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:
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.”
March 26, 2013
When I step into the newly installed Laib Wax Room at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the floral smell of beeswax wafts through my senses. Psychologists say that scents can quickly trigger memories, and this one transports me back to my childhood: The fragrance of the amber beeswax coating the walls instantly reminds me of the crenellated sheets of beeswax, dyed pink and purple, that came in a candle making kit I had as a kid. I remember rolling the sheets into long tapers for Advent.
The warm glow of the closet-sized space is equally comforting. A single light bulb dangles from the ceiling, giving a sheen to the room’s waxy walls. Standing in its center, the spare room has a calming effect—it is a welcomed “time out” in an otherwise overstimulating world. As Klaus Ottmann, curator at large at the Phillips, puts it, the room has the “ability to temporarily suspend reality.”
Wolfgang Laib, a 63-year-old conceptual artist from Germany, created the meditative space. Over the course of a few days in late February, he melted 440 pounds of beeswax, minding the liquefying material carefully because temperature swings could have resulted in batches of varying yellow. Then, he used a warm iron, spackle knives and spatulas to evenly apply the inch-thick coat of wax, like plaster, onto the walls and ceiling of the 6-by-7-by-10-foot space. The Laib Wax Room, as the museum is calling it, opened to the public on March 2.
In his career, spanning more than four decades thus far, Laib has turned many raw, natural materials, such as milk, rice and pollen, into artistic mediums. Earlier this year, in fact, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City exhibited the artist’s Pollen From Hazelnut, an 18-by-21-foot installation made entirely of bright yellow pollen he harvested in the last 20 years.
Beeswax, however, happens to be one of his favorite materials. Since 1988, Laib has created a temporary wax room for MOMA as well as for two museums in Germany and one in the Netherlands. For these, he nailed sheets of beeswax to plywood walls, so that the installation could be disassembled. Then, he developed a more intensive, irreversible process by building a couple of outdoor wax rooms in the past 15 years, in a cave in the French Pyrenees and on his own land in Germany. The Phillips Collection is the very first museum to have a permanent beeswax room.
Visitors to the Phillips Collection are encouraged to enter the Laib Wax Room—titled Where have you gone – Where are you going?—one or two at a time. ”Here this is a very, very small room but it has a very beautiful concentration and intensity,” says Laib, in an audio tour and video produced by the Phillips. “When you come into a wax room, it is like coming into another world.”
March 7, 2013
David Morrow, a 27-year-old aerospace engineer by day and budding photographer by night, was perched at Sunrise Point on the evening of October 6, 2012. From the popular viewing spot in Mount Rainier National Park, he had a clear view of Rainier, the 14,411-foot beastly stratovolcano to his west. As he recalls, at about 9 p.m. the sun had set and the stars began to appear. Filling the viewfinder of his Nikon D800, quite brilliantly, was the Milky Way.
“It is not often that you see the Milky Way line up so perfectly with an earthly object,” said Morrow, when his resulting photograph (shown above) was selected as a finalist in Smithsonian.com’s 2012 photo contest. “The stars almost looked as though they were erupting from the mountain and I knew this was a moment in time that I had to capture.”
For a decade now, Smithsonian magazine’s annual photo contest has been a loving ode to these moments. Each year, photographers from around the world submit entries in five categories near and dear to us: the Natural World, Travel, People, Americana and Altered Images. Our photo editors, who have reviewed more than 290,000 photographs from upwards of 90 countries in the contest’s history, then select 10 finalists in each category.
This week, Smithsonian.com announced the finalists for the 2012 photo contest. At this point, the public is invited to vote on a readers’ choice winner, and, ultimately, our editors will select category winners and a grand prize winner, to be revealed later this spring. We here at Collage of Arts and Sciences have a special affinity for the Natural World images, which beautifully capture animals, plants and landscapes; geological or climatological features; and scientific processes and endeavors.
So what makes a finalist stand out from other entries?
“Quite simply, I look for something that I have not seen before,” says Maria G. Keehan, Smithsonian magazine’s art director. For the Natural World submissions, she and her colleagues sifted through a fair share of photographs of pets, rainbows, mating insects and horses in misty light (“Misty anything has kind of taken its toll on me,” says Keehan) to parse out images that accomplish something truly unique—like capturing an unusual or rare animal behavior. “Of course good technique and composition are always part of the judging structure, but originality is what strikes me. I really look for things that make you gasp or question,” she adds. “Not just, ‘Oooo, beautiful bird,’ but ‘Wow. Look at the perspective on that. They shot the image through the bird’s wings!”
