Category Archives: Art

Abstract art speaks to your brain, evokes abstract and far away feelings

Does abstract art truly evoke different cognitive states than figurative art? This was the driving question behind a new study. Across three experiments, researchers showed that abstract paintings evoke more abstract, “far away” feelings.

Experimental, abstract art. Image credits: Steve Johnson.

Generally speaking, art can be split into two broad categories: representational and abstract. Representational art is art that, well, represents something clear — it depicts subjects that can be clearly identified by the viewer. Whether it’s a bowl of fruit, animals, or a starry landscape, when you look at a piece of representational art, you understand what’s going on. Meanwhile, abstract art doesn’t attempt to represent an accurate depiction of visual reality. Instead, abstract art uses colors, forms, and all sorts of effects without representing clear objects.

Some people frown upon abstract art, but for brain researchers, abstract art has stirred a lot of interest in recent times, with a 2014 essay suggesting that abstract art enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain. Neuroscience and abstract art can go together surprisingly well, and the science behind how we perceive abstract art (and art in general) might help us better understand how our brains work in general.

In a recent 2020 study, researchers sought to learn more about the ways the two types of art impact the brain — particularly, how abstract and representational art evoke different mental patterns.

“Subjectively experiencing a work of art may involve a myriad of cognitive processes,” the researchers write in the new study. “The more abstract the work of art, the more ambiguous the image, and the ‘more the beholder must contribute to assign the work of art meaning, utility, and value’. It follows, then, that the subjective experiences of abstract and representational art are different, but empirically characterizing these differences is challenging.”

“Art is incomplete without the perceptual or emotional involvement of the viewer”

Alois Riegl

The study was carried out entirely online, with 840 participants being asked to look at paintings by four abstract artists (Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian, Chuck Close, and Clyfford Still). All four artists had a somewhat similar artistic path, developing a more and more abstract style as the years passed.

The paintings could be divided into three categories: clearly defined objects, somewhat abstract, and abstract. The participants were asked to imagine an exhibition with the given paintings. The choices included the timing of the exhibition, which could be “today” or “in a year”, as well as the location of the exhibition (which could be around the corner, or far away, in another state).

Image credits: Durkin et al (2020) / PNAS.

Previous fMRI studies have suggested that abstract art elicits different mental processes than representational art: representational art elicits
more local and object-focused brain paths, whereas abstract art activates areas thought to be tuned to features of intermediate complexity.

The results suggest that abstract art is associated with increased spatial and temporal distance. Subjects were more likely to place abstract art in a temporally distant situation and in a faraway location, indicating that they associate it with a more abstract future. Meanwhile, participants looking at more representational art were more likely to see the art in a “today” exhibit “around the corner.”

The results weren’t always clear-cut, but overall, abstract art was more likely to evoke “far away” feelings in participants, both in time and in space.

Proportion of paintings that participants saw ‘in another state’. Image credits: Durkin et al (2020) / PNAS.

Describing their findings, researchers say that abstract art can evoke what they call psychological distance — seeing things more conceptually, as opposed to realistically. In other words, an abstract painting evokes an abstract reality around it, which is in line with previous work.

The researchers also quote the ideas of art historian Alois Riegl, one of the major figures in the establishment of art history as a self-sufficient academic discipline in the late 19th and early 20th century. According to Riegl, the viewer is an integral part of art. This new study helps us narrow down and quantify the effect that different types of art can have on the viewer.

“In three different decision making tasks, we found that abstract art evokes a more abstract mindset than representational art. Our data
suggest that abstract and representational art have differential
effects on cognition,” the authors note.

“Overall, our findings suggest that abstract art is represented as
context-invariant, affording a traversal of mental time and space
and resulting in a distal spatiotemporal placement in the world.
In contrast, representational art is more limited and narrower in
its spatiotemporal reach.”

Journal Reference: Celia Durkin et al. “An objective evaluation of the beholder’s response to abstract and figurative art based on construal level theory,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2001772117

Art history is uncovering hidden patterns of fruit and vegetable evolution

(A) Facsimile of wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina (original ca. 1293–1213
BCE). (B) The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565.

For years, biologists have been tapping into the genomes of both modern and ancient crops in order to trace their long and rich history — from wild plains to your dinner table. However, there are still significant gaps in the timeline of both fruit and vegetable evolution, despite the availability of sophisticated genetic sequencing technology.

An unlikely pair of researchers are now seeking to address these gaps using a unique approach. In a new study, Ive De Smet, a plant biologist at the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology in Belgium, and David Vergauwen, an art history lecturer at Amarant in Belgium, demonstrate how old paintings can be highly useful in tracking how fruit and veggies evolved across the last centuries.

Are you intrigued? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re encouraged to lend a hand as the two researchers are looking to the public to extend a helping hand by providing pictures of paintings that depict plant-based food.

Evolution hidden in art

 Ive De Smet (left) and David Vergauwen in a field of wheat, one species that has been the focus of their research. Credit: Liesbeth Everaert.

If you were to travel back in time ten thousand years, you would have been in for a big surprise. Virtually, all the succulent fruits and savory vegetables we all dearly love looked nothing like they do today. In fact, it took countless generations of selective breeding to turn measly wild plants into highly productive food crops. For instance, modern corn is 1,000 times larger and contains at least four times more sugar than the wild variety that used to grow on the plains of Mexico ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes these transitions are obvious, but other times the jigsaw puzzle is more challenging to piece together, which is why biologists are grateful for any input they can find — so why should art be an exception?

For De Smet and Vergauwen, who have been friends for 30 years since high school, this uncanny union is not at all as esoteric as it may sound. Their foray into the intersection between art and evolutionary biology first began during an unsuspecting trip to the Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg.

“A couple of years back, we were in Saint-Petersburg (Russia). At the Hermitage we started a discussion about the fruits depicted by Frans Snyders. The question was: did this particular piece of fruit look like this in the 17th century or was Snyders a bad painter? It was well worth the discussion, since the next day, on the train to Tsarkoe Selo, we started to wonder if there were other fruits or vegetables that had similar stories behind them. Years later, we are still investigating. It turned out to be a valuable (and hardly used) approach to combine our expertise on the level of (art) history and genetics. Maybe there are not that many art historians who have biologists as their best friend and the other way around?” De Smet told ZME Science in an email.

Intrigued by the ideas they were discussing back and forth, the two researchers scoured the available literature for any work that combines art history and genetics. They hit a blank wall.

“So, we started to do some digging and I guess we’ve never stopped digging. Some friends play tennis together or go fishing. Ive and David visit museums, meet other scholars, look at paintings and study the history of our modern foods,” De Smet recounted.

Content that they found a niche, the two researchers set to work right away looking for clues that might inform them what fruits and vegetables looked like in the past.

For example, their investigations of ancient Egyptian depictions of watermelons showed that the fruit had the familiar light and dark green stripes even during those times.

In conjunction with the DNA sequencing of a watermelon leaf retrieved from an Egyptian tomb, this suggests that the fruit was domesticated as early as 4,000 years ago. But despite its similar appearance to modern varieties, this ancestral strain was similar in taste to cucumbers, predating sweet melons by thousands of years, according to a 2019 paper authored by De Smet and Vergauwen.

Be on the lookout for paintings depicting plants

Although old artwork can provide valuable clues as to how plants used to look centuries ago, or even before their domestication, such assessments aren’t at all straightforward.

Painters often depict the world with an artistic license, which makes their artwork unreliable as an accurate reflection of the world. Even some modern painters can’t be trusted. For instance, if you trust Picasso to depict a watermelon as it really looks, you’ll surely be in for a surprise. This is why expertise in art history is essential.

“How do we know a painting is reliable? If you look at a cubist work by Picasso to figure out what a pear looked like in the early 20th century, you will be disappointed. That is where art history comes in. Some paintings are reliable in only some aspects, some are totally reliable and others not at all, like the Picasso. The works by Jeroen Bosch might show a morphologically correct depiction of a strawberry, but it might be taller than the people next to it. It would be fanciful to suppose that there were indeed any such large strawberries, but if the strawberry is morphologically correct, we might draw conclusions from that,” De Smet told ZME Science.

