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 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.
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 2, 2013
At the outset of both his new book, Planetfall, and his exhibition of the same title now at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, photographer Michael Benson defines the word “planetfall.” Planetfall, he states, is “the act or an instance of sighting a planet after a space voyage.”
It is really the existence, in the last 50 years, of spacecraft orbiting the planets of our solar system that has necessitated the term. “Each of these far-flung machines is following the traditions blazed by the great Earthbound explorers, but when its destination comes into view, we can no longer call that dramatic moment ‘landfall,’” according to the exhibition. “Hence ‘planetfall’—the moment of arrival at other worlds.”
In his latest series of images, Benson attempts to lift us off terra firma and bring this awe-inspiring moment to us. His 40 large-scale photographs, hanging in the AAAS Art Gallery, are remarkably crisp views of the rings of Saturn, moons in transit, a sunset on Mars and volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon, Io, among other marvels. Each image is in “true color,” as Benson puts it.
To make his photographs, Benson starts by perusing through thousands of raw image data collected on missions led by NASA—Cassini, Galileo, MESSENGER, Viking and Voyager, among others—and the European Space Agency. He has compared this process to panning for gold—the precious gold nuggets being beautiful sequences of images, rarely seen by the public, that he can piece together into one seamless photograph. It can take anywhere from tens to hundreds of raw frames to arrange, like a mosaic, one legible composite image. Then rendering the photograph in realistic colors adds another layer of complexity. Benson describes the process in his book:
“In order for a full-color image to be created, the spacecraft needs to have taken at minimum two, but preferably three, individual photographs of a given subject, with each exposed through a different filter…. Ideally, those filters are red, green, and blue, in which case a composite image color image can usually be created without too much trouble…. If a red and a blue filtered shot are available but not a green, for example, a synthetic green image can be created by mixing the other two colors.”
Some of the colors are quite striking. Jupiter’s moon, Io, is a brilliant yellow, in one of Benson’s photographs (shown at top). To me, it looks like a shiny bowling ball, whereas for Benson it calls to mind the yellow rim of Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone National Park. “It’s all sulphur,” he says. Then, there is the photographer’s very modernist-looking portrait of Uranus (above) and its rings in a stunning robin’s egg blue, assembled from raw images taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it flew by the planet on January 24, 1986. Uranus’ rotation axis is roughly parallel to the plane of the solar system, making its rings vertical in this view. ”This is about as close, I believe, to what the human eye would see as it is possible to produce using existing data,” Benson explains.
The sights take some time to digest. At a recent preview of the AAAS exhibition, I watched as onlookers approached the photographs, oriented themselves with their subjects and tried to make sense of the shadows, streaks and gouges they saw. As TIME reported on its blog, LightBox, “Benson’s visions demand more than a single look; the longer one spends with his vast landscapes, considering the scale and scope, the more they facilitate a state of meditation.”
Meditate on these selections from Planetfall, on display at the AAAS Art Gallery through June 28, 2013.