March now, last post July 2014. Goodness, I have been sleeping. Anyhow, with Symbyartic rallying for a sciart Tsumani, now seems as good a time as any to awaken the blog and scour the archives for sciencey stuff with an arty twist.
Here’s a previously unpublished one from me. My better half is a silversmith, I like my astronomy, and this is a concept I knocked up in various 3D modelling and rendering softwares. As heavenly an embrace of the Two Cultures ne’re there was! Just need to figure out how to make it now.
Here’s something, or rather somebody, you might like to check out, especially if you’re partial to the ‘Passion Beauty Joy’ (PBJ) interpretation of the universe (as Bill Nye likes to put it). Likewise, if you enjoy the Symphony of Science series of videos, this will be up your street.
On his website, Peter Mayer describes himself as a writer of “songs for a small planet—songs about interconnectedness and the human journey”. Last night he guested at a special live broadcast of the Planetary Society‘s monthly radio show Planetary Radio Live: Science, Nature and Music. I usually catch the show, hosted by Matt Kaplan with Planetary Society regulars Bill Nye, Bruce Betts, and Emily Lakdawalla in podcast form back in the UK. But as I’m visiting family in the US right now, I got myself a ticket for the show at the KPCC studios in Pasadena, California.
Mayer sings about the universe and man’s relationship with it. He sings about stars, planets, galaxies; and evolution too.
Here’s the full recording of the event from KPCC, :
One song Mayer performed on the evening, ‘My Soul’ likens the number of galaxies to snowflakes in a snow storm. Here’s another recording of that track:
Mayer’s background is interesting. Originally trained in theology and having spent time in seminary, he’s no longer a practising Catholic – aligning rather with Unitarian Universalism. That said, I got the impression Mayer is more interested in inclusiveness than the sort of divisions that can follow from too much emphasis on labels.
Incidentally, watching Mayer play an intriguing all-carbon-fibre guitar (by Rainsong Guitars), was an added bonus for me, as I go through something of a revival in my own attempts at guitar – which, believe me, call for cosmic scale inspiration.
You can catch previous Planetary Radio shows at the Planetary Radio website.
You never know what unexpected quirky stuff is going to show up if you keep your eyes open.
This afternoon, Erin and I visited the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see an exhibition of works by Edgar Payne. We’re both fans of American plein-air painting, and Payne was a master of the technique – so the exhibition was a great success. But parking up, we found the Museum’s garage had its own artistic charm.
The graffiti is by artist Kenny Scharf, and instantly caught my eye with its images of rocket ships and swirling galaxies. The garage – or Kosmic Kavern – is the colorful legacy of an exhibition of Scharf’s work in the gallery proper in 2004 – his graffiti in the garage was just never cleaned off! Scharf’s work is influenced by the 1962 animated comedy sit-com The Jetsons, and there are other bits of space and nuclear iconography from the Golden Age of American Science spotted around – like the mushroom cloud and atom-swirl.
Some of the Jetson’s techno-utopia became a reality. But not, unfortunately, the aerocar or three-day week.
Like re-animated sea creatures from the Darwin Wing of the Natural History Museum, these animals look strangely alive, bubbling in their specimen bottles.
Steffen Dam’s glass sculptures are inspired by nature. (Photo: Tim Jones. Items displayed by Joanna Bird Pottery at Collect 2011, Saatchi Gallery, London)
In fact, this is the work of Danish glass sculptor Steffen Dam, one of the more nature-inspired craftsmen who grabbed my attention yesterday at Collect 2011– the Crafts Council-organised exhibition hosted by London’s Saatchi Gallery.
I say inspired, as Dam doesn’t claim his works are perfect scientific reproductions. But they’re technically and aesthetically fascinating all the same, and piqued my interest for a closer look.
It’s turning into quite an artsy fortnight. On Thursday, I went to see Getty CEO Jim Wood interviewed at Caltech, then a visit with dinner at the Getty Center itself on Saturday night, before on Monday taking my chances with the holiday crowds at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Between times I’ve been viewing some wonderful examples of Arts & Crafts era houses in Pasadena, and learning about the origins of Californian en plein air outdoor painting. A few notes on the Caltech event…..
