Monday, December 19, 2011

Senses of Science

Four months ago I wrote a post about wonder in an attempt to sketch out the aspirational mood of this blog (or at least my sense of it). In six week increments since I’ve metaphorically returned to that mood and tried to make its implications more concrete by mapping out the actual directions that thinking about wonder and new lines of disciplinary mingling have led my own research: first, into the domain of science film, and second, into postulations about this genre within a critical category I called ‘the impossible image.’

So come December, I’ve decided to take the opportunity for reflection provided by the end of a calendar year and circle back to wonder, backlit by a sense of some things I’ve learned from this multi-directional conversation thus far. The hero of this post is an out-and-out iconoclast: the scientist and Surrealist filmmaker Jean Painlevé, whose six-decade career was devoted to the intertwining of science and art on every level. A biologist trained in the Laboratoire d’Anatomie et d’Histologie Comparée at the Sorbonne, Painlevé was an avant-garde photographer and filmmaker who penned countless texts, reviews, polemics, and manifestos; was politically active during and beyond the Second World War; and initiated a scientific film institute dedicated to supporting and disseminating science film well before the nexus of art and science was comprehended as a serious topic.

underwater bricolage: Jean Painlevé with his diving gear
"Everything is the center of the world. I'm forced to be multicentric."
Best of all, Painlevé is a humorist. His mesmerizing films and delicate photographs, chatty texts and sparking interviews give us a way to concretize a subtle quality of the aesthetics of wonder—the significance of pleasure in the strangeness and surprising beauty of the natural world. The mood of his contribution to the history of our topic seems to me perfectly encapsulated in Foucault's riff on discovery and the affects of wonder:
Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity is seen as futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes "care"; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.
Jean Painlevé, Liquid Crystals (1978) color, sound, 16mm, 6 min.; audio composition by Philip Glass

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bacteria being naughty


This is nothing more than a pre-weekend, "isn't that interesting", eye-candy, filler post. It is a video I saw about a month ago that shows flashing bacteria.

Basically it shows bacteria that spontaneously flash (hence why they're being naughty... oh nevermind). Here is an article that explains what they're doing in more depth.  When on their own, this flashing is mostly random. In fact, even when they are in small bunches they appear to flash randomly. However, when in large packs they all flash in unison.

I suppose it is somewhat aesthetically pleasing just on its own, but the thing that drew my attention was how fascinating it was that the individual bacteria behaved differently when a part of a large collection as opposed to when on their own. It appears groupthink exists even at the microscopic level of life.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What does the sound of the Big Bang look like?

Six weeks ago I wrote a post where I tried to explain how we know that the Big Bang definitely happened. There are of course other reasons why we know the Big Bang happened, but I decided to focus on one, relatively easily explained piece of evidence, which is the existence and frequency spectrum of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

Quickly summarising: The CMB is very cold radiation that permeates the entire universe. It was created when the expanding and cooling universe cooled to a point where it was cold enough for hydrogen atoms to form. Before this point, the electrons and protons in hydrogen had enough energy to be free from each other to form an opaque plasma. Once neutral hydrogen formed the universe became transparent and the CMB was formed and travelled (almost) freely forever after. We have detected and measured this CMB and its intensity as a function of its frequency (effectively, the brightness of each colour) is exactly what the Big Bang predicted. If there was no Big Bang there would be no reason to expect a CMB to exist, let alone for it to have this particular property. For more details please read my previous post and the links within.

When writing that post I had intended to say quite a bit more about the CMB and the Big Bang than I ended up having space for. It is not quite true that the mere existence (and spectrum) of the CMB is enough to conclusively determine that the Big Bang must have happened. However the existence of the CMB did build the metaphorical equivalent of a thousand big, bold and bright neon signs that all pointed aggressively towards the Big Bang being true.

When I began writing that earlier post and claimed that the CMB does conclusively prove that the Big Bang happened I had in my mind what I actually discuss in this post. This is the fact that we can see in the CMB the effects of sound waves that existed in the primordial hydrogen plasma. It is these sound waves and our measurements of them that puts the final nail in the coffin of all things not the Big Bang. They also represent what I claimed in that earlier post to be “jaw-droppingly stunning pieces of detective work”.

The glorious Planck satellite, measurer of all things CMB

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This is something I saw on the internet that was kind of nice. It seems that the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh is haunted by a mysterious artist. The artist takes books (not library books, thankfully!), turns them into sculptures and then surreptitiously places them in the library. A more thorough story on the sculptor is here (though not the identity).

Chris Scott/flickr

The library itself named the first work, a poetree... so don't blame me for the title of the post. The image above is a movie theatre with the characters leaping out of the screen and challenging the audience (a different angle below).

Chris Scott/flickr

There are lots of other equally nice sculptures, such as the original poetree, as well as a pleasant detective mystery to go with the missing identity of the surreptitious sculpture. All can be seen at the news article, so why not go read it?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Leonardo: A Painter at the Court of Milan, for the Twenty-First Century

Study of Arms and Hands, c. 1474
Study of a Woman, c. 1490

Earlier this month, one of those once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions opened in London: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. It runs at the National Gallery until early February.