To make the cut, a photograph has to evoke a visceral reaction. Future contestants, take note. Keehan’s advice is this: “Trust your (natural!) instincts about what is peculiar, remarkable or sublime.”
Without further ado, here are the remainder of the 10th annual photo contest’s Natural World finalists:
Phillip Pilkington snapped a portrait of a fluffy, four-week-old Tawny owl (above) at a bird enthusiast’s home in Southport, UK. “I was aiming to do a traditional studio portrait of an unusual studio subject,” he says. The owl was still, and so it made for an ideal sitter, the photographer recalls. “I just concentrated on the photography,” Pilkington adds. “I wanted to do a close-up shot, [but] at the same time I didn’t want to get too close, and that is why I chose to crop the image.”
When Vanessa Bartlett took up photography last year, she needed, in her words, a “subject that wouldn’t shatter my fragile photography ego.” So, she went to the Bronx Zoo. On an October day, she photographed baboons, giraffes and lions, but it was a gorilla that stole her attention. “They’re majestic,” says Bartlett, of the primates. “But the expression he gave was what made me take the photo.”
Bartlett sat with the gorilla for about 30 minutes, just a pane of glass separating them. “Just as a photographer likes a look a model gives in the middle of a shoot, I saw a look I loved from the gorilla,” she says. “What I caught was a personal, private moment. That’s what’s so captivating.”
On May 20, 2012, Americans, especially on the west coast, were privy to an annular solar eclipse—where the moon blocks all but the outer ring of the sun. “My husband and I heard about the eclipse a few days before it happened,” says Colleen Pinski, who captured the image, above. “So, I was compelled to take some photos of it…I couldn’t miss the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to shoot it.”
Colin Hutton was in the Duke Forest, a 7,060-acre tract of land in North Carolina used for research, when he took this remarkable close-up of a caterpillar of a North American moth (Antheraea polyphemus). He was actually searching for jumping spiders, but this little guy was a welcome diversion. “I really like the glowing quality of the caterpillar’s skin and the devious look of its defensive posture,” says Hutton. “It reminds me of the character Mr. Burns from The Simpsons as he says ‘Excellent…’ while tapping his fingers together.”
Bjorn Olesen was on a week-long trip to Sarawak, Borneo, in November 2010, when he photographed this juvenile Spectacled Spiderhunter (Arachnothera flavigaster) calling out to its parents. “In my view the photo demonstrates the great strength of still photography: to freeze those magic moments that may have otherwise been unnoticed,” says Olesen. “The soft light, the inspiring pose, the color of the bird goes very well together with the beautiful palette of greens of the ferns.”
Neal Piper spent 12 days in Antarctica in February 2012. “I have always been fascinated with penguins and dreamed of visiting Antarctica to see them in their natural habitat,” he says. To get to Damoy Point, where he took this photograph, Piper traveled three days by ship through the Drake Passage and then took a short jaunt on a small motorized raft to his campsite, where he would study a breeding colony of Gentoo penguins.
“Although it was a bitter cold evening, I woke up to a beautiful sunrise. The snow was glimmering upon the majestic mountains,” says Piper. ”I looked over at the colony of Gentoo penguins and saw a few of them overlooking the cliff, almost as if they were enjoying the view. I grabbed my camera and watched them for about an hour until one of the adults and newborn chicks looked into the horizon. I knew right then I had the shot. After taking the photo I looked down at the viewfinder and instantly smiled.”
According to Piper, Gentoo penguins have funny personalities. “After studying them for a week, I discovered that they are very loving and protective to their newborn chicks. To build their nests, they pick up rocks with their beaks, usually stolen from another penguin nest, and place them on their nest. Once the perpetrator places the rock on its nest, the victim often reclaims it and places it back on its own nest. It was a very entertaining scene,” he says.
“A water pipe in Duluth is ‘bled’ every year to ensure it doesn’t freeze,” says Nathan Carlsen, the photographer who captured the finalist, above. “As the water freezes, it builds this amazing ice geyser.” As an experiment, the Minnesotan dangled a rope of LED lights down the geyser. “I knew it would light up well as it is perfectly clear ice, but I had know idea how beautiful it would be. Every year the formation looks a bit different and I go out to it to take a few more [photos]. But this one, the first one, still proves to be my best shot so far.”
