Tuesday, February 24, 2015

2014 BioArt winners

"Each day, scientific investigators produce thousands of images and videos as a part of their research – from the collection of image-based data, to the visualization of results and the illustration of complex findings. However, only a few are ever seen outside of the laboratory. Through the BioArt competition, FASEB aims to share the beauty and excitement of biological research with the public."

See the 2014 BioArt winners here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

2011 SymBIOtic ART & Science Conference report

Fred Swanson’s rough notes and impressions on the conference:


SymBIOtic ART & Science Conference: an investigation into the intersection of life sciences and the arts. 

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Feb 28-March 1, 2011 NSF, Arlington, VA

An eclectic group of 25 academics, artists, agency folk, private entrepreneurs, and scientists of many ilks plus NEA and NSF observers gathered for two days of discussions of the current status of arts-humanities-sciences interactions and how these collaborations can be advanced in the future.

The represented artistic/humanities media included dance, fiction and non-fiction writing, literary criticism, art history, visual arts of many forms, and a conservator at the National Art Gallery. The science disciplines ranged from physics to neuroscience to ecology (the latter represented by Nalini Nadkarni and me (the only two in the group I knew going in)).

Spatial scales of interest ranged from a bacterium (the medium of an artist) to the universe (an astrophysicist). General vibes/findings of the conference:

  • Interest in this collaborative work has been long and strong. Rare individuals have feet in two worlds and excel in both – e.g., Vladimir Nabokov. Highly collaborative ventures involving two or more people are underway in marriages, labs, studios, field programs, and organizations specifically intended for the purpose, such as Leonardo (http://www.leonardo.info/leoinfo.html). Interest in this work seems to have grown in recent years in part as reaction to recent tendencies toward our present hyper-reductionist, organizationally stove-piped world of scholarship. But maybe we are just in the process of getting back to forms of integrative endeavors more common in the 19th as great expeditions (e.g., voyage of the Beagle). 
  • Participants in the conference personified deep experience with this work: the dancer-activist leading a company for 34 years, the forest canopy scientist with decades of work at the science-performance interface, the scientific photographer from MIT who works in chemistry and biology labs.  
  • This is work of vital importance. It shakes us loose from our comfort zones, awakens creativity, reveals solutions to problems where the solution is to be found in no single discipline, exposes good new questions, presents alternative visions of the future for the unsustainable world we have created for ourselves, ... 
  • Future. Continue this good work with renewed enthusiasm and an expanded network. Possibly meet again. Push NSF and NEA (and other funding agencies) to flex to strengthen support of this interface work. Look into possibilities of foundation support. Some points of resonance within the group viewed from a Long-Term Ecological Reflections perspective (my perspective): century in venues such 
  • Scope of the collaborative effort. The diversity of approaches to arts-humanities- science interaction represented at the conference was quite impressive, if not overwhelming. This reinforced in my mind the value of working within the scope of programs that are characterized as place-based, long-term, and with well-kept and widely-shared records. That gives us a good balance of breadth, yet common ground and it’s helpful having LTEResearch as a stepping off point gives a network of sites and a community committed to these elements. And I’m fully committed to going beyond LTER in network building. 
  • The setting of collaboration (“generative environment for creativity” was used at the conference) is very important. The general attributes include settings that are neutral in the sense of not being home turf for individual disciplines, and yet compelling/powerful places in terms that get us out of ourselves a bit – humbling, inspiring, challenging, even very troubling. Venues mentioned at the conference: old-growth forests, clearcuts, rivers. Refugee camp, cancer ward (narrative oncology), slaughterhouse, prison. These are settings for discussion of how we relate with one another and with the natural world. 
  • Organizational setting is also very important and often challenging. We hear several examples of difficulty of beginning interdisciplinary programs at large universities – too much stove-piped turf at the deans’ level, for example. Small colleges (e.g., 250 students of Marlboro College (VT)) seem to have more flex. On the other hand, environmental humanities programs are springing up at larger campuses (e.g., Univ. of Oregon, Oregon State Univ., Univ. of Utah). Made me appreciate the Reflections program having had so much flexibility with its combination of private endowment funding (to Spring Creek) and Forest Service (end of the year funding). The key is to balance useful stability with the flexibility to evolve. In some ways in our Reflections program we’ve had the luxury of organic growth without a written plan, formal oversight, and a formal process to evaluate impact (as would be required by NEA, for example). But we may choose to tighten the program administration in the future. 
  • Funding remains challenging. What is the place (and process) of peer review for interdisciplinary proposals? Especially when agencies remain compartmentalized (stovepiped internally and relative to one another). Should we engage in discussions with multiple agencies in the room at the same time (as we’ve discussed), so they may see how joint funding of this work might benefit us all? The concept we articulated at the Baraboo meeting sounds appropriate (though the outcome in today’s funding environment is a bit bleak, given the general state of the economy and Congress): going to DC and meet with science (NSF, USFS- Research), arts/humanities (NEA, NEH), and federal lands people still sounds like a good idea. 
  • Communications remain a big challenge, and they are in a huge state of flux globally. A topic that needs group discussion: What are the places of old and new media? 
  • What about education and training in this interdisciplinary arena? And will there be jobs for the trained? Hopefully the LTER-funded May workshop at Andrews Forest will lead directly to network building actions, building off the Tucson and Baraboo events.