“So how do we know what to believe? That is a matter of trusting the evidence. If a painter depicts clothes correctly and we can verify that with specimens from a museum or other paintings, if a painter depicts musical instruments (violins or harpsichords) that are still in a museum and they match up, if a painter depicts architecture that is still around (say the central market place of Antwerp) and it checks out, then we do not have a reason to suppose that we would go about his work in a totally different way when it comes to perishables like fruits and vegetables. It is a simple question of checking the reliability of your source and trusting the evidence. And often it is also a matter of numbers. If something is depicted only once it might be an oddity (or a poor-quality painter), but if something pops up regularly it might indeed be how it (at least in part) looked like.”

This is why De Smet and Vergauwen hope to inspire people to participate in a citizen science project by supplying pictures of paintings depicting fruits and vegetables.

“We can only travel so much, so this is one of the reasons why we started this Crowd Sourcing campaign, the tap into resources we would normally not be able to,” said De Smet.

“We cannot be everywhere. Sure, we have visited the Hermitage, the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, etc., but if an interesting 17th-century tomato is depicted in the kitchen of a Spanish monastery that is almost never open to visitors, we run the risk of never finding out about that. That is why we need help. We want to find as much material as possible. Catalogues are of no help, because a mythological painting with Perseus freeing Andromeda can have a perfectly fine orange in the background, but the description, the title or a small picture of that painting will never give us a clue of where to find it. We need people to notice it. Then we need them to report their findings. We came up with this citizen science idea quite early on in our project and we are looking at ways to finance an app to help people to help us. There is still so much to do.”

That’s not to say that old paintings can reveal instances of plant evolution that genomic analyses have missed, although this isn’t beyond the realm of plausibility.  Instead, art history and genetics can join hands to construct more accurate timelines of when a particular fruit or vegetable crop enters common usage.

Take carrots, for instance. Today, the popular vegetable is ubiquitously recognized due to its orange appearance thanks to high carotenoid contents. However, 17th-century paintings from the Dutch Golden Century depict carrots in white, red, yellow, and orange. This isn’t some creative fluke — that’s really how carrots used to look when the painters were alive.

(A) Pieter Aertsen, The Vegetable Seller (1567). The drawing with color overlay indicates the positions of orange or purple carrots on the painting and a likely black radish or
parsnip (grey). (B,C) illustrate some of the major components leading to carrot colour. The diagrams highlight the enzymes and/or major products in carotenoid (B) and anthocyanin pathways (C). Credit: Trends in Plant Science, Vergauwen and De Smet.

What’s intriguing is that this approach can be extended for virtually all instances of evolution that may have been captured by art, from plants to animals. But, for now, the two researchers are content to stick to what they know best: art history, genetics, and a passion for visiting museums.

“I guess we will never stop visiting museums. This was a hobby of ours long before we started this project. The only difference is that now we can tell our wives that we have to take a trip “for work’,” the researchers said.

So you’re an art aficionado but also a science nerd? Then drop a line to the researchers at — your help and keen eye will be surely appreciated. 

Pollution Popsicles highlight our water pollution problem

Image credits: Hung I-chen / Cheng Yu-ti.

Taiwanese artists Hung I-chen, Guo Yi-hui and Cheng Yu-ti roam the country, searching for polluted water. They first freeze it and then conserve it in resin, in a shape that resembles the familiar frozen popsicles we all know.

At first glance, it looks pretty neat, seemingly imitating the visual imagery of artisanal foods. But when you look closer, the art hides a dirty secret: garbage and pollution.

Image credits: Hung I-chen / Cheng Yu-ti.

The popsicles preserve whatever is in the water — from mold and filth to bits of plastic and wrappers.

“It’s made out of sewage, so basically these things can only be seen, not eaten,” Hung said.

Popsicles are also mostly water, Hung added. “(Having) pure water, a clean water source is actually very important,” she said.

The art pieces also included wrappers, with a number and a “flavor”. Image credits: Hung I-chen / Cheng Yu-ti.

The aim of the project is to raise awareness on water pollution — and it’s a pretty comeplling story.

Every day, approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans. Researchers estimate that there are trillions of plastic pieces in the oceans, as well as in the Arctic ice — both macroplastic and microplastic.

Image credits: Hung I-chen / Cheng Yu-ti.

The ice lollies were ranked from dirtiest to cleanest, with the dirtiest made with water from Keelung, a major port city. A 2015 report found over 140 discharge outlets in the port area.

Water samples taken from Taitung and elsewhere in the east of the island were found to be much cleaner.

Image credits: Hung I-chen / Cheng Yu-ti.

The project, which was unveiled in 2017, is just as relevant now. Little has improved in terms of water pollution in the past couple of years — quite the contrary.

Oh, and if you think these popsicles are gross, then you might want to learn that according to one report, humans ingest up to 100,000 pieces of microplastic every year. So whether we like it or not, we’re probably all eating popsicles like this, one way or the other.

Ultimately art is about sending a message, and this one hits right through.

‘We hope when more people see this they can change their lifestyles,’ the artists concluded.

This neural net creates memes — and I can’t stop using it

There are 48 classic meme formats, one AI, and endless possibilities — I’ve spent far too much time on it.

There are a few things essentially synonymous with internet culture. Cats are a worthy candidate. Blogs are another; and then, there’s memes. In one form or another, memes have been floating around since the early days of the internet, but now, they’re not just for humans anymore.

“Image memes have become a widespread tool used by people for interacting and exchanging ideas over social media, blogs, and open messengers. This work proposes to treat automatic image meme generation as a translation process,” the new study reads.

The neural network was trained with public images uploaded to Imgflip — including profanity, so don’t say you haven’t been warned. It generates countless memes starting from some of the most popular meme formats on the internet.

The 48 meme formats include Pikachu Face, Guy Tapping Meme, Jealous Girlfriend, and a ton of other classics. You select the template you want, click refresh until you find something good and… enjoy the results.

Most memes are pretty bad, they don’t make much sense, but sometimes, they’re hilariously good. I wouldn’t say memes will be taken by AI overlords anytime soon, but there is definitely some good material waiting to be discovered.

I’ve bugged my coworkers to try this out and we’ve selected some of the funniest memes we could get. We’ll let them here for your scientific perusal.

The neural network has been described in a paper on the preprint server arXiv.

Feel free to share your best results in the comment section.

Quarantine Soirées: The world’s best classical music is now available for your self-isolation

At a time of profound challenge, it’s important to remember that music is not made for a specific audience — it’s made for the world.

As concert venues throughout the world are shutting down, musicians continue to play, and they are making it available for everyone to access from the comfort of our homes.

Image credits: Manuel Nägeli.

It was a weird night at the Bach Collegium in Japan. The musicians performed Bach’s St. John Passion with gusto and virtuosity — it was a good a performance as any. The orchestra, choir, and soloists blended together in a dazzling display of beautifully melding sounds.

It was, in every possible way, a remarkable performance. But at the end, there was no sound, no ovation, no clap.

Because there was no one there.

The orchestra performed for an empty room. In the coronavirus pandemic, orchestras aren’t performing for crowds, they are simply sharing the music online for everyone to enjoy.

Over 200,000 people watched the performance last night, and it was just one of many. Dozens of world-class orchestras are live-streaming their concerts, which we can now enjoy at home, where we should self-isolate if at all possible.

Here are some of the best classical music streams you can enjoy for free, both recorded and live-streamed:

Recorded streams

A beautiful and intense two hour performance, a fantastic piece for everyone who loves Bach or is new to classical music.

  • A piano recital from Igot Levit

It’s as cozy and lovely as it gets.

  • Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 & 6 from the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

If Bach or piano isn’t your jam, there’s a good chance you’ll love this Beethoven interpretation. Also, check out more Beethoven from the Vancouver orchestra.

  • Boris Giltburg live Youtube recital

Another fantastic Twitter recital worth checking out.

  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Throughout the ban on public events, the Melbourne Symphonic Orchestra, like many other orchestras, will continue to perform. “Our mission is to share great music, even if you cannot join us in the concert hall,” they wrote.

Live streams

Throughout the quarantine period, which looks like it may last for months in some places, many musical orchestras, groups, and museums, will also be livestreaming classical music. ClassicFM put together a lovely list, which we are sharing here (there is also a bonus after the live streams):

17 March, 19:30 ET: The Met presents Puccini’s La Bohème, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, starring Angela Gheorghiu and Ramón Vargas (transmitted live on 5 April 2008).

18 March, 19:30 ET: The Met presents Verdi’s Il Trovatore, conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Yonghoon Lee, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (transmitted live on 3 October 2015).