This isn't a review, since I haven't seen the show. But it amazes me that an exhibition like this exists, so consider this another 'live stream' post—a placeholder for reflections and mullings on and around Leonardo's unbelievable images, with some suggestions about why we are seeing more of this work; and subject to being updated with new links, reviews and so on.

To state the obvious, it isn't easy to put together an exhibition like this. In fact there has never been, and will never be, a 'complete' Leonardo retrospective in the manner of a Picasso, a Judd, or a Richter survey—those big, bulky exhibitions that cover the full range of a capacious individual's oeuvre, and of which one can say, with a certain admiration, "I am large, I contain multitudes." These kinds of shows are necessarily overwhelming because they cover a multifaceted life. But in this case the reasons are practical: some of these fifteenth- and sixteenth-century frescoes are site-specific (painted directly on a wall), and they are universally under bureaucratic lock and key: all Leonardo's work, from the most magnificent painting to the quickest, most fleeting of drawings are owed by institutions and individuals (and the Royal Family). So the problems of red tape for any curator contemplating this kind of mountainous show is unimaginable.

Studies of Water passing Obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9

Monday, November 28, 2011

Real time World War II

[Edit: the url to follow this twitter account is this one,!/RealTimeWWII. You don't need your own twitter account to read the page. Also, I somehow convinced myself that yesterday (when I wrote this post) was the 29th, when it was actually the 28th. The Winter War starts on the 30th.]

There is a twitter account that tweets as if it is a news agency reporting World War II live (@RealTimeWW2). I find this account fascinating and have been following it now for more than a month.

The depth and the breadth of what this account adds to one's understanding of the war is actually quite large, so I can only touch the surface in this post. The first thing I noticed was how this method of telling the story of WWII really gives you a much more accurate sense of the timescales involved than you get from reading a history book. Six years is a long time. I discovered the account a few days into the initial German invasion of Poland; Britain and France soon declared war and yet no military action has taken place between any of these nations, apart from a few skirmishes at sea.

It would be foolish to interpret this as somehow making the war boring. Though, in fact, contemporary Britain did make this mistake. There are regular tweets describing British behaviour that makes it obvious why the name they gave this part of the war was the “Phoney War”.

“German pilot who fought off 3 planes to let his crew escape is guest of honour tonight at an RAF dinner in France. Off to POW camp tomorrow”

However, it can be assured that from the perspective of the Poles, the Czechs and the Jews in occupied Germany, this war has been far from phoney so far.

“New German decree: 'Aryans' married to Jews have been given 1 year to divorce their Jewish husband/wife or 'face the consequences'.”
"Occupied Poland: New decree orders all Jews in Krakow to wear an armband with a blue Star of David, as seen being sold: "
I have toyed with writing a post about this account for a while and decided sometime ago that today would be the day I write the post. Today is the eve of the second major event of The War. That is, the Winter War between Finland and The Soviet Union. Tweets that have gone out in the last 48 hours are ominous and frightening:

“The USSR has renounced its non-aggression treaty with Finland due to "hostile actions"; Moscow radio reports 3 more incidents on border”

The “incidents” were of course incidents that were faked by Soviets on their own outposts to justify military action. By doing such acts their aggression is made more morally ambiguous and their own populace can be made much more supportive of any action.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Nature, red in tooth and claw." and blue, and green, and yellow, and...

The picture above is a 'brainbow' created by a lab in Harvard - it is a fluorescent microscopy image of the hippocampus of a mouse genetically engineered to express three fluorescent proteins. Depending on how the genes of the individual neurones are randomly recombined, each cell will express a different combination of the three proteins, giving each a unique colour! I love the beauty of the resultant image, and it is a great example of the meeting of scientific and aesthetic research that is becoming more and more widespread. Another example is given below - natural fireworks revealed by labelling actin microtubules in dividing cells. These pictures and plenty of others are available in an online exhibition run by the journal Cell at the Cell Picture Show. The images are incredible and there are explanations of what's being shown for those without a biology background - well worth a visit!

Image rights belong to Cell and the original creators.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Adaptive by name, adaptive by nature - your immune system the tactical genius!

The previous post in this series can be found here.

In my last post I described how the adaptive branch of the immune system is the real player when it comes to fighting infection. In this post I hope to give you some idea of just how sophisticated a tactical machine this system is.

The battle plan

As any good general knows, not all enemies can be fought in the same way. History is littered with examples of mighty empires who were stopped in their tracks by relatively small opponents who simply fought in a way that they were not used to and couldn’t adapt to. The wars that are being fought inside you right now are no different, and require your battle strategies to be adaptive if they are to keep you alive.