NSF BIO Advisory Committee Meeting Notes/Summary Minutes:

SymBIOtic ART & Science Conference – Dr. Nalini Nadkarni

Dr. Nadkarni gave an overview of the logistics of SymBIOtic ART and Science Conference held Feb 28- Mar 1, 2011 and jointly funded by NSF/BIO and National Endowment of the Arts. The focus of the meeting was genetics, ecology, and the environment as perceived through the visual arts, dance, and literature. The participants were asked to examine the nature of the creative processes and practices of joint work and to identify joint benefits and challenges for research, education, and outreach. Dr. Nadkarni presented examples of joint art/science projects (e.g., The Ferocious Beauty Genome, The Emergent Improvisation Project, and the Long-Term Ecological Reflections 200-year Log Decomposition Study) and enumerated both the benefits and challenges of doing art-science work. Dr. Nadkarni also reported on the context of proposed interactions, the types of support needed, the questions that arose and the conclusions of the meeting. A report of this conference is being prepared by the co-PIs.

The committee expressed enthusiasm about the workshop, the ongoing collaborations and interactions and its perception that interaction makes both art and science more accessible to communities. The participation in the workshop and interest of the research based museum community was discussed. The discussion then moved on to the support needed (for the collaborations and education training), the next steps, other collaborations between NSF and NEA, the rigor needed to ensure effective collaborations and the potential impediments to collaborations. It was suggested the inclusion of sciences that are more disposed to work with the arts should be explored.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Requiem for a Field Station.

Wow. A productive and important field station, shuttered.
"While sleeping, we have lost both a manifestly valuable university research and teaching facility and a jewel in the crown of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. Canadian ornithology and conservation is all the poorer for the closing of DMFS and there may very be others to follow if we don’t take immediate action.
This speaks to the critical need for FSMLs to find partners outside the science community, build new relationships, find ways to be relevant to our communities, and make emotional connections. Art programs can help us do that.

So, that when the bean-counters come, we have friends to fight for us.

Friday, February 20, 2015

SARAS meeting short report 02-10-15

From Fred Swanson:


South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability – Arts-Science Meeting
Short Meeting Report 

– Fred Swanson, US Forest Service, Corvallis, OR

The South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability (SARAS), to be based in a permanent facility under construction in Maldonado, Uruguay, is dedicated to interdisciplinary research that considers the impact of climate change on natural and social systems in South America.  Uruguay is a good home for this undertaking – a small, well-functioning country with commitment to the well being of its citizens and environment and a very suitable meeting ground for participants from other countries on the continent.

The fifth annual meeting of SARAS in 2014 featured the Arts-Science initiative of SARAS with a one-day set of public presentations of examples art-science collaborations in South America, northern Europe, and the US (see the program here).

I was particularly interested in presentations by artist Tone Bjordem (Norway) working with scientists Carl Folke (Sweden) and Marten Scheffer (Netherlands) who are planning half a dozen large, public sculptures that connect people in urban centers with endangered wild ecosystems, such as coral reefs and rain forests.

Professor Jorge Marcone (Rutgers) described the emergence of environmental humanities programs at universities in the US and Europe in response to the widespread sense of environmental crisis.

I spoke about the confluence of arts, humanities, and science at sites of long-term ecological inquiry, including biological field station, marine labs, and NSF-sponsored Long-Term Ecological Research sites (see responses to the recent survey of FSMLs), making the point that many programs are springing up quite independently and the time is ripe for establishing better networking to share methods and discoveries.

However, there was no other mention of sustained, place-based interactions of arts, humanities, and ecology, despite one of the most intriguing examples being in the far south of South America (Rozzi et al 2012).

Overall, my impression is that efforts to increase arts-humanities-science collaboration are springing up in many ways in many places, driven in good measure by the feeling that these partnerships can make an important contribution to making the world a better place for future generations.

