Category Archives: Art

Cyberpunk aesthetics and concepts.

What is cyberpunk — and are we already living in it?

In its simplest form, cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that brings together advanced, futuristic technology, with a decline in societal decay. Think of a society featuring advanced artificial intelligence, cybernetics, massive skyscrapers, but with many people living in slums or being controlled and lacking social freedom. But cyberpunk isn’t only a sci-fi subgenre, but also a cultural movement that has some influence on things like entertainment, design, gaming, architecture, fashion, and technology. In fact, you could argue we’re already living in a cyberpunk world.

Image credits: Raasgendor/Pixabay

Cyberpunk often features a flashy visual theme and an underlying dystopian theme of this genre. It depicts a world where technological development is at its peak, artificial intelligence co-exists with humans, people have access to robotic brains and body implants — but at the same time, the social order is heavily disturbed, corrupt multinational corporations (or machines) own and controls everything, crime has become an integral part of society, and most of the population has a poor standard of living.

The “high tech, low life” concept of a cyberpunk world has been popularized by comics, films, animes, and books of the same genre. Writers like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Katsuhiro Otomo, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and many others in the 70s and 80s introduced different characteristics. Thin neon city lights, electronic music, dark streets, cyborgs, holograms, rugged and vibrant clothing style, drug syndicates, cramped apartments, illegal tech markets, and a broke society) — those are the tell-tale of a cyberpunk world that later became symbols of the genre. Cyberpunk protagonists are typically rebels, hackers, reluctant heroes clinging to individuality in a world where invasive control is the norm. Unsurprisingly, many see cyberpunk as more than just an artistic current, but rather as a social critique.

Cyberpunk elements in the real world 

Remarkably, many famous novels, anime, and movies in the cyberpunk style from the 80s and 90s that popularized the genre are set in the current time. Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi flick Blade Runner shows events from 2019, Software, a critically acclaimed cyberpunk novel from Rudy Rucker is based in the year 2020, P.D. James’ highly popular dystopian fiction, Children of Men is set in 2021 (its movie adaptation is based in 2027), whereas Bruce Sterling’s thrilling sci-fi book Islands in the Net tells a dark futuristic story from the year 2023.

But cyberpunk is still going strong now, we’ve just pushed the date by a few years.

Cyberpunk-type scenery from Tokyo. Image in public domain.

Learning from cyberpunk

Science fiction is reality ahead of schedule, Syd Mead, concept designer of tron and blade runner once famously said. So is cyberpunk a realistic expectation of what’s to come?

Researchers have suggested in the past that technology can fuel economic inequality. Big tech companies, in particular, are fueling inequality, and although technology as a whole is alleviating poverty, there are fears that it could fuel rampang social inequality. In addition, while making us richer, technology can also be used to control and impose dystopian measures — as we’re already starting to see in China, for instance.

In fact, what makes cyberpunk different from other sci-fi genres is its ability to manifest our fears associated with hi-technology and the perils it could bring, perils such as over-capitalism, drug addiction, gadget dependency, media oversaturation, crime, and data privacy. So while cyberpunk is a literary and artistic current, we’re definitely starting to see some of its signature trademarks in the real world.

Cyberpunk in the real world

Aesthetically, cyberpunk is distinctive in its neon urban lights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, cyberpunk scenery is becoming more and more common, as some of its underlying aspects are also creeping into our world. If we look around carefully, it’s not hard to find various cyberpunk elements around us. Here are just a few examples.

  • A cyberpunk world where powerful multinational corporations much of society. In the real world, multinational tech corporation like Google, Facebook, and Amazon control the web and most of our digital assets. A normal internet user may never know even if his data is sold on the dark web or his privacy is compromised on some level. Moreover, from time to time, these trillion-dollar tech companies are accused of putting their profits above democratic principles. Recently, an ex-Facebook (now Meta) employee Frances Haugen told CBS in an interview “The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.” Oh, and we’re just beginning to see their influence.
  • Places like Las Vegas, Chongqing city in China, Japan’s major economic centers Tokyo and Osaka, and various parts of Singapore (Golden Mile complex), and Hong Kong (such as Montane Mansion and Monster building) are loaded with visual cyberpunk-ish aesthetics such as giant neon signboards, skyscrapers, stacked apartments, dark alleys, large advertisement screens, neon-lit commercial complexes, and crowded streets. In fact, Tokyo has been the inspiration for various fictional cyberpunk cities in video games and movies.
Akira, an anime, is one of the most influential cyberpunk operas of all time, featuring many of the genre’s characteristic elements (both visual and phylosophical).
  • Chatbots and voice assistants like Alexa and Siri that monitor our preferences using algorithms are an example of artificial intelligence co-existing in the real world. Similarly, the ability of social media and online advertisements to manipulate our emotions, thoughts, and decision-making ability indicates how deep technology has entered into our lives.      
  • A popular cyberpunk video game called Cyberpunk 2077 features an in-game personalized virtual world called Braindance. Though we have not been able to develop a futuristic VR experience as advanced as Braindance, VR devices in the present also allow us to experience virtual reality. Games and applications like Fortnite, Decentraland, Second Life, and Facebook’s newly launched Horizon World are examples of virtual worlds existing within our own world. 

Moreover, prosthetic body parts, augmented reality-based applications (like the game Pokemon GO), cyberpunk-themed clothing (such as cybergoth, futuristic gothic, etc), as well as the advent of brain chips (such as Neuralink), machine learning, smart weapons, humanoids (like Sophia and Ameca) and Internet of Things (IoT)are some of the developments that are taking place in the real world but also share a striking resemblance to various elements shown in the cyberpunk themes of Terminator, Akira, Blade Runner, Alita Battle Angel, and Ghost in the Shell.

Cyberpunk and transhumanism  

Although to many people, cyberpunk is merely an aesthetic style, we’ve already mentioned that there’s some hardcore social critique to it. The main reason for this is that cyberpunk involves heavy philosophical concepts.

Transhumanism is believed to be the core philosophy behind the development of the cyberpunk genre. Transhumanism is a social, philosophical, and intellectual movement that favors the invention and use of advanced innovations that can enhance human ability. Basically, transhumanists want us to evolve past our human nature using technology. Any technology capable of improving intelligence, physical strength, health, cognitive ability, memory, and lifespan of humans is part of transhumanist progress. 

Image credits: Ben Sweer/Unsplash

Transhumanist thinkers predict emerging technologies and examine their possible positive and negative impacts on human society. Writers in the 70s and 80s are also believed to have analyzed the influence of the internet, terrorism, drugs, computers, cybersecurity, and sexual revolution while working on various cyberpunk themes. This can also be understood from the fact that the nature of the protagonist in various such works is of a transhuman, for example, Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi was also a transhuman.

However, due to its dystopian nature, most of the fictional works in the cyberpunk genre reveal a negative side of a transhumanist approach. Novels and films like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Alita: Battle Angel, Cowboy Bebop, Terminator, etc shows how advanced technologies can promote corruption, greed, destruction and ultimately lead to a chaotic world. According to Robert M. Geraci, who is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, “cyberpunk as a genre attempts to caution against transhumanism by exposing the problematic elements of the social economy that supports it.”

Nobody wants to live in a dystopian world (especially after the pandemic) but in the coming years, it would be really interesting to see if some popular cyberpunk technologies such as cyborgs, laser weapons, advanced VR devices, and flying cars become a reality.

Pristine 2,300-year-old Scythian woman’s boot found in frozen Altai mountains

Credit: Hermitage Museum.

It’s hard to find a decent pair of boots that don’t disintegrate after one year these days, let alone 2,300 years. Believe it or not, that’s how old this astonishing boot, discovered in a Scythian burial mound in Siberia’s frigid Altai Mountains, is.

The red cloth-wrapped leather boot was discovered in 1948, alongside jewelry, food, weapons, and clothing. Like many ancient cultures, the Scythians buried their dead with various belongings that may have come in handy in the afterlife.

It was also customary for the Scythians to construct burial mounds by building wooden structures in the bottom of deep holes that they dug. These log cabin-like burial mounds were lined and floored with dark felt, while the roof was covered with layers of larch, birch bark, moss, and other local materials.

Illustration of a Scythian burial mound. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg.

That’s pretty impressive and rather surprising considering the Scythians (pronounced ‘SIH-thee-uns’) were nomadic warrior people. The Scythians flourished from 900 BC to around 200 BC, and at their point of maximum expansion had an influence extending over Central Asia, from the northern Black Sea all the way to China.

