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.”
May 31, 2013
For most people, the study of astrophysics means poring over calculations, charts, texts and graphics. But Wanda Diaz-Merced, a graduate student at the University of Glasgow, and fellow researcher Gerhard Sonnert have pioneered a different approach. Its underlying motif is simple: Space produces music.
She grew up with an enthusiasm for science and space, but in her early 20s, as a physics student at the University of Puerto Rico, her vision swiftly deteriorated due to diabetes. When she spent time in an astrophysical observatory, though, and inadvertently heard the hiss and pops of the signals collected by a radio telescope, she realized that there might be a way she could rely solely on her hearing to interpret data.
Since, she’s teamed with computer scientists to use NASA-developed software called xSonify—which converts scientific data of all kinds into synthesized musical sounds, a process called sonification (PDF)—to analyze solar flares on the sun, as well as X-rays coming from the EX Hydrae star system. This software allows users to customize how the data are represented, using pitch, volume, rhythm and even different types of instruments to distinguish between different values and intensities in the electromagnetic spectrum detected by spacecraft over time.
Diaz-Merced listens to these data streams to pick out irregularities and changes in the sounds, and has even convinced some colleagues to adopt the software, because listening while watching data in chart form can help them become more attuned to subtle patterns in the data. “I can listen for harmonics, melodies, relative high- and low-frequency ranges,” she told Physics Today last year. In one case, she said, “I was able to hear [previously overlooked] very low frequencies from gamma-ray bursts. I had been listening to the time series and said to the physicists in charge, ‘Let’s listen to the power spectra.’”
In its raw form, the sounds she listens to seem more like noise than music:
In the spring of 2011, Diaz-Merced was interning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, when her use of sonification inspired Gerhard Sonnert, a researcher, to do something new with the sounds. He spotted sheet music that represented X-ray emissions from EX Hydrae, collected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory satellite, and noticed a rhythm, common in Afro-Cuban music, called a clave.
A bass player, Sonnert got the idea to convert the sounds from EX Hydrae, some 200 light-years away, into blues, jazz and classical music. As part of the Star Songs project, he teamed with his cousin Volkmar Studtrucker, a composer, to manually convert the data into nine different songs, which the duo then performed with drummer Hans-Peter Albrecht and released as an album.
Listen to the raw sound data that produced the blues track, along with the completed song:
Studtrucker started off by picking select portions of the signal that were suitable for use in composition. As a whole, the sounds are largely irregular, because they result from X-rays emitted in a variable fashion due to the nature of EX Hydrae. The system is actually made up of two stars, with one continually pulling matter away from the other at varying rates, which causes the level of X-ray emissions to fluctuate as well.
But particular portions of the sounds representing the X-ray emissions seemed to have melodies and a beat, and by repeating these short segments—and adding harmonic elements, as well as altering the underlying clave rhythm—Studrucker was able to compose songs based off the data in a variety of styles. In addition to blues, he produced several others:
Jazz Waltz (data, then song):
Of course, there’s an element of abstraction in all these tracks, and with even the raw sounds produced by xSonify that Diaz-Merced uses to conduct her research. But that doesn’t mean that her research—or Studtrucker’s music—is any less representitive of phenomena in space than the work of conventional astronomers.
As Ari Epstein put it in a terrific Studio 360 segment on Diaz-Merced’s research, “Stars and planets don’t give off sounds as they move through the sky. But they don’t draw lines on graphs either. All of these things—graphs, numbers, music—they’re all just tools we can use to understand a complicated universe.”
March 12, 2013
The aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is a spectacle to behold—so much so, that it is hard to put into words. I think Smithsonian‘s former senior science editor, Laura Helmuth, did it justice a few years back. “Try to imagine the most colorful, textured sunset you’ve ever seen, then send it swirling and pulsing across an otherwise clear and starry sky,” she wrote.
Helmuth also handily described the physics behind the natural phenomenon:
“Your planet is being buffeted by solar wind—particles of protons and electrons that the sun spews into space. Some of the charged particles get sucked into the earth’s magnetic field and flow toward the pole until they collide with our atmosphere. Then, voilà: the aurora borealis (or aurora australis, if you happen to be at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere.)”