Eko Adiyanto stumbled across this scene of ants fiercely gripping seeds in Bekasi, West Java, Indonesia, last April. He felt compelled to take the photograph, above, because it seemed like a super-ant feat of strength. “They are small but very powerful,” says Adiyanto. [Correction, March 13, 2013: As entomologist and Scientific American blogger Alex Wild addressed recently, Adiyanto did not stumble across this scene. In an email, the photographer has explained that he gave the seeds to the ants to bite and then lifted, placed and stacked the ants on the branch himself. Once the ants were in these positions, he took the photograph.]
Don Holland enjoys photographing birds in flight, particularly great egrets and bald eagles. He was driving a stretch of road in Reelfoot Lake State Park in northwest Tennessee when his wife spotted a pair of bald eagles in a dead tree nearby. “I stopped the car immediately and began photographing the eagle pair eating what appeared to be the remains of a coot. Since most of the food was gone, I realized I didn’t have time to mount the lens on the tripod to capture the action. I handheld the camera and lens for the sequence of photos I took in the short time before the eagles flew,” recalls Holland. “The sky was bright-cloudy, and the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds at 20-30 degrees over my right shoulder. With evenly dispersed and adequate light, I worked quickly to take advantage of the special opportunity of capturing the behavior of the eagle pair in an uncluttered background.”
February 20, 2013
Thomas Shahan came eye to eye with a jumping spider in his backyard about seven years ago when he was living and attending high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since that first encounter, he has been “smitten,” according to a December 2011 spread of his macrophotography in National Geographic. “I began learning about their names and their ways, then looking for them in local parks and reserves like the Oxley Nature Center,” he wrote in the magazine.
For the past seven years, Shahan has developed a hobby of photographing arthropods—insects, such as robber flies and horse flies, and spiders—in his native Oklahoma. He captures their eyes and hairs in such colorful and glistening detail that his images, shared on Flickr, have been featured in Popular Photography, National Geographic and on NBC’s Today Show. (In fact, if you look up “jumping spider” on Wikipedia, you’ll even see, at the top of the page, a close-up of an adult male Phidippus audax jumping spider taken by Shahan.)
“I photograph arthropods because I love them and I want others to love them as well,” Shahan explained to me in an email. “I find them compelling. They are complex, fascinating and diverse animals that are all too often overlooked and unappreciated.”
Shahan prefers to shoot his subjects in their natural environs. “Now that I know where they are—their silhouettes are often visible through the leaves they perch upon—I can spot them quickly,” he wrote in National Geographic. Only occasionally does he bring his bugs indoors to stage them on a coffee table or other surface. Either way, “My subjects are always returned to where they are found and fed for their services if at all possible,” he told me.
Shahan’s ability to clearly capture individual spines on the legs of teensy-weensy spiders (jumping spiders measure anywhere from one to 22 millimeters in length) and the metallic sheen of their eyes might suggest that he uses fancy, top-of-the-line equipment. But, the photographer actually takes a do-it-yourself approach. “You can do a lot with a little,” says the 2011 graduate of University of Oklahoma, in printmaking, on his personal Web site. Currently, he uses a modestly priced Pentax DSLR camera with a set of modified extension tubes, a reversed 50-millimeter prime lens (a garage sale find!) and a diffused (and duct taped) homemade flash for lighting.
The macrophotographer is especially interested in the eyes of arthropods—and it’s the creatures’ eyes that attract the attention of viewers. To look into the face of creatures as small as a 4-millimeter jumping spider and “see yourself reflected in their large glossy eyes is incredibly humbling. To know they’ve evolved relatively little in millions of years is absolutely fascinating to me too; they’ve had those wonderful eyes for a long, long time,” said Shahan in an email. ”Additionally, from a photographic standpoint, the arthropod portraiture anthropomorphizes them considerably. To get down low and look up into their faces and eyes changes our usual perspective and has a propagandistic quality to it making them seem more important and powerful than us.”
In changing our visual perspective, Shahan ultimately wants to change our general feelings about bugs. ”I want to turn revulsion to reverence,” he said. “Arthropods are amazing animals and a good first step to appreciating and loving them is to simply take a closer look.”
“Beautiful Beasts: The Unseen Life of Oklahoma Spiders and Insects,” featuring 12 of Shahan’s photographs as well as the video, shown above, is on display at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History through September 8, 2013.