There is much we don’t know about Scythian culture since they didn’t leave written records. However, we do have accounts written by ancient people who actually employed writing, such as the Greeks, Assyrians, and Persians. One thing’s for sure, they all seemed pretty terrified by them.

Writing in his 5th-century BC book Histories, Herodotus said that ‘None who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found.’

One of their trademark features was the use of a powerful type of bow made from different layers of wood and sinew, which proved game-changing on the battlefield. Centuries before the Huns and their Golden Horde, Scythians employed large numbers of mounted archers that could shower hundreds of deadly missiles within minutes, raining death upon their enemies.

Apart from the writings of historians from other cultures, which typically centered around war, what we know about the Scythians is largely through excavations of their burial mounds, called kurgans.

Being nomadic people, the objects that they buried with their dead were of the same nature as the objects that were employed in day to day life: portable, lightweight, and small. Some of the artifacts found in the Scythian burial molds include small drinking flasks and wooden bowls.

Other times, Scythians buried amazing artifacts such as this woman’s boot, which is made of soft red leather and has a sole adorned with geometric patterns sewn with pyrite crystals and black beads.

But why would someone take so much effort to decorate the surface of a boot that would simply deteriorate from walking? Some historians believe that Scythians regularly socialized around fires while sitting on their knees. In this pose, the bottom of the shoes would be visible to others to see. Alternatively, the shoes may have been made exclusively for burial, which would explain their immaculate state.

In addition, the combination of the sturdy kurgan structures and the frozen Siberian Altai Mountains made it possible for this stunning boot to be preserved in time.

The stunning Scythian artifact is now housed at display at the  State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Over a hundred museums release their collections in the form of coloring books you can download for free

Example of the kind of image you can try your hand at coloring. Image via Smithsonian collection.

In the past few years, adult coloring books have simply exploded. Whether it’s because it’s relaxing, pleasant, or simply an unusual artistic endeavor, there’s no shortage of adult coloring books — from mandalas to mythological creatures, you can try your hand at coloring everything you can imagine.

A group of museums and cultural institutions wanted to make adult coloring even more interesting, and they released some of their collections in black-and-white designs that you can download and color yourself.

Image credits: British Library.

Whether it’s medical oddities, vintage advertising, designs, or anything else they have in their collections, you can now learn as you color with the #ColorOurCollections campaign.

The campaign was first launched in 2018, and now, over 100 participating institutions have joined in. From the lush collections of the Denver Botanic Gardens to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there’s a lot of coloring diversity at your disposal. Try your hand at the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design or go through the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collection — all for free.

A butter ad featured in the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

The project is meant to spur interest in art as well as museums’ collections. It takes place every year, and the collections are very varied, both in regards to the theme and the artistic style. Even at a quick browse, we came across art collections involving sketches of cities, maps, advertisements, botanical sketches, and biological structures. There seem to be many medical sketches as well, each offering the ability to draw in more or less accurate human bodies.

With museums closed down for so long, artists-to-be can enjoy these striking collections from the comfort of their homes, and make these collections their own by opting for alternative coloring schemes.

Johannes von Cuba, Gart der Gesuntheit: zu latein Hortus sanitatis, Strasbourg: Mathia Apiario, 1536 Boston Athenaeum

You can check out all the #ColorOurCollections here, and if you do end up coloring anything, do share it with us, as well as the institution that uploaded it — I’m sure they’d love to see it.

Here are a few more of our favorites from this year.

Flyboard Air from Zapata.

Hoverboards are now real — and the science behind them is dope

What could be the coolest way of going to work you can imagine? Let me help you out. Flying cars — not here yet. Jetpacks — cool, but not enough pizzaz. No, there’s only one correct answer to this question: a hoverboard.

A whole generation of skateboarders and sci-fi enthusiasts (especially Back to the Future fans) have been waiting for a long time to see an actual levitating hoverboard. Well, the wait is over. The future is here. 

Franky Zapata flying on Flyboard Air. Image credits: Zapata/YouTube.

There were rumors in the 90s that claimed hoverboards had been invented but were not made available in the market because some powerful parent groups are against the idea of flying skateboards being used by children. Well, there was little truth to those rumors — hoverboards haven’t been truly developed until very recently. No longer a fictional piece of technology, levitating boards exist for real and there is a lot of science working behind them.

A hoverboard is basically a skateboard without tires that can fly above the ground while carrying a person on it. As the name implies, it’s a board that hovers — crazy, I know.

The earliest mention of a hoverboard is found in Michael K. Joseph’s The Hole in the Zero, a sci-fi novel that was published in the year 1967. However, before Michael Joseph, American aeronautical engineer Charles Zimmerman had also come up with the idea of a flying platform that looked like a large hoverboard.

Zimmerman’s concept later became the inspiration for a small experimental aircraft called Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee. This bizarre levitating platform was developed by Hiller aircraft for the US military, and it also had a successful flight in 1955. However, only six such platforms were built because the army didn’t find them of any use for military operations. Hoverboards were feasible, but it was still too difficult to build them with the day’s technology.

Hoverboards were largely forgotten for decades and seemed to fall out of favor. Then, came Back to the Future.

A page from the book Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History. Image credits: /Film

The hoverboard idea gained huge popularity after the release of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future II in 1989. The film featured a chase sequence in which the lead character Marty McFly is seen flying a pink hoverboard while being followed by a gang of bullies. In the last two decades, many tech companies and experts have attempted to create a flying board that could function like the hoverboard shown in the film.

Funnily enough, Back to the Future II takes place in 2015, and hoverboards were common in the fictional movie. They’re not quite as popular yet, but they’re coming along.

The science behind hoverboards

Real hoverboards work by cleverly exploiting quantum mechanics and magnetic fields. It starts with superconductors — materials that have no electrical resistance and expel magnetic flux fields. Scientists are very excited about superconductors and have been using them in experiments like the Large Hadron Collider.

Because superconductors expel magnetic fields, something weird happens when they interact with magnets. Because magnets must maintain their North-South magnetic field lines, if you place a superconductor on a magnet, it interrupts those field lines, and the magnet lifts the superconductor out of its way, suspending it into the air.

A magnet levitating above a high-temperature superconductor, cooled with liquid nitrogen. Image credits: Mai Linh Doan.

However, there’s a catch: superconductors gain their “superpowers” only at extremely low temperatures, at around -230 degrees Fahrenheit (-145 Celsius) or colder. So real-world hoverboards need to be fueled with supercooled liquid nitrogen around every 30 minutes to maintain their extremely low temperature. 

All existing hoverboards use this approach. While there has been some progress in creating room-temperature superconductors, this technology is not yet ready to be deployed in the real world. But then again, 30 minutes is better than nothing.

Some promising hoverboards and the technology behind them

In 2014, an inventor and entrepreneur Greg Henderson listed a hoverboard prototype Hendo hoverboards on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The Hendo hoverboard could fly 2.5 cm above the ground with 300 lb (140 kg) of weight but just like maglev trains, it required a magnetic track made of non-ferromagnetic metals to function. 

The hoverboard followed magnetic levitation, a principle that allows an object to overcome gravitation and stay suspended in the air in the presence of a magnetic field. However, the hoverboard didn’t go into mass production because Henderson used the gadget only as a means to promote his company Arx Pax Labs.

A year later, another inventor (Cătălin Alexandru Duru) developed a drone-like hoverboard prototype (which is registered under the name omni hoverboard) and using the same approach, he set a Guinness World Record for covering maximum distance with an autonomous hoverboard. During his flight, Alexandru covered a distance of about 276 meters and reached a height of 5 meters. 

ARCA CEO Dumitru Popescu controlling his ArcaBoard through body movement. Image Credits: Dragos Muresan/Wikimedia Commons

In 2015, Japanese auto manufacturer Lexus also came up with a cool liquid-nitrogen-filled hoverboard that could levitate when placed on a special magnetic surface. The Lexus hoverboard consists of yttrium barium copper oxide, a superconductor which if cooled down beyond its critical temperature becomes repulsive to magnetic field lines. The superconductor used both quantum levitation (and quantum locking) to make the hoverboard perfectly fly over a magnetic surface.

The same year in December, Romania-based ARCA Space Corporation introduced an electric hoverboard called ArcaBoard. Being able to fly over any terrain and water, this rechargeable hoverboard was marketed as a new mode of personal transportation. The company website mentions that ArcaBoard is powered by 36 in-built electric fans and can be easily controlled either from your smartphone or through the rider’s body movements.   

