Nobel winners aside and, in a temporary studio with a white backdrop, presented the task.
“Nobody gets a prior warning. That is essential. I don’t want to get another Powerpoint presentation,” says Steger. “They come in, surprised by the lights and the setup. Then, I simply ask them to ‘make a drawing of what you got the Nobel Prize for.’”
Steger’s 50 portraits of Nobel winners and their illustrations are featured in a book, Sketches of Science, and a traveling exhibition of the same title organized by the Nobel Museum. The exhibition is on display at Mainau Castle in Germany through August 25, 2013, and will head to Singapore from there.
Some of the Nobel laureates scrawled scientific formulas on the poster-sized paper. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine in 2008, drew the human immunodeficiency virus, looking somewhat like a Ferris wheel, to depict her and her colleagues’ discovery of the pathogen responsible for AIDS. And, Elizabeth Blackburn, the 2009 winner in the same category, depicted her discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase in a series of doodles, connected by arrows and brought to life with exclamation points, happy and sad faces and sound effects.
Sir Martin Evans, the 2007 winner in physiology and medicine, needed two pieces of paper to communicate his work with embryonic stem cells. On the second sheet, he drew a mouse—a critter to which he is forever indebted (Evans introduced specific gene modifications in lab mice using embryonic stem cells). Leon Lederman skipped over his neutrino beam method and discovery of the muon neutrino, which earned him the 1988 prize in physics, entirely, and instead drew three figures celebrating. Above one figure is a speech bubble that says, “We got it!” And standing nearby is a female figure with a similar bubble containing three red hearts. Apparently, Lederman’s groundbreaking work won him the favor of a lady, as well as a Nobel.
The atmosphere at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings is relaxed and creative, making it perfectly conducive for the project. ”I had only a few Nobels that turned down my request—maybe three out of 70,” says the photographer. “One said he was too old to draw.”
In his many shoots, Steger learned that most Nobel winners don’t actually like to be photographed as great thinkers musing in armchairs. Many held their sketches in front of their chests or their faces, and others showed more spunk. Robert Laughlin, the 1998 winner in physics, bit down on the corner of his drawing and used his free hand to point to an equation. Sir Harold Kroto, the 1996 Nobel winner in chemistry, made as if he was kicking his buckyball, a carbon molecule with the chemical formula C60 that looks like a soccer ball.
“Nobel laureates differ in their character just as much as they do in their discoveries,” says Steger.
Sir Timothy Hunt, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, in his introduction to Sketches of Science, writes, ”There’s a playfulness about these portraits that’s quite beguiling, and unlike most official portraits of these distinguished people, there are hints that they don’t all take themselves that seriously, knowing very well that great discoveries result from a considerable degree of luck, as well as prepared minds.”
For the exhibition, the Nobel Museum pairs audio recordings of the laureates explaining their discoveries with the portraits. Listen to these recordings, found under the portraits in this post.
But it’s the picture—in this case, the picture of a picture with its artist—that makes Steger’s work so compelling. As Hunt explains, “What the photographs mainly seem to radiate is the fun of doing science.”
January 23, 2013
The shape of a Pringle, mathematically speaking, is called a hyperbolic paraboloid. Artists have been folding paper into this shape for years. The twist? Hyperbolic paraboloids shouldn’t exist in origami—it’s impossible to make such a 3D shape using only the creases pressed into paper by hand.
By that logic, some of Erik Demaine’s artwork shouldn’t exist either.
Demaine, the world’s top computational origami theorist, has created a series of sculptures by folding concentric squares into square pieces of paper, alternating mountain and valley, and folding the diagonals. With each sculpture, the paper pops into a saddle shape called a hyperbolic paraboloid and stays there. Its accordion-like folds are pretty to look at, but Demaine, a computer science professor at MIT, isn’t sure how it works.
Once the paper is folded, the entire structure settles into a natural form. “Physics finds that balance,” Demaine says. But, the mechanisms of the Pringle-like shape are still poorly understood. Demaine posits there must be little creases in the paper invisible to the naked eye, as handmade folds alone can’t account for the end shape.
Trying to solve this mystery means marrying sculpture and mathematics.
“We’ve come up with a math problem that inspires new art—and an art problem that inspires new math,” says Demaine. The 31-year-old artist creates his origami sculptures with his father Martin.
The final product, “Green Cycles” (pictured at top), was created using two different colored sheets of French-made Mi-Teintes watercolor paper, bonded together. Using a ball burnisher, which is essentially a ballpoint pen without the ink, the Demaines pushed the two-layer sheet into rings of concentric circles carved into a wood template. The paper is scored along the circular creases and cut into a donut shape, before it springs into a three-dimensional form. The artist creates several of these models and loops them together into an interlocking paper sculpture. The younger Demaine says the hardest part is assembly, which takes up to a week, because they can’t predict if the resulting shapes will twist around one another to create a solid, aesthetically pleasing piece.
“We get them to interlock, let go and let them relax, sometimes overnight, if we think we have a candidate sculpture,” he says. If the structure droops or falls apart, the pair tries again.
