November 14, 2013
A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.
In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.
To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.
“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.
As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”
Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.
“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”
Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.
“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.
August 21, 2013
Jason Ahrns, a graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and other scientists from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Fort Lewis College—all part of a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation—have been on a mission. This summer, the group has taken to the skies in the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Gulfstream V research aircraft, logging a total of 30 hours over multiple flights, in search of sprites.
Sprites, also known as red lightning, are electrical discharges that appear as bursts of red light above clouds during thunderstorms.Because the weather phenomenon is so fleeting (sprites flash for just milliseconds) and for the most part not visible from the ground, they are difficult to observe and even more difficult to photograph, rather like the mischievous air spirits of the fantasy realm that they’re named for. Ahrns and his colleagues, however, have captured extremely rare photographs of the red lightning, using DSLR cameras and high speed video cameras positioned in the plane’s window. The researchers hope to learn more about the physical and chemical processes that give rise to sprites and other forms of upper atmospheric lightning.
What’s it like to capture images of some of nature’s most short-lived and erratic features? I questioned Ahrns over email, and he explained what sprites are, why they occur, how scientists find them and why he’s so interested in the elusive phenomena.
First of all, what is a sprite?
A sprite is a kind of upper atmosphere electrical discharge associated with thunderstorms. A large electric field, generated by some lightning strokes, ionizes the air high above the cloud, which then emits the light we see in the pictures. They obviously beg comparison to the regular lightning bolts we see all the time, but I like to point out that the sprites are much higher, with the tops reaching up to around 100 kilometers, and higher. A lightning bolt might stretch around 10 kilometers from the cloud to the ground, but a sprite can reach 50 kilometers tall.
Under what conditions do they occur?
They’re associated with positive lightning strokes, which is when the cloud has a buildup of positive charge and releases a bolt of lightning. Negative strokes, from a buildup of negative charge, are about 10 times more common, so sprites aren’t strongly associated with the most common kind of lightning, but it’s not really that uncommon either. More than just a positive stroke, the more charge that was moved during the stroke, the better the chances for a sprite. So we look for a large positive charge-moment-change, which is basically the positive strokes weighted by how much charge was moved. Most large thunderstorms seem to produce the conditions that lead to sprites, but some more than others. We just look for a storm with a history of lots of large positive charge-moment-change and go look at it.
What’s your scientific background? And how did you get interested in sprites?
I’m primarily an aurora researcher, that’s what I’m doing my thesis on at UAF. I got involved in sprites because one of my graduate committee members is organizing these campaigns and needed some extra help. I thought sprites were fascinating, and my advisor was supportive of me branching out a bit, so I hopped aboard the team.
From what I understand, not much is known about red lightning, discovered just 25 years or so ago. With the NSF project, what are you and the other scientists hoping to learn? What are the biggest questions you have?
With this campaign we’re focusing on three questions. First, what basic physical and chemical processes are occurring? It’s still not clear what exactly is happening in a sprite, and why there are different kinds of sprites, and what conditions give you a column sprite vs. a carrot sprite, for example. (All the sprite names just refer to their shape.) Next, do sprites have a large scale impact on the middle atmosphere? Sprites clearly represent some kind of transfer of energy, but is it on a scale that has a significant effect on the weather and climate? We can’t answer that without studying them. And, then, what can we learn about basic streamer physics? The tendrils coming off the bottom of the sprites are ‘streamers’—little balls of ionization—moving about. Streamer speed and lifetime is related to air density, so studying sprites in the very low density upper atmosphere is like looking at streamers with a magnifying glass in slow motion, though they’re still quite fast!
How many sprite-hunting missions have you been on?
Personally, this is my second aerial campaign. The first, in 2011, flew a total of 40 airborne hours, and this campaign did another 30 hours. It’s probably around 15ish total flights. The same crew, minus me, did one other aerial campaign in 2009.
What conditions, times of the day, areas of the country and altitudes are ideal for these flights?
The midwest is productive, mostly because it gets these powerful thunderstorms that last all night. Obviously, we need it to be dark, but other than that the time of night doesn’t seem to matter much, only how strong the storm is and how much powerful positive lightning it’s producing. We do notice that when the storm is going good it produces the column sprites and carrot sprites, but as it dies off it seems to switch over to less frequent, but bigger and brighter, jellyfish sprites. We fly as high as we can get, usually between 41,000 and 45,000 feet, but that’s simply to get a view over the clouds. We’re still below the sprites.
