April 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
April 5, 2013
For all 94 days of 2013 thus far, Klari Reis has kept to her resolution. The San Francisco-based artist has posted a new petri dish painting—eye candy for any sci-art lover—to her blog, The Daily Dish.
Reis’ circular art pieces are explosions of color. The yellows, pinks, purples, greens, oranges, reds and blues in the paintings take on a smattering of different shapes, including amorphous blobs, radiating fireworks and wavy veins that resemble, quite intentionally on Reis’ part, what a scientist might see when gazing through a microscope. The artist gives her creations playful names, little quips, really, that spring to mind when she looks at the designs. Blueberry Pie. That One Time in the 80′s. Peachy Keen. Jellyfish with a Brooch. Absinthe on the Rocks.
Just yesterday, she introduced Taylor Swift—a flower-like pattern in lemon yellow. (Check it out, above.)
The project, though begun in earnest this year, has been a long time coming. Reis, now in her mid-30s, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease more than a decade ago. Shortly after her diagnosis, she left a stressful job as an architect in San Francisco to pursue a career in fine art. While studying at City and Guilds of London Art School, she was in and out of the hospital, trying to wrap her head around the differences between medications she was being prescribed in the United Kingdom and those she had been given in the United States. “I knew I was allergic to this one medicine in the U.S., but they called it something different in the U.K.,” says Reis. “So, I just felt like it was pretty important for me to understand what these drugs really were and what they did on the inside.”
In 2002, Reis’ doctor at St. Thomas’ Hospital, a teaching hospital connected to King’s College, invited her to his lab. There, under a microscope, he showed her dozens of samples of her blood reacting to different medicines. Intrigued with the cellular reactions she saw, particularly how cells morph and duplicate when different influences enter the body, Reis began painting some of the imagery on canvas and wood and aluminum panels, by memory. “My first 100 paintings were all named after different drugs,” she says. “They weren’t exact replicas of what I saw under the microscope, but were very much inspired by it.”
After three years in London, Reis returned to San Francisco, where she continued to work at the intersection of art and science. Several biotech companies in the Bay area granted her access to their labs and commissioned educational paintings from her, depicting pharmaceuticals in action. But, then about four years ago, in what she describes as a very natural progression, Reis branched away from this work, and away from canvas, wood and aluminum, to create paintings within actual petri dishes.
“What I like about what I do is that it is different,” says Reis. “I use unconventional materials.”
Reis starts with a petri dish, one of three sizes of dishes she purchases from a biotech supply company. The smallest dishes are about three inches in diameter. The medium-sized dishes, standard in high school science labs, measure 4.5 inches, and the largest ones are about six inches across. Then, wearing a mask and a biohazard suit, she heats up epoxy polymer—a shiny plastic medium found not at an art store but at a place like Home Depot because it is often mixed with cement to create flooring (she was first exposed to the product during her days as an architect)—and adds color to it using powders and industrial dyes. Once the plastic is a syrupy consistency, she applies between three and five layers within a petri dish. Reis has become looser and more abstract in her designs, but they still call to mind cultures of bacteria growing in petri dishes.
Just when you think Reis may have exhausted her options, she unveils a delightful new design. Each petri dish is remarkably different. ”I feel like there are endless possibilities,” says Reis.
“What does the next one look like?” I ask, hoping for an inside scoop on the next dish to hit her blog.
“Ah,” Reis says, “You’ll have to wait and see.”
February 21, 2013
When Julia Lohmann set out to create an artwork for the street-level windows of the London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, the health research foundation, she chose a classic subject: the female body. But where Lohmann broke from tradition was her medium. The German designer created her large-scale portrait of two reclining nudes using 9,000 petri dishes, each containing an image of live bacteria.
Suzanne Lee, a British fashion designer, is attempting to grow clothes. She cultivates bacteria in vats of sugary green tea and then harvests the cellulose that forms on the mixture’s surface. The durable film serves as a pleatherlike fabric.
The Italian artist Giuliano Mauri planted 80 hornbeam trees amid columns of bundled branches in Arte Sella, a sculpture garden in northern Italy. The trees inch up the columns to form Cattedrale Vegetale, a Gothic cathedral complete with naves.
All these works are prominent examples of a nascent aesthetic movement called biodesign, which integrates living things, including bacteria, plants and animals, into installations, products and artworks. “Designers and architects, more and more, want to design objects and buildings that grow by themselves,” says Paola Antonelli, design curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Biodesign takes advantage of the “tremendous power and potential utility of organisms and their natural interaction with ecosystems around them,” says William Myers, a New York City design historian and author of the new book Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity. “It can be a means of communication and discovery, a way to provoke debate and explore the potential opportunities and dangers of manipulating life for human purposes.”
