Category Archives: Art

Plough Sunglasses

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Here’s a previously unpublished one from me.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.




All lapis, all, sons!

Lapis Lazuli (Photo ©Tim Jones)
Lapis Lazuli (©Tim Jones)

This is my chunk of Lapis Lazuli: mainly lazurite ((Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)1-2) with some shiny pyrite (iron sulphide) streaks.  This piece is about 3 inches high.  It’s a semi-precious stone which when ground up becomes ultramarine, the intense blue pigment you see in old religious paintings.  Modern ultramarine is most often synthetic.

Strangely perhaps, my resonance with this rock is poetic, not scientific, as it featured in a Robert Browning poem I studied for my English Literature O-Level; I can still remember sitting in the exam scribbling – all those years ago when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

So here it is.  The storyline is about an old Bishop on his death bed, planning the construction of his tomb in a prime spot in the church – something that will outshine that of his predecessor Gandolf (as opposed to Gandalf).  As he rants, the materials of the tomb get grander and grander, progressing from basalt, then basalt embellished with a lump of lapis he has secreted away for the task, to the entire tomb being fashioned from the blue mineral.  All the time he’s getting more and paranoid his family will ignore his wishes and bury him in trashy travertine, gritstone, or, horror of horrors: onion-stone.   Make of it what you will:


“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”

 Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews — sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! Well —
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
What’s done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world’s a dream.
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask
“Do I live, am I dead?” Peace, peace seems all.
Saint Praxed’s ever was the church for peace;
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:
— Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South
He graced his carrion with. God curse the same!
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence
One sees the pulpit o’ the epistle-side,
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,
And up into the aery dome where live
The angels, and a sunbeam’s sure to lurk;
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,
And ‘neath my tabernacle take my rest,
With those nine columns round me, two and two,
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands:
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse.
— Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!
Draw close: that conflagration of my church
— What then? So much was saved if aught were missed!
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood,
Drop water gently till the surface sink,
And if ye find . . . Ah God, I know not, I! . . .
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft,
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,
Some lump, ah God, of ,
Big as a Jew’s head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast . . .
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,
That brave Frascati villa with its bath,
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,
Like God the Father’s globe on both his hands
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!
Swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years:
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black —
‘T was ever antique-black I meant! How else
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan
Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off,
And Moses with the tables . . . but I know
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope
To revel down my villas while I gasp
Bricked o’er with beggar’s mouldy travertine
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!
Nay, boys, ye love me — all of jasper, then!
‘T is jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve.
My bath must needs be left behind, alas!
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,
There’s plenty jasper somewhere in the world —
And have I not Saint Praxed’s ear to pray
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?
— That’s if ye carve my epitaph aright,
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully’s every word,
No gaudy ware like Gandolf’s second line —
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!
And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s-work:
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,
About the life before I lived this life,
And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests,
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,
And marble’s language, Latin pure, discreet,
— Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?
Ever your eyes were as a lizard’s quick,
They glitter like your mother’s for my soul,
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,
To comfort me on my entablature
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask
“Do I live, am I dead?” There, leave me, there!
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude
To death — ye wish it — God, ye wish it! Stone —
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through —
And no more lapis to delight the world!
Well go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs
— Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,
And leave me in my church, the church for peace,
That I may watch at leisure if he leers —
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,
As still he envied me, so fair she was!

Musings on Structural Gingerbread

It’s still the holiday season, so no apologies for doodling on about gingerbread, which, as it turns out, can be pretty strong stuff – if a bit bendy.

Gingerbread house © Tim Jones

Cue my wife Erin’s first attempt at a gingerbread house (above). Pretty good, huh?  The heat from the incandescent fairy lights has kept it from turning mushy, and nicely spiced up the room at the same time.  The house is only eight inches tall, but prompts the obvious question: “How high can you build with gingerbread?”

A structural analysis of a full-on house with walls, windows and doors is too tall an order, even with finite element techniques, so I settled on calculating a ballpark maximum height based on standard engineering equations for a free-standing gingerbread column.

There’s no wind blowing through our lounge, so we can ignore sideways forces and focus on the two likely failure modes a column of gingerbread might suffer – just because of its own weight as it gets taller, i.e.:

Failure modes(a) the construction materials can disintegrate under their own weight: a function of compressive strength, or

(b) the column can buckle, which is more related to the material’s elastic, or tensile properties.