Components in an ArcaBoard. Image Credits: ARCA

One of the craziest hoverboard designs is Franky Zapata’s Flyboard Air. This hoverboard came into the limelight in the year 2016 when Zapata broke Cătălin Alexandru Duru’s.Guinness World Record by covering a distance of 2,252.4 meters on his Flyboard Air. This powerful hoverboard is capable of flying at a speed of 124 miles per hour (200 km/h), and can reach as high as 3000 meters (9,842 feet) up in the sky. 

Flyboard Air comes equipped with five jet turbines that run on kerosene and has a maximum load capacity of 264.5 lbs (120 kg). At present, it can stay in the air for only 10 minutes but Zapata and his team of engineers are making efforts to improve the design further and make it more efficient. In 2018, his company Z-AIR received a grant worth $1.5 million from the French Armed Forces. The following year, Zapata crossed the English Channel with EZ-Fly, an improved version of Flyboard Air.

While ArcaBoard really went on sale in 2016 at an initial price of $19,900, Lexus Hoverboard and Flyboard Air are still not available for public purchase. However, in a recent interview with DroneDJ, Cătălin Alexandru Duru revealed that he has plans to launch a commercial version of his omni hoverboard in the coming years.

New posters feature the 42 largest asteroids imaged in unprecedented detail

Asteroids are rocky remnants from the early days of the solar system. Too small to be a planet, some of them still reach impressive sizes. Out of the over 1 million asteroids researchers have mapped out, a few dozen are over 100 kilometers in size, with the largest known asteroid, Ceres, being 940 km (580 mi) in diameter — so large it’s considered a dwarf planet.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile, astronomers have imaged 42 of these largest asteroids, showcasing their unique details.

This poster shows 42 of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter (orbits not to scale). The images in the outermost circle of this infographic have been captured with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The poster highlights a few of the objects, including Ceres (the largest asteroid in the belt), Urania (the smallest one imaged), Kalliope (the densest of the imaged asteroids), and Lutetia, which was visited by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission. You can buy this poster at the ESOshop.

For many of the asteroids imaged here, it’s the first time they’ve imaged in such detail. Previously, the small number of observations meant we didn’t really know their shape or density.

“Only three large main belt asteroids, Ceres, Vesta, and Lutetia, have been imaged with a high level of detail so far, as they were visited by the space missions Dawn and Rosetta of NASA and the European Space Agency, respectively,” said lead author of the study, Pierre Vernazza of the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France, in a statement. “Our ESO observations have provided sharp images for many more targets, 42 in total.”

Thanks to the work of Vernazza and colleagues who used ground-based telescopes, we can now see them in more detail than ever before.

This image depicts 42 of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. Most of them are larger than 100 kilometres, with the two biggest asteroids being Ceres and Vesta, which are around 940 and 520 kilometres in diameter, and the two smallest ones being Urania and Ausonia, each only about 90 kilometres. The images of the asteroids have been captured with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

Roughly speaking, the asteroids can be split into two categories: some are round (like Ceres), while others are more elongated — most notably, the “dog-bone” asteroid Kleopatra.

By analyzing the shapes and densities of the asteroids, researchers found that there’s quite the variety among these asteroids. For instance, the density of some (like Lamberta and Sylvia) is around 1.3 grams per cubic centimeter — comparable to that of coal. The densest ones (Psyche and Kalliope) have a density of 3.9 and 4.4 grams per cubic centimeter respectively — higher than the density of diamond.

Ceres and Vesta, the two largest objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, approximately 940 and 520 kilometres in diameter. These two asteroids are also the two most massive in the sample.

The large variety in density suggests that the asteroids’ composition varies significantly, and if this is the case, it indicates that they also formed differently. In particular, it would suggest that the asteroids (which currently lie between Mars and Jupiter, in the so-called asteroid belt), may have formed in a very different place, beyond Neptune, and migrated to their current location.

“Our observations provide strong support for substantial migration of these bodies since their formation. In short, such tremendous variety in their composition can only be understood if the bodies originated across distinct regions in the Solar System,” explains Josef Hanuš of the Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, one of the authors of the study.

The study was published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Retro-futurism and why it matters: a foray into alternative futures seen from the past

Whether it’s flying cars or flying through the stars, retrofuturism has fascinated mankind for decades, and it’s not hard to see why. But we’re still coming to terms with what retrofuturism is and what it means for our society.

people riding pink car
It’s hard to give a fixed definition to retrofuturism, but it’s one of those things you immediately recognize when you see it. Image credits: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

What is retrofuturism

Retro-futurism isn’t some complex scientific phenomenon but rather a blend of science, fiction, and art. If futurism is a type of science, forecasting what may come, then retrofuturism is looking back and recalling what that anticipation was like. Think of how people in the 1920s imagined the world a century on.

In a sense, retrofuturism works as a retrospection for our society, but surprisingly or not, it often leads to innovations, creative ideas, and products that you see or hear about in your daily life. A recent example of a retro-futuristic prototype is Tesla’s Neuralink, a brain chip that can augment the human brain. We also see it in architecture, urban design, and inventions such as self-driving cars or space suits.

In retrofuturism, science and technology meet nostalgia and it all comes with a distinctive aesthetic flavor — the type you easily recognize when you come across it. Sometimes, retrofuturism becomes a sort of “faux nostalgia” — a nostalgia for a future that never happened. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is and isn’t retrofuturism, but let’s see what you’d generally find in this current.

You can also look at retrofuturism as a future that never happened. ‘Ship’s Cat’ by Keith Spangle

Most commonly, retrofuturism can be summarized as the future seen from the past, though sometimes it also incorporates the notion of past seen from the future.

It’s common for many of us to wonder what the future will look like and have things like this pop up into mind. How long do I need to wait for flying cars or a transparent smartphone? Will there be a weekly sale event for cybernetic body parts with heavy discounts? Perhaps, I will be able to rent an apartment on Mars; maybe just on the Moon. Many such weird and exciting speculations about the future also give birth to retro-futurism, a concept that allows us to depict the existence of futuristic technology in an earlier time period.

But what’s interesting is that when we look at retrofuturism art (especially from the past, but sometimes also in modern and real-life examples), it sometimes looks exactly like real life, while other times it looks completely different.

Retrofuturistic example from Shanghai.

In the broadest sense, retrofuturism is a current present in all sorts of media (books, movies, comics, etc) that imagines a type of future “seeded” from a particular present. It’s all that could have happened if we designed things in a particular way — which is why retrofuturism is more than just an artistic current, it’s a way to envision how different world designs could look like.

The types of retrofuturism

From entertainment to fashion, and technology, the cultural impact of retro-futurism in our world is profound and can be understood through its various sub-genres that are reflected from time to time in the popular media.

Retrofuturism can itself be split into several currents. There are several variants, depending on what era you start from and what theme you focus on. Many of the general trends are owed to the early science fiction works of the likes of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, as well as the space race of the 20th century. However, retrofuturism has branched out into several different styles, although there’s no official classification.

  • Cyberpunk

A dark and dystopian retro-future with all the advanced technology that we can ever imagine but still the world is filled with misery, pain, and chaos because evil organizations control the future. This genre is heavily explored in video games, comics, and popular movies like Tron, Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner series, etc. Electronic music, funky clothing styles, and low-key fashion accessories based on the cyberpunk theme are quite popular retro-futuristic themes.

  • Atompunk

From shiny thunderbird cars to thirst-quenching soda fountains and fashionable chunky glasses, the 1950s were vibrant and full of glamour. Surprisingly, atompunk adds more interesting elements to the retro-futuristic version of the 1950s, the thunderbirds fly and often come equipped with jet propellers, the industries run on clean nuclear power, and the city life is faster than ever with bullet trains.  

Person Wearing White Astronaut Suit
Image credits: Pixabay/pexels.

T-shirts, fashion accessories, and magazines printed in the atom punk theme are adored by fans in the US and beyond. However, the most popular depiction of atom punk is found in Fantastic Four comics, Sean Connery’s James Bond films, and famous cartoon shows such as Dexter’s Laboratory.  

  • Alternate History 

What if Einstein is erased from history? How would our lives have been without the internet? Answering such questions, alternate history has always been a popular genre among writers and especially fiction lovers, it explores changed versions of real historical events and reveals the connected consequences. Hundreds of published books including bestsellers such as Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice are based on this intriguing idea.  

  • Steampunk

From aspirin to electric batteries and cameras, the 19th century marks an era that drastically transformed the human lifestyle. This was an incredible time when steam engine trains ran full speed and new industries emerged. Steampunk refers to a future that is based in 19th-century settings with grand steam-powered machines (such as steam aircraft, steam cannons, etc) at play.