‘Science and Art’ featured J.Paul Getty Trust President and CEO Jim Wood talking with broadcaster Madeleine Brand.
Despite the wide-open title, the conversation focused on the Getty’s expertise in artifact conservation, and an upcoming series of region-wide exhibitions intended to show how post-WWII Californian art was influenced by the science and technology of the period.
Wood began by describing the full extent of the Getty’s capabilities beyond the public face of the Museum, and how its scientists have developed conservation techniques that are deployed on conservation projects around the world. These range from the restoration of flood-damaged panels in Florence to the recovery of poorly preserved mosaics in Damascus.
The upcoming exhibition series will feature artists from Los Angeles, and cover the 1945-1980 period of rapid industrial development and space exploration. Californian artists in particular stayed close to technological developments at this time, and incorporated emerging new materials and techniques into their art. The period is coincident with the Cold War, so it will be interesting to watch for any cultural references in that direction (I’m thinking of the type of arts exhibits from the USA featured in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Cold War Modern exhibition last year).
The Q&A kicked off refreshingly backwards with Jim Wood suggesting it’s important to understand the differences between art and science. He takes the view that science deals with progress – it moves towards a goal; but art – while evolving, doesn’t do that; it’s less about facts than ideas. All in all though, despite Wood’s best efforts, these forays into more philosophical territory didn’t really get picked up on by the interviewer or the audience; something of a missed opportunity I felt.
There was an interesting question to Wood on the role of art as a tool to explain difficult scientific concepts; had such art been produced, and should it be preserved? Making a distinction between illustrative and creative art, Wood suggested scientifically illustrative works were likely to be valued; but more for their documentary than artistic qualities. For me, the role of illustrative art is undeniable – look at the depictions of cosmological concepts in popular physics books. The role for creative art in science communication is more ambiguous. It can tell us about prevailing cultural attitudes towards science and technology – back to the Cold War again, consider those swirling atoms and mushroom cloud depictions of atomic power. But it’s less obvious – to me at least – how an abstract artistic aesthetic might translate into, or inform, science.
Wood was asked how we decide when it is right to return an artifact fully to it’s original state – as the conservator’s toolkit gets ever more impressive? It seems there are some difficult calls, but it’s more usual to conserve than restore.
That brought to mind a whole area of science-art interaction that the evening hadn’t touched upon: the use of technology for artifact simulation and display, whereby an original piece is presented next to a simulation of how the item would have originally appeared. I’m thinking here of Roman and Greek statues in their original livery, the brightly painted interiors of Catholic cathedrals, and projection techniques that bring faded tapestries – however temporarily – back to life. I digress; but for more on the topic, here’s a nice piece on statuary, ‘Gods in Color’, from the Boston Globe.
Anyway, that was a very brief update on my brush with science and art at Caltech and the Getty.
Incidentally, one important feature of the Getty Center that Wood didn’t mention is its restaurant, commendable as much for its location as the food. Perched high overlooking the Los Angeles basin towards the ocean, the views are an inspiration to artist and scientist alike.
In June last year, Conservation Today ran a one day public conference – The Open Ground – to raise awareness of issues around biodiversity. Rather bravely I thought, the event aimed to provoke discussion by combining a range of scientific and artistic perspectives.
Colleague and fellow science communicator Emma Quilligan at the time wrote up the conference at Nature Network. Now, browsing my archives, I’ve rediscovered the audio I made with Conservation Today as a record of the event, but which we never published. Now for the first time, and with organiser Will Pearse’s endorsement, here are the recordings for those who were unable to join on the day.
As Emma says, The Open Ground itself is something of an exercise in diversity. The panelists range from academic to activist, and include some well known public faces such as the scientist and TV presenter Armand Leroi, and the prize-winning poet and Charles Darwin descendant Ruth Padel.
The proceedings are split into three sessions, each comprising three speaker presentations followed by a panel discussion with audience Q&A. The sound can be streamed by pressing the arrow on the player, or downloaded from the link below each player. Without the speakers’ slides, some of the audio isn’t going to make sense; but for the most part it does, and as some of the most interesting discussion comes in the panel sessions, it’s less of a deal.