18 march, 19:30 ET: Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano) and pianist Julius Drake perform Beethoven and Mahler.

19 March, 19:30 GMT: London Symphony Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth perform works by Bartók and Stravinsky, with violinist Isabelle Faust.

19 March, 19:30 ET: The Met presents Verdi’s La Traviata, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, starring Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, and Quinn Kelsey (transmitted live on 15 December 2018).

20 March, 18:00 GMT: The Finnish National Opera performs Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

20 March, 19:30 ET: The Met presents Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez (transmitted live on 26 April 2008).

21 March, 18:00 GMT: Orchestra of the J.S. Bach Foundation performs Bach’s Cantata BWV 106 ‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’.

21 March, 19:30 ET: The Met presents Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by Marco Armiliato, starring Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczała, and Mariusz Kwiecien (transmitted live on 7 February 2009).

22 March, 19:30 GMT: Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Thomas Dunford perform ‘England’s Orpheus’ at the Wigmore Hall in London.

22 March, 19:30 ET: The Met presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, conducted by Valery Gergiev, starring Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (transmitted live on 24 February 2007).

4 April, 14:00 GMT: Barbara Hannigan and Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra perform Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto with violinist Veronika Eberle.

6 April, 19:30 GMT: Leon McCawley (piano) performs Schubert, Schumann, Grieg and Janáček at the Wigmore Hall in London.

20 April, 19:00 GMT: National Youth Orchestra of Germany & Christoph Altstaedt perform music by Beethoven and Brett Dean.

In addition to this, several organizations have released their concert archives for free, making for days and days of delightful classical music.

Image credits: Kael Bloom.

• The Metropolitan Opera – ‘Nightly Met Opera Streams’ (free)

• Berlin Philharmonic – ‘Digital Concert Hall’ (free)

• Wigmore Hall – ‘Live Stream’ (free)

• Bavarian State Opera – ‘Staatsopera TV’ (free)

• Vienna State Opera – ‘Continues Daily Online’ (free)

• Detroit Symphony Orchestra – ‘DSO Replay’ (free)

• Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra – ‘GSO Play’

• Budapest Festival Orchestra – ‘Quarantine Soirées’

Japanese artists flood social media with folk art said to ward off epidemics

Whether it’s people singing at their balconies or Germany offering one million masks to Italy, we’ve seen some remarkable shows of solidarity in the face of adversity. In Japan, artists are turning to ancient spirits said to ward off epidemics to show support against the coronavirus.

“If an epidemic occurs, draw a picture of me”

Edo-era engraving from Kyoto University Main Library, Kyoto University, widely shared on Japanese social media.

According to Japanese folklore, the yokai are supernatural spirits, demons mentioned in texts for centuries, especially during the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Yokai are said to have supernatural powers and are the personifications of “supernatural or unaccountable phenomena to their informants.”

by illustrator Satake Shunske

Some yokai do good things, some do bad things, others are just whimsical spirits. In particular, one of them called Amabie (アマビエ) is said to prophesize or ward against an epidemic.

Amabie is a mermaid or merman with 3 legs. He/she also knows when a bountiful harvest will happen.

via This is Colossal

According to an Edo-period tile block print dated to 1846, Amabie first appeared in the sea by modern-day Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu.

Amabie appeared in April, predicting a bountiful harvest for the next six years. The imposing apparition also said: “If an epidemic spreads, draw a picture of me and show it to everyone.” This is exactly what some artists in Japan are doing.

Some phone backgrounds designed by tettetextile.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as a religious call for help — it’s a show of solidarity more than anything else. Drawing from their own folklore, Japanese artists created an image of solidarity, which is extremely important in such trying times.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll (and will likely do so for months), it’s important to stay united and motivated against the challenge. Amabie, at least, is on our side.

Here are some of our favorite depictions of Amabie. All the artists did a fantastic job!

Feel free to share them accordingly.

A look at the harmony of organic architecture

One of the simplest and most intuitive definitions of organic architecture is that it aims to design buildings that are in harmony with nature and their surroundings.

You hear the word ‘organic’ quite a lot these days, usually from people trying to sell you something (or from those annoying friends who shop at Whole Foods and can’t shut up about it). Architecture also uses the term. Thankfully, it doesn’t have anything to do with pesticides or fertilizers — but everything to do with function and form.

A miniature model of the Fallingwater house.
Image via Wikimedia.

The term ‘organic architecture’ has been in use for quite some time, it was probably brought to the public’s attention by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his spectacular works. It refers to a particular way of designing that strives to balance a space’s or building’s function and its environment, follow natural forms, and seamlessly merge buildings with their surroundings.

The style isn’t limited to playing with shapes. Organic architecture often uses local materials for the building itself and furnishings, and works to include the exterior area in the design process to create a unified whole. Like an organism, such structures are meant to take materials from their environment, grow in it, and finally become a part of it.

Along with brutalism — which is in many regards its diametral opposite — it is my favorite architectural school. Since I’m the guy in charge of the keyboard and there’s nothing you can do to stop me, strap in and let’s take a small detour into the world of organic architecture.

Wright’s Principles

The Bavinger House in Oklahoma, United States.
Image via Wikimedia.

Wright is perhaps most responsible for turning organic architecture from a quirky rarity into a full-blown style. Over the course of his career (which started around the 1880s,) he developed a group of principles that he described as “solidly basic to my sense and practice of architecture,” which he adhered to in his work. While not exactly a ruleset, some later architects were very eager to adopt them and develop on the style. As such, they’re a pretty reliable summary of the philosophy that underlies organic architecture. As per the website of the Meyer May House, designed by Wright, they are:

  • Shelter — the fundamental role of a building is to provide shelter. Wright, however, “saw a building primarily not as a cave, but as shelter in the open,” and guided his designs toward this goal.
  • Kinship of Building to the Ground — best summed up by Wright as “make the building belong to the ground”, make it fit into its environment.
  • Interpretation — that the “space outside becomes a natural part of space within the building”.
  • Addendum — because of the integration between outside and inside spaces, these buildings are “profoundly natural” and “never dull or monotonous”.
  • Form — “Arrangements for human occupation in comfort may be so well aimed that spaciousness becomes economical as well as beautiful, appearing where it was never before thought to exist.”
  • Space — Wright saw homes as both useful implements and works of art, adding that their “intrinsic beauty [makes them] more a home than ever”.
  • Tenuity and Continuity — this principle advocates for the elimination of “any constructed feature such as any fixture or appliance whatsoever,” and continuity between shapes — in essence, that the design be kept simple with shapes that grow out of and build on one another seamlessly.
  • Materials — this principle doesn’t advocate for specific materials, but it does ask that those materials stay true to themselves, in a sense; “wood and plaster will be content to and will look, as well, as wood and plaster,” Wright hold adding that “they will not aspire to be treated to resemble marble”.
  • Decentralization — Wright believed that “the natural place for the beautiful tall building – not in its present form but in its new sense – is in the country, not the city”.
  • Character is Natural — while a building’s design should follow its function, it shouldn’t focus solely on efficiency.

If they sound a bit abstract, worry not — I had a difficult time understanding what these principles meant until I actually saw them in action. Let’s take a look at some of the more famous organic architecture buildings out there, then.

Fallingwater — Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, Pennsylvania.
Image via Pixabay.
Image via Pexels.

The Fallingwater house was designed by Wright in 1935 as a private weekend getaway for American businessman and philanthropist Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. In 1963, his son Edgar Kaufmann Jr. entrusted both the house and the 1,500 of land that made up the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He saw the house as a place where people can come and experience the beauty of architecture, art, and nature, or a place of study.

The Fallingwater Institute remains true to that vision even today, creating a setting for learning through classes, workshops, and residencies at the house.

View of the living room from the kitchen.
Image credits Jack E Boucher / Historic American Buildings Survey / Library of Congress.

Fallingwater embodies the design philosophies of Mr. Wright and is often seen as one of his masterpieces. It’s also the first of his works that I learned about, but it’s not my favorite one on this list. Currently, the house is listed as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

The Lotus Temple — Fariborz Sahba

Image via Pexels.
Image credits SridharSaraf / Flickr.

Designed by Iranian-Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba in 1986, the temple was inspired by a lotus flower. It’s an actual temple, which sees actual worship right now — in fact, being a temple of the Baháʼí faith, which accepts all current religions as valid, it’s open to everyone, no matter their beliefs or creed.

A model of the Lotus Temple displayed at its information center in New Delhi, India.
Image via Wikimedia.