A publication of interest

From Fred Swanson...

"Here's a little report and a reprint that may be of interest to some of your blog readers. I see that there's an environmental philosophy field program at the FS associated with SUNY-Syracuse, for example."


Integrating Ecology and Environmental Ethics: Earth Stewardship in the Southern End of the Americas

Ricardo Rozzi, Juan J. Armesto, Julio R. GutiƩrrez, Francisca Massardo, Gene E. Likens, Christopher B. Anderson, Alexandria Poole, Kelli P. Moses, Eugene Hargrove, Andres O. Mansilla, James H. Kennedy, Mary Willson, Kurt Jax, Clive G. Jones, J. Baird Callicott, and Mary T. K. Arroyo

Abstract: The South American temperate and sub-Antarctic forests cover the longest latitudinal range in the Southern Hemisphere and include the world’s southernmost forests. However, until now, this unique biome has been absent from global ecosystem research and monitoring networks. Moreover, the latitudinal range of between 40 degrees (°) south (S) and 60° S constitutes a conspicuous gap in the International Long-Term Ecological Research (ILTER) and other international networks.

We first identify 10 globally salient attributes of biological and cultural diversity in southwestern South America. We then present the nascent Chilean Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research (LTSER) network, which will incorporate a new biome into ILTER. Finally, we introduce the field environmental philosophy methodology, developed by the Chilean LTSER network to integrate ecological sciences and environmental ethics into graduate education and biocultural conservation.

This approach broadens the prevailing economic spectrum of social dimensions considered by LTSER programs and helps foster bioculturally diverse forms of Earth stewardship.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Other organizations working at the Art & Science intersection

From their website:
"From its beginnings, Leonardo/ISAST has served as THE virtual community for purposes of networking, resource-sharing, best practices, research and events in Art/Science/Technology...
...By enhancing communication between scientists, artists, and engineers, Leonardo supports experimental projects and interacts with established institutions of art and science to transform their research and educational practices."
Leonardo is the Journal of the ISAST, which focuses on artists working with science and technology-based media. It has been in publication for over 40 years.

Rhode Island School of Design:

From the website:
"Since its founding in 1877, RISD has consistently upheld its mission to educate the public about the vital role of art and design in society. Today, the RISD community remains committed to the belief that the arts and design, in concert with fields like science and technology, will bring about the global innovation needed in the 21st century. 
STEM to STEAM is a RISD-led initiative to add Art and Design to the national agenda of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and research in America. STEM + Art = STEAM. The goal is to foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer."

From their website:
The National Science Foundation Computer, Information Systems and Engineering directorate Intelligent Systems division (CISE IIS) sponsored three workshops in 2010 and 2011 bringing together artists, scientists and engineers from across the United States to address needs of the burgeoning community of researchers and practitioners that bridge Computer Science, Engineering and Creativity. 
These workshops were the genesis of two working groups. The first group is studying the research community in order to create a digital archive and resource for researchers, makers, and educators, called the "Virtual eXchange to Support Networks of Creativity and Innovation amongst Science, Engineering, Arts and Design (XSEAD)." 
The SEAD website is the outcome of a second group who has formed a national network of individuals, and is developing innovative methods for connecting and supporting this community across academia, non-profit organizations, industry, and funders, called "Network for Science, Engineering, Arts and Design (SEAD)."
SEAD published an excellent and intensive report on the subject in 2012, including input from dozens of worldwide advisors.

Among other stated goals of the paper, "The network facilitates experimentation with new methods, materials, and modes of creative inquiry and understanding in order to spawn groundbreaking discoveries and inventions.":

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Art and science intersect productively for both in "Interstellar"

Visual effects for the film Interstellar shed light on real black holes

By Justin BeachNational Monitor | February 13, 2015

The simulations created for the film provide physicists with the most realistic look ever at black holes and related phenomenon.

The visual effects team behind Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar has been recognized with an Oscar-Nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. More important, however, may be their contribution to the science of physics.

In a new paper published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, the team behind Interstellar describe the computer code that was used to generate images of the wormhole, black holes and other cosmic objects and how that code has lead to advances in science.

Using the code, Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and London special effects company Double Negative discovered that when a camera is close to a rapidly spinning black hole it creates unusual surfaces in space. These surfaces, known as caustics, create more than a dozen images of individual stars and the bright plane of the galaxy the black hole resides in. The researchers found that the images concentrate along an edge of the black hole’s shadow.