The origin and cultural influence of retro-futurism

Although people have likely imagined what the future would look like since the dawn of time, the crystallized retrofuturism current is relatively recent.

According to many digital publications, the concept was first ever discussed in a late 1960s book named Retro-Futurism authored by T. R. Hinchliffe. However, not enough evidence or historical records exist in the present to validate this fact. However, although it didn’t have a name, retrofuturism was still present way before that.

This illustration by Grant E. Hamilton ran in the February 16, 1895 issue of Judge magazine.

In the year 1983, an ad about Bloomingdale’s jewelry got published in the New York Times. This was no ordinary piece of advertisement because first, it goes like this – “silverized steel and sleek grey linked for a retro-futuristic look”, and second, the Oxford English Dictionary clearly mentions this ad as the earliest recorded use of a term related to the concept of retro-future.

Filmmakers, designers, artists, and game developers have been actively using retro-futurism as a theme for their artistic creations and products. Whether it is Marty McFly’s future visit in 1989’s classic hit Back to the Future II or the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, many fictional and real-world events depict retro-futurism in ways you may never know.

City of the future, 1936.

Ultimately, retrofuturism serves as an art current, but it can play a surprisingly important role: by showing us what our world could have looked like but doesn’t, it’s highlighting how our societal expectations and decisions change in time. By looking at different versions of our future, we can get a better idea of what our present is and how our society is shaped. Hopefully, when we take a deep look into that societal mirror, we’ll like what we see.

The first artists? Researchers find children handprints from 200,000 years ago

A long time ago, two kids in Quesang, on the Tibetan Plateau, had a bit of fun. They left a set of handprints and footprints on a travertine boulder between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago. Researchers now believe that these fossilized impressions, apparently left intentionally, could be the world’s oldest known cave art.

A 3D-relief model of the Quesang fossil hand and footprints with colors showing the depth of the prints within the rocks. Image credit: The researchers.

A team of researchers led by Professor David Zhang from Guangzhou University found the hand and footprints in travertine formed around a hot spring. Travertine is freshwater limestone that when is first deposited it forms a sludgy mud that you can push your hands and feed into. When it’s cut off from water, the travertine hardens into stone, keeping the impression like a form of slow-acting cement.

“How footprints are made during normal activity such as walking, running, jumping is well understood, including things like slippage,” Thomas Urban, co-author of the new paper, told Gizmodo. “These prints, however, are more carefully made and have a specific arrangement—think more along the lines like how a child presses their handprint into fresh cement.”

Researchers used uranium, a naturally found radioactive element, to date the prints. They estimated that the impressions were left in the Pleistocene epoch – which occurred 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. The marks were likely left by two children, one the size of a modern-day 12-year-old and the other the size of a 7-year-old. 

Still, the team couldn’t tell what species of archaic humans actually left the prints. Study co-author Matthew Bennett told Live Science that “Denisovans are a real possibility,” but also mentioned that Homo erectus was also known to inhabit the region. He said “there are lots of contenders” but that they don’t know at this point. 

Is this really art?

As the researchers explain in an article, hand shapes can be commonly found in prehistoric caves. The hand is usually used as a stencil, spreading pigment around the edge. The oldest known examples are the caves in El Castillo, Spain, and Sulawesi, Indonesia. Now, whether this is art or not, that’s a big debate.

Artist’s imagining of two kids making their marks. Image credit: The researchers

Defining what is art depends on how you look at things. The ancient philosopher Aristotle, for instance, thought the Greek concept of mimesis (to mimic) provided us with a definition for what makes art. In this view, art is a copy of something else. The artist sees something and imitates it. Much of what is art fits this definition up until the early XX century when the idea of art became more debated. 

The hand and footprints meet the criterion of mimic art, the researchers argued. The artist, in this case, the two kids in the Tibetan Plateau, took a form already known through lived experience (having seen their own hands and feet) and took that form and reproduced it in a context and pattern in which it wouldn’t normally appear. 

“Whether such a behavior is artistic depends on the definition one applies—but it gets into a class of behaviors that is generally more complex that is seen with other animals,” Urban told Gizmodo. “Symbolic behaviors such as language, religion, and art must have simpler manifestations early in the human story.”

The study was published in the journal Science Bulletin

Our galactic neighbourhood is now charted and available for you to explore

Galactic cartographer Kevin Jardine used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite to make a map of our galaxy. The map can be easily accessed from his website, Galaxy Map, where you can explore our galactic neighbourhood within 6000 parsecs (almost 20,000 light-years).

A closer look in a radius of 650 pc has been released recently. We see dust in yellow/orange, stars in blue/purple, and gas in red.

The Solar neighbourhood within 650 pc. Credits:, Twitter: @galaxy_map

Just like medical imaging can highlight parts of our bodies and differentiates them from the surrounding based on their physical properties, the same can be done using astronomical data to map the galaxy. Different regions in the sky have density contrasts, with older stars usually located in less dense regions than hotter stars. With this information, you can separate the regions into different clusters (and see if it’s dust, a younger cluster, an older cluster and so on).

There are 1.7 million stars featured on the map above. The center is “us” (meaning the Sun) surrounded by four quadrants. All maps available are in high quality, so you can zoom in or open in full screen, and look for objects you would like to see, like Orion constellation’s stars. Our perspective gives us the impression that those stars are always together, but with the map, you’ll see their real position in the galaxy.

The Solar neighbourhood. Credits:, Twitter: @galaxy_map. CLICK TO ZOOM IN.

The galactic cartographer plans to overlay the Galactic Quadrants:  Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. He has also worked to make a board game called Guniibuu, based on the 10-parsec neighborhood.

This is just one example of what can be done with the mountain of space data publicly made available by space agencies such as NASA or ESA.

A more detailed map, where you can search for an object of your preference, hide some features, is available at this link. You can also follow the updated versions on Galaxy Map’s Twitter. The project is already starting to build an active community.

You can also read a paper describing the data here.

This 51,000-year-old Neanderthal bone carving may be one of the world’s oldest works of art

Inside a cave in the Harz Mountains of central Germany, paleontologists have come across a striking artifact. The 51,000-year-old toe bone belonging to a prehistoric deer was purposefully carved with lines by Neanderthals, quite possibly with a symbolic meaning. It may very well be the world’s oldest art, claim German researchers.

The engraved deer bone found at Einhornhöhle. Credit: V. Minkus.

The front side of the bone is carved with overlapping chevrons (inverted Vs) that point upwards with smaller incisions on the lower edge that might have served as a base. When the artifact was placed on its base, it didn’t tip over. “It was probably left standing upright in a corner of the cave,” said archaeologist Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony state office for Cultural Heritage.

Alongside the carved toe bone, archaeologists discovered the shoulder blade bones of deer, which may or not have belonged to the same animal, as well as the skull of a cave bear. These remains were, interestingly enough, discovered in Einhornhöhle, also known as ‘Unicorn Cave’, due to the fossilized bones found there since the 16th century which locals believed came from fabled unicorns.

Modern excavations at Unicorn Cave showed the site was inhabited by successive generations of Neanderthals from at least 130,000 years ago until 47,000 years ago when they went extinct. Only much later, starting about 12,000 years ago, did modern humans take over the cave.

MicroCT-scan of the engraved deer artifact. Credit: NLD.

The researchers are confident that the artifact was carved by Neanderthal hands rather than humans. Although humans and Neanderthals were acquainted by the time the bone was etched 51,000 years ago, our species had yet to make its presence known at Einhornhöhle. Neanderthals were the only hominids in that part of Europe (and Einhornhöhle specifically) at the time, the researchers claim in their study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Concerning the meaning of the chevron carvings, the archaeologists can only speculate. It may represent a female figurine, a mountain landscape, or some abstract art.

What seems more certain is that the bone was carved purposefully as an ornament rather than the result of butchery. The carvings are etched deep, which means the bone was likely boiled beforehand to make it softer. The deer species, Megaloceros giganteus, from which the bone came was quite rare in the region, which would have made the artwork all the more special.

This symbolistic artifact is not singular among Neanderthal culture. Previously, researchers uncovered a pendant made from ancient eagle talons and cave paintings in Spain made by Neanderthal artists. Together, these findings show that Neanderthals’ reputation as brutes is undeserved.

But this also raises an even more exciting possibility: since both humans and Neanderthals shared creative abilities, it’s possible that they both inherited them from a common ancestor. If this is the case, we might have to look even further — much further — down in history to find where these abilities first appeared. In the process, we may learn how humans came to develop the qualities we now endow to humanity.

