I am a science writer and independent museum consultant who is interested in the intersection of art and science. I am also fascinated by the history and philosophy of science. Check this blog for notes and updates about cool art-and-science miscellany.
I've written about Spongelab before, but here's a cool article from Scientific American about the company's history of biology game. Spongelab understands the importance of good illustration and captivating graphics. And, their game references the famous painting School of Athens, by Raphael. Fantastic!
When I was studying for my master's degree in science writing at the University of Southern California, I was fortunate to be able to take a class that focused on the history of science collections, and in particular cabinets of curiosity (the precursors to today's science museums). In that class, we learned about odd medical collections that included grotesque sculptures made out of preserved human innards, as well as more distinguished collections by people like Albertus Seba (whose cabinet made the pages of a Taschen book). I was already interested in the history of science museums, as well as miscellany, so the class fit me perfectly. Now, whenever I hear about modern cabinets of curiosity, my ears perk up.
I just learned that an exhibition featuring artwork by Dr. Seuss is now coming to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. I think this is a brilliant idea. When I was a kid, I used to love reading Dr. Seuss's books, and part of that love stemmed from Seuss's fanciful creations and wild imagination. I would very much like to see more explorations of fictional creatures in museums: maybe visitors would be more stimulated and develop a greater interest in biology.
There's something lovely and enchanting about clocks and old British universities. Maybe it's something about the romance of learning, or the thought of Big Ben tolling away in the fog as London men in black bowler hats carrying umbrellas rush to and fro. Maybe it's something related to the Britain captured in Roald Dahl and P.G. Wodehouse stories, or the formidable Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. Maybe it's something about clockwork machinery and Britain as a whole, where the Industrial Revolution was born. In any case, I love hearing about the history of ancient machinery, especially clocks and especially when the machines dwell in the British Isles.
There's something mesmerizing and powerful about this simulation. Actually, there's something powerful about visualizations in general. Think about Spongelab, a company that creates science visualizations to help students learn. The merging of artistic, or visual, elements with abstract thinking can help people understand so many things.
The Economist just ran a short piece on the ivory-billed woodpecker, and whether it might not have gone extinct after all. I just love this story: as I have written before, it's like learning that the dodo might still exist somewhere on Earth.
I really, really wanted to like this book. The table of contents sounded so interesting: infinity! logic! how math pertains to reality! But, the further I got into the book, the more frustrated I became. Each section -- infinity, logic, and reality -- contains several chapters, but it's never clear to the reader how each chapter relates to the overarching theme. Moreover, each chapter itself seemed just like a collection of math-related stories, one after the other, with no obvious link. (I'm sure there *were* links, but I would have had to work to find them.) Also -- and this may seem like a nit-picking critique -- the weak topic sentences really got in the way of my understanding each paragraph. Topic sentences have to set up the rest of the sentences in a paragraph, giving the reader a kind of road map, but these didn't. Arrrrgh! In my opinion, the book should be rewritten under the watchful eye of a careful editor.
Did anyone else know that NASA had an art program? I sure didn't. And today, I learned that art from NASA's collection is being exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The artists featured in the show include Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Norman Rockwell. Fascinating. You can learn more about the relationship between NASA and art here.
Title: "Mission to Mars"
Oil on masonite painting by Ren Wicks. Wicks’ painting depicts Martian explorers conducting scientific observations, recording wind speed with an anemometer and planetary features with a hand-held camera. A dust storm is approaching the crater area near the landing site, but views of the moons Phobus and Deimos are available in the twilight sky. A Mars excursion vehicle in the background serves as crew quarters for the mission.
I recently came across Spongelab, a company that creates games, animations, and graphics that help teachers teach science. I really like the idea of using interactive tools to communicate complicated ideas. Bravo to Spongelab!
My friend Frank let me know about this cool video showing pendulums oscillating in and out of sync with each other. Watching phenomena like this one shows how some of the simplest things in nature -- heavy weights swinging from a cord -- contain magic and wonder. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the Exploratorium has long had a similar device, called Pendulum Snake.
Here's a cool story about sand, courtesy of Wired. I love articles that explore the wonder behind everyday things. Next, I would love to see a story on the magic of dirt. Wait: the Exploratorium already produced a dirt site. Good for them!