Pathogens come in all shapes and sizes. They can be viruses that highjack your cells’ own replicating machinery to make more of themselves; intracellular bacteria that smuggle themselves into your cells and devour them from the inside; extracellular bacteria that float around in the blood or other fluids and generally make a nuisance of themselves; or they can even be multicellular parasites that can be big enough to see, such as tapeworms or the Plamodia that cause malaria. The fact that they all have different molecular components is not a problem since, as discussed in my last post, your B and T cells all have different antigen recognition receptors, and so you’ve most likely got one somewhere that can recognise whatever’s invading you. However, deploying those B and T cells in the most effective way possible is the tough task that awaits your immune system when a pathogen first invades you. A strategy must be devised and honed to the specific weakness of the enemy – but how is this achieved?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Three Impossible Images

Marianne Moore, A Jellyfish (1959)

Of course this first one isn’t even an image, but a poem—a lyric. In this digital audio file at the SFMA Poetry Center you can hear Marianne Moore reading it. Listening to this clip is lovely, because it gives you a sense of the witty, self-depreciating charm of the personality behind the language.

If this poem is an ‘image,’ it is a drama of the almost-visible, starring a jellyfish. Quite a specific, individual jellyfish, swimming around as they do, and momentarily caught in a small poetic narrative. It is the jellyfish that is both visible and invisible: fluctuating, transparent, ethereal, sometimes translucent and sometimes highly colored, jewel-toned, gem-like, strangely compelling, very beautiful, intensely desirable, and alive.

The first lines of the poem contain so much all-over movement that you sense the liquidity before articulating it. Yet when the “arm/ approaches” everything changes. Suddenly it hits you that there’s no glass barrier, an aquarium or a zoo, to separate the person from the jellyfish, so that that this might actually be an eco-drama: a story of ecological ethics in which the arm is in the ocean with the jellyfish.

And this realization introduces two important other movements. When the arm drops back it registers fear, but also something else. “Abandon[ing] your intent” isn't exactly giving up. There’s a hint of purposeful letting go: a deliberate act of relinquishment, or an instinctive reaction to the liveness of the jellyfish’s quiver.

This poem is a kind of motionless animation. It is a drama in which what is not visible becomes more practically significant than we can see, so that a very attractive ‘thing’ is not removed from its environment.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Your weekly minute of physics

Minutephysics is a youtube channel that produces weekly, minute long videos about... physics (and maths sometimes too, but from a physicist's perspective).

I think the videos are great. I think the guy behind it is very talented. One small caveat should be given before I link you to some of my favourite videos he has made. He limits himself to explaining, in just one minute, some topics that are quite intricate. As a result he sometimes has to be a little liberal with the truth. I wouldn't say that anything he says is wrong, but I would say that it is often a highly simplified version of the truth, sometimes missing some very important pieces.

But if I put that caveat aside, I think minutephysics is an excellent and well executed idea. The video I've embedded above explains Dark Energy. It isn't actually the minutephysics guy talking but is a guest voice-over from physicist and prominent blogger Sean Carroll. So, if you're wondering what those guys won that Nobel Prize for a few weeks ago, have a watch and see (but do keep the truth-ness caveat in mind).

Really all of the minutephysics videos are worth a watch, but two of my favourites are:

Adding past infinity and There is no pink light

You should definitely watch both of them.

The feat of mathematical craziness worked through in the first one should blow your mind a little. You probably won't believe the claim made in the video, so check out this link to understand it a but further. If that isn't enough crazy for you, check this link out. This sort of crazy mathematics has some application in physics, but I don't feel confident enough right now to try to walk that minefield of balancing understandable explanation, without falling into over-simplification.

I really like the second video. I will explain why sometime later in the week in the comments. Anyway, it is also a (loosely) relevant video given the recent conversation about light that developed in the comments here.

Twitter: @just_shaun

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cheating at jigsaw puzzles

Recent guest poster and blog follower, Matt informed me of the following interesting example of science helping art. Or more precisely, helping recover art.

"In 1944, a bombing raid almost completely destroyed an enormous Padua church fresco that dated back to the Renaissance and had once been admired by Goethe. Some 88,000 tiny pieces of plaster were rescued from the rubble, and a mathematician has managed to piece some of the masterpiece back together."
Link to the original article.

I recommend going to the original article to properly understand what this clever mathematician has done. If I try to summarise I expect that my chances of accurate description are relatively small, given that I will be summarising a news story that is already a summary of the actual algorithm used by the mathematician.

It's a rare example of the overlapping of art, history and mathematics. The application won't have a profound impact on any of the disciplines, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Of course if the art historians had just given me all the pieces 13 or so years ago I'm sure I could have put them all together on one of the many afternoons I spent in the summer holidays watching cricket and piecing together progressively more complicated jigsaw puzzles. But, I'm sure they had their reasons to wait.

[With apologies to Shaun for editing this post, here are a couple of mathematical explanations of this research, beginning with a summary. -MM]

Massimo Fornasier, "Mathematics enters the picture." Mathematics and Statistics, 2009, Volume 3, 217-228.