Leder and colleagues plan on performing more digs at Einhornhöhle in the hope they might find other engraved artifacts, perhaps stashed away in some dark corner of the cave.

An AI algorithm just completed a famous Rembrandt painting

A 17th-century copy by Gerrit Lundens with lines added indicating the areas cut off of the original painting in 1715.

In 1642, famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn completed a large painting called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq — today, the painting is commonly referred to as The Night Watch. It was the height of the Dutch Golden Age, and The Night Watch brilliantly showcased that.

The painting measured 363 cm × 437 cm (11.91 ft × 14.34 ft) — so big that the characters in it were almost life-sized, but that’s only the start of what makes it so special. Rembrandt made dramatic use of light and shadow and also created the perception of motion in what would normally be a stationary military group portrait. Unfortunately, though, the painting was trimmed in 1715 to fit between two doors at Amsterdam City Hall.

For over 300 years, the painting has been missing 60cm (2ft) from the left, 22cm from the top, 12cm from the bottom and 7cm from the right. Now, computer software has restored the missing parts.

Artificial art

Artificial Intelligence (AI) works through a process called machine learning. Existing information is fed into the algorithm, which then does its best to produce new outcomes based on the data it was given. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where the painting is displayed, used two images to feed the AI. The first was a high-resolution scan of the original, and the second was a painted copy done before the trimming by Gerrit Lundens (see above).

In other words, rather than have an artist create a copy, the researchers had the AI reproduce the original material from a copy, but using Rembrandt’s original style.

The restoration has revealed new elements of the painting, including three characters on the left. Image credits: Rijksmuseum.

The resulting images were then printed and mounted next to the original painting so visitors can admire the whole painting as it was completed by Rembrandt — or at least, the closest thing to that we can get.

“Our attempt here is to make a best guess, without the hand of an artist, into what The Night Watch looked like,” Robert Erdmann, senior scientist at the Rijksmuseum, told the BBC.

The painting reveals three new figures: two militiamen and a young boy. In addition, the AI offered a clearer view of the boy in the left foreground, running away from the militia. Since these are real characters, the addition is significant because it shows just what Rembrandt wanted to reproduce. But perhaps even more significantly, the additions complete Rembrandt’s vision of the painting, which was to grab the viewer’s attention and drag it from place to place, by creating the illusion of motion.

“It is spectacular because what Rembrandt painted was Captain Frans Banninck Cocq ordering his lieutenants to march out and that is now exactly what you see,” said Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, for The Guardian.

“With the addition especially on the left and the bottom, an empty space is created in the painting where they march towards. When the painting was cut [the lieutenants] were in the centre, but Rembrandt intended them to be off-centre marching towards that empty space, and that is the genius that Rembrandt understands: you create movement, a dynamic of the troops marching towards the left of the painting.”

The result, museum officials say, is better than the Lundens copy. Because the painter had been sitting on the left side of the picture, his perspective was slightly skewed. Lundens also used different types of paint than Rembrandt, and his work aged differently than the original.

Even though the results of this project are impressive, museum Dibbits still hopes someone will turn up one day with the missing parts of the original — especially since by 1715, Rembrandt was already an appreciated (and expensive) artist. Until that happens, if it does happen at all, we’ll have to settle for the AI version.

The sound of music: violins could soon be designed by Artificial Intelligence

Ever since the first violins were made some 500 years ago, the process of violin-making has changed surprisingly little. Traditionally, violins are “bench-made” — by a single individual, often a master maker (or “luthier”). More recently, “shop-made” instruments, where many people participate under the supervision of a master maker, have become more common. But in both instances, the layout is designed by a master violin maker — either from scratch, or copied from the old masters.

That may soon change. According to a new study, Artificial Intelligence (AI) could soon take part in the process.

Image credits: Providence Doucet.T

A violin is a surprisingly complex object. Its geometry is defined by its outline and the arching on the horizontal and vertical section. In a new study, the Chilean physicist and luthier Sebastian Gonzalez (a postdoc) and the professional mandolin player Davide Salvi (a Phd student) showed how a simple and effective neural network can predict the vibrational behavior of violin designs — in order words, how the violin would sound.

The prediction uses a small set of geometric and mechanical parameters from the violin. The researchers developed a model that describes the violin’s outline based on the arcs of nine circles. Using this approach, they were able to draw a violin plate as a function of only 35 parameters.

A drawing from the workshop of Enrico Ceruti showing the outline as a series of connected arcs of circles, image courtesy of the Violin Museum of Cremona, Italy. Image credits: Gonzalez et al.

After starting from a basic design, they randomly changed the parameters they were using (such as the position and the radii of the circles, the thickness, the type of wood, etc) — until they obtained a database of virtual violins. Some of the designs are very similar to shapes already used in violin making, while others have never been attempted before. These shapes were then used to predict what the violin would sound.

“Using standard statistical learning tools, we show that the modal frequencies of violin tops can, in fact, be predicted from geometric parameters, and that artificial intelligence can be successfully applied to traditional violin making. We also study how modal frequencies vary with the thicknesses of the plate (a process often referred to as plate tuning) and discuss the complexity of this dependency. Finally, we propose a predictive tool for plate tuning, which takes into account material and geometric parameters,” the researchers write in the study.

Left: example of an historical violin. Credit: 2008 Stoel, Borman. Right: examples of three violins in the dataset. Credit: Politecnico di Milano

The algorithm was able to predict how the violins would sound with 98% accuracy — far better than even the researchers expected.

The innovative work promises to save a lot of work for violin makers, and it also paves the way for new, innovative types of designs to be tried. For the future research, the team will also look at how to select wood that is most desirable for the violin design.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

It may look like an art show but these ‘dancing lights’ reduce pesticide use by 50%

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

On a plot of farmland in Lelystad, Netherlands, art and technology merge in a stunning light show. During the day, the 20,000-square-meter field looks like any piece of farmland, but by the night it is transformed into a psychedelic wonderland.

Don’t be fooled by the pretty lights, though. The installation actually serves to enhance crop growth, improving yield and reducing the need for pesticides by 50%.

The same leek field during the day. Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

The project, known as GROW, is the brainchild of Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, founder of Studio Roosegaarde.

Roosegaarde used a mixture of blue, red, and ultraviolet “dancing lights” that shine across a field of leeks.

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

Roosegaarde was inspired to embark on this project after a rare encounter with rural Netherlands. A self-confessed urbanite, the designer had spent very little time appreciating his country’s agricultural landscape — but it all changed after he made a visit to the farm.

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

The Dutch designer worked closely with plant biologists to figure out what was just the right amount of light frequencies and the ideal positioning such that the leek field would grow as efficiently as possible.

Research suggests that certain combinations of frequencies can not only strengthen plant metabolism but also increase resistance to pests and diseases.

Credit: Daan Roosegaarde.

It’s no surprise that this project was started in the Netherlands. Althought it’s 10 times smaller than Texas, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest producer of vegetables, after the United States.

It’s thanks to technological inovations such as these that such a tiny country is able to become an agricultural powerhouse, feeding not only its population but also exporting its products to the world.

The longest known exposure photograph ever was captured using a beer can

It took duct tape, a 500ml cider can, and Ilford Multigrade photographic paper to construct the makeshift camera. The result may look blurry, but to the trained eye, the arced lines are not an accident: they represent trails of the sun as it rose and fell, going higher in the summer and lower in the winter; 2,953 of these trails, to be precise, because that’s the exposure time of the photo: 2,953 days.

Image Credits: University of Hertfordshire.

The image was taken by Regina Valkenborgh, who began capturing it towards the end of her MA Fine Art degree at the University of Hertfordshire in 2012. Valkenborgh was interested in capturing photos without the use of modern technology. She prefers beer or cider cans to soft drinks because they’re taller and create a better image. The can is used as a pinhole camera.

She trialed exposure periods of 6 months and one year, the latter turning much different from the former. But one particular setup, she forgot about. The equipment was laid in place in 2012 at the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory. and forgotten about. The makeshift camera apparently remained static until late 2020, when it was discovered by the Observatory’s Principal Technical officer, David Campbell. — a matter of pure luck, and ironically, contradicting what Valkenborgh intended for the image (which was to spin it around and look at different parts of the sky).

“It was a stroke of luck that the picture was left untouched, to be saved by David after all these years. I had tried this technique a couple of times at the Observatory before, but the photographs were often ruined by moisture and the photographic paper curled up. I hadn’t intended to capture an exposure for this length of time and to my surprise, it had survived. It could be one of, if not the, longest exposures in existence.”