Casa Mila — Antoni Gaudi

Casa Mila, front facade.
Image credits Ian Gampon / Flickr.

Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera or “The stone quarry”), built in Barcelona, Spain, was designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi between 1905 and 1910. The more astute among you might have observed that there’s something unusual about this building — it’s quite wobbly.

The design is dominated by honeycomb sections and a rippled exterior and was very controversial in its early days. The city of Barcelona actually required the demolition of certain portions of the building during construction (as they exceeded allowed heights at the time) and beefed-up building codes in response to this structure. Gaudi envisioned the building as a spiritual place (he was a devout Catholic), but in the end built it for a wealthy couple returning from the US. Today, however, Casa Mila is held in high regard by locals and serves as an apartment building.

Interior yard of Casa Mila.
Image via Pikrepo.
Casa Mila, roof panorama.
Image via Wikimedia.

Casa Mila is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

Taliesin West — Frank Lloyd Wright

Taliesin West.
Image credits Artotem / Flickr.
The garden room at Taliesin West.
Image via Wikimedia.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, served as Wright’s winter home — and school — from 1937 until his death in 1959. It was named after the architect’s summer home Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Today it houses the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and acts as the main campus of The School of Architecture at Taliesin. The building is dominated by striking terraces and walkways meant to display the surrounding desert landscape of ever-shifting sandbars. It is open to public visitation and also listed as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

The Onion House — Kendrick Bangs Kellogg

Image via Wikimedia.
Image via Wikimedia.

This delicate structure was designed and hand-built by Mr. Kellogg in Hawaii.

The buildings includes stained glass and translucent roof panels to allow as much color and light inside as possible — both during the day and during the night. The structures are surrounded by gardens, pools, and fish ponds — and it all rests on a magmatic rock terrace over the Kona Coast.

This is my favorite one on the list.

Image via Wikimedia.

Why does architecture matter?

Beyond the obvious pleasure and creature comforts these buildings promise, our environments play a big role in shaping our mood and behaviors. We spend most of our time inside buildings, so their effect on our lives is profound.

However, the field that studies the interactions between the human mind and its surroundings, environmental psychology, is still in its infancy. What we do know so far is that the way we design our buildings and cities can affect our well-being and moods, and that certain cells in the hippocampus of our brains react to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit. On a more cultural level, architecture is an indirect representation of a culture’s values, ideals, and concepts of beauty. On a personal level, I think we can all easily tell the effect a nice home or space has on our moods.

In the end, there are still many unknowns here — but not the fact that architecture has a direct impact on our lives. In the words of Winston Churchill, as he was addressing the English Architectural Association in 1924:

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”

The Smithsonian announced an awesome Open Access library of their collections

The Smithsonian Museum announced the launch of Smithsonian Open Access on Tuesday (link at the bottom of the article). Under this program, roughly 2.8 million of the museum’s digital image and data collections, gathered over nearly two centuries, have been made free to access, download, transform, and use for any purpose, for free, without further permission from the Smithsonian.

The Apollo 11 Command Module, “Columbia”.

It is the largest open-access program launched by a museum to date and the most varied in regards to the fields of science it touches upon. The Smithsonian will also continue to add items to the library, with plans to have over 3 million images designated as open access by late 2020.

The Smithsonian, Opened

“Open access is a milestone for the Smithsonian in our efforts to reach, educate and inspire audiences,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in a press release unveiling the program. “Through this initiative, we are empowering people across the globe to reimagine and repurpose our collections in creative new ways.”

The 19 museums, 9 research centers, as well as the libraries, archives, and the National Zoo that are part of the Smithsonian Institution all participated in the Open Access program. The content they pooled includes 2- and 3D images of the items in their collections, research datasets, and collection metadata (i.e. data about the data they have). There’s something for everyone here — the collections include art, culture, and design just as much as they deal with hard sciences, history, technology, and 3D scans of dinosaur skeletons.

Or this humble but pretty Platycerus agassizii from the National Museum of Natural History.
Triceratops skull from the collection of Mr. John B. Hatcher.

The program comes as a continuation of one of the Smithsonian’s previous programs, in which it made over 4.7 million collection images available online for personal, non-commercial and educational use under the Smithsonian Open Access initiative. Some 3 million of those images have been placed under a Creative Commons Zero designation, meaning you can use them for pretty much anything without needing permission from the Smithsonian or requiring that you pay them.

The guitar played by Edward Van Halen while on tour in 2007, currently at the National Museum of American History.
A statue of Mr. Peanut, also at the National Museum of American History.

“Open access exemplifies the Smithsonian’s core mission: the ‘increase and diffusion’ of knowledge our institution has fostered for nearly 175 years,” said John Davis, interim director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, who led the initiative from its inception.

“With Smithsonian Open Access, we’re inviting people everywhere to make that knowledge their own–to share and build on our digital collections for everything from creative works, to education and scholarly research, to bold innovations we have yet to imagine.”

The Smithsonian Institution hopes that their open access program will inspire the public to use their collection to “understand and solve today’s challenges” says Effie Kapsalis, the Smithsonian senior digital program officer, who managed and guided implementation of the program. The data itself will be hosted by Amazon Web Services Public Dataset Program and the whole program was built in partnership with Google Arts & Culture.

All the images used in this article were obtained from the Smithsonian Open Access library.

Smallest 3D stop-animation yet pays tribute to David Bowie

The main character in the frame-by-frame short animation is only 300 microns in height or 0.3 millimeters. That’s about as large as a grain of sand, which is almost imperceptible to the human eye.

The scale of production is so tiny that director Tibo Pinsard had to use a scanning electron microscope (SEM) developed at the FEMTO-ST Institute in Besançon, France.

SEMs use a specific set of coils to scan the beam in a raster-like pattern and use the electrons that are reflected or knocked off the near-surface region of a sample to form an image

In daily scientific work, SEMs can be used in a variety of industrial, commercial, and research applications.

In order to give the impression of movement, the filmmakers made hundreds of these tiny 3D-printed figurines that eerily resemble David Bowie and carefully placed them inside a vacuum chamber where they were imaged frame by frame by the SEM.

The SEM’s camera records in greyscale, which coupled with the effects of electric charges paint a mysterious atmosphere.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the film was named Stardust Odyssey, a tribute to Bowie as well as to the fact that the miniatures are the size of dust particles.

Stardust Odyssey was co-produced by the French movie company Darrowan Prod, the Université de Franche-Comté represented by the FEMTO-ST Institute and the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Below is a behind the scenes documentary.

All 435 illustrations from emblematic ‘Birds of America’ book now free for download

John James Audubon had an unusual combination of skills: he was a renowned naturalist, but he was also a painter. This put him in an excellent position to create biological illustrations, which he did for much of his life.

Audobon developed an interest in birds, which grew steadily over the years. He became proficient in gathering specimens, taxidermy, and drawing them. Slowly but surely, he developed a large collection and set out an ambitious goal: to document all of America’s bird species in a single book.

This was to become Birds of America — a book that to this day, is considered among the best ornithological works ever. The book was an instant success.

Not only did Audobon take his readers on a dazzling visual tour of the birds, skillfully alternating between emphasizing the scientific and the aesthetic aspects of the birds, but he even documented 45 new species of birds.

It took massive efforts. For 14 years, Audobon worked on the book, at times struggling to gather sufficient support for his work.

The cost of printing the entire work was a whopping $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today). In addition to advance purchases, Audobon had to sell oil painting commissions and animals skins, which he himself hunted and sold. But it was worth it.

The book came out in 1827 and was an instant hit. Audobon was lauded for the way he captured the birds’ fragility and grace, as well as his encyclopedic approach. A full 8-volume, double-elephant folio version was purchased by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1839 for the amazing sum of $970 — the equivalent to $80,000 in 2018.

A contemporary French critic wrote, “A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle … It is a real and palpable vision of the New World.”

Today, the book is quite possibly the most expensive one in existence. There are an estimated 120 surviving copies, and they sell for mind-blowing prices. In March 2000, Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar purchased a copy of The Birds of America at a Christie’s auction for $8.8 million — a record for any book. On 6 December 2010, a complete copy of the first edition was sold in London at Sotheby’s for £7,321,250 (approximately $11.5 million).

In December 2010, The Economist magazine wrote that, adjusted for inflation, five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were paid for copies of The Birds of America. But you don’t have to pay huge sums of money for the illustrations: you can now get them for free.

