Featured

Why Blog about Science and Art?

I’m a man of two worlds. I’m at home onstage in a musical, sketching in an art class, or out in the woods collecting wasps. For years I saw this as a problem. I thought I was too much of a scientist for art and too much of an artist for science. What is an indecisive student of the world to do?

At a certain point I came to the realization that science and art aren’t really all that different at all. If anything, they are two channels of the universal human experience of seeking truth, though they often ask different questions. Science tends to seek truth about the external world, while art qualifies the inner experience of being human. Despite their differences, art and science rely on one another in very concrete ways.

Philosopher Albert Camus writes that “uncertainty is resolved in a work of art,” in his discussion of metaphors as explanations for abstract scientific phenomena, particularly the atomic model. Is this a critique of science? Or is it simply an honest assessment of a common reality of science? Medical imaging, diagrams and scientific illustrations, telescope/microscope photography, model making… The list of ways in which science actively embraces aesthetic techniques goes on and on. When these methods go toward seeking external truth, art becomes science.

Atom with nucleus in center and electrons oribiting
An illustration of the atomic model: A failing of science to explain? Or a natural synthesis between science and art?

On the other end, art (like everything else) has benefitted immensely from advances in science and technology. We see this in many places, from the isolation of pigments for oil paints, to the creation of synthetic textiles for use in the fashion industry, even as far as the development of the computer and the internet, which have become vital tools for the creation and sharing of artwork in many different media. Science features as the subject of many creative works as well: science fiction, philosophy of science, and botanical illustration just to name a few. Science and art do not run in parallel. They interweave around and through one another.

So why keep blogging weekly about science and art after I’ve just written about it now? Because ideas about science and art are vital for well-rounded, engaged human beings, particularly in a world that more than ever requires creative and interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems. I used to be worried that I couldn’t stick to one area, but now I realize this is a good thing! Further still, these ideas frequently flow through my brain. They inform my work as a science communicator and my life as an intellectual citizen. But ideas in the mind are intangible. So, it’s high time I start writing some of it down!

In short: Why blog about science and art? Not for profit. Not for attention. But because it’s important. And that reason is just fine.

Advertisements

Can Technology Perform?

I have been attempting to absorb as much theater as I can while I’m here in Edinburgh (then I suppose I should write theatre), but there’s one show I saw advertised that I resolutely refused to see. I saw it as in defiance of my moral principles! Upon reflection, that would have been an excellent reason to see it anyway. Allas, I did not. But it’s been on my mind since I saw the ad.

The show was from the National Theatre of Scotland and called Hello Hi There. It was advertised as “an intelligent, creative and humorous dialogue about humanity in the age of its digital reproduction [in which] theatre becomes a digital art.”

The premise was as follows: Two Macbooks were set up onstage with their displays projected to large monitors. The computers were programmed ahead of time with dialogue from the famous debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomksy about the nature of humanity, as well as from a host of other sources including Youtube, Shakespeare, and even the Bible. At the start of the show a computer algorithm was initiated, and the rest of the performance consisted of an “improvised dialogue” between these two computers generated by the algorithm and projected for the audience to read. That’s the show. If you think I might be exaggerating (especially since I’ve admitted I didn’t see it), check out the performance gallery here.

Why did it make me so angry? Because it seemed ludicrous to pay any money, even the standard £10 or £12 that most theatres charge students to read words on a screen. Don’t I do that enough in my day to day life as a student? I refuse to see a play with no actors in it. I won’t do it and nobody can make me!

That said… I’m starting to wish I had gone. The idea does .make you think. Plenty of human activities and interactions are being replaced by technological ones all around us. Automated customer support lines are commonplace, though often frustrating. Snapchat filters can detect faces and create animated content in response to them. I also just saw a frightening ad for the latest iPhone featuring Animoji avatars speaking with human voices. Perhaps the only thing that was lacking in Hello Hi There was a face to go with the dialogue. But who’s to say that at a point down the line there won’t be the technology to project algorithmically generated human avatars onto a stage and have them play algorithmically generated scenes? Hello Hi There “loaded in” words from famous philosophers and playwrights, so who’s to say we won’t be able to fabricate plays in the style of specific playwrights. How different is this really than actually writing plays?