Regina Valkenborgh pictured at the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory, where she placed the camera – the ‘solar can’ beer can she is holding – in a telescope in 2012. Image credits: University of Hertfordshire.

Long exposure photography is a technique that uses a long-duration shutter speed to sharply capture the stationary elements of images while blurring, smearing, or obscuring the moving elements. Usually though, this longer period means a few seconds or at most, a few hours.

Extreme long exposure photography has been carried out before, notably by German photographer Michael Wesely, whose work includes cameras with exposures of up to 34 months. But as far as we could find, Valkenborgh’s is the longest exposure photography ever taken — and it will be hard to break her record.

The basic idea of using a pinhole is straightforward, but you need to leave the camera undisturbed for the entire duration. A single perturbation could ruin a years-long exposure photography.

Valkenborgh now works as a photography technician at Barnet and Southgate College.

Here are the impressive winning images of the British Ecological Society competition

Celebrating the beauty and diversity of the natural world, the British Ecological Society announced the winners of its 2020 “Capturing Ecology” photography competition. The images were taken by international ecologists and students from around the world and capture flora and fauna in creative settings.

Image credit: Alwin Hardenbol

Subjects range from a showdown between a roadrunner and rattlesnake, flamingos feasting at sunset, and a close-up of a humphead wrasse. The independent judging panel featured six highly respected members from different countries, including eminent ecologists and award-winning wildlife photographers.

The first prize was awarded to Alwin Hardenbol from the University of Eastern Finland and his shot of a Dalmatian pelican, the largest type of pelican and one threatened by the loss of its breeding colonies and aquatic habitats. In a statement, Hardenbol said he had to take thousands of pictures to get the perfect shot.

“I gave this image the title ‘The art of flight’ because of how impressive this bird’s wings appear in the picture, you can almost see the bird flying,” Hardenbol said. “Winning such a competition as an ecologist provides me with the opportunity to continue combining my research with my passion for nature photography.”

A biology student from Argentina, Pablo Javier Merlo, won the overall student category. He captured a Great Dusky Swift perched on the steep rocky walls of the Iguazú falls which limit between Brazil and Argentina. These birds, known as waterfall swifts, can be usually found flying among the Iguazú falls.

“The Iguazú National Park has remarkable importance since it protects a very diverse natural ecosystem, and the waterfall swift is an important icon of Iguazú and its diversity,” Merlo said in a statement. “I am very grateful to be selected as one of the winners and feel motivated to continue learning about photography.”

Image credit: Pablo Javier Merlo

A researcher at the University of Valencia, Roberto García Roa was the winner of “The Art of Ecology” category for this image of a Cope’s vine snake using its open mouth as a tactic to scare predators. This is a tactic used after being discovered, despite the fact they are considered harmless and having no venom.

Credit: Roberto García Roa

Upamanyu Chakraborty, a researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India, was one of the overall runner-ups with this impressive photo on weaver ants and their social behavior, taken in a backlit situation. They build their nests out of leaves and live a life high up in the canopy of the trees, off the ground where possible.

Image credit: Upamanyu Chakraborty

Pichaya Lertvilai, a researcher from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, was another overall runner-up winner this photo of the paralarvae of the California two-spot octopus hatching from their egg sacs. The egg yolks sustain them for a short period before they have to start hunting to survive.

Image credit: Pichaya Lertvilai

Peter Hudson, a researcher from Penn State University, was the winner of the dynamic ecosystems’ category. He took a photo of a roadrunner dancing around a western diamondback rattlesnake. The roadrunner keeps its wings out and feathers exposed with its body hidden to minimize the chances of death if the snake strikes.

Image credit: Peter Hudson

The ‘Up close and personal’ category winner was Michał Śmielak, from the University of New England, Australia, with his photo of this bearded leaf chameleon.

Image credits: Michał Śmielak

You can read more about the contest and see the other entries here.

Researchers find a new hidden secret in the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest geniuses in history, with skills and inventions way ahead of his time. On many occasions his work was surrounded by mystery, hiding secrets not visible at first glance. Now, a new study found another one, linked to bacteria and fungi.

Image credit: The authors.

Looking for hidden secrets in Da Vinci’s work, a team of researchers from Austria and Italy decided to investigate what was beyond the naked eye in seven of Leonardo’s best-known drawings. They weren’t looking for hidden sketches or anything like that: they were looking for the microbiome.

A microbiome is essentially a set of microorganisms that share the same habitat. They aren’t perceptible to the naked eye and advanced technologies are needed to try to understand how and why they coexist. Looking for hidden elements in Leonardo’s work, the researchers stumbled upon very nusual types of microbiome..

Five of these drawings are currently housed in the Royal Library of Turin: Autoritratto, Nudi per la battaglia di Anghiari, Studi delle gambe anteriori di un cavallo, Studi di insetti and tudi di gambe virili. The last two are stored at the Corsinian Library in Rome: Uomo della Bitta and Studio di panneggio per una figura inginocchiata.

Analyzing the seven drawings, the researchers discovered that the microbiome of each one was unique enough to be able to identify each of the works only by their distinctive microorganisms — you may not tell a book by its cover, but you can tell a work of art by its microbes.

This is not to say that the microbiomes were entirely different, they were still similar in many ways, but each had a distinctive touch.

Image credit: The authors.

The findings can help the researchers to locate the places where the drawing was carried out, as well as the places through which it has passed throughout its life, such as warehouses, restorers, or art dealers. This is very valuable information: the microbiome has a story to tell and if you read it well, you can even use it to detect fraud.

The researchers used a tool called Nanopore, a genetic sequencing method that quickly breaks down and analyzes genetic material, to make a detailed study of the different biological materials. They had already studied microbiomes in the past to determine how statues recovered from smugglers had been stored.

In the case of the Da Vinci drawings, they believe most of the human DNA discovered comes from people who were responsible for restoring and caring for their works from the 15th century. They also confirmed all the drawings are original works by Leonardo and found a high concentration of bacteria compared to the fungi.

In previous studies, they had been able to confirm that fungi tend to dominate the microbiomes, but in this case, it was absolutely the opposite. They believe that they came from both humans and insects, something that probably has to do with how the works were stored, especially after Leonardo’s death.

“Altogether, the insects, the restoration workers and the geographic localization seem to all have left a trace invisible to the eye on the drawings,” the researchers said in a statement. “[But] it is difficult to say if any of these contaminants originate from the time when Leonardo da Vinci was sketching its drawings.”

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

Researchers train robot swarm to serve as ‘real-life paintbrushes’

Creating art is an intensive and time-consuming process. It’s not just envisioning and designing the piece that’s challenging — the labor of painting also takes a lot of time. But what if robots could help with this, and maybe even expand an artist’s repertoire?

It may seem far-fetched, but in a new study, researchers paved the way for exactly this: they trained a swarm of robots to be used in producing art.

Image courtesy of María Santos.

María Santos was always fascinated by the intersection of engineering and arts. A musician herself, she loves to explore this overlap of seemingly different worlds, she tells ZME Science.

“During my PhD at the School of Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech, I was given the opportunity of combining my research on control theory and multi-robot systems with different forms of art,” she says.

It all started in a previous study with her doctoral advisor, Professor Magnus Egersted. The two first studied the expressive capabilities of robot swarms to convey basic emotions and then moved on to look at the individual trajectories executed by the swarm of robots.

Is there some artistic merit to this, or could this approach be applied in an artistic setting as a tool? Santos believes so.

“In this study we explore how the integration of such trajectories over time can lead to artistic paintings by making the robots leave physical trails as they move,” Santos explains in an email.

“We envisioned the multi-robot system as an extension of an artist’s creative palette. The presented painting swarm along with all its control knobs embody new means of interaction between artists and the piece of art, whereby artists can explore new creative directions, intuitively interacting with a robotic system while not having to concern themselves with aspects such as individual robot control or available paints to each robot.”

At first glance, using robots for art seems like a weird idea, but it makes sense once you look at it. Painting is typically labor-intensive, and despite the world around us becoming more and more automated, painting has remained exclusively a manual endeavor. The idea is not to have the robots create art, but rather for artists to use the robots as a tool to ease their workload or explore new artistic directions.

Image courtesy of María Santos.

The robots in the project move about a canvas leaving color trails, and the artist can select the areas of the canvas to be painted in a certain color — the robots will oblige in real time. It’s a bit like applying digital techniques into the real-life analog world and can serve as an interesting tool for artists.