Of course, the experience of viewing the Northern Lights, particularly for residents of the contiguous United States, is a rare but privileged one. (Smithsonian actually includes the aurora borealis on its “Life List” of places to go and things to do and see before you die.) Places above 60 degrees latitude—Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, for instance—are prime spots for seeing the lights show, usually around the fall and spring equinoxes. But, occasionally, it can be seen farther south. I witnessed it once in Vermont. The sight was intoxicating.
It is really no wonder, then, that artists find inspiration in the Northern Lights.
Danish lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug saw the aurora borealis several times in 2012, while he was working on stage lighting for a run of “Hamlet” at the Halogaland Theatre in Tromsø, Norway. He also talked with locals there about their encounters with it. So, when the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. commissioned an installation from him mimicking the Northern Lights, Kongshaug had these experiences and conversations to inform him. He planned for about 11 months, collaborating with the Baltimore-based company Image Engineering, and his “Northern Lights” debuted on February 20, 2012, in conjunction with Nordic Cool 2013, a month-long festival celebrating the cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Greenland. Each night from 5:30 to 11 p.m., until the festival’s end on March 17, a total of 10 lasers positioned around the Kennedy Center project the green and blue streamers of the aurora borealis onto all four sides of the building’s white marble facade.
Inspired by Kongshaug’s installation, I did some exploring and found some other fascinating Northern Lights-inspired projects:
Paul Moravec, a composer and Pulitzer Prize winner in music, released a new album this past December, “Northern Lights Electric,” with four songs performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. “My own music often seems to involve some physical, tangible catalyst,” says Moravec on the liner notes. The album’s title song is his attempt to capture, in music, the Northern Lights, which the composer witnessed once in New Hampshire. “The 12-minute piece begins with tinkling percussion, billowing strings and a searching motive in the woodwinds. Then brass suddenly shoots up like a spray of multi-colored lights. Spacious, Coplandesque chords depict the immense night sky,” wrote Tom Huizenga on NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence. Listen to part of the composition, here.
Johan Lans prefers to be called “food creator” or “designer for new dishes” as opposed to head chef at Camp Ripan, a hotel, conference center and restaurant, in Kiruna, Sweden. A native of the northernmost city in Sweden, Lans is very familiar with the Northern Lights. In fact, he has designed an entire dinner menu with tastes, smells, sounds, colors and shapes that he believes conjure up the phenomenon. Bright vegetables and local fish ornately plated, an entree of hare and concoctions like “cucumber snow”—skip to 4:25 in this TEDxTalk, to watch Lans describe these and other the dishes.
Completed just this year, the Cathedral of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway, is a landmark built to honor—and complement—the aurora borealis, commonly seen in the town located 310 miles north of the Arctic Circle. “The contours of the church rise as a spiralling shape to the tip of the belfry 47 metres [154 feet] above the ground,” the architectural firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen explains on its Web site. “The facade, clad in titanium, reflects the northern lights during the long periods of Arctic winter darkness and emphasizes the experience of the phenomenon.” Check out these images.
At this year’s London Fashion Week, from February 15-19, English designer Matthew Williamson unveiled his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection of knit sweaters, pleated skirts and sequin dresses. “It was inspired by the idea of an English Rose, that kind of quintessentially British girl, and I wanted her to take a journey to the Northern Lights, where I saw these toxic colors and amazing neon skies,” Williamson told Reuters. See some of his designs in this video.
November 20, 2012
Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied host of America’s Test Kitchen and founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, knows the difference between good cooks and great cooks. Great cooks—and he has built his empire on this premise—understand the scientific principles involved in their techniques. They are fluent in the different modes of heat transfer: radiant heat, convection and conduction. They can explain how diffusion and osmosis maintain equilibrium in their recipes. And, perhaps most impressively, they harness this scientific knowledge to defy gravity—when making soufflés and other baked goods rise.
In a recent presentation at the National Museum of American History, Kimball flashed a photograph of Albert Einstein. “Einstein was so smart not to get involved,” he said. “The science of cooking is actually much more complicated than particle physics.”
Luckily, Kimball and his crew of editors, test cooks and food scientists at the actual test kitchen, a 2,500-square-foot culinary laboratory just outside of Boston, unpack the science and serve it to us in bites we can chew on. I’ve found that the team’s latest book, The Science of Good Cooking, offers helpful tips in explaining the science behind some Thanksgiving favorites.
