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.
January 30, 2013
It is always interesting to watch a beatboxer perform. The artist, in the thrust of performing, can reach a compulsive fit as he musters up the rhythmic sounds of percussion instruments a cappella-style.
But what does beatboxing looking like from the inside?
That is the question that University of Southern California researchers Michael Proctor, Shrikanth Narayanan and Krishna Nayak asked in a study (PDF), slated to be published in the February issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. For the first time, they used real-time Magnetic Resonance Imaging to examine the so-called “paralinguistic mechanisms” that happen in a beatboxer’s vocal tract.
For the purposes of the experiment, a 27-year-old male hip hop artist from Los Angeles demonstrated his full repertoire of beatboxing effects—sounds imitating kick drums, rim shots, hi-hats and cymbals—while lying on his back in an MRI scanner. The researchers made a total of 40 recordings, each from 20 to 40 seconds in duration and capturing single sounds, free-style sequences of sounds, rapped or sung lyrics and spoken word. They paired the audio with video stringing together the MRI scans to analyze the airflow and the movements, from the upper trachea to the man’s lips, that happened with each utterance.
“We were astonished by the complex elegance of the vocal movements and the sounds being created in beatboxing, which in itself is an amazing artistic display,” Narayanan told Inside Science News Service, the first to report on the study. “This incredible vocal instrument and its many capabilities continue to amaze us, from the intricate choreography of the ‘dance of the tongue’ to the complex aerodynamics that work together to create a rich tapestry of sounds that encode not only meaning but also a wide range of emotions.”
It was a humbling experience, added Narayanan, to realize how much we have yet to learn about speech anatomy and the physical capabilities of humans when it comes to vocalization.
One of the larger goals of the study was to determine the extent to which beatbox artists use sounds already found in human languages. The researchers used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to describe the sound effects produced by their subject and then compared those effects to a comprehensive library of sounds, encompassing all human languages.
“We were very surprised to discover how closely the vocal percussion sounds resembled sounds attested in languages unknown to the beatboxer,” Michael Proctor told Wired. The hip hop artist who participated in the study spoke American English and Panamanian Spanish, and yet he unknowingly produced sounds common to other languages. The study states:
…he was able to produce a wide range of non-native consonantal sound effects, including clicks and ejectives. The effects /ŋ||/–/ŋ!/–/ŋ|/ used to emulate the sounds of specific types of snare drums and rim shots appear to be very similar to consonants attested in many African languages, including Xhosa (Bantu language family, spoken in Eastern Cape, South Africa), Khoekhoe (Khoe, Botswana) and !Xóõ (Tuu, Namibia). The ejectives /p’/ and /pf’/ used to emulate kick and snare drums shares the same major phonetic properties as the glottalic egressives used in languages as diverse as Nuxáalk (Salishan, British Columbia), Chechen (Caucasian, Chechnya), and Hausa (Chadic, Nigeria).
Going forward, the researchers would like to study a larger sample of beatboxers. They’d also like to get to the bottom of something that has been boggling audiences for decades: How do some beatboxers simultaneously layer certain instrumental sounds with hums and spoken words?
December 24, 2012
If you were to walk into the Living Planet Aquarium today in Sandy, Utah, and meander through the “Journey to South America” gallery–past 10-foot anacondas, piranha and caiman alligators–you’d meet Sparky. The nearly four-foot-long electric eel draws a crowd, particularly in December, when it causes the lights on a nearby Christmas tree to twinkle.
That’s right: twinkle.
Electric eels have to navigate the dark, murky streams and ponds where they live in South America. (Or, in Sparky’s case, his large tank.) The slender, snake-like fish have tiny eyes that are not very effective in low-light conditions. So, to wayfind, electric eels, true to their name, rely on their electric organs. These organs contain about 6,000 cells, called electrocytes, that stow power much like batteries do. Eels emit that power through low- and high-voltage charges when circumstances call for it.
“They will use their electricity similar to how a dolphin would use sonar or a bat would use radar,” says Andy Allison, curator of animals at the Living Planet Aquarium, a facility about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. “He [Sparky] will put out little shocks whenever he is moving, real low-voltage type things, just enough so that it can help sense his environment.” For its Christmas display, the aquarium takes advantage of the little pulses of electricity that Sparky sends out as he swims. “Also, when he is hungry or senses food in the area, or angry, he will send out a big shock to stun prey or to stun a predator,” says Allison. These large shocks can measure up to 600 volts.