Clearly all the participants are speaking for themselves, and the views and opinions expressed don’t necessarily represent my own take on things. That said, if anyone wants to strike up a comment thread on any of the content, feel free.
Introduction by Will Pearse (Conservation Today)
Session 1 – The Necessities of Conservation
Dr Sam Turvey, Dr Emily Nicholson and Caspar Henderson on the challenges conservationists face.
Presentations – Session 1
Panel Discussion – Session 1
Session 2 – Biodiversity and the Imagination
Prof. Ruth Padel, Dr Jamie Lorimer, and Melanie Challenger look at biodiversity from the perspective of literature, culture and society.
Presentations – Session 2
Panel Discussion – Session 2
Session 3 – Biodiversity Futures
Prof. Armand Leroi, Prof. John Fa, and Steve Roest on topics ranging from the trade in bushmeat to depletion of the oceans.
Latest News: The video of Exquisite Corpse of Science won Imagine Science Films‘ ‘Film of the Week’ Competition. Cool huh?
For latest status of the project and instructions for taking part, CLICK HERE
It’s just over a week since I invited the world to take part in the Exquisite Corpse of Science project. It’s very simple: you send me a picture that represents what you think is important about science, and as an option you can add a short audio file describing what you’ve drawn.
I’ll then combine these into a single artwork in the manner of the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse – and further present the project in ‘fly-around’ 3D in Second Life. A couple of high profile events have shown interest in relaying this project – so no promises – but watch this space.
So how’s it going? Well the original post has had over a thousand hits, and the enthusiasm for the idea from individuals and organisations involved in science and science communication is encouraging.
Twitter seems to be the main vehicle by which word is getting around. Many thanks to those who have blogged on the project, and Twitter friends who are promoting it via the infamous ‘Re-Tweet’; especially: Andrew Maynard & family @2020science, @frogst, @imperialspark,@garethm (BBC Digital Planet),@vye, and the organisations @seedmag (SEED Magazine), @naturenews (via Matt Brown/@maxine_clarke), @sciandthecity (NY Academy of Sciences), and @the_leonardo in Utah. Also, thanks to Dave Taylor (@nanodave) at Imperial College – who is working with me on the Second Life virtual incarnation of Exquisite Corpse.
I want to doubly stress that the Exquisite Corpse Of Science is most definitely not just for scientists and engineers; it’s for literally everybody. And it’s absolutely not about producing a Leonardo or Rembrandt……So get your Gran’ma on the case.
I’ve so far received 11pictures (+ 7 more I know are in the pipeline), and 4 audio accompaniments. So keep the pics coming in to make the definitive ‘WALL OF SCIENCE’ big and beautiful. Come on guys, how can I inspire you ! I know, the pictures so far….
For latest status of the project and instructions for taking part, CLICK HERE
This post is a little different from anything I’ve put up before. It’s a sort of blog-ised version of an academic semiotic analysis I made earlier in the year as part of my Science Communication endeavours at Imperial College. It’s here thanks to a posting on Twitter earlier tonight by Chris Anderson (of TED fame) of an alert to David Hoffman’s film now on YouTube: ‘The Sputnik Moment – the Year America Changed its Schools’. It’s all about how Sputnik, launched on October 4th 1957, shocked the USA into massive investment in, and reform of, the education system. I’ve embedded the vid at the end of this post.
What follows is not directly linked to Sputnik; it refers to the previous year – 1956, but does perhaps remind us that the wheels were already turning towards a golden age of science. And I guess that made the advent of Sputnik all the more shocking.
If you’re not familiar with the techniques of semiotic analysis (I certainly wasn’t), it can look a little contrived. But be assured, there are folk out there right now using it to design stuff that will subtly manipulate you. It’s not evil – but I think it’s useful and fun to practice deconstructing these things. Anyhow, if you get bored, just skip to Hoffman’s vid :-). So…
Home Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science
“And so each citizen plays an indispensable role. The productivity of our heads, our hands, and our hearts is the source of all the strength we can command, for both the enrichment of our lives and the winning of the peace.”
So proclaimed U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his First Inaugural Address of 1953 – emboldening a populace who, through the experience of science and technology at war, knew the peaceful role it might play in delivering America’s future.