The National Audubon Society has recently made Birds of America available to the public in a downloadable digital library. You just need to sign up for their newsletter and you can access it. You can choose to make a one-time or regular donation, but you can also subscribe to the newsletter for free.

You get access to free high-resolution downloads of all 435 plates as well as mp3s of each specimen’s call and original vintage commentary. You can explore Audubon’s Birds of America by chronological or alphabetical order, or by state, and download them all for free here.

You also get more recent information regarding bird conservation efforts. In US, as in many parts of the world, birds are struggling due to habitat loss, pollution, and climate heating. The Audobon Society is one of the organizations involved in addressing these issues and helping conserve iconic bird species. If those issues speak to you, please check out the Recovering American Wildlife Act that the society is supporting.

“America’s wildlife is in crisis—and today, more than one-third of North American bird species are under threat. We need strong action to empower solutions to protect habitat, and that’s exactly what the “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act” was designed to do,” the society writes.

Audubon Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)
now extinct.

NASA offers dazzling 3D moon maps for artists and educators

A trove of lunar topographic data has been released by NASA free of charge, for anyone to access. The goal is to make visualizations more accessible to everyone, with as little effort as possible.

An illustration of how color and displacement maps are used in 3D animation software to paint and model an object like the Moon. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio

For Ernie Wright, producing stunning visualizations of the moon is just another day at the office. Wright is a science visualizer who works at the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. His work is essentially to bring the Moon to life in unprecedented detail, using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

The LRO is a NASA robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon. It boasts a detailed mapping program, offering a 3D map of the Moon’s surface at unprecedented 100-meter resolution (some areas, like the Apollo landing sites, feature much better resolution). This is vital not only for a better understanding of the moon itself but also to plan future landing and research missions on the moon — producing stunning maps is, of course, an excellent perk.

But Wright realized that many other people want to produce visualizations of the moon. Time after time, he was receiving inquiries about the data from artists. So he decided to share his creation as a way for artists to connect with the LRO mission. He released a stunning data pack with LRO data that can be freely accessed by anyone from this page on the NASA website.

“[The Moon kit] will bring the LRO data within reach of lots of other artists who want to do the kinds of things that I do,” Wright said.

This is one of the color maps available as 24-bit RGB TIFFs of various sizes. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio

In the age of smartphones, pretty much anyone can be a photographer. Even space photography has become more accessible. But having detailed visuals of the moon is still inaccessible to the world — unless you’re a leading space agency.

The LRO equipment essentially works as a scanner, going above the moon line by line, producing a grid, which is then used to generate a topographic image. The key is using a precisely timed laser beam, which is sent out from the spacecraft. When the laser hits the surface of the moon, it bounces back to the spacecraft, which measures how many nanoseconds it took for the laser to return — this being indicative of the topography in that specific place. If a beam comes back quicker, it has a higher elevation. The same technique is commonly used on Earth too.

The flat maps are then transposed into the almost-spherical shape of the moon for a full view of the satellite’s topographical features. These maps are already available as part of the the data publicly archived by the LRO instrument teams. All the data is presented in simple file formats, however, which are not supported by most computer graphics software. Releasing the data in an accessible, easy-to-use format will make it much more accessible to the world — especially as the data can now be used without extensive knowledge.

“All of this data is publicly available but not as accessible as it could be,” Wright said, “so, in releasing this in a form that a lot of people can appreciate and use.”

A displacement map centered on 0° longitude, is available at different resolutions.
Credits: NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio

However, having access to these maps is just one step of the process, Wright says. The real challenge is in the storytelling built around them. It’s a lot like making a film Wright says.

“Using 3D animation software is a lot like filming live action, with lights, cameras, props and sets” Wright said, “but visualization is more like filming a documentary. You’re being factual, but you’re also creating a narrative.”

Since time immemorial, humans have looked up at the moon. As the first telescopes emerged, we also started building maps of the moon and a few decades ago, we even sent humans to the satellite. The good news is that now, we have maps of unprecedented quality, easily accessible at the tips of our fingertips. So if you have an idea for a project, make the most of it — it’s never been easier.

You can access the moon kit here.

Beautiful (and free) posters celebrating women in science

To say that women are underrepresented in science is a heavy understatement. While there are certainly striking counterexamples, women in science have a tough time. Low visibility is also an important issue. “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it,” they say — if we want to get more girls and women into STEM, it’s important to show highlight role models. This is exactly what these downloadable posters are for.

They were created by  Nevertheless, a podcast which celebrates women transforming teaching and learning through technology.

“We’d love you to download the posters and print them out for your school or workplace. By taking part, you’ll help raise awareness of their achievements, and hopefully inspire a new generation of girls and women in STEM,” they write.

“Share your photos with us on Twitter or Instagram. And please subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher.”

So, without further ado, here they are (and lest we forget, you can also download the eight posters in Brazilian PortugueseFrenchFrench CanadianGermanItalianSpanish, and Simplified Chinese).

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was a true pioneer in molecular structures. Working as a chemist and X-ray crystallographer, her work was instrumental in deciphering the structure of DNA and RNA (as well as viruses, coal, and graphite). However, her contribution remain largely uncredited during her lifetime, as the Nobel Prize was awarded to Francis Crick and James Watson, who left Franklin’s work aside, although it provided the only experimental evidence for DNA’s double helix structure which they proposed.

During her lifetime, she did receive recognition for her work on coal and viruses, but few people were aware how important her contributions in DNA research were. Posthumously, Franklin’s full contribution was acknowledged and recognized.

Hayati Sindi

Hayat bint Sulaiman bin Hassan Sindi is a Saudi Arabian medical scientist and one of the world’s leading biotechnologists. She is famous for making major contributions to point-of-care medical testing and biotechnology and was ranked one of BBC’s Top 100 Women.

Along with her scientific contributions, Sindi participated in numerous events aimed at raising the awareness of science amongst women in science. She is without a doubt a champion of science and technology in the Middle East.

Tu Youyou

Tu Youyou saved millions of lives. She developed artemisinin (also known as qinghaosu) and dihydroartemisinin, two compounds used to treat malaria. Her work marked a breakthrough in 20th-century tropical medicine, saving millions of lives in South China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America. When she carried out her research, scientists worldwide had screened over 240,000 compounds without success, and she had the idea of screening Chinese herbs

She is the first female citizen of the People’s Republic of China to receive a Nobel Prize in any category (2015). She carried out her education and research exclusively in China.

Gladys West

Gladys West is an American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modelling of the shape of the Earth, which served as a foundation for establishing the GPS satellite fleet. However, as she was working as a mathematician in the 1950s, she had no idea that her work would impact the world in such a way. She once commented on this, saying:

 “When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’ ” Her contributions to GPS were only uncovered when a member of her sorority read a brief biography West submitted for an alumni function.

Juliana Rotich

Juliana Rotich has worked in the tech industry for over ten years, creating web tools for crowdsourcing crisis information and coverage of topics related to the environment. She specializes in developing free and open software

She is co-founder of BRCK Inc, a hardware and services technology company based in Kenya, which aims to develop communication in low infrastructure environments — something of utmost importance in the developing world.

Maria da Penha

Maria da Penha is a biopharmacist and human rights defender. She has focused much of her efforts advocating for human rights, particularly against domestic violence.

Maria da Penha’s husband tried to kill her — twice. The case languished in court for 20 years, with little in the way of solutions, during which her husband remained free. Ultimately, the Court of Human Rights criticized Brazil for not taking effective measures to prosecute and convict perpetrators of domestic violence. In response to this, the Brazilian government in 2006 enacted a law which increased the severity of punishment for domestic violence against women. It’s called the Maria da Penha law.

Mae C. Jemison

In 1992, Mae Carol Jemison became the first black woman to travel in space, serving as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. She left her home to attend Stanford when she was 16. At the time, there were very few other African-American students in Jemison’s classes and she continued to experience discrimination from her teachers.

While she initially training to become a professional dancer, she became a chemical engineer and a physician — a not very common path for astronauts. She left NASA to start her own company immediately after returning to Earth, and has been active in research, teaching, and entrepreneurship ever since.

Cynthia Breazeal

Few things have been as influential in the field of robotics as Cynthia Breazeal. She focuses on social robotics and human-robot interaction and is recognized globally as a leading pioneer and innovator in these fields.