Brining a Turkey
A brine is a simple solution of salt and water. When you place a turkey in a brine, both the salt and the water move from an area of greater concentration (the brine) to an area of lesser concentration (the meat) in processes called diffusion and osmosis. The added water in the turkey’s muscle cells makes the meat juicier. Meanwhile, the proteins in the turkey rearrange to incorporate the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. “This reshaping helps the proteins to hold on to the added water, even after the meat is cooked,” say the editors. The reconfiguring of the proteins also makes makes the meat more tender.
The editors of Cook’s Illustrated offer up a simple brine recipe. A 12- to 17-pound turkey should soak in 2 gallons of cold water and 1 cup of table salt for 6 to 12 hours. An 18- to 24-pounder should sit in 3 gallons of cold water and 1 1/2 cups of table salt, also for 6 to 12 hours. If you are making a bone-in turkey breast, it requires 1 gallon of cold water and 1/2 cup of table salt for a brining time of 3 to 6 hours.
Cooking Green Beans—Just Enough
I am not a fan of green bean casserole. You know, the one with french fried onions sprinkled on the top? My biggest gripe is that the beans are much too mushy. Kimball and his colleagues share the secret to firm, yet tender, brightly colored green beans (and any other green vegetables, for that matter). “It’s all about a high-heat blanch followed by an ice-cold shock,” they note.
As soon as the green beans hit boiling water, their color brightens. “Some of the air contained between their cells expands and bubbles off, bringing the cell walls closer together and causing the plant tissue to become more transparent, producing a brighter green color,” the team reports. The heat causes the beans to tenderize. How? The polymer, pectin, which gives the vegetable’s cell walls their structure, breaks down and water leaks from the cells. The optimal boiling time for green beans, according to the pros, is three to five minutes. If you boil any longer, your beans will be pretty limp. After some time, the color of the beans will also dull—a result of the chlorophyll molecules losing their magnesium ions in the heat. Tossing the beans into a bowl of ice water stops these processes.
Mixing Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
For the best results, the America’s Test Kitchen folks suggest russet potatoes. Potatoes are anywhere from 16 to 22 percent starch, and russets are on the starchier end of that range. “When potatoes are cooked the [starch] granules absorb water from within the potato and swell like balloons, causing the cells that contain them to expand, separate and eventually burst,” says the book. “This, in turn, translates to a potato that falls apart when cooked.” A crumbly potato is an easily mashable potato. Russets also have more amylose starch molecules, as opposed to amylopectin; amylose is a sponge for liquid. “Just what you want when adding dairy to mashed potatoes,” say the pros.
Preparing Flavorful Sage Stuffing
At Thanksgiving, my mother prepares, as many do, a delicious sage stuffing. But why sage? Well, sage is a hearty herb, meaning its flavor compounds can withstand cooking. (To Kimball’s team, sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme and marjoram are all hearty herbs, whereas basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, mint, chives and tarragon are delicate herbs.) The sage releases its flavors during the hours that a stuffed turkey cooks.
Test cooks compared fresh herbs to dried herbs in 24 different recipes (other than stuffing), and in all but one case, tasters preferred fresh. Be warned, though, “Ounce for ounce, dried herbs are more potent than fresh,” according to the book. So, if your stuffing recipe calls for dried sage, the test cooks recommend you quadruple the measurement for fresh sage leaves.
Rolling the Perfect Pie Crust
“Perfect pie dough has just the right balance of tenderness and structure. The former comes from fat, the latter from long protein chains called gluten that form when flour mixes with water,” say the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. “Too little gluten and the dough won’t stick together—but too much and the crust turns tough.”
The test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen suggest using a combination of water and vodka, in place of the water that a crust recipe calls for. When vodka is added to flour, its molecules, unlike water, do not cause the proteins to reconfigure into gluten. “Using a mixture of vodka and water allows us to add more liquid to the dough to get it to be as malleable and easy to work with as possible without causing excessive toughness,” the testers report.
If you don’t have vodka, feel free to use rum, whiskey or gin. “Surprisingly, the vast majority of our tasters could not distinguish among the different flavors of booze,” say the editors. Any 80-proof liquor will do.
Find more tips from The Science of Good Cooking at Food and Think.