Massimo Fornasier, "Faithful Recovery of Vector Valued Functions from Incomplete Data: Recolorization and Art Restoration," Scale Space and Variational Methods in Computer Vision: Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2007, Volume 4485/2007, 116-127.

Massimo Fornasier, Domenico Toniolo, "Fast, robust and efficient 2D pattern recognition for re-assembling fragmented images." Pattern Recognition, Volume 38, Issue 11, November 2005, 2074-2087.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The smoking CMB evidence of the Big Bang

The centre of the galaxy and a sliver of the CMB anisotropies

I was asked recently how I know that the Big Bang definitely happened. This post will be my attempt to answer that question. I will focus on something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB for the rest of this post). The CMB is as close to smoking gun evidence of the Big Bang as you can get. In fact, it's such good evidence that it is better than a smoking gun. The figure of speech should no longer be “smoking gun evidence”. It should be “smoking CMB evidence”.

The other reason I am writing about the CMB is that humanity's prediction of its existence and our subsequent measurements of it and its properties are jaw-droppingly stunning pieces of detective work. If you are ever feeling down about human nature and our propensity to do kind of stupid things then just remember what you're about to read and reassure yourself that at times we can be incredible.

What is “The Big Bang”? (A very brief review)

Everywhere we look things are moving away from us and the further away we look the faster things are moving. This means that the distance between any two unbound objects in the observed universe is increasing. Or, in other words, the universe is expanding. As time goes on things will get further apart, the total density of the universe will decrease and the temperature of outer space will go down.

But what happens if we run the clock backwards? Well, naturally, things will get closer together, the total density of the universe will increase and the temperature of outer space will go up. This suggests that at one point far back in time the universe was in a very hot, very dense state that was rapidly expanding. This, and nothing else, is the essence of what the Big Bang model of the universe is.

Of course, we understand how the matter in the universe behaves at the current, low, temperatures. Also, thanks to results from particle accelerators and other experiments we even know how the matter in the universe behaves at quite high temperatures. This means that we can make very definite statements about what the universe should have looked like when it was below those temperatures. But, although we can and should speculate about what the universe might have looked like above these temperatures, we can't yet say anything about those times with certainty.

So, if you let me repeat myself for emphasis, at its heart the Big Bang model is nothing more and nothing less than the idea that the universe was at some point in the past very hot, very dense and rapidly expanding. To work out whether this is what the universe was actually like or not we need to know what the present day consequences of this might be. To answer that question we should take a closer look at what the universe we see now would actually look like at these higher temperatures.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Muammar Gaddafi

I had a pre-prepared, midweek, filler post ready to upload today but instead, here is my reflection on the death of Gaddafi.

This video really struck me, particularly the complete and utter lifelessness of the body being dragged along the ground. No matter who you are, no matter how powerful you become, no matter how much wealth you acquire, one day you will be nothing more than a sack of meat. I don't mean this observation to spark one of those Carpe Diem, seize the day, make the most of your life, type of realisations. That isn't my natural response to this. If there is a group of people throughout history who have seized the day and lived their life to the fullest, then Mr Gaddafi is definitely a member. What I am drawn to do is to wonder what part of life is worth seizing, because for all of Gaddafi's pride and power and extravagance during his life, he still ended up cowering inside a pipe, in the city of his birth, begging his pursuers "don't shoot". Nothing Gaddafi lived for now remains. Nothing.

I can't help but compare Gaddafi's death to the also recent death of Dennis Ritchie. Most of us probably didn't even know who Dennis Ritchie was before he died (I didn't). Yet, he played an instrumental part in developing one of the most widely used computer programming languages. He also played a key part in developing the computer operating system who's descendants power the world.

One of these two people lived his life full of glory, fame, fortune and grandeur. The other did not and I highly doubt was any less happy because of it. But which one's life has the greater legacy? Who's impact will still exist hundreds of years from now and who's impact is gone already (mere hours after his death)?

While most of us are not going to become dictators of oil-rich nations or design programming languages that end up used throughout the world, the same decision exists for anyone with the tiniest shred of ambition. Strive for popularity and acceptance, now? Or, strive for a lasting impact on tomorrow?  Certainly the second path can often lead to the same destination as the first. But, any time we spend pursuing the first path for its own sake inevitably leads us further away from the destination of the second.

No matter how much glory we obtain, or seizing of the day that we do, one day we will all be soulless sacks of meat, just like Colonel Gaddafi.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Historical Transparency-washing?

[Note from Shaun: the following is a guest post from Matthew Metcalfe. Just like our previous guest poster, Matt and I went to school together. While, at heart, Matt is as kiwi as a 50 cent lolly mixture, he currently lives in Munich. He is also a trained historian. The following is Matt's searching account of an attempt by one of the richest families in Germany, the Quandt dynasty, to transparently(?) reveal their family history.]

"The Rise of the Quandts"

Since I agree with the premise of this blog – the desire to combine the arts and science – I wanted to open up a short chapter on a development out of the circles of German historiography (in German such courses of study belong to the “breadless arts”).

Where most people see politics as current affairs, when you are an historian, you tend to see history everywhere; behind trade deals, bilateral agreements, political and religious conflicts in northern Africa or the Middle East.

If I had to explain how I see the world, for me the world events seem to happen like untidy piles of photos. At any one point you can see the top photos, showing a snapshot of history. But they always overlap, are different sizes and of varying quality and sharpness.

As you pick off the top photos (for most people the current affairs on the news) you see that the motifs are similar but the faces are different. The overlaps and the connections move back and forth as you go through layer on layer.

Three-and-a-half years ago there was an industrial family dynasty where the stack of photos seemed rather short and orderly. The Quandts were a quiet bunch, not talking about their family in detail, typical for tight-knit powerful families. This was all the more interesting because of the sharpness of some of the photos (both real and metaphorical).

For those unfamiliar with the name, the Quandt family, among the richest in Germany, has been the controlling shareholder of BMW since the 1950s. Even though the shareprice is down and analysts are currently saying to buy while it is underpriced, the total fortune of the various family members is estimated at a total of upwards of US30bn, thanks to the wealth of companies they control.

As is the case with many industrial dynasties in Germany, it was safely assumed that the Quandts had profited disproportionately from the policies and crimes perpetrated during the period of National Socialism.

In spite of this, due to the facts that

  1. the members of the family directly involved had died before the major wave of investigations into companies were initiated after intense pressure by victim organisations (e.g. companies like Allianz, Deutsche Bank) 
  2. the successors to the family fortune had never really wanted to delve into the darker corners of their father’s closet and jealously guarded the archival material,

the exact details of the involvement had never surfaced.

Until, however, a documentary called “The Silence of the Quandts” in 2007, produced and broadcasted by the German broadcaster ARD let off a bombshell and accused the family of intentionally silencing their history and the growth of their fortune, social and political influence on the backs of concentration camp slave labour during WWII.

Friday, October 14, 2011

...But That Was [Yesterday]

Hello dear readers,

So on Monday we will be receiving our second ever guest post. That almost makes us a legitimate, web-worthy, ready to be viewed by the masses blog, right?

To tide us all over until that momentous moment I will let a discussion from the comments on the last guest post spill over into a new blog post. As you might remember, that post was on whether games can be classified as art. In the comments, Michelle pointed out that one way in which games challenge our definition of art is that the interaction which is such a necessary element of games, also lessens how contemplative they can be. And in "conventional" art, contemplation is almost the entire point and purpose.

While I think both Barnabas and Michelle would argue that games need not be contemplative to succeed in becoming art, this needn't stop me from trying to point out some contemplative games.

So, as some candy for the weekend, I give you ...But That Was [Yesterday] (which was actually buried in a list of recommended games in one of the links in Barnabas' original post).


Go here for the game designer's blog post about the game. At the link you can see links to other games by the same designer. How My Grandfather Won The War is also a very good game that forces the player to think about the game while playing. Difficult, but good.

I like ...But That Was Yesterday. It is not a game so much as an interactive story. The game elements are there not to give you a game, but to force you to take part in the story. When events happen to the character, the actions you are forced to take then force you to think about and also even feel to a certain degree what is happening.I think it is done well, it certainly drew an emotive response out of me when I played it. And I think it did so in a way that was only possible because of the interactive element, not despite it.

If you have the time (which you do because it shouldn't take longer than 10 minutes) it is well worth a play through, especially if you don't normally "play games". Give this one a try. Once you've played it through, your thoughts are certainly welcome in the comment section. As are links to other games that might pass the contemplative test.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elegy in the Turbine Hall

I was sad to realize while in London in September that I was narrowly missing two shows at Tate Modern: an impressive looking Gerhard Richter survey, and Tacita Dean's commission for the Turbine Hall. Dean's work opened last night to a chorus of reviews, with lots more undoubtedly to come. I'll keep an ongoing roster of interesting commentary at the end of this post.

The piece is called FILM. It's a striking installation of poetic cinema: a jewel-toned, silent, 11 minute film presented as a monumental projection onto a 13 meter screen nestled toward the back of the Turbine Hall. The projection system uses 35mm film and a cinemascope lens turned around at 90 degrees to achieve the very unusual vertical format. And it contains no digital post-production - all the visualizations, superimpositions, and image combinations are made with "analog" methods: during production, inside a 16mm camera, and with splices on a Steenbeck editing machine.

That would be because the piece is a strong polemic for the material of film, and a claim for the differences between celluloid and digital. Tacita Dean talks about celluloid film as her medium here and here, likening it to oil paint. She wrote an impassioned manifesto for it earlier this year, and in the exhibition's accompanying catalog surveys 80 cinematic artists about this question of filmic obsolescence. "Pitched against this," she writes - 'this' being the film industry's absolute turn to the digital in recent years - "art is voiceless and insignificant." You don't have to be sympathetic to this point of view to still hear in it a Shakespearean question -"How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?" In a sensitive documentary, produced by the Tate to contextualize the show, Dean describes the intensity of her commitment to this medium around a question of intimacy:
Film and digital are just different mediums. They're very intrinsically different: they're made differently, they're seen differently. Film is my medium, just as oil is the medium of painters. I need the time of film for my work, and the atmosphere of film.
Anticipating the end of celluloid is like waiting for a tsunami to arrive. A lot will change when the wave finally hits, and there have been plenty of indicators of its encroaching already - practically for a generation. But we're probably near the crucial moment now, which adds a certain pathos to this work. The last lab in Britain that would process 16mm film closed during the production of Dean's FILM, and inexperience in the Dutch lab that was able to process it resulted in some major errors.

The material medium of celluloid film has remained essentially unchanged since cinema was invented in the nineteenth century. I think this is partly why its passing away is experienced so emotionally, as an enormous loss, by cinephilic aficionados. But the analog/digital debate can easily devolve into a retrograde fight, which is why I think it matters that Dean claims that her stance isn't absolutist but aimed at demanding ongoing choice between the two:
that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.
I'd be curious to hear from people who are able to actually see the piece since my sense of it is, of course, digitally mediated.

Reviews, Tacita Dean, FILM, Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 11 October 2011–11 March 2012
(in chronological order, more or less):
e-flux, press release
Background interview at Phaidon Press
In the artist's voice, the making of: a lovely process documentary from the Tate
Sylvie Lin, The Disappearance of Film-An Interview with Philippe-Alain Michaud (Art Taipei Forum)
Adrian Searle, The Guardian
Emily Eakin, New Yorker
Sarah Kent, The Arts Desk
Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman
GertiesGirl, Inscape (blog) 
Jackie Wullschlager, The Financial Times
Charles Darwent, The Independent
Alison Roberts, This Is London
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Royal Academy of Arts Magazine
Cate Smierciak, Berlin Art Link
Sally O'Reilly, Art Review
And the last word, perhaps, to the curator :
In reading about Dean’s filmic works, which document edifices either derelict (Bubble House and Palast) or belonging to another era (Boots and Fernsehturm), or sitters captured towards the end of their life, a word that is all too often used to describe them is ‘nostalgia’. This characterisation of Dean’s films gives me pause. It strikes me as wrong, or at least reductive and misleading. Dean’s works have thus far tended to be written about in terms of ruins, remnants and obsolescence, and while those words may be applied to some of the subjects captured by her camera, the images within her films, and in FILM particularly, are not fragmented or entropic, but instead alive and vital. They are images which very much seem to be making a case for why they should, why they must, be preserved in order to go on existing. And this difference between my account of Dean’s work and those of others hinges upon a simple perception.

Where some see fossilisation in the subjects captured by her camera’s lens, I see revivification, every time the projector is switched on and these images are summoned back to life once more. If film is a medium that seemingly lacks a physical presence or substance, and is instead one which flickers and fades phantasmagorically before us and then persists largely in the memory, then this immateriality is echoed in Dean’s films, capturing that which is fugitive or fleeting – light changing, places or people before they vanish, time passing. Those who see only nostalgia in her films miss the point, because what I see in Dean’s work, and in FILM in particular, is wonderment at what can be salvaged by the camera’s lens. 

Image credits: Ian Nicholson / PA; Sarah Lee for The Guardian; Ray Tang/Rex Features, all from The Guardian; video from the Visit London Blog

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why you’re not dead - surviving in a world of enemies

I hate to break it to you, but I’m afraid you have a potentially life-threatening disease; in fact you have quite a few. Aren’t you fortunate that you have the most sophisticated protection system ever devised fighting to keep you healthy? If I took away your immune system right now you most likely would not live to read my next post. What would kill you would be the everyday bacteria, viruses and fungi that are, quite literally, on everything you touch, eat, drink or breathe, and are trying to use up the precious resource that is your body as your read this now. Luckily for you, I’m not going to take your defences away, but I will try and give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of this incredible system and what we know about how it works.

The innate immune system - stone-age defences

Broadly speaking, the mammalian immune system is split into two branches: innate and adaptive. The innate immune system is what’s left over from earlier stages in our evolution and is basically a way of making ourselves a tough place for pathogens to survive. This is done in a number of ways of varying sophistication. One simple mechanism is inflammation at an area of infection. In inflammation, innate immune cells (a branch of white blood cells known as non-lymphocytic leukocytes) such as macrophages or dendritic cells detect fragments of pathogens that are common for many species, things like components of the bacterial cell wall  or particles of viral DNA. This detection is achieved by receptors present at the surface and in the interior of these cells that have developed alongside pathogens throughout our evolutionary history and so are well-tuned to detect them. The activation of these receptors by pathogenic components causes the cells to release a whole host of pro-inflammatory molecules - one well-known example is histamine, which causes vasodilation and hence inflammation, and is why you will have probably taken anti-histamines if you suffer from allergies.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Total Perspective Vortex

[I apologise to all readers of the blog who also take the time to read the comments because you have probably already have seen the following videos. For those who don't read the comments, you're missing out on half of the purpose of the blog.]