The way Santos envisions the approach, the artist would control the swarm behavior, but not necessarily every individual robot.

“In this approach, the robotic swarm can be thought of as an “active” brush for the human artist to paint with, where the individual robots (active bristles) move over the canvas according to the color specifications given by the human at each point in time. Thus, the artist can control the collective behavior of the swarm and potentially some other general parameters (how much paint to release, how sharp the trajectories of the robots may be), but not the individual movements of each robot.”

This leaves a wide array of parameters the artist can influence to produce the desired effect, and explore different variations. It’s akin to how a composer writes variations on a theme, Santos tells me.

A video highlighting the technique, courtesy of María Santos.

In the experiments, the researchers used a projector to simulate the colored paint trail with a digital input, although they will soon replace this with a robot that handles actual paint. They found that even when the robot doesn’t have access to the desired color, it is capable to collaborate with other robots and approximate the color. This means the artist doesn’t need to worry whether the robots have access to all the possible colors.

Now, the researchers hope to collaborate with artists to see how this approach could be best tweaked to make it work in real life. The current pandemic, however, has proven to be quite a hurdle.

“We would love to get feedback from artists! In fact, when we started this project, our idea was to get artists to come to the lab and interact with the robotic swarm. This way we could see what they could come up with creatively in terms of generated paints, but also to get their input about which features would be most interesting to develop as the project progresses further.”

“However, due to COVID19, this part was infeasible during the last months, so we focus on studying the characteristics of the paintings as a function of different parameters in the swarm.”

Ultimately, the team hopes to develop this into a full-scale artistic project and allow artists and the public to experiment with it

“As of now, the artworks were created to evaluate the operation of the system, but we would love to exhibit them! Once we can get people back in the lab to try the system, we would love to see what people would come up with.”

Journal Reference:  Interactive Multi-Robot Painting Through Colored Motion Trails, Frontiers in Robotics and AI(2020). DOI: 10.3389/frobt.2020.580415

Science and art join hands to transition the world toward a sustainable future

 Photo Credit: Dancers Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis; Photo by Morgan Marinoni.

In an era when science and politics often collide, public confidence in science seems to be on the downswing. This hasn’t ever been made more obvious than today, as we’ve witnessed the dangers of polarization while the current pandemic sweeps the globe or the ambivalent response in the face of the more silent, but much more menacing, threat of climate change.

When reason fails, perhaps the heart can light the way. That’s what Gloria Benedikt — Project Leader of Science and Art at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, and a trained ballet dancer and choreographer — hopes to ultimately achieve through the synergy of art and science.

In a new IIASA report, Benedikt outlines a foundation for how such a collaboration can take place in order to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

“The idea of connecting science and art goes back to the enlightenment but was not realized for many reasons outlined in the report. Since the 18th century, we have entered a period of significant progress through specialization in all fields. The idea to connect science and art had a revival in recent decades because we are starting to see the limits in progress through specialization,” Benedikt told ZME Science.

“Science and technology have been a successful team in solving some problems. Think, for instance, about the so-called ozone hole. Scientists found out that the problem was certain chemicals. The solution was to get rid of them. Policymakers could ban them quite easily because technology was able to deliver an alternative solution to these chemicals. The solution to this problem was relatively easy as no significant behavior change was needed from the public to solve this problem.”

But sometimes things aren’t so straightforward. Not everything can be fixed with nuts and bolts. Complex societal problems often require nuanced solutions, and satisfying all stakeholders is virtually impossible. The fact of the matter is, hard facts are often not enough in order to propel massive action and shift paradigms of thinking.

“Climate change is far more complex. Scientists again found out what the problem is: CO2 emissions. But technology by itself cannot adequately reduce CO2 emissions. We also need behavior change from individual citizens. And for policy to be effective, we need the public on board.”

“This is why scientists need new partners to get the public on board and this is where artists come in to support the cultural shift we need. Climate change is at the core of a much larger transformation that is necessary and will require a paradigm shift in how we humans see our relationship with planet earth,” Benedikt said.

Gloria Benedikt. Credit: Daniel Dömölky Photography, Facebook

Since she joined IIASA in 2015, Benedikt has assembled a team of artists and researchers with whom she pursued various projects where music, dance, and theater joined hands with science. The goal was to cast a new light onto thorny topics such as biodiversity loss, climate change, or migration.

These projects were performed as plenary sessions at international events such as the World Science Forum, the International Conference on Sustainable Development, and the European Forum Alpbach, as well as in performance venues such as Carnegie Hall and Harvard University’s Farkas Hall. 

You can catch a glimpse of these projects as they unfolded in Science & Art for Life’s Sake, an hour-long documentary embedded below.

How to organize a successful science-art communication project

Benedikt makes the case that her work should not be confused with activism. Instead, her projects are all about letting the science speak for itself, albeit in a different language than its conventional communication channels, such as papers published in scientific journals or keynote speeches.

In her report, the Austrian researcher has outlined four main principles that anyone can use to communicate science through art in a non-judgmental manner that lets people absorb concepts at their own pace.

“High-quality art, like high-quality science, does not tell people what to do. Instead, it uncovers complexities that are not apparent on the surface. To overcome the knowledge-to-action gap without going down the dogmatic route, we need to empower people by helping them understand what is happening so they can make well-informed choices,” she said.

“This is why we have developed four fundamental principles for artists and scientists who seek to engage with scientific findings that face the knowledge-to-action gap.”

“First, if artists engage with science, their responsibility is to stay true to the science and not express their own opinion.”

“Second, the artists’ challenge is to uncover the meaning of this finding, the ethical dilemma, so the public can understand why it matters. Ethics is not the domain of science, so here artists have an essential role to play.” 

“Third, aim for a constructive outcome. It would be much easier to stage a drama, tragedy, or a happy end. But neither will be helpful. We need the creativity of artists here to envision what the world will look like if we walk the sustainable path. This empowers people and helps them understand what they can do, what their role is on this world stage. Then they can make better-informed choices.”

“Fourth, to understand the effect of these choices we have developed interactive components. In many of the productions, we have adapted simulation games. They initially were developed to help policymakers make better-informed decisions. Now we turned them into stage games to help audiences make better-informed decisions.”

Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis performing ‘COURAGE’ at the European Forum Alpbach Political Symposium 2016. Credit: Maria Nositernig, IIASA, Flickr.

Of course, crystalizing this process wasn’t easy nor without its challenges. As a journalist, I am very familiar with the reluctance of some scientists to communicate their work to the general public. Some fear that their findings may be misinterpreted or sensationalized to the point that they might feel ridiculed, others have a holier than thou attitude who see no point in distilling high-level abstractions to the level of a layperson. Benedikt had her own fair share of skepticism that she had to endure and overcome.

“First, I had to earn trust from the scientists that I would not wrench their work. When they saw the first few works I created, this changed. It also helped that I asked for paper and book recommendations before I showed up with an idea for a new work,” she said.

“Looking back, one of the most memorable moments behind the scenes was when I had the first meeting with a scientist for a new project where we would try to turn scientific papers into theater plays. After I had explained a little bit about my motivation for the project, he said: ‘You don’t have to convince me of this idea. Twenty years ago, when I started to work on this new branch of science called sustainability science, I already thought that we should be telling our findings in stories. But I’m a scientist, and I did not know anyone who could tell them as stories.’ It was a special moment that made me realize that two worlds – that were meant to – were finally coming together.”

Does it really work?

Credit: Daniel Kruganov | IIASA.

While Benedikt’s performances involve some degree of feedback, such as questionnaires after a show, which have all generally been positive, she underlines the fact behavior change cannot be isolated to one particular experience. By her own account, she is simply “one piece of the puzzle”, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a process to her work.

“The performances are constructed based on elements whose effectiveness has already been confirmed by neuroscience and psychology,” said Benedikt.

“For instance, we use multimodal communication. We have text written by scientists or in collaboration with playrights spoken by a narrator or by actors, combined with music and dance. Neuroscientists have found that the more forms of communication are used, the more parts of the brain light up. And the more parts of the brain are active, the deeper and longer-lasting the experience. So this explains why a performance about science is more effective than a PowerPoint presentation conveying the facts. And by now there is plenty of evidence that stories are our natural mode of grasping complex content. “

“Every performance has an artistic opening before the scientific content comes in. This approach is in line with the first principle of moral psychology: emotions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

“Psychologists have also found that “subtle messages included in narratives” leave room for people to digest the information at their own rhythm as opposed to being directly confronted with it and are thus “less likely to create resistance.” Since findings from sustainability science tend to meet resistance on an ethical level, conveying messages through a medium that can create openness is important.”

