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Monday, 24 January 2011

Tim Minchin: a question of science

Here's a little light relief to kick those Monday blues.

Tim Minchin, with his exceptional turn of phrase, observation and impeccable spoken word, spins out a lyrical masterpiece on the subject of science, knowledge and faith. Tim's observations of social interaction are intriguing and it is quite a talent to, in the same nine minutes, make a person laugh to the point of unplanned-urination; and then to honestly think about their readily accepted digestion of common knowledge, the sciences, medicine and religion in whatever ratios they inhabit their life up to this point.

This is a mish-mash of rhyme, anecdote, philosophy, science, knowledge and dinner table etiquette, mixing together social cliche, the immortal words of Puck and touching on every scientists favourite subject - homeopathy!

Tim Minchin's spoken word masterpiece - Storm:

Sunday, 23 January 2011

London-based artists explore the brain through science

This week I spent a good three hours wondering around the the exhibition Brainstorm: Investigating the brain through art and science at the GV Art Gallery in London. Brainstorm puts seven contemporary artists in the spotlight to consider the human brain.

The exhibition showcases the work of Susan Aldworth, Annie Cattrell, Andrew Carnie, Katharine Dowson, Rachel Gadsden, David Marron and Helen Pynor, who have each responded to the the subject in different ways and using varying techniques, from sculpture, painting and etching to photography and scientific materials. The result is a collection of beautiful and thought provoking works of art, not to mention a look at the brain from every angle possible, including sliced up on a table top.

The inspiration for Brainstorm was an invitation for GV Art to observe a brain cut up at the Joint MS Society and Parkinsons UK Tissue Bank at Imperial College London. GV Art say that some of the works featured were created in direct response to this experience.

Below is a picture of the brain slices that were put on display. GV Art is the only private gallery in the country to hold a Human Tissue Authority Licence for Public Display and Storage.

Sections of brain and spinal cord at the Tissue Bank, Imperial College
My favourite work was that of Helen Pynor, whose work involves taking C-type photographs of human organs floating in salt water. Helen explains - 'Text is scribed through an ocean of sea-salt green water, threads drift downwards in a slow-motion descent, then tangle or fuse with recognisable or unrecognisable organs and spaces of the body'.

Poisonous Sores
C-type photograph on Duratran, face-mounted on glass
Installation photograph: Danny Kildare
Helen says 'The hidden insides of our bodies , our organs, are somehow shameful.  They inspire fear and disgust but at the same time, fascination: life-givers, pink, creamy, crimson, fleshy and shining with possibility, beautiful, repulsive and intriguing.'

If the way helen describes her work inspires you, in the way it does me, I would recommend reading her full description of this collection. Below is my favourite photograph from the exhibition, and one that has been adopted by many newspapers and reviewers as the poster for the exhibition.

Headache, Helen Pynor
C-type photograph on Duratran, face-mounted on glass
Installation photograph: Danny Kildare
The brain is inherently fascinating and something I think this GV Art exhibition has done exceptionally well is to open up and demystify the brain as well as forcing it's visitors to look at the brain in new and thought-provoking ways (sliced up on a table being my favourite way). I couldn't possibly write about each of the artists or works of art, as much as I would love to, so I will leave you with a few more photos and the knowledge that I will later focus in on a couple of the other artists I was introduced to at Brainstorm.

My Soul Glass, Katharine Dowson
laser etching of the artist’s brain
Lt: 'Inside' (gilded bronze), rt: 'From Within' (silvered bronze cast interior of the skull) by Annie CatrellPhotorgraph: Richard Valencia/GV Art

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Lehrer-inspired science album

For a while now I have been meaning to blog about a band whose last album was dedicated to songs about different areas of science. I know, I know, it sounds pretty terrible, but They Might Be Giants really hit the nail on the head if you ask me. (By the end of this post, I challenge you to stop the lyrics 'The sun is a mass of incandescent gas' from pin-balling around your head).