The heights at which these two failures occur can be found from, respectively:

H_{max} = \frac {P_f} {\rho\times g}

H_c =\left(\frac{9 E I}{4\rho g A}j^2\right)^{(1/3)}


where H_{max}=column height at compressive failure (m), P_f is the failure pressure (N/m2) = compressive strength of the gingerbread, g=gravity (9.8 ms-2), and \rho is gingerbread density (kg m-3). And for buckling: H_c is the critical height, E is Young’s Modulus of elasticity calculated as tensile stress/strain, I is the Area Moment of Inertia3, and j\approx 1.8663 is a factor called a Bessel function, used to solve this type of equation (Ref.2)

Using published gingerbread properties data1 (amazingly, there actually are some) for compressive strength and tensile stress/strain, I calculated values of:

H_{max} = 50metres


(Workings in box below if you’re interested.)

which essentially means a gingerbread column will start to lean over and buckle sideways long before the gingerbread breaks up through compression under its own weight (I used an arbitrary but realistic 20 cm column diameter). You might think there’s no reason why a uniform, vertical, column would start to lean, but in real life the weight distribution is never uniform and, if the column is sufficiently slim, a turning moment will establish and drive a progressive buckle.

So if you’re going to build a gingerbread house out of free-standing columns, better stop at 3 metres.

Buckling is clearly the limiting factor, but the 3 metre figure is based on a relatively small 0.2m column diameter, and buckling is particularly sensitive to cross-sectional area (whereas compressive fracture of a column under its own weight is independent of area).  Also, most real buildings are more complex than a bunch of pillars, and I’d expect the right combination of interconnecting members building up from a broad foundation could reduce buckling potential, making a full-size gingerbread house a reality.

Photo Brian Moen via Flickr
Photo Brian Moen via Flickr

Indeed, the Guinness Book of Records ‘Worlds largest gingerbread house’ is 18.28m (60ft) on a 13.86m by 10.8m base; but closer inspection shows it’s built around a steel frame that presumably keeps incipient buckling in check. But then it’s more of a gingerbread and steel house – a bit of a con really.

Anyhow, our room’s about 3 metres high, so nothing stopping a more ambitious project next year:  Empire State Building or Cathédrale Notre Dame ?





Note that for compressive failure of a column under its own weight, the area of the column A (m2) cancels and isn’t relevant: i.e P_f = \frac {m\times g}A so, P_f * A = H_{max} A\times \rho\times g and H_{max} = \frac {P_f} {\rho\times g} as above.

I couldn’t measure my own gingerbread density easily (although it for sure floated in water, so < 1000 kg m-3), and used a middle value of 700 kg m-3 from this unlikely study by students at the University of British Columbia (UBC)1.  In addition to the UBC data for P_f of 346 kPa, I measured my own value for P_f by pressing a sample (squirrel-shaped in this case, but taking the narrowest foot area as 1*10-4m2) vertically downwards onto a balance and recording when it crumbles.measuring compressive strength of gingerbread squirrelStill intact when the balance read 6kg, I took my P_f to be at least 6 * 9.8 / 1*10-4, or 588 * 103 N/m2 (588 kpascal kPa). In fact, for compressive strength, my numbers and the published data are conservative, as in neither case did the gingerbread actually fail at these values. So:

H_{max} = \frac {346\times 10^3}{700\times 9.8}=50 m (UBC data)

H_{max} = \frac {588\times 10^3}{700\times 9.8}=85 m (my gingerbread)

Whether it buckles first, at a lower height, depends on the elasticity of the gingerbread and the slenderness of the column: i.e. the ratio of column area to length.

The height at which buckling occurs can be found from Cox & McCarthy2:

H_c =\left(\frac{9 E I}{4\rho g A}j^2\right)^{(1/3)}

where H_c is the critical height for buckling, E is Young’s Modulus of elasticity calculated as tensile stress/strain, and I is the Area Moment of Inertia3.

To calculate H_c, I chose an arbitrary column diameter of 20 cm diameter, and used stress/strain data from the Canadian study1 to calculate E = 9790 kPa; i.e. 219/0.02237 (the change in dimensions of my squirrel under tension are too small to measure with the kit I have).