And it’s to this background ethos of goal achievement and individual contribution that we’ll learn in this short essay how the innocuous chemistry set punched above its weight in preparing the nation’s youth for the golden age of American science.
For a deeper insight into what that meant in 1950s’ America, I’m going to look beyond the obvious, and pass a semiotician’s eye over, or maybe under, the cover-art of an instruction manual to a 1956 A.C.Gilbert Experiment Lab.
The idea is to start with a review of what the picture denotes – what is explicitly shown. The aim of the semiotic approach is then to explore the less obvious and wider connotations of the picture, treating it as a ‘text’ that tells a certain story – to which the embedded and inter-related vignettes also contribute. We need to remember this is a story of, and in, its time – and it’s only going to make sense in the cultural context of the period. Likewise, any connotations need to be interpreted in terms of the meanings and ideologies that might have engaged a contemporary reader.
That’s the approach – so what next? Every good semiotic analysis needs a formal argument if it’s not to fly totally off the tracks. So, I’m going to argue that:
‘marketing texts accompanying 1950’s American chemistry sets were consciously designed to support the myth of American progress achievable through an ideology of military and industrial global leadership; and contributed to an environment, the underlying ideology of which Eisenhower would in 1961 articulate as the ‘military-industrial complex’’.
(some folk have found my double reference to Eisenhower’s speeches confusing – so to clarify: The first reference is to his inaugural speech, the second is to his statement in his farewell address, where he first mentions the (in)famous ‘military-industrial-complex’. The point is that the MIC wasn’t something Eisenhower set out intentionally to put in place; rather it was something he realised had pretty much evolved by the end of his term – and was something to be concerned about.)
On with the analysis of the picture….
With reference to popular images from the great American telescopes of the day, a hazy nebular against a dark blue sky forms the backdrop to iconic representations of the Rutherford-model atom whirl and a cartoon electric thunderbolt. Two boys, maybe 10 and 14 years of age, do chemistry experiments at a bench. Six small graphic vignettes arc around the boys, each denoting a real or imagined scene from one of: space exploration, chemical engineering, aviation, medicine, nuclear physics, and electronics. A white capitalised title banner: ‘FUN WITH CHEMISTRY’, and a more reserved strap line: ‘today’sadventures in science willcreate tomorrow’s America’, frame the page top and bottom. A small maker’s logo and red safety shield complete the picture.
The eye immediately tracks to the boys, particularly the elder boy. We’re helped by his central positioning; and the electric thunderbolt, symbolic as pointer in one direction and megaphone in the other, placed contiguous with his mouth. The presence of two boys connotes camaraderie, but also hints at paternalistic leadership by the elder – a theme enhanced by their dress and respective positions (smaller boy leans forward, elder stands) and engagements (younger boy stirs, older boy analyses).
More perhaps from the parents’ viewpoint, the scene connotes an ideal of family life, reminding the reader of the vulnerability of a harmony so recently recovered from the disruption of war (US engagement in Korea until 1953). From the child’s perspective, domestic clutter has been erased – leaving a brave future world in which the boys are abstractly suspended between deep space and the exciting promise of the vignettes – the whole entangled with the modernity of the atom whirl.
A Golden Career
Qualifying traits to enter this world are symbolised by the boy’s trim haircut and white vest – connoting military order, responsible self-discipline, and an appeal to conformity in an America struggling with McCarthian legacy. The manual itself is symbolic of instruction and procedure; worry not – there is a plan.
Correctly, the boys do not laugh stupidly over their toy, but exude a serene dignity and confidence in the handling of their equipment; imagery that would endear any paying parent to Gilbert’s product. And where the parent approves, the young owner idolises – the elder boy: god-like before nebulae, proclaiming through lightning, holding forth with test-tube as sceptre.
The ideals put upon the boys are echoed and reinforced by the white coated, neck-tied exemplars of the medical and electronics vignettes, their adjustments and measurements further connoting values of care and precision. (The absence of personal protective equipment for the boys reminds us they are not yet professionals.)