So how does the twinkling Christmas tree work?
About three years ago, Bill Carnell, an electrician with Cache Valley Electric, in Salt Lake City, found a really interesting video on YouTube produced by the Moody Institute of Science in the 1950s. In it, a scientist demonstrates how an electric eel can power a panel of light bulbs. Inspired, he began experimenting with Sparky. Carnell connected a standard 120-volt light bulb to electrodes, which he dunked into Sparky’s tank. The light bulb did not turn on. He tried a string of Christmas lights. Again, no results. So, he tried a strand of specialized, very low-voltage lights, and he finally got some flickering.
Carnell and his colleagues installed two stainless steel electrodes, one on each side of Sparky’s tank. These electrodes collect the voltage the electric eel emits to then power a sequencer. “The sequencer takes the voltage the eel produces and operates circuitry that flashes the lights, fast or slow, based on the level of voltage he puts out,” says Terry Smith, project manager at Cache Valley Electric, in a press release.
The five-foot-tall tree, which stands just next to Sparky’s tank, is decorated with four strands of lights. While the eel does not power the lights, he does control the way the strands flicker. “As he shocks, one strand shuts off and another strand turns on,” says Allison.
Of course, when Sparky is calm and resting on the bottom of his tank, the lights on the nearby tree are pretty constant. “But when it is moving, it is boom, boom, bo-boom, boom, boom,” says Allison. Electric eels are capable of multiple shocks a second.
“You do truly get a feel for what the eel is doing. You get to see when the voltage goes up and when the voltage goes down. You experience all of that,” says Carnell.
The attention that the display draws is valuable, the electrician adds. “Researchers looking to the future are trying to find ways to generate electricity through some kind of a biological process, rather than combustion or some mechanical energy. When you get into the science of the eel and you find that its body is constructed of all these little tiny batteries, of sorts, that are powered biologically, that is where the real interest is,” says Carnell.
Sparky’s tree will be on display at the Living Planet Aquarium through December 31.
December 12, 2012
With a stark white background and a splash of color, minimalist master Andrew Zuckerman has reinvented the way we look at the world around us. Known for his crisp photographs of celebrities and wildlife, Zuckerman turned his lens on the plant kingdom and captured 150 species in full bloom for his latest book Flower.
The filmmaker/photographer culled through over 300 species—even visiting the Smithsonian Institution— to select plants both familiar and exotic. Armed with a 65 mega-pixel camera, Zuckerman’s images capture the color, texture and form of each flower and showcase them in a way never seen before. Smithsonian.com’s multimedia producer, Ryan R. Reed, recently interviewed Zuckerman to find out more about Flower and the creative process behind the images.
You’ve shot portraits of politicians, artists and endangered species. Why did you decide to turn your camera on flowers?
I am very interested in the natural world, honestly not as a scientist or from any intellectual place, but from a visual perspective. I am really interested in this precise translation of the natural world. I like photography as a recording device. It’s the best possible two-dimensional representation of 3D living things that we have.
A project like Flower suits my tendencies. I have really wanted to understand how things work my whole life and then deconstruct things. My work—these books, these projects—are about being curious about a subject. When I want to understand a subject, I decide, okay, I’m going to focus on this for a year, and I go out and I do a lot of research and I find out a lot about the subject, in this case flowers. I partner with people who have flowers in private collections, and I decide to methodically go through it.
The flowers are photographed on stark white backgrounds. Why did you make this choice?
The work is not on white for an aesthetic reason. The flowers are on white because that is neutral; I sort of vacuum everything out. I find that you take a walk in nature and come upon an amazing flower, and that flower, your understanding of it, your interpretation of that experience seeing that flower, is chaotic and confused by everything around it. The weather, the green plants around it, the path you are on, a number of different variables that have very little to do with the flower are there. When I get interested in a subject, I am most interested in honing in and nailing down exactly what it is. So, in terms of a flower, I want to take it out of its context. I want to study its form.