The Area Moment of Inertia for a circular cross-section I = \frac{\pi}{4} r^4 , which for a 0.2m dia. column gives I= 7.85\times 10^-5 . And (j\approx 1.8663 , is the appropriate Bessel function of order -1/3 (Ref.2) Note: in the source equation, weight density is specified; hence g added here.) So:

H_c =\left(\frac{9\times 9790\times 10^3\times7.85\times 10^-5}{4\times 700 \times 9.8\times \pi\times 0.1^2}\times1.8663^2\right)^{(1/3)}

H_c = 3 metres

A more complex structure would best be assessed computationally using finite element analysis, but I’m not getting into that.

1. ‘Building with gingerbread: Engineering students put holiday delight to the test’ refers to ‘Structural Analysis of Gingerbread. Engineering Design Project Term 2’ by Mercedes Duifhuis and Sean Heisler (pdf)
2. The Shape of the Tallest Column. Steven J.Cox, C.Maeve McCarthy, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Vol29,No.3. pp.547-554. (Also see Wikipedia page on buckling.)
3. Engineering Fundamentals

Of related interest
How to create the perfect sand castle Nature Scientific Reports 2, Article number:549, doi:10.1038/srep00549

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

Planetfest 2012 – Curiosity Knows No Bounds

Planetfest (Photos: Tim Jones)
NASA’s Charles Bolden and Plantetary Society CEO Bill Nye at Planetfest 2012

Unless you spent last week vacationing at the bottom of a Titan methane lake, you can’t have failed to notice NASA has just placed its largest, heaviest, and most advanced rover yet – the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, on the surface of Mars.  And ‘placed’ it was  –  nice and gently – by a rocket powered crane.

Sky-crane descent of the Mars Science Laboratory ‘Curiosity’ Picture: NASA

Even though I followed the moon landings, the idea of visiting Mars, in any form, still has a ring of science fiction about it.  But last weekend at my first Planetary Society Planetfest in Pasadena, California, Mars for me and 1500 others became extra-real, as we stood enthralled and affirmed in the knowledge that, for all our faults, human beings can still pull this stuff off.

There were nail-biting moments and fascinating discussions.  What I’ve put together here is a summary from my notes, mixed in with thoughts and photos to give you a taste of what went on.

Let’s set the scene with a JPL simulation of Curiosity’s landing:

And here’s the reaction where I was sitting in the Planetfest crowd:

Now meet four of the Planetary Society team who managed the panels, reported live from JPL, introduced speakers, and generally held things together from Saturday through to Curiosity’s landing late on Sunday evening:

Bill NyeBruce Betts

Jim BellEmily Lakdawalla

Left to right from top: CEO Bill Nye; Director Projects Dr.Bruce Betts; President Jim Bell; Technology & Scientific Coordinator Emily Lakdawalla.

Emily Lakdawalla at Planetfest 2012 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Emily Lakdawalla at Planetfest 2012

Arriving early Saturday morning for a front row seat, I knew I was off to a good start when NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green sat next to me and slipped me a couple of mission pins.

Jim Green (Photo: Tim Jones)
Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green reviewed fifty years of solar system exploration at NASA: missions past, present, and possible future.

It also helped that by the time Curiosity touched down we were already Mars experts, thanks to two days of presentations from the likes of ‘Mars Czar’ Scott Hubbard.  Hubbard, now an aeronautics professor at Stanford, authored NASA’s ten-year Mars program in which each mission informs and sets direction for future missions under a guiding science strategy of ‘Follow the Water’.  That strategy has morphed to ‘Seek Signs of Life’, with the qualification that Curiosity isn’t looking for living life as such, but evidence of past life or conditions that might have supported it (incidentally, there’s an article on this aspect by Stuart Clark here in the Guardian newspaper).

'Mars Czar' Scott Hubbard, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University (Photo:Tim Jones)
Scott Hubbard “I was first Mars Czar”
Rosaly Lopes-Gautier, JPL
JPL Volcanologist Rosaly Lopes-Gautier explained some crucial differences between the geology of Earth and Mars

We can follow the sequence.  Launched in 1996, Global Surveyor spotted evidence of flash floods, old polar oceans, and water-modified rocks.  In 2001, the Odyssey probe detected possible water ice at the pole (using gamma ray spectroscopy), which in 2008 Phoenix confirmed, actually scraping some of it away.  The 2004 Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, also found evidence of historic water in the form of tell-tale hematite ‘berries’. And in 2006, the high-definition imaging ability of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbitor (MRO) convincingly separated out surface features caused by water from those by wind.  MRO images were also instrumental in identifying Gale Crater as Curiosity’s landing site.  It’s sitting there now, in shake-down mode.