These unusual images are caused when the black hole drags the space around it into a whirling motion, stretching the caustics around itself multiple times. The images, created for the film, provide an idea of what a person would see if they were orbiting around a black hole and it is the first time such images have been calculated for a camera.

These discoveries were made possible by the computer code which mapped the paths of millions of light sources and their cross-sections as they passed through the warped spacetime of a simulated black hole. The code was used to produce images of the black hole and the wormhole used in the film.

The film showed sections of Gargantuan’s accretion disk swinging up and down under its shadow and in front of the shadow’s equator. The resulting split-shadow image has become synonymous with the film.

The distortion is caused by what is known as gravitational lensing, in which light beams are bent and distorted by the black hole before they arrive at the simulated camera. It occurs because of the incredibly strong gravitational field of a black hole which bends the fabric of spacetime around it.

Early in the work for the film, the black hole was encircled with a field of stars and nebulae instead of an accretion disk. The team found that when they used one pixel for each ray of light it resulted in flickering as the light sources moved across the screen.

“To get rid of the flickering and produce realistically smooth pictures for the movie, we changed our code in a manner that has never been done before. Instead of tracing the paths of individual light rays using Einstein’s equations–one per pixel–we traced the distorted paths and shapes of light beams,” said Oliver James, Co-author of the study and chief scientist at Double Negative, in a statement.

According to Kip Thorne, co-author of the paper, this change will prove invaluable as scientists conduct simulations.

“This new approach to making images will be of great value to astrophysicists like me. We, too, need smooth images,” said Thorne.

“Once our code, called DNGR for Double Negative Gravitational Renderer, was mature and creating the images you see in the movie Interstellar, we realised we had a tool that could easily be adapted for scientific research,” added James.

In their paper, the researchers discuss using DNGR to carry out research simulations. The team explored the influence of caustics on the images of distant stars as they would be seen by a camera near a black hole.
“A light beam emitted from any point on a caustic surface gets focussed by the black hole into a bright cusp of light at a given point. All of the caustics, except one, wrap around the sky many times when the camera is close to the black hole. This sky-wrapping is caused by the black hole’s spin, dragging space into a whirling motion around itself like the air in a whirling tornado, and stretching the caustics around the black hole many times,” said James.

As the caustic passes by a star, it creates two new images of it or annihilates two old images of the star. As the simulated camera orbits the black hole, the caustics were constantly creating and removing large numbers of stellar images.

The researchers identified as many as 13 simultaneous images of the same star and 13 images of the galactic plane. Multiple images were only seen when near the side of the black hole when it was spinning rapidly.
Because it is unlikely that humans will ever get close enough to a black hole to take photographs and not very advisable to try, the DNGR software may be the closest anyone ever gets to that particular view. The approach may also help with imaging other objects and phenomenon that are currently unreachable.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Biology as culture

Artist David Brooks has called biologists the true avant-garde of our time.

Wikipedia defines avant-garde as, "people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics," suggesting subtly that the duty of cultural creation belongs in the realm of the arts, not the sciences.

But sometimes it's not so clear.

The conflict has calmed in the past 20 years (perhaps leaving a ripe vacuum) but this 1996 article in the Wilson Quarterly explores the theme of biology's collision with the sacred cow of human nature as envisioned by western cultural mythology:

"Even while provoking vicious criticism, the new applications of Darwinian principles--whether called sociobiology, biosociology, or evolutionary psychology--have shed valuable, and appreciated, light on everything from violence to sexist practices. The debate, however, is far from over. The very notion of an underlying human nature flies in the face of contemporary postmodernist theories held dear by many intellectuals and artists."

From Math to Shakespeare with Man Ray

A new exhibit at The Phillips Collection highlights Man Ray's photographs of mathematical models, displaying the objects alongside the photographs, and the later paintings they inspired.

“The mathematical models would then become specific personalities featured in Shakespeare plays that would be familiar to his audience and invite curiosity...”

Exhibition curator Wendy A. Grossman asks in her catalog essay, 'Squaring the Circle : The Math of Art', if the Surrealists used modern math in pursuit of unreality...

"Is this confluence merely coincidental, or do Surrealism and modern mathematics share something of the same spirit? Or is there something Surreal about mathematics that drew these artists to this realm?"

The full article has some interesting ideas about the collision of art and science, and is worth a read.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Art and Environment courses

Erica Osborne has posted an article about her recent Art and Environment offering at Colorado State University:
"Artists are creators of culture. They are sponges of the world around them, regurgitating what they see and experience into forms that act as communication tools for the larger public. For professional artists, contemporary issues like climate change, land use and ecology are prominent playing fields for creation...."