Michelle asked in this post what role cinema plays in science. I think this is an interesting question and a smart choice of post from Michelle. Opening a dialogue between science and art isn't easy. We speak very different languages. We sometimes tackle similar questions, but we do the tackling in very different ways. Moving images though are something that exist in both worlds. They may be used very differently, but that's the interesting thing; how are they used differently? How are they used similarly? There are tools such as sculpture and advanced mathematics that probably aren't used in both worlds, but moving images are.

So moving images are a great example for this blog because they give us that first piece of common ground from which to begin a conversation. 

My first contributions to Michelle's questions were the following two films. They are the best examples I know of that properly show how insignificant the Earth is. Watch them in high definition.

The first film, above, is a film of the dark matter particles in the Millenium Simulation. This is what we expect the universe should look like if we could see the dark matter in it. As stated in the wikipedia link, each individual particle in this simulation (i.e. pinprick of light in the film) has a mass one billion times the mass of the sun. Not only that, but the total volume of the simulation is much less than the total volume of the observed universe. Keep that in perspective when watching... this video shows only a small fraction of the total volume of the universe and each dot in the video is much bigger than an entire galaxy! (don't forget that one galaxy will itself be 100,000 light years wide - this is so big that in one human lifetime light could only travel 0.1% of its width - and that is just one galaxy, something just big enough [edited from the original - "not big enough"] to be seen in this video.)

The film above is the real world equivalent. This film shows the locations of individual galaxies in the observed universe as seen by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. SDSS has only mapped a fraction of the sky and can only see galaxies that are within a certain distance of us. So you see less of the universe, but at a finer resolution. In each galaxy in this video there will be billions and billions of stars just like our sun. This website helps if you find it hard to visualise what the number one billion actually means.

As the conversation develops I will hopefully find time to explain the scientific gains from both SDSS and the Millenium Simulation as well as what a scientist gains from watching the films themselves. But for now, let's just treat these as eye candy for the weekend as we wait for James' next proper post, due to arrive on Monday.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Congratulations Cosmology

The news today had an almost poetic structure to it, as if it was part of a well crafted story.

Firstly, for all those rock dwellers out there, the Nobel Prize in physics, announced today, went to two groups who, in 1998, turned the world of cosmology upside down. Their discovery subsequently planted a great big question mark in the rest of the world of fundamental physics, for it was the observations made by today's Nobel prize winners that caused the entry into the standard cosmological model of that most mysterious of concepts:
Dark Energy
The observation these groups made is all the more beautiful for how mundane it actually is. They simply made the observation that a bunch of distant supernovae were dimmer than had previously been expected. But, still today, nobody has any good idea what causes this dimming. Subsequent cosmological observations have made it clear that the dimness of these supernovae probably means the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but why? And if it isn't accelerating, what profound property of our universe is so cleverly mimicking this acceleration.

This was great news for cosmology and if the fact that observations of exploding stars can completely change our understanding of the make up of the universe wasn't poetic enough, today also happened to be the day that ESA announced its next wave of big experiments. One of these was Euclid (artist's impression below). The confirmation of Euclid's eventual launch is also great news for cosmology. On the same day that one beautiful cosmological experiment wins the most prestigious prize available to a scientist, another beautiful cosmological experiment is announced.

What is ESA's stated goal for Euclid? Nothing else but:
To understand the nature of dark energy and dark matter by accurate measurement of the accelerated expansion of the Universe through different independent methods.
And so, while today the big news headlines were of the Nobel Prize being awarded to the two groups who pointed out an enormous cosmological mystery, it is not outside the realm of possibility that hiding subtly in the news background the experiment that will solve this mystery was also today finally made a certainty.

You couldn't write a better script if you tried.

An artist's impression of the Euclid satellite

Monday, October 3, 2011

Games are art.

[Note from Shaun: The following is a guest post from Barnabas Soon. Barnabas and I went to school together and often used to discuss whether computer games could be considered art. Barnabas has always thought yes, he is also the first person to give into my "will you write a guest post for us" harassment. Thank you Barnabas. Enjoy.]

What is Art?

According to Google's definition, art is defined as:
"The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."
Following this definition, for me, works of art, be they painting, sculpture, drawings, literature or film are a medium in which the creator is also trying to convey a message, reveal something interesting, create a visual impact or create an emotional impact.

Are video games art? 

A video game is also a medium in which the creator is trying to convey a message or create an emotional impact. If art is a creation that makes you think, imagine or feel, then just as film, literature and TV can be art, games can be art.