I am not interested in Ted Kennedy in his office on Capitol Hill with his books and his beautiful desk and everything, his environment. I’m interested in him, his face, his expression. How do you reduce the subject down to its essential qualities, and then, furthermore, when you do a number of subjects, how do you democratize all of them so that you can see the differences between them? So that you are not seeing the differences between the white of the background or the light or anything else, but you are just seeing the subject. It seems simple, but for me it’s been a very challenging and exciting process to really find what it is that is truly essential to that singular subject, and then to see it in context of its family rather than the environment that it’s thriving in.
How did you select which flowers you would photograph?
Taking the pictures is the easy part. Getting the subjects and figuring out what I want to do and what will tell the story in the most holistic way is the hard part. I am a big book collector. I love books. For a long time, every time I saw books on flowers, I had just been buying them. I had been tagging pages of flowers.
Darwin’s star orchid, for instance, is not a particularly pretty flower. It’s not even a particularly interesting-looking flower, but the narrative of it is fascinating. It was totally instrumental in Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution. There is this 11-inch spur that is coming off of its blossom from the bottom, and he thought there has to be this insect with some kind of an appendage long enough to pollinate it. No one believed him, but 40 years later entomologists discovered this moth with a tongue that is four times longer than its body. It was the one insect that could unfurl its tongue, get all the way to the bottom past that spur and pollinate the flower.
Then, there is the purple passionflower, which is an incredibly beautiful, vibrant, flamboyant flower, but its narrative qualities are not that interesting to me. So, there were different reasons for different flowers. I wanted to touch on different types of flowers—medicinals, orchids, roses and other groups. For the most part, I have like a hit list, a real wish list, and I have been very fortunate to work with some serious, smart and efficient people here at the studio, who would be calling institutions and private collections and organizing when the perfect date was for a flower to be photographed. Getting an extraordinary place like the Smithsonian to allow me to just roll in and set up a studio in their greenhouses and have the pick of the place is an incredibly lucky thing.
Can you describe the setup for each flower and the techniques that you used?
It’s a numbers game; take as many shots as I can, and I’m going to get the one that I respond to most. Artists, especially, have anxiety…what is my vision? What is me, or is the thing I just did actually an expression of what I have seen? The work that I feel is most authentically mine is the one that is my first reaction, the first thing that feels like the truth. In aggregate, those choices, those series of decisions, create your point of view, your visual language. With Flower, I was searching for that project that I would not have to justify intellectually or think about in any way. That’s what was fun about it.
My set up is very simple. I’ve been doing my lighting and photographing things the exact same way for a very long time. [Robert] Mapplethorpe contextualized flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe contextualized them. They’ve often been metaphors for something of the human condition. I was just interested in the flower; I wasn’t interested in the flower standing in for something else. And so, there’s a reason there are no shadows or romance in my work. I don’t place myself onto the image. I actually try to get myself out of the work so that one doesn’t look at the work and go “wow, that’s an amazing picture” but that someone looks at it and says “wow, that’s an incredible flower.” I’m sort of a conduit to get the information from the natural world to the viewer. The choices made in composition are purely instinctual, and I try to never go, is that right? I think, okay, I put it there, that feels right. As soon as it feels right, I move on; it’s very quick actually.
You produced videos in conjunction with the book. Can you talk about these?
I’d say a majority of my time is spent film making, not photographing, and every single project I’ve done has had a strong film component to it. I’m very interested in multiple entry points; I like houses with lots of doors. When I do a project, I like the idea that someone is going to experience the book, someone is going to experience the film, someone else is going to experience a framed photo on a wall, but they are all going to get to the same root thing as long as all of those mediums are exploring it from the same place.
It was just kind of fun. There’s this long history of time-lapse filmmaking of flowers, and I get especially excited about and challenged by exhausted subjects and mediums. I look at the time-lapse film and I go, is there anything else we can do with this? Is there anything that hasn’t been done yet? Can we breathe life into this? Because it’s not the subject we’re tired of, it’s the execution. So, is there another way to execute this?
I had the flowers around the clock in my studio for a couple of weeks at a time. I would take a singular photograph every five minutes, and then my friend Jesse Carmichael, who was a founder of Maroon Five, made this really interesting score.
Claire Tinsley, Smithsonian.com’s production intern, assisted in the production of this Q&A.