She has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles in journals and conferences on the topics of Autonomous Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Human-Robot Interaction, and Robot Learning. At the same time, she is an active entrepreneur, with the Jibo robot being one of the first “family robots” on the market. While that venture seems to be less than fortunate, Breazeal’s activity continues as strong as ever and we’ll undoubtedly be hearing more from her in the future.

Two of the world’s oldest universities team up to digitize treasured medieval manuscripts

The Universities of Cambridge (UK) and Heidelberg (Germany) have teamed up to digitize and organize hundreds of early modern Greek manuscripts – including classical texts and some of the most important treatises on religion, mathematics, history, drama and philosophy – and make them available to anyone with access to the Internet.

All image credits: Cambridge University.

Cambridge and Heidelberg are some of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1209 and 1386, respectively. They are also two of the universities with the richest medieval collections. However, these archives, which also include numerous Vatican manuscripts, are locked up from most people. Even researchers who are allowed to study them must ensure that they follow strict safety standards. As a result, many of these works are understudied — or not studied at all.

The two universities will now make the entire archives completely free, not only to scholars and students but also to everyone in the world. Dr. Veit Probst, Director of Heidelberg University Library, said:

“Numerous discoveries await. We still lack detailed knowledge about the production and provenance of these books, about the identities and activities of their scribes, their artists and their owners – and have yet to uncover how they were studied and used, both during the medieval period and in the centuries beyond.”

“The meanings of the annotations and marginalia in the original manuscripts have yet to be teased apart. From such threads, a rich tapestry of Greek scholarship will be woven.”

Heidelberg University has already digitized 38,000 volumes, and the Heidelberg’s Digital Library has been visited by scholars and members of the public in 169 countries — indicating a large appetite for the collections, which could not otherwise be fulfilled. Cambridge Digital Library can also boast some impressive digital archives, including the works of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

This latest effort will digitize works far older than those of Darwin and Newton, however. It’s a perfect example of old meets now, and of how modern technology can help us better understand and decipher ancient history.

“The Cambridge and Heidelberg collections bear witness to the enduring legacy of Greek culture – classical and Byzantine – and the lasting importance of Greek scholarship,” says Dr. Suzanne Paul, Keeper of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts, Cambridge University Library.

“The works of Homer and Plato were copied and recopied throughout the medieval period and the early biblical and liturgical manuscripts are profoundly important for our understanding of a Christian culture based on the written word. These multilingual, multicultural, multifarious works, that cross borders, disciplines and the centuries, testify to a deep scholarly engagement with Greek texts and Greek culture that both universities are committed to upholding.”

Stunningly beautiful maps from Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs

Whoever says science isn’t beautiful has obviously never seen one of Robert Szucs’ colorful river basin maps.

The rivers of the US. All image credits: Robert Szucs / Grasshopper Geography.

The rivers of Texas.

Scuzs is a cartographer with a noble heart. He studied geography and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) — all the interactive maps we use today — think Google Maps. But he didn’t really enjoy the cubicle life, as he himself describes it. So he gave the comfort of a monotonous life away.

“I took a deep breath and decided to spend my time and money volunteering my mapmaking skills for NGOs instead. I’ve worked for archaeologists on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, with marine biologists in Alaska, and in an orangutan conservation program in Indonesian Borneo, amongst others. These trips made me grow both personally and professionally, while helping with causes that matter.”

Africa’s rivers.


This change of career has also enabled him to indulge in more creative projects and start Grasshopper Geography, which grew from some hobby projects and maps he initially posted. Now, Szucs is working really hard to create fresh, colorful, eye-opening and scientifically accurate maps, of the highest quality possible.

Europe’s forest cover.

These maps make us go ‘Wow’, and then they make us think. For instance, why do you think there’s such a big empty space in the one below?

North America’s forest cover.

So far, his most inspiring project has been detailed and colorful river maps. The vein-like rivers and river basins, dividing familiar countries into usually hidden geographies are simply stunning. He also works on custom maps, though most of the time he focuses on larger-scale geographies.

“The river basin maps came from a couple of years back, when I was volunteering in Portugal, and had a lot of free time,” he says. “I started working again on some old hobby projects, like some river, elevation and population maps I never had time to finish. They all really started just as me trying to practice and get better at what I’m doing, to see if I can do better than what’s out there.”

Australia’s rivers.

So far, the internet seems to be loving Szucs’ work. It enables him to make a living from his passion while allowing him to contribute to worthy causes. Surviving as an independent GIS-turned-artist, however, is challenging.

“It is hard sometimes to resist the well-paying jobs, and do something good, but it’s possible,” he told ZME Science. “My newest adventure is trying to survive as an independent artist… not easy.”

If you’d like to support Robert or would like to buy one of his maps, check out his Etsy page or the contact page on Grasshopper Maps. He’s also looking for an interesting cause to volunteer in 2019, so if you’re in need of a good GIS-her, give him a shout.

Why Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a brilliant sneaky innuendo

It’s one of Shakespeare’s best works, it’s a brilliant take on gender roles, and it’s also a sexual joke: in Shakespeare’s time, the word ‘Nothing’ was slang for female genitalia. The title of  ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a double entendre.

Depiction of the Church scene in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, by Alfred W. Elmore.

The play was probably written in 1598 and 1599 when Shakespeare was mid-career, and is riddled with jokes and plays on words — though some of them have been shrouded by changing linguistics and semantics. Even one that is in the title remains hidden to most people — after all, why would “nothing” be dirty?

Much of this play revolves around writing secret messages, spying, and eavesdropping. People are constantly pretending to be others or being mistaken for other people, and are constantly tricked in one way or another. Intriguingly, much of the play’s action hinges upon the word. In Shakespeare’s time, “noting” (meaning gossip, rumour, and overhearing) was pronounced very similarly to “nothing”, and “noting” is what tricks the two main characters, Benedick and Beatrice, to confess their love for each other.

These two near-homophones set the stage for a few interesting moments, such as:

Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?

Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.

However, there’s yet another entendre at work: “noting” also signifies musical notes:

Don Pedro: Nay pray thee, come;

Or if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes.
Balthasar: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.
Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks –
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!

But “noting” goes even for a third entendre — a sexual one. “Nothing”, or “an O-thing” (or “n othing” or “no thing”) was Elizabethan slang for “vagina”, evidently derived from the pun of a woman having “nothing” between her legs. Since much of the play focuses on couples and virginity is mentioned a few times, it gives even more emphasis that this is no coincidence.

This innuendo also sneaks up in Hamlet:

Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Ophelia: No, my lord.

Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?

Ophelia: Ay, my lord.

Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.

Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

Ophelia: What is, my lord?

Hamlet: Nothing.

Shakespeare was a master of words — there’s a reason why he’s considered the best English writer of all time. The level of depth and the different layers of meaning he gives to an apparently simple title just goes to show how amazing he was at this craft, and why he still fascinates us to this very day, more than four centuries after his plays were written. It also suggests that he liked dirty jokes, but that’s another story.

Banksy stencil sells for $1.3 million — then immediately self-destructs

A series of bizarre events recently stunned the art world. First, a 2006 stenciled spray-painting had sold for £1.042m (roughly $1.3 million). The fact that a stencil sold for that much is shocking in the first place — even though it was allegedly made by Banksy, the renowned English street artist. But as soon as the auction was concluded and the hammer dropped, the paper started self-destructing.

Image via Facebook.

Going, going, gone

The always elusive Banksy has done it again — playing a prank on the entire art world, making history, and sending a strong message in true Banksy style. But how do things really lie with this new stunt?

Firstly, even if you haven’t heard of Banksy, the odds are you’ve seen one of his works at one point. He’s been called everything from a vandal to a political activist, though he is essentially a graffiti street artist. His works can be viewed as political and social commentaries on the modern world, often mocking centralized power, consumerism, and warfare.

In 2017, one of Banksy’s most famous works, Girl With Balloon, which originally appeared on a wall in Great Eastern Street, London, was voted the nation’s favorite artwork. Luckily for auction houses and collectors, Banksy made a few painting-style stencils of Girl with Balloon, which were sold anonymously in 2006 for meager prices. The Sotheby’s auction house in London got a hold of one of these stencils, which they auctioned the past weekend — the final price was well over one million dollars. But that’s only the start: as the stencil started shredding itself, Banksy first posted this on Instagram, simply saying “Going, going, gone.” Then, he added a video detailing how he installed the self-destroying machine in the frame. He quoted Picasso, saying “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”


View this post on Instagram


. “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge” – Picasso

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

The auction house said they were just as surprised as anyone, and were not expecting this turn of events, which they classified as a “prank”. The buyer, who also remained anonymous, did not comment. The quote from Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s Europe head of Contemporary Art, says it all: “We got Banksy’d”.