October 19, 2012
For a few consecutive years, as a kid, I put the board game Mouse Trap on my Christmas wish list. Hasbro’s commercials from the early 1990s made the game look outrageously fun. First, you build an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, with a crane, a crooked staircase and an elevated bath tub. Then, once that is pieced together and in working condition, you use the contraption to trap your opponents’ miniature mice game pieces under a descending plastic cage.
I can hear the ad’s catchy jingle now: “Just turn the crank, and snap the plant, and boot the marble right down the chute, now watch it roll and hit the pole, and knock the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hits the man into the pan. The trap is set, here comes the net! Mouse trap, I guarantee, it’s the craziest trap you’ll ever see.”
Unfortunately (for me), Santa thought the game had “too many parts.” He was somehow convinced that my brother and I would misplace enough of the pieces to render the game unplayable.
Where was Mark Perez when I needed him?
Perez, a general contractor in San Francisco, believes the game of Mouse Trap is an important educational tool. He and a troupe of performers actually tour the country with a life-sized version of the board game, using its many levers, pulleys, gears, wheels, counter weights, screws and incline planes to teach audiences about Newtonian physics.
“I used to play the game a lot as a kid,” says Perez, when I catch the nomadic carnival man on the phone. “I used to put several of the games together and just kind of hack the game, not even knowing what I was doing. Then, that interest just sort of made its way into adulthood.”
In 1995, Perez began to tinker. At the outset, the self-described “maker” thought of his giant board game as a large-scale art installation. He scrapped his initial attempt a year in but returned to the project in 1998, this time renting a workspace in a reclaimed boat-building barn on San Francisco Bay. “I worked every day for eight hours and came home and worked for two to four hours more in my shop fabricating the Mouse Trap,” he says.
The crane alone took two years to construct. But by 2005, Perez had 2o sculptures, weighing a total of 25 tons, that when interconnected created a completely recognizable—and, more importantly, working—model of the popular board game.
With the “Life Size Mousetrap” complete, Perez and his motley crew of carnival-type performers took to the road, staging at times up to six shows a day at museums, science centers and festivals around the country. Prior to his construction career, Perez did some production work for bands and nightclubs in San Francisco, so he has a flair for the dramatic. He stars as the enthusiastic ringleader, and the show includes clowns, tap-dancing mice and a one-woman band (she sings and plays the drums and accordion) who sets the whole thing to music. This past summer at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the goal of the Mouse Trap was not to catch a mouse (or a tap-dancing mouse, for that matter) but to instead drop a two-ton safe onto a car.
“I find that kids and adults both like it,” says Perez. “And when you get 400 people cheering for what you are doing, it becomes something that you want to do. I knew that I was on to something.”
At first, Perez was in it for the spectacle. Oh, and for bragging rights too. “I am the first person in the world who has done it on this scale,” he says. But, over time, he has incorporated science lessons into the act. “It sort of turned me into a physics person,” he says.
As the Rube Goldberg machine is set in motion, Perez and the other performers explain certain terms and laws of physics. For instance, when a spring that is cranked backwards is released and pulls on a cable, which then swings a hammer to hit a boot, the cast discusses potential and kinetic energy. There are also fulcrum points at play in the system. Then, when a bowling ball rolls down stairs, Perez points out that the staircase is an example of an incline plane. There are also opportune moments to talk about gravity, the workings of a screw and the mechanical advantage one can achieve by rigging several pulleys together. Esmerelda Strange, the one-woman band I mentioned earlier, has even released an album, How to Defy Gravity with 6 Simple Machines, with the rollicking explainers she sings during the show.
The whole endeavor is a real labor of love. The show’s cast doubles as its crew, assembling and disassembling the Mouse Trap at each site. Perez’s wife is a dancing mouse. She does all the costuming and a lot of the choreography—and drives a forklift too. Then, there are the production costs. “Just traveling with a semi-trailer costs $3 a mile. I bought a crew bus and that bus costs at least $1 a mile,” says Perez, who is working on getting funding through grants. “Then, you tack on all the extraordinary amount of insurances you need for these events. It just gets crazy.”
But the efforts and expenses are worth it, says Perez, if the Mouse Trap can provide real-life, unplugged encounters with scientific principles.
“You can go online and see all of these simple machines, but actually seeing it in person, watching a compressed coil spring release its energy to push a push rod to make a bowling ball roll down an incline plane, when you experience it and hear the clanging of the metal, it is different,” says Perez. “We make it fun.”