Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Museum of the History of Science

The one thing I like more than science museums is science museums with offbeat exhibits. And one of the best such museums is the Museum of the History of Science, at Oxford University. I came across the MHS website a few years ago, and noticed immediately the good selection of online exhibits, including one particularly intriguing exhibit focused on blackboards. Called “Bye Bye Blackboard...From Einstein and Others,” the exhibit showcases, among others, blackboards inscribed by Martin Rees, a Cambridge astrophysicist; Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at University College London; Brian Eno, visionary musician; and Alain de Botton, a philosopher and author who recently wrote The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. The idea is to highlight the place that the blackboard has occupied in the history of ideas, and to pay homage to it, even as it quietly recedes from the classroom.

Other cool online exhibits include “The Astrolabe, East and West;” “Garden, Art, Tower, Temple;” “The Geometry of War;” “Fancy Names and Fun Toys;” and “Eccentricity.” The last one is another of my favorites. According to the site, the museum has “taken a broad approach to collecting, and contains many unexpected objects,” including mechanical flytrap from Japan, a typewriter collection, and as astrolabe belonging to Nostradamus. Wow.

Naturally, I had to learn more about this world of wonders. I contacted Jim Bennett, the museum’s former director, and asked him a few questions.

Me: How did you get involved with the MHS?

Jim: I had been curator (as the post was then called) of the equivalent museum in Cambridge -- the Whipple Museum of the History of Science -- for about 15 years, when the curator (as the post was then called) of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford came to retiring age.  In fact, I had two posts in Cambridge -- I was also Senior Tutor of Churchill College -- and I quite liked the idea of having only one.  Though relatively isolated intellectually, the Oxford museum is very centrally placed in Oxford and had enormous, untapped potential as a public museum.  Anyway, I understand that the panel liked the much more active nature of the Whipple as I had been running it in Cambridge, and I got the job.

Me: How did you get interested in the history of science?

Jim: Like very many people in the discipline in Britain, I discovered the subject as a science undergraduate in Cambridge, and found it much more interesting than straight science. It just suited me better, somehow -- I found I enjoyed reading books! I know that sounds daft, but I didn't grow up in a literary environment. I did science because I could.  In Cambridge I found something different; for one thing, I wasn't as good at physics as I thought I was, and also I enjoyed something more related to the humanities.  I stayed on to do a PhD in history of science -- on Christopher Wren.

Me: I’m really impressed by the MHS exhibitions, especially the ones about blackboards and eccentricity.  Who at the museum helps come up with those ideas? Is there a process you use to create new exhibitions?

Jim: The key is that we are relatively small, so we can take risks -- have an idea and decide to go with it.  So, I'm glad you like the exhibition programme -- I hope you don't mind my saying that it has been a fairly creative one -- especially in the context of museums of science.

"Blackboards" was so much my idea that the staff didn't believe in it at first -- I had to do it in spite of their scepticism (which seemed to me the wrong way round - isn't it the director's job to squash silly ideas?), which meant doing all the early work myself (including taking all the blackboards to the celebrity chalkers), till they come round.  In fact it was a great success.

The other exhibition that seemed like a real risk and was amazingly successful was “Steampunk,” and the idea for that came form a lighting designer in New York called Art Donovan. The trick there was recognising that something I had never heard of (steampunk) could be made to work for us.  It was so popular that we could hardly cope.

Who comes up with the ideas? Usually it’s one of the two curators (Stephen Johnston or me), and sometimes (especially for the smaller exhibitions) education staff.  There is an exhibitions committee where they are discussed and planned.  All exhibitions come from our work -- I mean we don't buy them in -- all are written and designed (and mostly built) here -- we don't really want to take in exhibitions.  Some of the art shows were in collaboration with the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, and they made the proposals.

The next time I'm in the UK, this is the first place I'll visit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Homemade Lava!

When I was a kid, I used to love making volcanoes in the pathway to my house. There was something satisfying, and primal, about mounding up sand and dirt, pouring the baking soda and vinegar (and red food coloring, if you wanted to) into the volcano's maw, and watching the resulting eruption of fizz and foam. You could even put small, plastic dinosaurs on the volcano's flanks and wish them well before they met their doom. But the video below takes that fun to a whole new level. Some people at Syracuse University have built a furnace that melts basalt and are now creating their own lava flows. My small plastic dinosaurs wouldn't stand a chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Lives of the Cell -- A Book Review

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology WatcherThe Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me, and I'm definitely glad that I read it. It's a collection of brief essays about biology, the wonder of cells and their internal machinery, and human society. Thomas strikes me as the M.F.K. Fisher of biology writing, able to turn a striking phrase every page or so, using clear prose and occasional poetry to communicate his thoughts. Here's a great example: ""It is hard to imagine a solitary, independent, existentialist minnow, recognizable for himself alone." That's a great sentence. It's true that Thomas sprinkles in some jargon here and there, but on the whole he's excellent. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 10, 2012

Popular Mathematics Books

I recently put out an APB to other science writers on Twitter and LinkedIn, asking for recommendations for good books that explain math for the layman. I have been a math groupie for many years, enjoying books like The Man Who Knew Infinity and The Art of Mathematics. I knew, though, that there must be many more good reads out there in the world. I got some great tips, which I listed below. If you, dear reader, have any other recommendations, please leave a comment.