The actor in me screams “It’s not the same because there are no humans involved!” But humans made the machines. Humans generated the source content. Humans wrote the algorithms. Hello Hi There may not have appealed to me enough to take the train to Glasgow to go see it, but it is far from dismissible. Performances like this may become more and more commonplace moving forward as advanced computer technology becomes the next great tool for artists. This is both thrilling and horrifying.

In March the National Theatre is doing a trio of short plays about virtual reality and artificial intelligence called Interference. I think that one I’ll have to go see… Otherwise I may regret it.

Glass: The Earliest Materials Engineering

Today, materials engineers are exploring sophisticated polymers, alloys, and nanomaterials, but don’t be fooled. Materials engineering is an ancient discipline. Since the earliest humans in the Stone Age found the first shards of obsidian (volcanic glass), the material has been useful and fascinating to us, and we have sought methods to make it ourselves. In the beginning, humans developed specific techniques to heat and cool sand to make glass. These techniques were the genesis of modern glass manufacturing, thought to occur in ancient Egypt, Syria, or Mesopotamia. For the next 3600 years, humans have found near infinite uses for the strange material. Today, glass is everywhere; it is in our kitchens, on the screens of every device, in our homes and cars, and are used for decoration.

At its simplest, glass is melted sand, made mostly of silicone dioxide (SiO2). When sand cools after melting (at the frighteningly high temperature of 1700℃ (3090℉), it doesn’t go back to sand. Instead it cools into a liquid-like solid called an amorphous solid. The result is a smooth, chemically inert material that can be easily melted again to shape it. While usually transparent, with the addition of different oxides to the melted sand, glass takes on the range of colors we see today.

While glass proved incredible useful for ancient civilizations for storage, some of the earliest glass objects made were beads, objects with no practical purpose designed purely for adornment. Jewellery in general can function as works of art, objects of worship, and symbols of status. The emergence of glass as a technology was a huge step forward in the artistic, cultural, and scientific development of mankind.

Red, white, and brown necklace, made from ancient Ethiopian glass beads.
Ancient beads from Ethiopa 1st Century BC. CC Image by A. Davey on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Glass does not just form wearable art, but fine art as well. Artists like Allison Kinaird use glass engraving techniques to make striking works of art. Her work Maze, on display at National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, features a figure falling through various glass-engraved mazes enhanced by sophisticated LED lighting. The maze forms evoke the image of the brain, perhaps symbolizing the universal human struggle through consciousness and emotion. This is an artwork that toes the lines between engineering, biology, and pure artistic expression.

Artwork made from glass engravings in brain-like forms, featuring male figures and colored lights.
Maze by Allison Kinaird

Glass is arguably the first true instance in human history of materials engineering. Though natural glass exists, it is not commonly found worldwide, so manmade glass is far more ubiquitous in use. Glass is an overwhelmingly human material whose legacy stretches across history, cultures, and disciplines. It is both a scientific marvel and among the most beautiful of synthetic materials.

The Aesthetic Fantasy of Space

Astronomy strikes me as perhaps the most aesthetic science of them all. It is certainly the oldest scientific discipline, with early records of astronomical data going back 5000 years to the Mesopotamians, who first attempted to plot what they saw when they looked at the night sky. The interesting thing is, though the night sky itself hasn’t changed very much, the way we look at it has.

Galileo Galilei invented the first astronomical telescope in 1609. He modelled his after previously existing telescopes that could only produce a threefold magnification. Gallileo’s could magnify objects to twenty times their size. Later, Louis Daguerre made the first images of the moon in 1839. They looked like this.

Old black and white photograph of the moon. White and grey surface with black craters.
The birth of Astrophotography.