Some ventures are very down-to-earth. Microbiologist Henk Jonkers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is developing self-repairing “bio-concrete”; he adds limestone-producing bacteria to cement and, over time, they fill in cracks. If adopted widely, the material could benefit the environment, since concrete production is a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Other proposals read more like science fiction. Alberto Estévez, an architect based in Barcelona, wants to replace streetlights with glowing trees created by inserting a bioluminescent jellyfish gene into the plants’ DNA.
The biodesign movement builds on ideas in Janine Benyus’ trailblazing 1997 book Biomimicry, which urges designers to look to nature for inspiration. But instead of copying living things biodesigners make use of them.
The effort brings artists and scientists together. “These novel collaborations are often joyous contaminations in which scientists feel, even just for a moment, liberated from the rigor of peer review and free to attempt intuitive leaps,” Antonelli writes in a foreword to Bio Design.
Julia Lohmann teamed up with Michael Wilson, a microbiologist at University College London Eastman Dental Institute. Wilson, who studies the bacteria that inhabit people, grew common bacteria from the female body and photographed the colonies under a microscope. Lohmann affixed these photographs to actual petri dishes and positioned each type of bacteria where it would occur on or in a woman’s body—pictures of the scalp microbe Propionibacteria, for instance, cover the head.
“The petri dish is a magnifying glass into this other world,” says Lohmann, who was inspired by the mind-bending fact that only one in ten cells in the human body is actually human. The rest are microbes. “There is so much advertising out there that tells you that all bacteria are bad, and it is simply not true. We couldn’t live without bacteria, and they couldn’t live without us,” says Lohmann. She considers her mural Co-existence to be part of the counter propaganda.
February 7, 2013
Few non-scientists would be able to distinguish the E. coli
virus bacteria from the HIV virus under a microscope. Artist Luke Jerram, however, can describe in intricate detail the shapes of a slew of deadly viruses pathogens. He is intrigued by them, as a subject matter, because of their inherent irony. That is, something as virulent as SARS can actually, in its physical form, be quite delicate.
Clearly adept at scientific work—as an undergraduate, the Brit was offered a spot on a university engineering program—Jerram chose to pursue art instead. “Scientists and artists start by asking similar questions about the natural world,” he told SEED magazine in a 2009 interview. “They just end up with completely different answers.”
To create a body of work he calls “Glass Microbiology,” Jerram has enlisted the help of virologist Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol and the expertise of professional glassblowers Kim George, Brian George and Norman Veitch. Together, the cross-disciplinary team brings hazardous pathogens, such as the H1N1 virus or HIV, to light in translucent glass forms.
The artist insists that his sculptures be colorless, in contrast to the images scientists sometimes disseminate that are enhanced with bright hues. “Viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light,” says Jerram, in an email. “So the artworks are created as alternative representations of viruses to the artificially colored imagery we receive through the media.” Jerram and Davidson create sketches, which they then take to the glassblowers, to see whether the intricate structures of the diseases can be replicated in glass, at approximately one million times their original size.
These glass sculptures require extreme attention to detail. “I consult virologists at the University of Bristol about the details of each artwork,” says Jerram. “Often I’m asking a question about how a particular part of the virion looks, and they don’t know the answer. We have to piece together our understanding by comparing grainy electron microscope images with abstract chemical models and existing diagrams.”
Yet, to physically create these structures in glass, the design may have to be tweaked. Some viruses, in their true form, would simply be too delicate and wouldn’t hold up. Jerram’s representation of the H1N1 (or Swine Flu) virus, for instance, looks far spikier than it might in reality. This was done, not to add to the ferocity of the virus’ image, but to prevent the artwork from crumbling or breaking.
Jerram has to decide what to do when new research suggests different forms for the structures of viruses. “Over time, scientific understanding of the virus improves and so I have to amend my models accordingly,” explains the artist. For example, “I’m currently in dialogue with a scientist at the University of Florida about the structure of the smallpox virus. He has published papers that show a very different understanding of the internal structure. I now need to consider whether to create a new model or wait until his model has become more widely accepted by the scientific community.” Jerram’s art is often used in scientific journals as an alternative to colorful simulations, so being as up-to-date as possible is definitely in his best interest.