Andrew Tarantola wrote a beautiful piece on Gizmodo about the landing of Viking 1. There must be few thrills as
exciting as being a NASA engineer and seeing the first photos taken by a craft you designed, now perched on a distant world.
You can find more information about the Viking mission here.
Now that the final space shuttle mission is underway, the science journalism world is buzzing with thoughts about Atlantis and the end of this particular era of space exploration. Some people lament the passing of the shuttle age: I know I do. The space shuttle missions have been a part of my life since I was a child. I have a fuzzy memory of having a space shuttle toy -- or maybe it belonged to a friend -- and loving the opening cargo doors and its resemblance to a jet fighter. There was even Astrotrain, a Transformer that turned into a space shuttle (as well as into a train: I love the mixing of transportation technology). There was even an article in the Economist about how the end of the space shuttle meant the fading of man's aspirations to leave Earth's gravity and explore the great beyond.
Later in my life, space shuttle missions became routine, but they still inspired me. Even though a shuttle launch would be relegated to the back pages of the local newspaper, it would still inspire wonder. And, despite the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia, the shuttle mission managed to make me believe that mankind could achieve great things.
Perhaps that wondrous time is passing. But I am holding out hope that the adventure of space flight will prove too hard to resist. After watching the video above -- posted by Phil Plaitt, who maintains the Bad Astronomy blog -- I am captivated by the ballet of orbital craft, the rhythm of discovery, and the majesty of mankind's dreams.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am fascinated by the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,000-year-old device found off the coast of an island in the Mediterranean that was used by the ancient Greeks to calculate the future dates of eclipses (among other functions). I recently learned that a watchmaker had created a small version of the Mechanism that could be worn on the wrist. Sign me up!
Here's a cool artwork I found on the website of Fast Company that incorporates the weirdness of quantum mechanics:
The Quantum Parallelograph, by Patrick Stevenson-Keating, plays with the idea of a person being able to learn about his parallel self in another world. I'm not yet sure how accurately this artwork reflects quantum mechanics, but the basics seem right. At the very least, this kind of artwork is helpful because it makes abstract physics tangible, in a way. Like the hands-on exhibits in San Francisco's Exploratorium, the Quantum Parallelograph makes science accessible, and conveys the notion that every person has the ability to understand abstruse thought.
The Antikythera Mechanism is a device pulled from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. It was originally built thousands of years ago by the ancient Greeks, and has been found to calculate the future dates of astronomical events. The level of sophistication, apparently, is astounding. And now, someone has created a working copy made out of Legos. Brilliant.
A few months ago, I found the website for the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, online here. I was amazed especially by the online exhibitions. If you have a chance, go here: you can learn about steampunk, the significance of blackboards, "the most noble problem in nature," astrolabes, and mirrors made out of meteorites. That's quite a range. Oxford should be proud.
Apparently, this video has been circulating on the Internet the past day or so. I watched it, and was just astonished. I have seen some amazing sights from an airplane -- including the Grand Canyon -- but this video just blows me away.
I went to the AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, and while I heard some interesting talks, I had to miss this talk on alchemy. Alchemy seems really interesting: a mix of chemistry and Aristotelian physics. I've read a little about it, and was thoroughly confused: the discipline is like nothing practiced today. For more information, people can also read a book published by Taschen. (Information is here.)
Wow! There's something fascinating about playing with magnets. There's also something eerie and mysterious about them. Imagine trying to explain them without knowing anything about magnetic fields. How would you do it?
Here is a NationalGeographicarticle about the coelacanth. I would love to have the power to lift all of the water out of the oceans and peer under rocks and in crevices, looking for creatures never seen by humans. Ah, the oceans...
I have become more interested in chemistry ever since reading UncleTungsten, Oliver Sacks' autobiography. As a child, Sacks had a passion for chemistry, and purchased chemicals from local shops for experimentation in his home lab. Sacks had a visceral feel for each element, and developed an intimate knowledge of their smells and feels. I would bet that Oliver Sacks would agree with the author of this article. Anyone interested in chemistry should not only learn about the periodic table, but also, in some way or other, become familiar with the tactile qualities of elements.
A few weeks ago, I came across this video of a clock, now installed in the library of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. I love this combination of machinery and art, of time-telling with sculpture. There's something very satisfying about a well designed object like this one.