For the world of the vignettes is where Gilbert Experiment Lab owners are destined to go. In his mind, the contemporary teenager leaves home through this text’s imagery, entering an educational way-station toward an ordained industrial career in ‘tomorrow’s America’ and the Golden Age of Science. A golden age, defined by exponential consumerism, a highways programme that would drive automobile and refinery demand for the next twenty years, and an age of popular successes in American chemistry (DDT) and medicine (Jonas’s polio vaccine).
Gilbert and his main competitor, Porter Chemcraft, reinforced the career message to both parent and child through explicit statements in associated texts ; for example, the rear box cover of the Experiment Lab displayed the banner:
“Another Gilbert Career-Building Science Set”
While Porter Chemcraft’s box banner pulled no punches with:
“Porter Science Prepares Young America for World Leadership”
The Vignettes – Windows on the Military-Industrial Complex?
Given their importance to the whole, the vignettes warrant closer examination. Taken individually they denote aspects, both realistic (submarine) and speculative (space station), of their respective industries -but achieve more as elements of the greater text. For example, collectively they reference the shear pervasiveness of chemistry as a discipline across mankind’s endeavours. And (core to my argument), they variously reference the repeating themes of American dominance in the military, industrial, and aerospace fields – politically prescribed activities for the ‘enrichment of lives and winning of peace’.
On a technical level we can acknowledge the clever use of white borders around the vignettes, signifying them as real photographs, fooling us that even obviously speculative scenes represent real life captured.
For a contemporary reader, the wheel-like space station of the space exploration vignette provokes a strong reference to Wernher Von Braun’s 1952 conception of a navigation-military platform .
The scene would also be familiar from science fiction texts, both print and film, and space programme news items anticipating the first US earth-orbiting satellites (Explorer I launched in 1958).
The station dominates the globe of earth. A globe which itself is dominated by an American continental outline – a reference to the ideological exaggeration seen in the nation-flattering Rand McNally Mercator projections and consumer advertising copy of the period.
The combined effect is to establish a concept of an America that, projected into space, is positioned to both dominate the earth in one direction and explore the cosmos in the other.
Beside the romance of space exploration, we might today frame as pedestrian the industrial world of chemical engineering; not so in 1956 America. Cropped of peripheral clutter, the spherical white pressure vessels become molecules – uniting with the boys’ glassware, the analytics of the medicine vignette, and the chemistry set itself, as icons of professional chemistry. Reference to the boys’ large flask is enhanced by that vessel’s exaggeration beyond anything actually found in the set, the parallel rendered complete by the rubber tubing imitating pipe and gantry.
The aviation and nuclear physics vignettes both denote forms of transport. The swept delta wing and compact size of the jet aircraft signifies a military product, while the streaming contrails index for progress, movement, speed – and power. The choice of submarine as nuclear physics exemplar, against the option of a civilian reactor or a particle physics laboratory, reinforces the military imperative. Directly referencing the recent launch of the first nuclear powered submarine Nautilus , the image flatters the reader’s knowledge of this event.
The vessel is large and dark, with whale-like power, its speed helpfully indexed by the artist as turbulence in the ocean streamlines. Like America, it is unstoppable and, as the scattering fish signify, all must make way before it.
A further subtle, yet reinforcing, reference to the defensive aspects of militarism can be read in the use of the red shield icon to frame the words ‘Safety-Tested’, whereby feelings of comfort and reassurance are induced on the twin planes of home and national security.
Military references are absent from the medical and electronic vignettes, these rather providing a visual link with the boys’ home activity. The medical scientist’s equipment mirrors the boys’ rig – right down to the colour of liquid in the flask. The electronic laboratory’s blackboard is an iconic reference to scientific intellectualism and progressive theory, but also a familiar reference to the boys’ schoolroom blackboard. The inclusion of medicine as a theme is a calculated reference to improvements in health and quality of life – the ultimate public justification for industrial and military progress.
The predominant portrayal of individual human actors in the vignettes promotes an inaccurate myth of scientist as lone worker, at a time when the power of teamwork, recently exemplified by the Manhattan Project, was widely recognised. A more realistic representation may simply have been viewed as overcomplicating or jeopardising of the text structures used to link home and career.
Other Features – Stereotyping
The apparent gender and racial stereotyping through omission is alerting to our modern eye, but typical of the day. A fairer representation of gender, but never balance, is evident in later texts such as the 1960 Golden Book of Chemistry – itself an icon of the genre – where boys and girls are seen working together both at home and in the professional laboratory.