The World of Mathematics

The Number Devil

A Short Account of the History of Mathematics

Mathematics for the Million

The Music of the Primes

Fermat's Enigma

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving

Math Girls

The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World's Most Astonishing Number

The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene

A Tour of the Calculus

The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics

The Cartoon Guide to Calculus

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Science Illustration

I just realized that I hadn't mentioned the opening of a new Science Gallery show at New York's Eyebeam Art + Technology Center. Eyebeam is hosting Surface Tension: The Future of Water, a cool series of artworks that explore the role of water in the world today, especially as fresh water becomes a more and more valuable commodity. I wrote about the show for both the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American: you can read my reviews here and here. I thought in general that the artworks were thought-provoking and cool. Take a look at some of my photos:

Friday, July 6, 2012

Drawing Science

I don't usually enjoy going to conferences, but recently I heard of an event that seemed like one of the coolest gatherings I had ever heard of. Beginning this Sunday at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and lasting through July 14th, is the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators annual conference. Presentations include "Science into Imagination: The Art of Creature Design," "Visual Storytelling for the World: Art Direction at National Geographic," and "Illustrating Misconceptions: How Scientific Graphics Can Mislead Students." My mind is officially blown. I love good science illustrations -- I once saw a live demonstration at the California Academy of Science, in San Francisco -- and the chance to go to an entire conference on the subject sounds beyond amazing. I may have to join this organization.
The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of NatureThe Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a profoundly interesting book. In it, Ferris argues that the more-or-less simultaneous rise of liberal democracy and modern science is not a coincidence: both thrive on the open exchange of ideas and an experimental spirit. If you like the history of ideas, this is the book for you.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Amazing Ferrofluid Animation

On Twitter, I follow the amazing Maria Popova, who also curates the very cool Brain Pickings website. I come back to this site day after day because of the eclectic content that touches on design, science, philosophy, and art, as well as the great design of the site itself. (That yellow and white together are wonderful.) This morning, Maria posted a Twitter link to the following animation featuring ferrofluids, a substance I first encountered at the Exploratorium, and then later at another exhibit in the New York Hall of Science. These liquids will blow your mind, as does this clip:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mathematics and Physics

Here's a great video showing Paul Davies explaining the role of mathematics in physics.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Amazing Alan Turing

Princeton University is hosting a Turing Centennial Celebration this May. If you have a chance, stop by and learn about this pioneer of computer science.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Aesthetics of Gears

At the Exploratorium, there was an exhibit titled "Giant Ball Bearing," and all a person was supposed to do at the exhibit was turn it and feel the workings.  Words in the middle of the bearing read, "Some machines just feel nice," and after turning that bearing around and around many, many times, I have to agree.  Sometimes there is a visceral pleasure in interacting with machinery -- Apple has stressed that notion in their design -- and after watching the video below, I now feel certain that there is also an aesthetic pleasure in watching machinery.  Let me know what you think.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Play with Your Food

Jello has always seemed like it could be something besides food: it's too fun, and too weird, not to be.  Now two people have found a way to use Jello to create music.  Raphael Pluvinage and Marianne Cauvard have created a game consisting of a board that is in essence a capacitive sensor, and when a person places tiny, elegant blobs of the gelatinous fruity dessert on the board and touches it with his fingers, the board detects the finger pressure and movement, as well as the ingredients of the Jello, and translates that information into sound.  Wow.  I see the potential for dinner-time concerts in homes across the country.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Oxford University, Science, and Eccentricity

It’s not often that an organization combines science and quirkiness: those of you who know me know that that’s one of the qualities that first attracted me to the Exploratorium. But the Oxford Museum of the History of Science seems to be another rare place where exhibit and event programmers seem especially inspired.

To see what I mean, peruse this fascinating page about a recent exhibition, on view from May to October 2011, the MHS had about eccentricity. Not content to display run-of-the-mill telescopes and such, these curators chose to display historical artifacts that are, well, curious.  For instance, visitors last year could have seen an astrolabe thought to have belonged to Nostradamus, or viewed an ingenious clockwork flytrap dating from early-twentieth-century Japan. The museum also held an eccentricity debate in which various eccentrics discussed “the nature and role, whether creative or disruptive, of eccentricity.”