Art history and good batteries

No matter how you look at it, this stunt will make modern art history and will likely be discussed by art historians for decades to come. To make things even better, the artwork has almost certainly increased in value, maybe even doubled. That’s right, a framed stencil worth over $1 million just doubled in value after shredding. However, this is Banksy world, so normal rules don’t seem to apply.

But was this really a prank from the artist, or was it a carefully orchestrated stunt, to add more expected value to a piece of art?

For starters, one of Banksy’s presumed associates was detained after the event, holding something which looked like a remote control for the shredder. The incident caused quite a commotion, but Sotheby’s didn’t comment and did not say whether they were going to press charges or who the man was. But even so, to make this kind of plan work is no easy feat. Banksy’s video is short on technical details, and there are definitely a few bits which seem unlikely. The fact that the frame remained uninspected and did not pass through any metal detection or security checks seems unlikely for an auction of this caliber.

The interior of the frame shredder, taken from Banksy’s explanation video.

Furthermore, as Hackaday points out, Banksy’s plan features some “barely believable batteries.” Banksy mentions that the plan has been in place “for years” — since 2006, to be more precise. Operating a shredder requires a bit of power, and for the batteries to stay charged and active for so long seems a stretch — though it’s certainly not impossible; good batteries can last for years and years, but 12 years is way off from any reliable warranties. Unfortunately, we don’t know Banksy, so we can’t ask him how he did it or whether the auction house was in on it.

It’s plausible that Banksy planned and carried this out all on his own, but if the auction house was in on it, it would have definitely made things a lot easier and reliable.

Who is Banksy?

As any event involving Banksy, the question of the artist’s identity also comes up.

Banksy’s works often address consumerism.

It’s thought that he grew up in Bristol, with Guardian journalist Simon Hattenstone describing Banksy in 2003 as “white, 28, scruffy casual — jeans, T-shirt, a silver tooth, silver chain and silver earring.” A 2008 Mail on Sunday investigation stated that the artist is believed to be Robin Gunningham, a former private school pupil, who was expelled for various misdemeanors. Another theory states that Banksy is actually a team of seven artists, while others have suggested that Banksy is Robert del Naja — one of the founding members of Massive Attack, as some of his graffiti paintings can be corroborated with the band’s concerts. Jamie Hewlett, the graphical creator of the band Gorillaz was also rumored as a “suspect.”

There was even a scientific geographical study on Banksy’s identity, which concluded that Robin Gunningham is the most likely person to be Banksy.

Yet perhaps more than with any other artist, it’s not about who Banksy is, but about his art. Banksy’s work is certainly a modern phenomenon that will continue to make headlines and people think for years to come — and if you can destroy an artwork and double its value, then we definitely have a lot to think about.

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

Dance and science — an unlikely couple joining forces for a ‘courageous’ future

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

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

Art and science are seemingly at odds. But, although there are some clear distinctions, the two aren’t actually worlds apart as some people may think. Aristotle is credited as being the first to have divided up the subject areas and our modern universities tend to follow (and enforce) those boundaries that he created. As all of you know, most universities will have distinct faculties of arts and sciences, for instance. However, this is an artificial division for, in reality, the two are very much connected.

Neither art nor science could function without creativity — the supposed artistic domain — or the rigorous application of technique and methods — the traditional tools of science. Albert Einstein couldn’t have thought of the General Theory of Relativity without making a huge, creative leap of thought and, despite being super gifted, Mozart still had to learn the technique to write opuses such as Serenade No. 13. 

The point I’m trying to make is that we actually follow both our hearts and minds — not simply one or the other. And when art and science are employed synergistically, as opposed to individually, I believe that great things can happen.

I had a first-hand account of such a holistic approach at this year’s European Open Science Forum in Toulouse, France. Among the many plenary sessions and side events covering everything from tiny surgical-bots that cut through the retina to new policies meant to bridge the gender gap in science, I attended an odd event that stood out like a black swan in a flock of white. “Courage – A dance science performance debate about sustainable futures,” as the event was called, is actually an experiment meant to analyze problems, find solutions, and engage the public in some of our most pressing world problems such as climate change by means of an unlikely medium: a dance-theater debate.

Gloria Benedikt. Credit: Daniel Dömölky Photography , Facebook.

Gloria Benedikt. Credit: Daniel Dömölky Photography, Facebook.

Gloria Benedikt, the Project Leader of the Science and Art program at IIASA and quite possibly the only full-time artist employed in a scientific research facility, is the ‘heart’ behind Courage. With an impassioned gaze and determined attitude, I could tell right away from the moment I met her that she means business.

The motivation for writing Courage was the need to ask better questions in an ever-changing world where clearly the old way of doing things isn’t enough. To instill a change in mindset — one focuses on an “an enlightened sense of responsibility” — Benedikt and colleagues devised a performance that communicates science simultaneously using words, their bodies, and music to “open up hearts and minds.”

“Today both fields (science and arts) tend to be highly specialized but also detached from society. The system requires scientists to focus on publications, not on making sure that their findings also reach society. It is ‘publish or perish’, so they are under pressure. At the same time, the arts system does not encourage artists to adopt the crucial role they can play in bringing about cultural shift. Most money in the arts still goes into classical endeavours such as reenacting dated operas, or dancing fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker. A colleague summarised it to me very well: if I want to work on a topic like climate change, the arts world does not like me because I engage with a real-world issue. If I talk to the science world, they don’t like me because I’m an artist, which for them is like a person from another planet,” Benedikt told me.

Benedikt teamed up with Italian choreographer Mimmo Miccolis, and the two performed a heart-moving choreography which described humankind as both “conquerors and gardeners of planet earth,” while Dutch composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven would at times interject, seemingly coming out of the nowhere from the audience, raising the tension with his violin. In between such moments, a panel discussed what kind of values and policy we need to adopt in order to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come The panel was comprised of Anne Glover, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Lidia Brito, UNESCO Regional Director of Science for Latin America and the Caribbean, Valentina Montalto, Researcher at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Jan Marco Müller, Science to Policy and Diplomacy Coordinator at IIASA and the discussion’s moderator.

Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis performing 'COURAGE' at th e European Forum Alpbach Political Symposium 2016. Credit: IIASA.

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

“We’ve lost decades. Thirty years ago, the main findings about climate change were already on the table, yet scientists alone could not convince governments to act. Now we feel the consequences. There are many reasons for this failure. For instance, never before has it been necessary for all of humanity to unite behind an issue that threatens to endanger life on this planet. It is also difficult to take precaution against a problem that will only become acute decades later. While climate scientists can project 100 years ahead, humans tend to care about their children and grandchildren at most, and politicians about the next election cycle. CO2 emissions are not visible. You cannot smell them. So it is difficult for people to grasp the problem,” Benedikt said.

“The biggest lesson of this failure is that knowledge alone does not translate into action. We need other tools that help us internalising sustainable thinking. Climate change is not the only problem. It is related to our economic system, to population growth etc. Appealing to reason alone is not enough. We need to take into account that what makes us human are our emotions and that they drive our actions too. If we’d like to see change on at the scale that is needed for a sustainable future, we need to also communicate on that level. For this to happen, artists and scientists need to work closely together. Scientists can provide knowledge and facts, and then artists can embed them into meaning. That is very different from just publishing results in scientific journals,” she added.

Benedikt says that much of human communication is nonverbal, and what better way to convey body language than through dance? Communicating abstractions such as climate change or sustainability might seem odd — and it is — but it also incredibly effective. During one moment, Benedikt and Miccolis might choreograph a scene in which their bodies follow the movements of a clock hand, while the room is filled with the creepy tune of a menacing ‘tick-tock’ rhythm, conveying the urgency of action in order to preserve the environment. In other moments, the dance and music might amplify tension, or conversely release it, while a speaker challenges the audience to think bolder about the future and their personal role in it.

“I believe we need more attention on who is going to  pick it up from there. Science can advise policy, but policy implementation requires people’s will, which requires social acceptability, which requires a ‘cultural shift’. We need to turn our attention to who can be responsible and/or who can support this cultural shift,” Benedikt told ZME Science, speaking about how arts can get the public involved in some of society’s most pressing issues.