Written instructions for paper folding first appeared in 1797 in Japan. Akisato Rito published a book, Sembazuru Orikata, with lessons for 1,000 paper cranes. Adachi Kazuyuki published a more comprehensive how-to collection in 1845. By the late 1800s, kindergarteners across Europe began folding colored squares in class.
The concept was simple: no scissors, no glue, no tape—just nimble fingers bending and twisting paper into novel shapes. Origami became a modern art form in the 1950s, when Akira Yoshizawa, a Japanese artist, combined the mechanics of the craft with the aesthetic of sculpture. He created more than 50,000 paper models, never selling one. Since then, artist Eric Joisel’s crinkled lifelike animal and human figures appeared on display at the Louvre and physicist-artist Robert Lang’s detailed compositions have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.
But paper folding doesn’t just create something we can ooh and aah at. It also plays a role in answering long-standing questions in math, like the fold-and-cut problem.
The first known record of the problem appeared in 1721 in a Japanese book of brain teasers, one of which asked the reader to fold a rectangular piece of paper flat and make only one straight cut to produce a Japanese crest called sangaibisi, which translates to “three-folded rhombics.” The author offered a solution through a diagram, but the problem remained an open question for centuries—how many shapes are possible?—until Demaine solved it.
As it turns out, any shape is possible—swans, horses, five-pointed stars. All that’s needed is a geometric blueprint, a guide about folding here and bending there.
The use of such blueprints added complexity to origami. In the 1960s, folding diagrams involved 20 to 30 steps. Now, a model could require 200 to 300 steps from start to finish. That’s a lot of folding for a single piece of paper. But, the trick is using super thin paper with long fibers, which give it strength to withstand all the pulling and tugging.
Computer programs have only added to the fun. TreeMaker, a free software program created by artist Robert Lang, takes user-generated line drawing and churns out patterns that can be printed out and folded to create the shapes. Origamizer allows users to design a 3D model and alter its crease patterns on the screen, exploring different shapes and forms.
With the help of computer software, origami has expanded beyond the art world. Scientists and engineers have found practical applications for paper folding. Car manufacturers, for instance, use origami mathematics to compute a crease pattern for folding airbags into flattened shapes. Demaine says origami structures could influence nanomanufacture, spurring the creation of flat intel chips that can spring into 3D shapes. He also met with members of the National Institutes of Health last year to discuss how the craft could help design synthetic virus-fighting proteins.
Linking mathematics and art does carry some occupational hazards, though.
“A few paper cuts a year,” Demaine says.
Three works by the father-son team are on display in “4o Under 40: Craft Futures,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery through February 3, 2013.
October 10, 2012
“I’m a microbiologist masquerading as an artist. Or am I an artist masquerading as a microbiologist?” says Zachary Copfer on his personal Web site, Science to the Power of Art. “I can’t seem to remember anymore.”
His confusion over how to describe himself is understandable. Copfer is an artist in a lab coat.
Copfer graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and secondary education in 2006. He then worked as a microbiologist for Proctor & Gamble and Teva Pharmaceuticals for five years. However, he quickly learned that the commercial lab setting wasn’t the best fit for him. ”I began to lose sight of all that I had found romantic about science,” says Copfer, on his site.
Copfer instead channeled his creative energies into art, pursuing a masters in fine art in photography at the University of Cincinnati. “Photography developed into my new method of inquiry. Everything that I had missed about science I rediscovered in photography,” he adds. He completed his coursework in June.
Already, Copfer’s experimentations have led to the creation of a medium he calls “bacteriography.” Essentially, the microbiologist-turned-artist borrows techniques from traditional darkroom photography to develop recognizable images in growing colonies of—yes, you got it—bacteria.
Copfer has created a series of “bacteria portraits” of famous artists and scientists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. For each one, he covered a large petri dish, measuring 9.5 by 9.5 inches, in Serratia marcescens, a bacteria responsible for some hospital-acquired infections. “I use it because it is red and it pops and it gives you that great color,” Copfer told Cincinnati Public Radio.
Then, the artist placed a photograph in the dish. For instance, in one, he laid the famous photograph of Einstein sticking his tongue out, captured by UPI photographer Arthur Sasse on the scientist’s 72nd birthday. Instead of exposing the setup to ultraviolet light, as you would when developing a photograph in a darkroom, Copfer exposed it to radiation. The image cast a shadow on the bacteria. In that shadow, the bacteria grew, but in areas where the radiation passed through, they did not. Once those colonies of bacteria grew to his liking, and the piece was finished, so to speak, Copfer irradiated the portrait, killing the bacteria. Finally, he sealed the portrait with a layer of acrylic, so that it could be safely displayed.
The resulting portraits are bold, pop art-like reproductions of the original photographs. Comprised of red dots—each a tiny colony of bacteria—the images call to mind Roy Lichtenstein‘s comic-strip style of portraiture.
In the titles of his works, Copfer refers to artists da Vinci and Picasso as “scientists” and scientists Darwin and Einstein as “artists.” He believes that for many others, like himself, the titles are interchangeable.
“For me, the two seemingly disparate fields of study serve the same purpose, a way to explore my connection to everything else around me,” he says, on his site.