 I love these people.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lego Man Helps Prove Rogue Wave Idea

Researchers at ANU, the University of Turin, and the Hamburg University of Technology used a fish tank, wave generator, and a Lego pirate to study rogue waves, giant waves that sometimes appear -- seemingly out of nowhere -- in relatively calm seas.  The power of Legos shines through again! Read more about the study here.

Giant Bubbles

There's something entrancing and magical about this bubble-blowing machine.   I love the idea of building a device that creates something so evanescent.  I still remember when I used to go to a summer day camp in North Carolina's SciWorks -- then called the "Nature Science Center" -- and all the campers used to dip string in bins of soapy water and blow through them.  So peaceful and yet so exciting.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

International Space Station Footage at Night

This is absolutely amazing footage taken by the International Space Station as it flies above the Earth.  I especially loved the crackling of lightning, which shows as white bursts on Earth's surface.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Can Math Be Beautiful?

Here's an amazing video clip of a panel at last year's World Science Festival about the beauty of mathematics.  I'm definitely not the best mathematician, but I am a math groupie, and I have experienced my mind being blown by a cool proof.  During a short course in college I learned about the proof showing that the square root of two is irrational.  I don't remember how to recreate the proof, but I do remember that it made my brain freeze.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My New Discover Photo Gallery

Hurray!  The online photo gallery I had been creating for Discover magazine is now complete.  You can see it here.

Stunning Analog Science Art

Here's a beautiful video piece called "Compressed 03."  It was created by Kim Pimmel, who is intensely interested in the analog world.  I am actually very surprised that one can buy ferrofluid online.  Maybe I'll get some myself....

Compressed 03 from Kim Pimmel on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Supercomputer Simulation of Atmosphere

When I was a kid, I followed the T.V. weather forecasts all winter.  They were exciting because, on any given night, the forecaster might hint that a snowstorm was heading for my North Carolina hometown.  Of course, snow meant no school, as well as days of sledding, throwing snowing balls, and breathing in  crisp, cold air.  Since then, weather has fascinated me.

I am also interested in the beauty of computer simulations, so when I saw the video below, I thought I had to share it with my readers.  Watch it and enjoy!  Also, try to find the little red hurricanes swirling off America's east coast.  Very cool.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Picturing Science

The tools scientists use to peer inside objects and take closer looks at tiny things have gotten extremely sophisticated.  A new show at the American Museum of Natural History called "Picturing Science" shows images from these amazing instruments.

[Image Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History]

Friday, March 2, 2012

Meeting a Great Man

Every once in a while, you meet a truly great person.  Today was one of those days for me.  This afternoon, I spent two hours talking with chemist Roald Hoffmann, but Hoffmann is interesting not merely because he won a Nobel Prize in 1981.  He is also intensely interested in the intersection between art and science, as well as in aesthetics and ethics.  I've downloaded several of his essays, and find them all deep and fascinating.  Hoffmann is also in favor of clear writing in professional journal articles, though he told me that not all editors feel the same way, an opinion I find bizarre.  What is the point of writing anything if it's not as understandable as possible?  Don't professional chemists want to read clear writing?

Here's a great quote from the Nobel Prize website that shows Hoffmann's dedication to both language and science:

"The language of science is a language under stress.  Words are being made to describe things that seem indescribable in words -- equations, chemical structures and so forth.  Words do not, cannot mean all that they stand for, yet they are all we have to describe experience.  By being a natural language under tension, the language of science is inherently poetic.  There is metaphor aplenty in science.  Emotions emerge shaped as states of matter and more interestingly, matter acts out what goes on in the soul."

[Above Photo from Gary Hodges]

Thursday, March 1, 2012

When Art Captures the Microscopic World

Have you ever seen an art show featuring paintings of protozoa?  If not, stop by the Thorndike Gallery at Southern Oregon University to see an amazing show by artist Shoshana Dubiner, who has created a series of paintings that showcase the microscopic life all around us.  And, read more about the show here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science ObsessedScience Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed by Carl Zimmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book!  I have no interest in getting a tattoo, but I love the idea of getting an image of a trilobite, or an equation, or Darwin's finches permanently marked on one's skin.  Some of the tattoos are technically amazing: one person had a tattoo of Francisco Goya's etching, _The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters._  It looked amazing, and is one of the coolest tattoos I have ever seen.  Kudos to all involved!

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Science and Blowing Glass

I was browsing the web tonight, looking for something cool to write about, and I was lucky to come across the "Science and the Arts" section of the Science Friday website.  I was especially drawn to an article about people who blow glass instruments for scientific use: think beakers, flasks, and various other thingamajigs used in labs.  I love the notion that scientists can work with these glass artists to create a custom piece, just right for that scientist's individual research, and I like the creativity involved.  Watch below to see footage of a scientific glass blower in action: