Unexpected Space in a Pasadena Parking Garage

You never know what unexpected quirky stuff is going to show up if you keep your eyes open.

Graffiti by Kenny Scharf in garage of Pasadena Museum of California Art (Photo:Tim Jones)
Graffiti by Kenny Scharf in garage of Pasadena Museum of California Art (Photo:Tim Jones)

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.

Graffiti by Kenny Scharf in garage of Pasadena Museum of California Art (Photo:Tim Jones)

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.

The Jetson's lived the future for folks in 1962 (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Jetson’s lived the future for folks in 1962
The Jetsons (Wikipedia)
The Jetsons (Source: Wikipedia)

Some of the Jetson’s techno-utopia became a reality.  But not, unfortunately, the aerocar or three-day week.


More Kenny Scharf

If you’d like to see more of his Kenny Scharf’s work, there’s a good collection at Artsy’s Kenny Scharf Page


Of related interest on Zoonomian

Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science

Buck Rogers – A Copper-clad Lesson from History

A Brush with Base Jumping

Base jumper in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland (Photo: Tim Jones)

I see from the TV listings that Channel 4 (UK) will tomorrow be airing  The Men Who Jump off Buildings: a documentary about the extreme sport of base jumping.  Launching from Buildings, Antennas, Spans, Earth (hence BASE), base jumping practitioners have only seconds to control their descent  and deploy a parachute.   Jumps from buildings and cliffs are particularly demanding due to the danger of hitting something sideways on the way down.

Base jumper in Lauterbrunnen Valley (Photo:Tim Jones)
Base jumper in Lauterbrunnen Valley (Photo:Tim Jones,Darkroommatter.com)

While the Channel 4 show promises to focus more on jumps from buildings, it reminds me of a base jump from a cliff side I witnessed in 2007, in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley.  The rapid-fire sequence of photos I took at the time should convince you that stamp collecting isn’t such a bad hobby after all.

I later discovered Lauterbrunnen is something of a base jumping hot-spot, famous for the quality of the jumps, but also for the number of related deaths in recent years.

The sequence of 16 pictures in the gallery below shows the various stages of the jump, including the free-fall glide and chute deployment; the main chute is activated by a smaller chute the jumper holds and throws out at the critical moment.

Although the guy in the pictures landed safe and sound – I had a chat with him later – the sequence  shows him fighting to unravel a tangled harness.  Jumpers say every jump is different, so an ability to think quickly on the spot is as important as understanding the theory.

Lauterbrunnen valley (photo:Tim Jones)
Lauterbrunnen Valley (photo:Tim Jones, Darkroommatter.com)

The timing and manner of the chute’s release depends on many factors, including the jumper’s velocity, which in some cases may be below the terminal velocity of around 120 mph.  It goes without saying that the time available to avoid objects and adjust parachutes is severely limited.

Apart from one holiday paragliding experience in the Med., I’ve only worn a parachute while flying gliders – and thankfully never had to use it.  And for now, exhilarating as I’m sure base jumping is, I think I’ll stick to walking up mountains rather than jumping off them.

Attenborough On Darwin

Reminder –  David Attenborough on Darwin, Sunday BBC1 9pm.   Here is Nature’s trailer.

According to the Radio Times, Attenborough gets hate mail from creationists over his views.

DA says:

“They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.”

Nice guy (David A, not the other one).

The Best Environmental Science On TV

On Monday, I joined an awards evening celebrating the best environmental science and technology productions made for European television. The categories were: drama, general programmng, new media, and an extra jury prize for exceptional content.

The MIDAS awards were hosted by PAWS – as the name suggests, a group promoting the public awareness of science. The evening also included a keynote address by Sir David King – until recently the UK’s Chief Scientific advisor, and a related panel discussion on climate change. I’ll share the messages from that in a future post.

On to the award winners. They won’t mean much outside Europe, but at least you can see the themes that are popular.

Best drama award went to the BBC‘s ‘Burn Up’ – which anticipates the lead up to Kyoto 2 in 2009 with a volatile mix of politics, science and big oil.

BBC’s Trailer to Burn Up

Best General Programming went to an edition of the Belgian VRT series Fata Morgana, about getting local people involved in environmental challenges. For four years I lived a stone’s throw away from the VRT TV tower in Brussels and, watching the clip, found the local flavour of this type of programming ‘very Belgian’ – meant in the most complimentary possible way!

Best New Media award went to Germany’s ZDF Interactive for their ‘Consequences of Climate Change’ – a truly interactive production in which viewers can explore the effect of drought and floods by keying in various parameters. This was an excellent use of new media I’m sure we will see much more of. If I can get a link to a clip or screenshots of this, I’ll post it.

The jury special prize went to The Netherland’s VPRO Television and ‘Waste equals Food’, concerned with cradle to grave understanding of products’ impacts on the environment. Examples included Nike’s design of running shoes for optimised recycling, the soles typically reappearing in sports court surfaces.

Stephen Fry, Science, and the Night I Lost My Gorilla to a Python

This Sunday 12th October, Stephen Fry will present the first of a series of programmes recounting his epic 50 State tour of the USA. Fry is well known as an actor, TV presenter, novellist, film maker, and general wit and, as this quote from the current Radio Times reminded me, he’s also a great fan and defender of science:

Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry (Picture credit: Radio Times online)

“The best definition of science I have ever heard (embarrassingly, it’s my own) is ‘humility in the face of facts” and yet science in America is always being accused of arrogance! Arrogance? Compared to those Sunday evangelists and others who claim that truth is ‘revealed’ in a book, one book, whose journey into existence is traceable in history, whose fragments and parts and apocrypha were arbitrarily decided by compromise and pragmatic need? Yet America’s insistence on equal validity between ‘revealed’ truth and evidence-based truth has meant that evolution is now pitted against so-called ‘intelligent design’, a barbarously irrational mixture of pseudoscience and fallacious argument that poses itself ‘innocently’ as a credible alternative.” (Stephen Fry – Radio Times)

No mistaking Stephen’s position on ‘Intelligent Design‘ then.

This sort of comment is consistent with the Stephen Fry I encountered at the first DNA Memorial Lecture at the Royal Institution in 2003. Fry was Master of Ceremonies for Richard Dawkins‘s lecture ‘Queerer Than We Can Suppose‘. And no, this wasn’t a homage to Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid, but rather a celebration of the memory of the irreplaceable Douglas Noel Adams, patron to the beneficiaries of the evening – The Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund and Save the Rhino International.

Fry’s comments during the various introductions, links, and humorous ramblings revealed an impressively knowledgeable and scientifically literate guy, especially in all matters evolutionary. He’d doubtless be shocked that anyone would think otherwise, but this was a world as yet unexposed to the intellectual sound-bitery of the QI show.

The real, not to say surreal, reason I remember this all so well is the charity auction at the end of the evening. With Fry as auctioneer, I found myself bidding head-to-head with Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) for a two foot high, ceramic, silver-backed gorilla (as you do). Suffice to say the wrong Jones walked off with the pottery primate – leaving me apeless (sorry).


Also of Interest

“Douglas Adams loved ideas but hated writing, says Terry Jones”  March 2012 BBC article HERE


Thin Film of Technology at the BFI

Yesterday evening I joined the British Film Institute’s ‘BFI 75 – A Story in Pictures’ on London’s South Bank,  celebrating 75 years of film and TV culture through a mix of archive clips and interviews.

75th Birthday

The evening was hugely enjoyable. What a delight to see Leslie Phillips, beloved of the Doctor and Carry-On films, take up the microphone with his trade mark saucy “Hello” . And to be transported back to 1901 with big screen footage from the Mitchell and Kenyon archive, beautifully restored, complete with live piano accompaniment.

Science and technology was represented by films about the railways and telephony.  From John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, that produced industry and transport films in the 1930s, was a sequence from ‘The Fairy of the Phone’, a fantasy involving female telephonists singing and standing atop telegraph poles.

Ironically, given the light coverage of science in the main program, later discussions and guest commentaries addressed the role of technology for enabling positive change in the industry, like the accessibility of professional quality, low cost, equipment. More exotically, Frank Skinner looked forward to a cinema world of wrap-around 3D, while another pundit held out for the holy grail of odorama (a low tech scratch ‘n’ sniff version has been done).