Matt Golombek, Senior Research Scientist JPL
Matt Golombek, JPL

Choosing Gale Crater, said Senior Research Scientist Matt Golombek, as with any landing site, is all about balancing science and safety: a negotiation between scientists who want the rover to go places where it can do interesting science, and engineers who have to build something that will get it there.

Site choice is also iterative with spacecraft development during the build, consistent with a rigorous systems engineering approach that underpins Hubbard’s original strategy and integrates the science/engineering/management teams.

Gale Crater and Curiosity landing site (Photo: NASA)
Gale Crater and Curiosity landing site (Photo: NASA)

So why choose Gale Crater from what started out as fifty possible landing sites?  Firstly, it doesn’t contain many mini-craters for Curiosity to accidentally land and get stuck in; but as importantly, great science waits there in accessible layers of sedimentary rocks stacked up around its central peak – Mount Sharp: layers where we might find signs of an environment for past life.

Pasadena Convention Center (Photo:Tim Jones)
Pasadena Convention Center

“The history of Mars is in this hole”

So said Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion describing how, over the weeks and months, Curiosity will explore the 96 mile wide Gale Crater, moving in on the three-mile high central peak, analysing rocks as it goes – remotely by shooting them with a laser and looking at the emitted light, and by pulling samples into its onboard chem. lab.

Each layer of the ancient deposit at Mount Sharp represents a step back in time, and as the side of the deposit has eroded away, Curiosity doesn’t need long drills to reach them.  We may, said Chief Engineer Rob Manning, find evidence of a historic “warm wet Mars”, or even the complex carbon calling cards of past life.  Unlike the earlier Spirit and Opportunity rovers – essentially geophysics platforms – Curiosity, with its onboard chem. lab, is equipped to find them.

Curiosity’s driver, Scott Maxwell, used the analogy of backing your car out of the drive with a 15 minute throttle delay for an entertaining introduction to roadcraft on an alien world.  The key tip it seems – based on experience with the Spirit rover – is don’t drive to anywhere you can’t see!

Rover Driver, Scott Maxwell (JPL)
JPL MSL Driver, Scott Maxwell
Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion (Photo:Tim Jones)
Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion
Chief Engineer MSL, Rob Manning (Photo:Tim Jones)
Chief Engineer MSL, Rob Manning

After Curiosity?

I guess next to the landing itself, the dominant buzz was around how best to counter a slowdown in the pace of planetary exploration and NASA budget cuts.   Crazy as it felt against the euphoria of Planetfest, NASA has no follow-on missions to Mars scheduled after Curiosity (although India plan an orbiter for 2014). [Update 20/08/12, InSight Mars planned for 2016].

In the grand scheme of things, when it comes to actually paying for it, space and planetary exploration simply aren’t a priority for – as one delegate described the general populace – normal people.  The Curiosity mission cost every American $7, or I guess about $1 /year.  What’s seven bucks?  One burger meal?  A movie rental?

Science fiction author David Brin echoes the common frustration that we’re not doing enough, fast enough, in space.  Where’s the desire? asks Brin, reminding us we have a strong track record of achieving challenging, unlikely, tasks if we really put our minds to it, and pointing to that fairyland in the desert we call Las Vegas.

David Brin (Photo: Tim Jones)
David Brin

Asked what it might take for a NASA budget hike to receive more popular support, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver suggested discovery of evidence for extra-terrestrial life or intelligent life might do it, or, less attractively, an asteroid threat to the planet.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver (Photo:Tim Jones)
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver

It’s not that there are no ideas for a further  mission.  That would likely involve bringing material back to Earth for detailed analysis by many different laboratories and researchers: a ‘sample return’ mission.