Race would certainly be the basis for an oppositional reading of this text. Despite the Immigration & Naturalisation Act of 1952, supposedly removing racial and ethnic barriers to citizenship, and the banning of racial segregation in schools in 1954, a black readership would likely receive Gilbert’s racially exclusive offering as just another slam of the door to white privilege.
Gibson could have produced his chemistry manuals with plain covers; they would certainly have appeared business like and practical. Yet that would disallow, as this analysis has shown, an induction into, and repeated reminders of, the world of work and modern America to which the set promised entry. A world of progress, Gilbert’s artwork tells us – with its speeding aircraft and submarines, and the restless whirl of the electron.
We have revealed evidence of Gilbert’s subscription to an ideology of American global leadership. And how, by integrating military and industrial images, and linking them through themes of progress and the pervasiveness of chemistry, he expertly references the whole to the domestic life and career ambition of his customer. In doing so, Gilbert, representing a substantial share of the 1950s chemistry set market, endorses my core argument.
 Dwight D. Eisenhower First Inaugural Address, (January 20, 1953)
 Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address (January 17, 1961)
 The Hale 200 inch telescope was first operated in 1948; eight years earlier. See: Florence, Ronald. The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope, Harper Perrenial 1995
 Although McCarthy was ostracised two years earlier in1954, the threat of communist conspiracy and suspicion of outsiders or the unusual remained
 Nicholls, Henry. The chemistry set generation, Chemistry World Dec. 2007
 Von Braun’s Wheel. NASA Archives. http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap960302.html
 A schoolroom series of maps by Rand McNally placed America centrally on the globe and split the former soviet union in two. See: George Simmons, ‘Training with map power’ in Cultural Detective at http://www.culturaldetective.com/worldmaps.html
 U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum, http://www.ussnautilus.org/index.html
 Brent, Robert. The Golden Book of Chemistry, Golden Press New York, 1960
Yesterday evening at the Royal Institution, I watched the respected biographer and academic Richard Holmes make an empassioned plea for an end to the ‘two cultures’ rift between science and the arts – a reference to the term coined by CP Snow in his Rede Lecture of 1959.
In a packed auditorium, familiar as the venue for the annual Christmas Lectures, Holmes challenged his hosts to do their bit by including humanities speakers as a fixture in the RI lecture programme. He certainly held the historical high ground, sharing a daiz occupied in another age by Sir Humphrey Davey, Michael Faraday and significantly the poet Samuel Coleridge.
Dipping into his new book The Age of Wonder, Holmes used the lives and achievements of explorers like Sir Joseph Banks and the romantic polymath Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles) to illustrate an age when science and art moved together to their mutual benefit. He continued through the lives of the Herschels: from William and Catherine and the discovery of Uranus, to Catherine’s formative influence on the young John Herschel. Then on to Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday, finishing with Charles Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century. Readers who enjoyed hearing about Joseph Banks’s culturally sensitive integration activities in this earlier post on the Otaheite Dog, will find more revelations in the same vein in Age of Wonder.
Holmes bemoaned the lack of general access to source texts, including Banks’s Endeavour Journal and Darwin’s Botanic Garden – another sign of the literary/science imbalance of two cultures thinking. Both of these works are wonderful pieces of literature as well as scientific documents. The Botanic garden is a compendium of virtually all 18th century science expressed as poetry, in a format where the footnotes are as inspiring as the main text. The good news is that both are available online.
Holmes believes that if there there was one event more than any other that influenced Snow’s proclamation on the two cultures, it was the horrific association of science with the atomic bomb. An audience member blamed the divide in the UK on the arts/science choices students were forced to make at A-Level. Whatever the reason, Holmes’s comments are a timely introduction to a week in which the two cultures theme figures large, with as part of the London Consortium’s Art and Science Now Programme, a mix of all-day conference sessions and receptions scheduled at the Wellcome Institute on Thursday, the Science Museums’s Dana Centre on Friday, and the Tate Modern Art Gallery on Saturday. More on those later.
UPDATE: My report on the Art and Science Now ‘Two Cultures’ event is HERE