For further Reading on science in documentary film and T.V. See Timothy Boon’s Films of Fact: A History of Science Documentary on Film and Television

Young Scientists, Fingerprints, and PVC

Alright class, settle down. Hands up all those who remember the original Young Scientists of the Year competition? I’m talking about the weekly BBC1 television reportage, between 1972 and 1981, of the bloody battles for scientific supremacy waged between competing UK schools. This was prime time science on the telly, presented by Paddy Feeny and John Tidmarsh, with the enthusiastic participation of judges Sir George Porter, Prof. Heinz Wolff (pictured), Dr Colin Blakemore, Prof Eric Ash, Prof Aubrey Manning and Dr Donald Broadbent.
Gateway Young Scientists with Heinz Wolf
Gateway Young Scientists with Prof. Heinz Wolff

This post is something of a reminisce for me – because – I was there; albeit as an attendee, not a competitor, at Leicester’s Gateway Grammar School. Although too young to participate, I saw the effect the show had on the school, its pupils, and the viewing public.

So, beyond the nostalgia, can we learn something from the Young Scientists phenomenon?

Gateway's winning Fingerprint Analyser
Gateway's winning Fingerprint Analyser

The show’s origins trace back to the formation in 1963 of the Science and Features Department of the BBC: the group that gave us Tomorrow’s World, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and the iconic productions of Jonathan Miller, Jacob Bronowski and David Attenborough. The team also produced Heinz Wolff’s next project after Young ScientistsThe Great Egg Race.

Production entailed a combination of material filmed at the participants’ schools, cut with Q&A sequences from the studio. During the judging, contestants sat nervously with their rigs as backdrop.

My school participated twice. A project on PVC reached but floundered in the final, while an invention that automatically scanned fingerprints won in the UK final and the competition’s European equivalent, hosted by Phillips in Eindhoven. The self-effacing commentary of the PVC team, reproduced from the School Magazine, reveals the production pressures, and gives an honest insight into how laboratory science really works when delivering breakthroughs to order.

We had won the heat largely on the technical achievement of building the machine and so we made it our policy to concentrate on doing some research with it rather than make modifications to improve its working. With reactions taking up to eight hours and only a few weeks to go before the recording of the final, we had to start working late again and on occasions were still at school at about 2 a.m. During this time we managed to produce two polymers, B.S.R. and P.E.O. but with the limit on our time we were able to complete only a preliminary investigation into these polymers. From these results we managed to draw a few vague conclusions and plan our future research. Armed with this we went to Birmingham for the recording of the final. We were not so apprehensive about what would happen this time as we had the experience of our first visit behind us. As expected, the procedure was much the same as before and we approached the day for judging and filming in a much calmer state of mind than on the first occasion. However, as soon as the first judge, Sir George Porter, began to question us we began to realise that all was not going well. He continually probed us about details of the process which we had only just begun to study. Because of the short period of time which was available to us between heat and final we had not been able to familiarise ourselves with all aspects of the chemistry of the process. Consequently our answers to our questions were rather vague and lacking in the detail that he seemed to want.

The 'Competition'  -  Hiss!  Boo!
The 'competition' - Hiss! Boo!

The series ran for nine years on BBC1. Why so successful? The popularity, I suggest, was partly due to the show’s tangible competitiveness – the ‘tune in again next week’ factor. The content itself was made accessible through the pupils’ explanations and chatty atmosphere of the studio. By raising the status of school science and ordinary pupils, there may even have been some flattery of parents by association.

Were there deeper benefits beyond entertainment value?  Who knows how many fifteen year olds were swayed to science A-Levels by an inspiring episode of Young Scientists?  I believe the participant schools were strengthened by the experience, and others motivated to reach the grade. Involvement would encourage higher quality teacher and pupil applicants to the school, and raise the school’s status with universities and employers. For those directly involved, the show was a springboard.

Could the formula be repeated?  Was Young Scientists simply ‘of its time’ – never to be repeated?  Promotion of school science is now more important than ever.  Science competitions for young people still exist, but do they afford science the public exposure, status, and continuity offered by Young Scientists. Critics might say the format wreaked of elitism (the Grammar to Comprehensive school ratio would be interesting). Do schools have the time now? Would staff be motivated and willing? What about health and safety; PVC manufacture at 2 a.m.?

Despite the obstacles, the goal of broadcasting innovative school science – on prime time national television – with our greatest scientists in attendance – is a noble aspiration.

Could the UK public again be enticed to watch school kids do science? I like to think so.