Meantime, the Planetary Society reiterates the case for continued investment to support (America’s) national interest.  That includes Bill Nye’s argument for ‘trickle-up economics’, whereby exploration project investments in a region attract the best educators, lift regional and national education standards, motivate a new generation of technology workers – ultimately strengthening a country’s role as an innovation economy (the only sort that has much of a future in my view).  That’s before the global economic and political stability benefits to other, if not all, countries stemming from international co-operation in space.  These are the kind of messages  NASA Adminstator Charles Bolden and JPL Director Charles Elachi endorsed the Planetfest audience to get across to their elected representatives (i.e. Congressmen).

Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator (Photo: Tim Jones)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
Charles Bolden and Charles Elachi (Photo:Tim Jones)
Charles Bolden and Charles Elachi
Dr Charles Elachi, Director Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Dr Charles Elachi, Director Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I suspect it also helps to have a few star quality communicators, not to say terminal space enthusiasts, on the case – like Bill Nye, Emily Lakdawalla, and Astronomy Outreach Specialist and Planetfest cheerleader Shelley Bonus :

Shelley Bonus (Photo:Tim Jones)
Shelley Bonus “Curiosity Knows No Bounds!”

Commercial Space

Will the future of space be saved by the market?  NASA has made extensive use of commercial contractors since before the Apollo program, and now an upswell of new businesses like SpaceX, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic, bringing with them new business models and work cultures, present fresh possibilities.

The role and opportunities for private investment were explored by a panel comprising Andrew Nelson from XCOR, developer of the Lynx low earth orbit rocket plane; George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, and your best bet for an early space holiday; Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, an initiative which, among other things, is in the process of spawning a host of mini-moon-landers; and David Giger of SpaceX, the group whose Dragon capsule in May 2012 hooked up with the international space station.  Lynx and Dragon were both on display.

XCOR Lynx at Planetfest Pasadena (Photo: Tim Jones)


Andrew Nelson, XCOR (Photo:Tim Jones)
Andrew Nelson, XCOR

As a trend, relatively well understood processes like taxiing to Earth orbit look likely to migrate almost 100% to commercial interests, leaving NASA and the publicly funded space efforts of other nations to push the exploratory envelope.  But it’s not clear-cut.  Peter Diamandis reckoned the first manned mission to Mars could be a private venture – and made a bet with Whitesides to that effect (freebie to orbit on Virgin Galactic if he wins).

George Whitesides (left) and Peter Diamantis (Photo: Tim Jones)
George Whitesides and Peter Diamantis

Private entities can take bigger risks where they’re justified by attractive financial returns.  Diamandis believes asteroids will be commercially mined in the next 10-15 years.  Some contain precious metals, others carbonaceous chondrites – loaded with hydrogen and oxygen (as water) that, converted to fuel could be stored in space depots; beats lifting every ounce to orbit as we do now.  These ideas could revolutionise the fuel logistics of solar system exploration.  Science might be coincident with commercial ventures – but it’s still science.

All that said, with private investments apparently self-limited to the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions, the panel believed public investment is still important.

SPACEX Dragon Capsule at Planetfest Pasadena (Photo: Tim Jones)
SPACEX Dragon Capsule at Planetfest Pasadena

One company already working with NASA is Sierra Nevada, who were involved building the sky-crane which, when this picture of Executive VP Mark Sirangelo was taken, had yet to lower Curiosity safely on to Mars; so maybe that’s a nervous smile.

Exec. VP Sierra Nevada Corp., Mark Sirangelo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Exec. VP Sierra Nevada Corp., Mark Sirangelo

But as one of three suppliers chosen to develop launch systems to reach the space station, along with Boeing and SpaceX, Sirangelo can be happy.  On a more sombre but celebratory note, Sirangelo presented a tribute to the life of astronaut Sally Ride, who died in July this year.

Manned Missions?

Mentally photoshopping human figures into Martian panoramas is irresistible.  And while the debate around the merits of manned versus unmanned exploration trundles on, some folks, like aerospace Engineer, Founder and President of the Mars Society, and author of The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin, just want to get on with it.

President of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin. (Photo:Tim Jones)
President of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin.

Zubrin, whose enthusiasm alone should get him to Earth orbit, favours the systematic transfer of first unmanned, then manned, modules – for fuel generation, living, etc. –  to Mars over a period of years.  At least his approach side steps the popular but contentious (and somewhat macho?) debate around who’s ready to hop on a one-way mission.  When X-Prize founder Peter Diamantis asked who would volunteer at 75% and 50% risk levels, the show of hands by my reckoning was  reserved and super-reserved (although as George Whiteside commented, enough for a crew!)  Diamantis reckoned he’d sign up at the 50% risk level.  I got the impression from NASA Adminstrator Charles Bolden that he personally supports manned exploration.  Further pressure for manned missions comes from advocacy groups such as Artemis Westenberg’s Explore Mars, whose optimistic goal is to see humans on Mars by 2030.

Artemis Westenberg (Photo: Tim Jones)
Artemis Westenberg

Of course, you can go to Mars in your imagination when you like, a mission delegates at Planetfest prepped for with the help of the Space Art panel.  Led by President of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, Jon Ramer, the five space artists discussed the ins and outs of their craft applied to scientific visualisation, fine art, book, and movie work.

Space Artists (Photo:Tim Jones)
Space Artists. From left to right: Jon Ramer, Don Davis, Rick Sternbach, Don Dixon, and Aldo Spadoni.

Staying with the arts.  In tribute to science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, who died in June this year, co-founder of the Planetary Society Louis Friedman, with actor Robert Picardo and space historian Andrew Chaikin, led a poetic tribute to the visionary and sometimes controversial author of The Martian Chronicles.

Louis Friedman (Photo: Tim Jones)
Louis Friedman
Space Historian Andrew Chaikin
Space Historian Andrew Chaikin
Robert Picardo reads Ray Bradbury (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo reads poetry by Ray Bradbury

Diversions and Surprises

Bill Nye may be the CEO of the Planetary Society, but for half an hour on Saturday he donned his trademark lab coat to become 100% ‘Science Guy’ in a liquid nitrogen-fueled double act with actor/director Robert Picardo.  The session ended with Bill feeding marshmallows at -370 F to Picardo and young members of the follow-on ‘careers in space’ panel.

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (the 'Science Guy')(Photo:Tim Jones)
Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye and Robert Picardo do science
Bill Nye launching smoke pulse (Photo: Tim Jones)
Bill Nye launching smoke pulse
Robert Picardo (Photo:Tim Jones)
Robert Picardo
The Right Stuff (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Right Stuff

Special Guests

A host of special guests appeared on Sunday afternoon, perhaps the most diverting being writer / producer Ann Druyan, who was married to and worked with the late Carl Sagan.

Joined on stage by Family Guy producer Seth MacFarlane, Druyan shared progress on a new thirteen part re-make of Sagan’s famous Cosmos series that will be aired on Fox Network and fronted by Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Ann Druyan (Photo: Tim Jones)
Ann Druyan
Ann Druyan (Photo:Tim Jones)
Ann Druyan

It’s encouraging that Druyan is staying close to the production, and through MacFarlane aims to maintain the production values and ethos of the original show.  Asked whether climate change would be addressed in the updated version, Druyan said it would be – as it was in the original.  Also, there would be less emphasis on the nuclear threat.  Again in common with the original, efforts will be made to bridge any perceived science-religion divide, perhaps through an appeal to common goals around themes like preservation of the environment.  As one delegate put it, Carl Sagan could ‘disagree without being disagreeable’.  It will be interesting to see what Tyson does with the Cosmos mantle.

Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (Photo: Tim Jones)
Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan
Seth MacFarlane (Photo:Tim Jones)
Seth MacFarlane (Photo:Tim Jones)

Until Next Year

That’s all folks.  All in all a pretty unforgettable weekend.  Anyone feeling a bit cynical about space exploration or those who support it would do well to sample one of these gigs.  Bill Nye is dead right when he says adventures like Curiosity represent mankind at its best!

 Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs by Tim Jones


Of related interest on Zoonomian

Buck Rogers – A Copper-clad Lesson from History

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory



Naturally Inspired – The Glass Sculpture of Steffen Dam

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)

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.

Steffen Dam was represented at the exhibition by Joanna Bird Pottery.