The lightning lasts just milliseconds, so I’m especially curious about how you photograph it. What equipment do you use?
For the still photographs, I just set my camera (a Nikon D7000 and a fast lens) facing out the window and set an intervalometer so the camera just constantly snaps pictures. Then I go through later and delete everything that doesn’t have a sprite in it. It’s the same principle as lightning photography; it seems like you’d have to get the timing just right but it’s really just statistical, if you snap a bunch of pictures one of them is going to get something sooner or later. I probably snap on the order of 1,000 pictures for every sprite I come away with.
For the high speed video cameras, the camera has a buffer that constantly cycles through the previous however many frames of video, and when I see a sprite I hit a trigger that tells the camera to stop and save whatever it just recorded. When we’re running at 10,000 frames per second, the buffer fills up in about a second, so that’s how long I have to recognize a sprite and hit the button. This can be pretty taxing on a slow night when you have to watch nothing happen for 45 minutes straight and still be ready with that less than one second reaction time.
Can you describe the setup? How do you actually take photographs from the plane window?
A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
And for the high speed video…
We have an internet connection aboard the plane so we can watch weather conditions in real time. We just point the above cameras at the most productive looking part of the storm and wait for sprites.
How rare are photos like these that you have taken?
As far as I can tell, they’re pretty rare. There are some sprite images taken with meteor cameras and webcams out there, but they’re usually low resolution due to being very far away and using a wide angle lens. I’ve seen two or three sprite images taken with a DSLR, but they’re still from the ground and a good distance away, and usually shots of something else that got lucky with a sprite in the background. I have the advantage of being up in the air, close to the sprite producing region, with a good guess of where the sprites will appear, so I can use a lens with a narrower field of view to capture the sprite up close.
As for the images I got of blue jets, as far as I can tell they’re actually the first images of jets taken with a DSLR. That makes some sense, because the jets are a lot closer to the top of the clouds than sprites so much harder to see from the ground. Being in the air is a major advantage.
What do you find artful about the images, if anything?
I think there’s a really otherwordly starkness about them. Take this one (above), for example. You’ve got this nice serene starfield, and some cool, calming blue light coming up from the lightning below. Then BLAM! This weird, menacing, totally alien looking sprite just takes over the whole scene, like ‘I’m here, what are you gonna do about it?’
Hans Nielsen, the principal investigator on the campaign (and my previously mentioned committee member), says this one (below) reminds him of the classic Dutch paintings, with its sepia tones and slight blurring from the atmospheric haze.
What have you learned thus far about sprites by participating in this project?
Personally? When I joined the 2011 campaign I knew nothing about sprites beyond the Wikipedia entry. I learn more every night of the campaigns, listening to the others talk about conditions beforehand, what we’re seeing during the flights and our ‘what we did right, what we did wrong’ discussions over post-flight beer. I’m still a newbie compared to the other guys, but I’m now at the point where I can field most general public questions about sprites and sprite hunting.
Where and when are you flying next?
Nothing is set in stone, but we’d really like to fly again next summer. Hopefully we can make that happen.
May 30, 2013
Those who have a neurological condition called chromesthesia associate certain colors with certain sounds. It’s these people that I think of when I see Mark Fischer’s Aguasonic Acoustics project. Fischer systematically transforms the songs of whales, dolphins and birds into brightly colored, psychedelic art.
The software developer from San Jose, California, gathers the sounds of marine mammals in nearby Monterey Bay using a hydrophone and the chirps of birds in his neighborhood with a digital recorder; he also collects audio of other hard-to-reach species from scientists. Fischer scans the clips for calls that demonstrate a high degree of symmetry. Once he identifies a sound that interests him, he transforms it into a mathematical construct called a wavelet where the frequency of the sound is plotted over time. Fischer adds color to the wavelet—a graph with an x and y axis—using a hue saturation value map—a standard way for computer graphic designers to translate numbers into colors. Then, he uses software he personally wrote to spin the graph into a vibrant mandala.
“The data is still there, but it’s been made into something more compelling to look at,” wrote Wired.