Today, children’s toy telescopes have more magnifying power than Gallileo’s and the Hubble Space Telescope orbits the Earth creating spectacular images like these.

NASA actively publishes the photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. They can be found here.

 

Its distance and size turn space into something of a fantasy land. We know it’s there but can only sense it through images created by machines. Our own unaided eyes can see little else but the moon, distant stars, and close planets for a savvy stargazer. The creation of tools like telescopes and cameras allows us to gain some small visual grasp of the universe, and provides scientists with important information, as well a means to visualise their work for non-scientists.

However, these images serve as much more than scientific data. Images of space also present us with a tremendous aesthetic landscape that not only inspire artists but are works of art in and of themselves. Further, space is arguably the most represented topic in works of science fiction. From Star Trek to Star Wars space dominates our cultural consciousness. It is in a unique sweet spot between science and the arts for us.

This is not lost upon astronomers themselves. Ulrike Kuchner holds a PhD in astrophysics Extragalactic Astrophysics as well as an MFA in Fine Arts. Moreover, she works actively in both fields, analysing images and data from the Hubble Space Telescope as well as curating exhibitions of her own artistic works. In a recent interview with the Bogotá post, she said “Aesthetics were my route into science. They made me want to learn more.”

It is easy to see how this point applies to astronomy because of the tremendous aesthetic resources available to aspiring astronomers today. While I tend to think aesthetics can be a route to any science, Astronomy is without a doubt the most striking example. With its dark recesses, twisting clouds of colored stardust, blazing balls of fire, and tremendous masses of ice and rock traveling at millions of miles per hour, outer space is a true aesthetic and scientific wonderland.

Colors from Nature: Who Inspires Whom?

I discovered an interesting book on Facebook this week: A Bird’s Guide to Complementary Colors by BG Lloyd. It’s being published out of Littleton, Colorado and is currently in pre-ordering. The purpose of the book is to derive color palettes directly from images of birds that can then be used to assist artists and designers in their own work. The Publishizer page for the book is quite interesting and can be found here.

Mandarin duck floating on water reflecting red light.
The mandarin duck, one of the species featured in the book. There are certainly plenty of colors to choose from.

What interests me about the author’s philosophy is his emphasis on the evolution of birds to display elaborate colors for mating purpose, but also on the intellectual process of humans selecting colors. This work demonstrates the idea that the color combinations we find beautiful and harmonious may not have a human origin but may instead be fuelled by thousands of years of observing the beauty of nature. After all, we have been deriving pigments from natural sources for millennia. The first bright blue pigment was derived from ultramarine stones, and the earliest reds and purples were from the juice of berries. Even today a frequent red pigment for cosmetics is the ground carapaces of certain scale insects, though this is going out of fashion with the rise of vegan alternatives.

So perhaps more than just the physical materials to create the colors, we have also gathered our inspiration for how to pair colors together from our natural world. In its way, the scientific process of observation of natural phenomena has melded with the aesthetic process of assigning color schemes for art.

On the other side of the coin is the question of whether there are universal, nature-bound rules for which colors work together and which colors do not. After all, the color wheel with its primary, secondary, analogous, and complementary colors may be a human invention, but it is based off of logical assessments of the ways in which physical pigments behave. Modern color wheels for digital art are perhaps even more rigorously developed, as they tend to be based in numbers and data as much as aesthetics.

The invention of the color wheel was an empirical process of observation, so perhaps it’s not so much a matter of humans taking inspiration from nature as it is discovering the rules of color by their own means. If these rules are universal based on the scientific properties of color, then natural selection will have solved the problem for birds, giving us the gorgeous plumage we see today.

A color wheel featuring the three primary and three secondary colors.
A color wheel.: Arbitrary human invention? Or a record of pre-existing natural laws?

With his book, BG Lloyd may have primarily intended to provide some quick answers for people looking for color palettes inspired by nature. And he succeeds, the book is quite interesting. But as is often the case, the existence of work like this offers as many questions as answers.