The album, titled 'Here comes the science' includes such songs as 'Speed and Velocity', 'Solid liquid gas' and  'Why does the sun shine?' and they music isn't half bad either. What finally pushed me to post this was a reminder in a Science-Online 2011 chatroom today about Tom Lehrer's famous 'The elements' song, a groundbreaker in packaging science up for the masses (simply putting the name of every element of the periodic table to a relatively catchy tune). Here's 'The Elements' if you're unfamilair with it -

That's the reason for deciding to finally blog about them. Now for the reason I'd always been holding back; it's difficult to get music, in any easily accessible format, into a blog post so here are a few ways for you to listen:

Now, whilst the science isn't always accurate and the music is, on the odd occasion, a little irritating; their effort to educate is commendable and the lyrics are nothing short of genius. The fact that they follow up the song 'Why does the sun shine?' with 'Why does the sun really shine?' reflects the familiar feeling of learning one thing and being satisfied, only to find later that you had only scratched the surface. That the deeper and deeper you study, the more detail there is to find. No one will ever know everything about science, and that is an idea that I, personally, am comfortable with.

That fact accepted - I will, however, endeavour to fill my future children's neuro-plastic little brains with such catchy nuggets of information as these. Can't hurt to start them young.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Visualising statistics: internet censorship

Last month's Facebook: mapping earth post provoked some discussion about why the north of Asia was AWOL and why Facebook, which seems to offer something for everyone, hasn't managed to penetrate into the huge hunk of landmass that dominates one half of the world map (read the previous post for a refresh).

The empty spaces occupying rural Africa, the Amazon and central Australia are easily explained away by geographical location, as too are those countries with a lower GDP. However, the Asian countries with captive audiences and technology coming out of their ears have kept Facebook at arm's-length through censorship.  The uber-talented guys at Information Is Beautiful have come up with a very pretty and easy-to-digest analysis of such censorship. Below are the Facebook map from Paul Butler and the censorship map from David McCandless.  Draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, here's the link to the full visualisation. One particularly information-rich diagram is the good old fashioned venn diagram showing the various overlapping reasons for internet censorship in the different regions. It's pretty cool. Have a browse, learn something new, drink a beer (just because).

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Artificial Body Clock

Imagine an object that could tell a woman the exact moment she is ready to have a child. An object that recieves information from her doctor, therapist and bank manager and alerts her when she is physicallly, mentally and economically ready to start a family.

Revital Cohen, a Royal College of Art graduate, is a designer whose future-oriented work examines the relationships and possibilities between medical machines, animals, and humans, exploring the juxtaposition of the natural with the artificial.

Whilst much of her work is far-fetched and more a comment on our reliability on, and the possibilities posed by, technology; some don't seem to stray too far from the line we are already treading. The Artficial Biological Clock is one such object. Cohen says

'The promises posed by new reproductive technologies such as IVF, test tube babies and egg freezing, are blurring perceptions of the reproductive cycle amongst women, and consequently, the age of conception is constantly being challenged. The female body clock relies on moonlight to regulate the menstrual cycle. The use of artificial light and contraceptive hormones, along with the growing pressure to develop a career, are distorting the body’s reproductive signals. The artificial biological clock compensates for this increasingly lost instinct. This object acts as constant reminder of the temporary and fragile nature of fertility. Given to a woman by her parents or partner, it reacts to information from her doctor, therapist and bank manager via an online service. When she is physically, mentally and financially ready to conceive the object awakes, seeking her attention.'

NB.(Next post will be less what-is-my-purpose-in-life? Promise)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Molecular wallpaper

I am too spring a chicken to remember the original Time-Life Science books but having made a trip to the British Library to check them out for myself I now consider myself up-to-scratch. The Time-Life series was a series of hardbound books published in the 60s on 26 areas of natural science intended for the lay-reader and would fit in fairly comfortably on today's popular science shelves in Waterstones (and also on my own library shelves. When I have a library. When I'm big).
Dan Funderburgh's recent series of sci-art wallpapers were inspired by these iconic Time-life books, a collection he calls a "repudiation of the fabricated schism between art and decoration". Amen Funderburgh, we too repudiate that schism.

The retro palette from the series compliments the printed sci-art designs and images, making for a beautiful collection of wallpapers, any of which I would happily hang in my own living room.
Though they are all pretty, I am particularly fond of the design in the next picture, reminscent of a sketchbook doodle penned in a particularly dull biomolecular science class.
"The work is a recognition of the art of knowledge and of the poetry of things we do not and can not know". Funderburgh
The collection is showing at Vallery in Barcelona and since it's a bit of a trek for us Londoners, you can see the photos from the opening of the exhibit on the Vallery website.

All images courtesy of Dan Funderburgh. See more on Flickr.