Ultimately, performances such as these bridge science and art in such a way that the audience’s perception is enriched — and with it, the discourse for building a better future for our children. We need courageous people to overcome modern society’s greatest challenges. People like scientists, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, but also musicians, dancers, poets, and artists of all walks of life. People like you.

“I hope for the audience to realize that we all can and need to be responsible and make conscious decisions in our daily lives to bring about the change needed if we’d like to leave a habitable planet behind for future generations. In other words, I hope for the audience to walk away asking itself ‘what can I do’.  And then to also do it,” Benedikt said.

You can catch Benedikt and colleagues performing in a new production called Dancing with the Future, which will premiere at Harvard University’s Farkas Hall on September 25. Two days later, the artists will perform live in New York as part of the General Assembly of the United Nations week.


Heavy Metal? Well, that’s just like renaissance music

For many years, heavy metal was stuck as a fringe preference, ignored by music theorists and the mainstream listeners alike. But that has gradually changed, and some scientists are starting to focus more on this expansive music genre.

Iron Maiden is one of the pioneers of heavy metal. Image: Wiki Commons.

When Esa Lilja, Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki, started studying heavy metal academically in 1998, the literature was almost completely devoid of any information. Lilja, who is a pioneer of academic heavy metal research, now works with two PhD students to study the genre.

There are plenty of stereotypes about heavy metal, and Lilja is well aware of them. But most of them aren’t really true. Probably the most prevalent one is about metal’s musical origins.

“Metal is based on classical music theory, and it has a great deal in common with renaissance music, for example,” states Lilja.

Nowadays, heavy metal has an international audience and is well known to a larger size of the population, thanks to the efforts of pioneers such as Metallica and Iron Maiden, as well as more modern ambassadors such as Lordi (who won the mainstream Eurovision contest) and Apocalyptica (who became famous by performing covers of metal songs on classical instruments). In Scandinavian countries, metal is even more popular — it’s essentially mainstream there.

It makes a lot of sense, then, to study it in greater detail.

Paolo Ribaldini, one of the PhD students, studies vocal techniques, while Kristian Wahlström (Tuhat) is focusing on the educational dimension of heavy metal – such as how metal could be employed in music education.

“If a student is interested in heavy metal and has an emotional connection to it, new learning material could be built around excerpts from heavy metal, which the student is already familiar with. They could be used to indicate similarities between different musical genres,” Lilja explains.

Apocalyptica has made a name for themselves by covering metal songs with classical instruments. The band started out as a university project. Image: Wiki Commons.

It’s also interesting to note that many metal bands emphasize historical or mythological themes, which may also have an educational component. Although there are national components to some songs, metal is essentially an international genre, Lilja says.

“I think the national features have more to do with extramusical factors, such as mythological allusions in the lyrics or the overall image of the band.” One well-known example is Amorphis, a band whose lyrics are rife with references to the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.

Lilja who is, of course, a metal head himself,, also notes that although heavy metal is a pretty niche genre, there’s a lot of variety and no unified theme.

“We middle-aged metal heads in particular are as eclectic a bunch as any set of middle-aged people,” says Lilja, who is 45.

You can read Esa Lilja’s doctoral dissertation on Theory and Analysis of Classic Heavy Metal Harmony here.

Wilting away: Van Gogh’s legendary sunflowers are turning brown

Some of the world’s most famous and cherished photos might be losing their colors: due to Van Gogh’s light-sensitive paint, his famous sunflowers might fade to brown.

After 150 years of blossoming, Van Gogh’s flowers might be wilting away.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has some bad news: Van Gogh’s most famous paintings may be losing some of their color. Using a newly pioneered technique, they found that the sunflowers’ trademark yellow is slowly turning brown. The reason for this is because Van Gogh used a light-sensitive yellow paint.

So far, the change isn’t visible to the naked eye, but the customized X-ray showed that the yellow used in many of the sunflower paintings is set to lose its remarkable vibrancy.

“It is very difficult to say how long it would take for the change to be obvious and it would depend a lot on the external factors,” said Frederik Vanmeert, a materials science expert at the University of Antwerp, who was part of the research team.

“We were able to see where Van Gogh used the more light-sensitive chrome yellow, the areas that the restorers should look out for over time for discolouration … We were also able to see that he used emerald green and a red lead paint in very small areas of the painting which will become more white, more light, over time.”

However, not all of the paintings will degrade equally — Van Gogh used two different yellow chrome pains, and only one of them is particularly sensitive to light. In order to determine this, researchers carried out a painstakingly detailed X-ray mapping. The technique is so detailed that researchers were able to obtain a level of resolution that allowed them to see how the paint crystallites aligned along the direction of Van Gogh’s brush strokes

It’s not the first time something like this has been reported. Just last year, a different study found that LED lights may be accelerating decoloration in Van Gogh’s paintings. However, Soraa, an LED manufacturer in California, contends that Xenon lamps, not LED lamps, were used in the research, and that “Xenon lamp spectra are vastly different than those of white-emitting LEDs for illumination.”

The museum in Amsterdam, like many other art museums, has already taken steps to prevent degradation of its paintings: five years ago, they significantly reduced the lighting in the presentation rooms, but even so, some paintings (like Van Gogh’s) seem to be affected. The head of collection and research at the museum, Marije Vellekoop, said they are closely following the results of the study and will decide on necessary measures.

“At the moment, we are processing all the research results of this iconic painting, after which we determine how we will pay further attention to discolouration in our museum. We know that the discoloured pigment chrome yellow has been used a lot by Van Gogh, we assume that this has also been discoloured in other paintings.”

Hip hop music teaches children to recognize stroke and act quickly, study finds

Researchers have discovered that a musical movement that uses hip-hop music to educate economically-disadvantaged minority children and their parents about strokes has shown promising results in helping the increase of stroke awareness.

Via YouTube

“The lack of stroke recognition, especially among blacks, results in dangerous delays in treatment,” said Olajide Williams, M.D., M.S., study author and associate professor of neurology at Columbia University Medical Center, New York Presbyterian Hospital. “Because of those delays, only a quarter of all stroke patients arrive at the hospital within the ideal time for clot-busting treatment.”

A simple 9-1-1 call can save someone’s life. Calling an ambulance immediately when stroke symptoms start could increase the rate of optimal stroke treatment by 24%. It is very important for people to start recognizing the symptoms and know what to do in this kind of situation. Strokes kill four times more 35- to 54-year-old black Americans than white Americans.

Sadly, a lot of stroke awareness campaigns have been limited by the high costs of advertising, lack of cultural tailoring and low penetration into ethnic minority populations. But not all of them — “Hip Hop Stroke”, a three-hour multimedia stroke awareness intervention that teaches children rap songs about strokes, has shown great success in stroke education.

Scientists studying more than 3,000 4th through 6th graders from 22 public schools in New York City and a group of 1,144 of their parents have discovered that this campaign increased optimal stroke knowledge from 2% of children before the intervention to 57% right after. Another encouraging finding was that three months after the campaign had ended, 24% of children remembered all they had learned.

“Hip Hop Stroke” uses original hip-hop songs, comic books, and cartoon-style videos to make the kids remember facts about strokes. One of the invented acronyms of the project was F-A-S-T, which refers to stroke warning signs: Face dropping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 9-1-1. Famous rapper Doug E. Fresh lent a hand in the artistic process and composed music and lyrics for the campaign.

“Rhymes have been shown to have quantifiable educational value,” said Dr. Williams.

Parents also learned new things. Pre-intervention, only 3% of the adults could identify stroke symptoms. That figure rose to 20% after they watched the educational videos. Three months later, 17% retained the information.

Dr. Williams, also known as the Hip Hop Doc, said that time is of the essence when it comes to stroke and clot-busting treatment.

“Every minute a stroke continues 1.9 million brain cells die. The earlier the treatment, the better the outcome,” he declared.

Williams has been conducting this study for over the past five years. He is delighted by the results and hopes that the free program will soon be used around the country.

“The program’s culturally-tailored multimedia presentation is particularly effective among minority youth or other groups among whom Hip Hop music is popular,” Williams said. “One unique aspect of the program is that the children who receive the program in school are used as ‘transmission vectors’ of stroke information to their parents and grandparents at home. Our trial showed that this is an effective strategy.”

The paper was published in the American Heart Association Journal Stroke.