“We use metaphors, symbols, and archetypes, which are storytelling and artistic devices that require the audience to participate in creating meaning actively. Audience members are invited to use their imagination to complete or unpack the poetic images offered to them. Instead of being passive recipients of information, they are active creators of meaning. Science tells us that information sticks when it is activity derived.”

“All of this helps to make scientific insights accessible and allows the public to derive meaning. But we still have not tackled the biggest challenge: overcoming the knowledge-to-action gap.”

Now, it’s your turn

The new report is meant for stakeholders in policy, science, and art. Benedikt hopes that her work will inspire others in these fields to step in order to accelerate our transition toward a sustainable future.

“In the science world, interest in the science-art interface has increased in the last years. But the conversation by enlarge is still quite confusing. There seems to be no clarity in terms of why and how we should pursue this. This confusion is not surprising as no concentrated effort has been made. By focused effort, I mean assigning someone to investigate this for half a decade as IIASA has done. I hope the report will now clarify why and how artists and scientists can work together effectively,” she said.

“In the art world, we see a different challenge. The artists are ready to engage, but the system, as mentioned above, is not providing them with adequate conditions. Artists will need some guidance as engaging effectively with science requires specific skills. I hope the report starts to fill that gap. Scaling up will also require a new place for artists and scientists to connect and facilitate collaborations.”

The beautiful Nature Journal of illustrator Jo Brown

Most people feel relaxed and recharged after an outdoor nature walk. But it’s not often that they stop to take in the beauty of what’s outside. Every small insect, every blade of grass, every colorful mushroom can be beautiful in its own way.

With patience, Jo Brown captures that beauty in splendid detail. In her Nature Journal, she’s built an exquisite collection of common species you may very well encounter in your own corner of nature.

Amanita muscaria. All images courtesy of Jo Brown.

Working from her home studio in Teignmouth, Devon, UK, Brown illustrates the natural world in pen, ink and markers. She’s takes photos of the things she sees outside and then makes intricate drawings of them.

Each page of her notebook contains a pen and colored pencil drawing. Sometimes, she makes detailed descriptions of the plant or notes its peculiarities. The Latin and common name of each species are noted, along with the common characteristics and where it was found.

She started this Nature Journal because she “wanted to record the things she was discovering”. Nature is one of the most important things for Brown, and her attention to detail shines in these detailed illustrations.

Green dock beetle.

It’s not really the rare species that draw her eye. Instead, her attention is mostly focused on common plants, insects, and birds. You don’t have to look too far for them, Brown says: with “a little patience and quiet observation,” we can all observe this type of beauty.

Although, truth be told, observing nature is one thing, but producing drawings this beautiful is entirely different.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee.

Brown continues in the tradition of the naturalists of yore. Before photography became a thing, drawings like this were the best source of visual information for species, and journals with drawings like this were the best visual source of biological description.

To keep up with Jo Brown’s journeys into the nature of the countryside, follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Her black Moleskine notebook is also reproduced exactly in a forthcoming book, Secrets of a Devon Wood — a worthwhile read for naturalists and nature lovers of all ages.

These are the best drone photos of the year — and they will blow your mind

The ‘Best of … Photography’ contests have a relatively new entry: drone photos. The 2020 Drone Awards celebrate the best photos taken from above, and this year’s winners are breathtaking.

“Love Heart of Nature” by Jim Picôt. All image credits of the photographer / 2020 Drone Awards.

This photo from Australian photographer Jim Picôt won the grand prize, and it’s not hard to understand why. A hungry shark is inside a salmon school, searching for the weak and vulnerable when by pure chance, the school takes the shape of a heart, beating together as a single organism.

The Nature category had other spectacular entries. From a whale gently pushing a boat of tourists to a lonely frigid road, there was no scarcity of quality entries.

Photographer Joseph Cheires: “At the end of the gray whale season, I was told about a gray whale that, for the last 3 years, used to play with the boats, pushing them gently. So we went back the year after and incredibly the gray whale appeared and this shot is the result.”
A spring maple tree and its shadow, by Caleb Kenna
Photographer Hong Jen Chiang comments: “Driving along Ring Route 1, in a magical and enchanted landscape, I was ready to embrace whatever may lie ahead.”

Hosted by the Siena Awards Festival, the contest received entries from photographers in 126 countries, some of which will be featured on a gallery. Other categories included Urban, People, and Life Under COVID-19. Here are some of our best picks.

Big buildings couldn’t miss from drone photography.

“Sometimes we need to change the perspective to feel the strength of the structure stronger than we’ve ever thought. The Petronas Towers, also known as the Petronas Twin Towers, are twin skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur,” says photographer Tomasz Kowalski.
“It is extraordinarily interesting to see the architectural designs of the buildings, the streets, and the pier of Dubai Marina that contrast with the ocean water,” says photographer Carmine Chiriacò, runner-up of the Urban section.
An unusual semi-wild breeding of buffaloes, that after the harvest will be free to feed in the vast plowed fields. Credits: Alex Cao.
An old windmill situated in the middle of the field on a grass path, beautifully blending in with the surroundings. Image credits: Milosz Kuss.

Sport is also at the heart of drone photography, and the Drone Awards entires vary from harmonious and peaceful to splashy and chaotic.

The tennis court creates an eerily flat image. Credits: Brad Walls.
“An aerial view of swimmers, where the sea becomes the place to take refuge, between the blue carpet and the white foam of the waves.” Credits: Roberto Corinaldesi.

Of course, the drone awards couldn’t ignore the pandemic that was so impactful, effectively changing the entire society in a matter of months.

Here are some of the most powerful drone photos depicting our life in the pandemic.

Thousands of Israelis maintain social distancing due to Covid-19 restrictions while protesting against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rabin Square on 19 April 2020. Credits: Tomer Appelbaum.
The busiest highway in Dubai, shot with no cars present during the lockdown for the disinfection of the municipality. A moment to remember. Credits: Bachir Moukarzel.
Muslims perform Friday prayers while maintaining social distance and getting used to living with Coronavirus. Credits: Levent AteŞ.
The Parking! Credits: Peter Van Haastrecht.

Other photography categories included Wedding, Series, Abstract, and People. There were also two video categories: a general one, and another one about our life in the pandemic — a topic that was heavily in the focus. You can access the entire gallery here.

If you happen to be in Siena, Italy, you can also see the winners in an art exhibition.

Coalescing Micro-Droplets Video Wins the Nikon Small World in Motion 2020 Award

Credit: Kazi Fazle Rabbi & Dr. Xiao Yan.

You often hear the phrase ‘we’re all made of water’. Technically, the human body is 60% water, and some organisms are 90% water — and that’s thanks to the blessing of having water virtually all around us in all its phases: solid, liquid, or gas. But sometimes you want to keep water and water-loving creatures away. That’s what Kazi Rabbi and Xiao Yan, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have been working on for the last couple of years.

Their research is focused on designing surfaces that enhance the condensation and evaporation of liquids. But aside from its tangible, practical applications, this work also won the researchers’ first prize for the annual Nikon Small World in Motion Photomicrography Competition. At its 10th edition, the competition honors science videos that show visual stunning processing from nature’s microcosmos.

Using transmitted light microscopy, the pair of researchers recorded micro-droplets made of 80% water and 20% ethanol coalescing. The video below is slowed down 200 times.

“Think about anything from keeping the pipes from freezing in winter to making your air conditioning unit run more efficiently,” Rabbi explained in a press release, “If we can develop surfaces and materials that better repel liquids, we can create appliances, power systems, and other technologies that require less energy to run. It could lead to a more sustainable future.”

“Much of our microscopy is focused on visualizing how liquid droplets or condensate droplets interact with such surfaces at micro scale.” Yan said. This visualization is no easy feat to capture. The surface the droplets in the video are reacting to is one of Rabbi and Yan’s own design.

Second place went to Richard Kirby, a marine biologist whose research focuses on plankton and their environments, who recorded a darkfield video of a horseshoe worm larva.

Third place went to a video showing a cytoplasmic stream inside onion cells. This one is actually my personal favorite because I just love how space-like it is. Often, when you zoom in or zoom out a great deal, nature has the knack of being fascinatingly consistent.

Fourth place went to Martin Kaae Kristiansen for a polarized light video showing a blackworm displaying peristaltic movements, while Andrew Moore and Pedro Guedes-Dias from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute snapped fifth place for their visualization of fluorescent actin expressed in an embryonic rat hippocampal neuron.

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