Colorful Dining

This piece from last Saturday’s New York Times on food colorings and the influence of color on taste perception takes me back to a Wellcome Trust exhibition I visited in 20031

'Chromatic Diet' by Sophie Calle. At Treat Yourself exhibition, Wellcome/Science Museum 2003 (Photo: Tim Jones)
‘Chromatic Diet’ by Sophie Calle, at Treat Yourself exhibition, Wellcome/Science Museum 2003 (Photo: Tim Jones)

Hosted by the London Science Museum, the Treat Yourself exhibition included an artwork, ‘Chromatic Diet’, by French artist Sophie Calle, that reproduced the colour-based diet followed by a character in Calle’s book Double Game 2.

As I haven’t read it, the appeal of eating a different monochromatic dish each day of the week is beyond me.  But Psychologists have for years studied the effect of colour on taste perception, exposing diners to the likes of green french fries, blue steak, and black spaghetti, sometimes under distorting lighting conditions.

And as the NYT piece underlines, for manufacturers of processed foods, colour is a powerful marketing tool.

Yet without any higher scientific motive, I like the idea of inflicting the chromatic diet (or something similar) on an unsuspecting dinner party, just to see what would happen.

O.k., probably lose some friends; but at least it’s mainly natural ingredients and looks quite doable. And having chickened out in 2003, I’m thinking in the age of Heston Blumenthal this might be the moment.  Let me know what happens if you get there before me.

Here are the ingredients list for the dishes in the picture2:

Orange: Purée of carrots, Boiled prawns, Cantaloupe melon, Orange juice

Red: Tomatoes, Steak tartare, Roasted red peppers, Lalande de Pomerol, domaine de Viand, 1990, Pomegranite

White: Flounder, Potatoes, Fromage blanc, Rice, Milk

Green: Cucumber, Broccoli, Spinach, Green basil pasta, Grapes and kiwi fruit, Mint cordial

Yellow: Afghan omelette, Potato salad, Banana, mango ice cream, Pschitt fizzy lemon drink

Pink: Ham, Taramasalata, Strawberry ice cream, Rosé wine from Provence



(1) Review of Treat Yourself at a-n Magazine

(2)New York Times book review of Double Game

Flower Atlas

This beautiful flower arrangement I stumbled upon today has got to be the world’s most colourful interpretation of the Atlas myth.

Flower arrangement representing Atlas. By Sandy Hine and Anne Harman (Photo: Tim Jones)
Flower arrangement representing Atlas. By Sandy Hine and Anne Harman (Photo: Tim Jones)

In Greek mythology, the punishment meted out by Zeus to Atlas for his siding with the Titans against the Olympians was to carry the heavens on his shoulders for all time.

Atlas at the Rockefeller Centre (Wikipedia)

We’re familar with the statues of muscular bearded guys kneeling under spheres – sometimes with the earth substituted for the heavens.  And in her book and film Longitude, author Dava Sobel tells how as a child she was inspired by the Atlas statue outside New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The Atlas arrangement by Sandy Hine and Anne Harman is one of many on display under the theme Myths & Legends at the annual Florimania exhibition running 1-3 April at Hampton Court.

They don’t build them like this anymore: The Gamble House

I’ve just taken a tour of the Gamble House – probably THE icon of American Arts & Crafts architecture.


The Gamble House, Pasadena (Photo:Tim Jones)

Designed and built as David Gamble’s (of Proctor & Gamble fame) winter retreat, this 1908 Charles and Henry Greene designed house in Pasadena is well worth a visit, for both it’s artistic and technological appeal.  No interior photography allowed, but here are some pics of the elegant joinery and fastening methods.

Construction is almost entirely in wood, with beautifully simple woodworking joints: lots of scarfs, laps, mortis and tenon (fingers), and pegs.

Our guide, however, put paid to the popular myth that the house is entirely without nails or screws.  Brass screws are used in the staircase for example, but cleverly hidden behind mahogany plugs (the tasteful predecessor of those cheap plastic caps that come with IKEA self-assemble furniture).

Scarf joint in the Gamble House (Photo:Tim Jones)

You’d also never guess that inside the supporting pillars are steel inserts that extend into the foundations; one of the first implementations of anti-earthquake measures.

Mortise and tenon joint, with pegs; in Gamble House (Photo:Tim Jones)


gamble house window

Gamble House window. Photo by Tim Jones

In 1908, the house cost $80,000 – roughly ten times the norm for a similar sized property – and took 20 people about a year to build.  It looks it.


Gamble House
Gamble House


Photos: Tim Jones and Erin Conel Jones