In the same way that film and comics have evolved, changed and eventually gained acceptance in mainstream society as art; video games are now following this same trajectory. They have evolved from merely being simplistic simulations to something much greater. They have evolved into an experience.

Unlike the passive mediums of books and film, games are an interactive medium. They are dramas that require audience participation. If you don’t make choices, the game will never continue, the story will never unfold. Your character will remain there passive, or worse, die. This interaction, and the mental, psychological and emotional commitment required by the player sets games apart from other mediums. It is also because games can reproduce the same feelings that other forms of art can elicit that numerous games can be considered ‘art’. The experience of a video game is multimedia. Sound, graphics, interface and interaction with the game world and feedback of your actions all come together to create the experience.

Like any other medium, there will be good games and bad games and others that are downright weird. Your enjoyment of video games will depend a great deal on your personality. Strategy games like Simcity which simulate running a city are video games which wouldn't probably be classified as 'art', but are still fun and interesting in their own right and can often teach us valuable lessons about life.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Computer games, science and Foldit

Next Monday we will be having our first ever guest post (I know, I know, exciting right?). In anticipation of this great event and because it is loosely related I thought I would mention the following piece of incredible innovation humanity has shown. 

Foldit, is a computer game designed by Seattle based biochemist, David Baker. In the game the player twists and contorts a virtual protein molecule to try to guess its correct, or most efficient, shape. The game itself seems to be quite popular, at least for a small independent game of this nature.

Now ordinarily a game like this might be a quaint example of a clever scientist coming up with an innovative way to make his research more popular and understandable. However, this is not actually the primary aim of Foldit at all. The aim of Foldit is to use the insight and cleverness of the gamers to advance the science itself.

This sounds like a ridiculous idea, but as you can see in the video below, it turns out that the Foldit experiment isn't doing so badly.

And, as explained in this article at Nature News Blog, at an annual competition, intended for biochemists to predict the shapes of proteins, a team of Foldit players did surprisingly well. In fact, they made a genuine scientific discovery. From the article:
Foldit’s biggest success so far came after CASP9 [the annual competition], on an enzyme produced by a retrovirus called Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV). A player who goes by the name 'mimi' came up with a shape that would be accurate enough to serve as the basis for determining the real shape of the protein based on X-ray diffraction measurements
"The M-PMV structure had stumped scientists for a very long time before Foldit players made their breakthrough. This is the first example I know of game players solving a long-standing scientific problem," Baker wrote in an email.
You can find the game itself here.

How is this related to the upcoming guest post? Hah, you'll have to come back next Monday if you want to know the answer to that. In the meantime, don't forget to read the comments and join in with the discussion relating to Michelle's post below.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Moving images, everywhere

A few years ago the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris opened a large public exhibition titled Le Mouvement des images (The Movement of Images) -- information and images here. The Centre Pompidou is France’s National Museum of Modern Art, covering both the 20th and 21st centuries, and it boasts one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of film and moving image art.

Le Mouvement des images was based on a straightforward but quite radical premise: that the art of the 20th century should be re-read through the cinema experience. What this implied was a reconsideration of assumptions about the relation of art and technology to include not just film and photography, but also the traditionally plastic arts: painting, sculpture, drawing. In short, the exhibition was “a redefinition of the cinematographic experience widened to include all the visual arts.”

The strength of the Pompidu’s collection meant that the exhibition’s curator Philippe-Alain Michaud had an opportunity rarely available to curators and academics - he was able to work directly from the museum’s holdings to literally re-organize the canon of modern art relative to the idea that the filmic and ‘static’ arts both reflect a technological influence. For example, in relation to series of drawings made by Picasso several minutes apart in 1970, the artist is quoted as observing “It’s the movement of the painting that interests me, the dramatic effort from one vision to the next.” Taking a dynamic principal like movement as subject tends to alter the painting’s emphasis from fixity to flux.

I mention Le Mouvement des images because it seems a good example of a perspective from within the arts relevant to the interdisciplinary interests of this blog. In part, this is because Michaud understands film to be something far more pervasive than Hollywood blockbusters: he defines ‘cinema’ in a way that includes the moving images that are a ubiquitous part of our daily life, including those on the internet, on iPhones, webcams, and in scientific laboratories.

Part of my interest in the specific art/science crossover comes out of the observation that moving images are an increasingly integral, even methodological component of contemporary scientific research. Some of my current reading on the topic goes so far as to suggest that filmic tools like live-cell imaging are changing biology by introducing a dynamic imaging process into the heart of the scientific method. In that vein, it is probably not a coincidence that a couple of Shaun and James’ recent posts have involved links to films - of animation by stop-motion, by cell structures, and by particles.

So if it seems viable to revise the history of Modern art from the point of view of dynamic images, can we extend that perspective to science? I’m curious about the perspective on film as a research tool from the other side of the art/science equation.

Image credit: Gerhard Richter, Halfmannshof (1968), Offset print on lightweight cardboard. Based on a photograph taken by the artist from a moving train.