Jerram’s marvelous glass sculptures bring awareness to some of the worst killers of our age. “The pieces are made for people to contemplate the global impact of each disease,” he says. “I’m interested in sharing the tension that has arisen between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent.”
Jerram’s microbial sculptures are on display in “Playing with Fire: 50 Years of Contemporary Glass,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design through April 7, 2013, and “Pulse: Art and Medicine,” opening at Strathmore Fine Art in Bethesda, Maryland, on February 16. “Pulse” runs through April 13, 2013.
Editor’s Note, February 15, 2013: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly stated or implied that E. coli and malaria are viruses. They are not–E. coli is a bacteria and malaria is a malaise caused by microorganisms. Errors in the first paragraph were fixed and the title of the post was changed.
February 5, 2013
When Pupa U. P. A. Gilbert, a biophysicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her colleague Christopher E. Killian saw the scanning electron micrograph that they took of a sea urchin’s tooth, they were dumbstruck, says the journal Science. “I had never seen anything that beautiful,” Gilbert told the publication.
The individual crystals of calcite that form an urchin’s tooth are pointy, interlocking pieces; as the outermost crystals decay, others come to the surface, keeping the tooth sharp. In Photoshop, Gilbert added blues, greens and purples to the black-and-white image to differentiate the crystals. The resulting image calls to mind an eerie landscape in a Tim Burton movie.
Judges of the 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, a competition sponsored by Science and the National Science Foundation, as well as the public who voted online, were equally ecstatic about the SEM image. Enough so, in fact, that they selected the micrograph as the first place and people’s choice winner for the contest’s photography division.
The 10th annual Visualization Challenge received 215 entries across five categories—photography, illustration, posters and graphics, games and apps, and video. The submissions are judged based on visual impact, effective communication and originality.
And…drum roll, please. Here are some of the the recently announced winners:
Kai-hung Fung, a radiologist at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong, captured this image of a clam shell (on the left) and a spiral-shaped sea snail shell (on the right) using a CT scanner. The image won honorable mention in the photography category. The multi-colored lines represent the contours in the shells. Fung told Science that he took into account “two sides of a coin” when making the image. “One side is factual information, wile the other side is artistic,” he told the journal.
Viktor Sykora, a biologist at Charles University in Prague, and researchers at the Czech Technical University submitted three miniscule (we’re talking three millimeters in diameter or less) seeds to high-resolution, high-contrast x-ray imaging (on the left) and microscopy (on the right). The above image also won honorable mention in the photography category.
Earning him first prize in the illustration category, Emmett McQuinn, a hardware engineer at IBM, created this “wiring diagram” for a new kind of computer chip, based on the neural pathways in a macaque‘s brain.
Maxime Chamberland, a computer science graduate student at the Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab in Canada, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to capture this ominous image of a brain tumor. (The tumor is the solid red mass in the left side of the brain.) Science calls the image a “road map for neurosurgeons,” in that the red fibers are hot-button fibers that, if severed, could negatively impact the patient’s everyday functions, while blue fibers are nonthreatening. The image won honorable mention and was the people’s choice winner in the contest’s illustration category.
A team of researchers (Guillermo Marin, Fernando M. Cucchietti, Mariano Vázquez, Carlos Tripiana, Guillaume Houzeaux, Ruth Arís, Pierre Lafortune and Jazmin Aguado-Sierra) at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center produced this first-place and people’s-choice winning video, “Alya Red: A Computational Heart.” The film shows Alya Red, a realistic animation of a beating human heart that the scientists designed using MRI data.
“I was literally blown away,” Michael Reddy, a judge in the contest, told Science. “After the first time I watched the video, I thought, ‘I’ve just changed the way I thought about a heart.’”
Be sure to check out the other videos below, which received honorable mention in the contest:
Fertilization, by Thomas Brown, Stephen Boyd, Ron Collins, Mary Beth Clough, Kelvin Li, Erin Frederikson, Eric Small, Walid Aziz, Hoc Kho, Daniel Brown and Nobles Green Nucleus Medical Media
Observing the Coral Symbiome Using Laser Scanning Confocal Microscopy, by Christine E. Farrar, Zac H. Forsman, Ruth D. Gates, Jo-Ann C. Leong, and Robert J. Toonen, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, Manoa
Revealing Invisible Changes in the World, by Michael Rubinstein, Neal Wadhwa, Frédo Durand, William T. Freeman, Hao-Yu Wu, John Guttag, MIT; and Eugene Shih, Quanta Research Cambridge
For winners in the posters and graphics and games and apps categories, see the National Science Foundation’s special report on the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.