The first animal sound that Fischer turned into visual art was that of a blue whale. “I was spending some time down in Baja California. Someone had posted a note on MARMAM [the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation email list] looking for volunteers for a blue whale population survey out of the University of La Paz, and I volunteered. We spent the next three days in the Sea of Cortez looking for blue whales,” says Fischer. “We never did find a blue whale, but I was able to make recordings. I just got fascinated with the sounds of whales and dolphins.”
Fischer concentrates on whales, dolphins and birds mostly, having found that their calls have the most structure. Humpback whales, in particular, are known to have incredible range. “They make very well defined sounds that have extraordinary shapes in wavelet space,” says the artist. The chirps of insects and frogs, however, make for less engaging visuals. When it comes to a cricket versus a humpback, Fischer adds, it is like comparing “someone who has never played a guitar in their life and a violin virtuoso.”
Animal sounds have long been studied using spectrograms—sheets of data on the frequency of noises—but the software designer finds it curious that researchers only look at sounds this one way. Fischer finds wavelets much more compelling. He prints his images in large-scale format, measuring four feet by eight feet, to call attention to this other means of analyzing sound data.
Some researchers argue that little progress has been made in understanding humpback whale songs. But, Fischer says, ”I am concluding that we are looking the wrong way.” The artist hopes that his mandalas will inspire scientists to look at bioacoustics anew. “Maybe something beneficial will happen as a result,” he says.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, will include a selection of Fischer’s images in “Beyond Human,” an exhibition on artist-animal collaborations on view from October 19, 2013 to June 29, 2014.
May 29, 2013
Wim Noorduin has a green thumb—but, he doesn’t grow your standard garden-variety roses, tulips and other flowers. The postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, instead, tends to microscopic “buds” that he carefully cultivates in his lab. The blooms—delicate and fragile—are made out of crystal.
“The technique is remarkably easy: fill a beaker with a solution that has a salt and a silicon compound dissolved in it. Put in a glass slide or a bit of metal to act as the soil on which the crystal ‘plants’ will grow. Allow carbon dioxide from the air to diffuse into the solution, triggering a simple reaction that causes the dissolved chemicals to come out of the solution and form a solid crystal—one that is curvy, rather than jagged,” the Boston Globe explained in a recent article. Add a little dye here and there and what results are crystal growths that resemble the leaves and petals of flowers.
The Globe‘s peek into Noorduin’s project was prompted by the journal Science and its decision to feature the scientist’s “nanoflowers” in its pages. Science published a paper authored by Noorduin and three of his colleagues describing the creative endeavor and an essay about the work.
Previously, scientists have grown structures that resemble flora from materials like zinc oxide before, but what is unique about Noorduin is his ability to manipulate the growth of barium carbonate and silicate to his liking. He and his team understand what conditions produce what shapes, so much so that they are able “to design the resulting shapes at will and to combine different growth conditions to generate even more complex shapes,” writes Elias Vlieg, a chemistry professor at Radboud University in the Netherlands, in Science. “Rather than selecting one set of conditions and letting the system evolve passively, the authors change the process conditions actively, allowing the construction of elements such as stems, vases, branches, and leaves.”
For example, to produce a vase, Noorduin fluctuates the amount of carbon dioxide that enters his solution, simply by covering or uncovering the beaker. The supply of gas controls the thickness of the vase. Within the vase, he then places a stem; while cultivating it, he says he adds a “pulse of CO2″ so that the stem opens into a bud. If he wants to build a rose, the scientist-cum-artist adjusts the pH level of the solution. This way, the petals curl up and form spirals, he explains in an email. In an electron micrograph, Noorduin’s garden is naturally black and white in color, but he adds artificial hues to the images to distinguish the plants’ leaves and stems from their blossoms.
To really drive home the miniscule scale of his creations, Noorduin planted a field of flowers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—on a penny.
Thus far, the scientist has experimented with floral patterns. He is curious, though, about other tiny architectures he might be able to construct. “Nature has many examples of remarkably diverse and complex mineralized architectures such as coral reefs at the macro scale, and the amazingly intricate skeletons of microorganisms such as acantharea at the micro scale,” he says. “Our aim is not so much to reproduce any particular shapes seen in nature. Rather, we’re inspired by a more fundamental observation: the diversity, hierarchy, and complexity of the patterns seems to be virtually unlimited.”
Noorduin’s repertoire will no doubt expand as he explores these limitless shapes. “More control will undoubtedly lead to structures that may be less artistically pleasing, but more technologically useful,” writes Vlieg.
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.”