Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Kepler's Dream: Speculative Fiction in Early Science

The idea of the Music of the Spheres, like a symphony made by the motions of the cosmos is ancient. Sometimes Kepler is presented as a modern thinker who took the heliocentric Copernican model and placed it on a mathematical footing, correcting the circular orbits with ellipses (with our Sun at one focus). The truth is messier. Kepler started with music! Influenced by these mystical ideas, Kepler published Harmonices Mundi making his case that musical intervals and harmonies described the known planets and moon. He thought they made an inaudible harmony which could be heard by the soul. He also proposed that the planetary orbits were in the same proportions as a nested series of the five regular Platonic solids. His famous 3 laws of orbital motion were more of an afterthought and even then, he related angular speeds to musical intervals. The image is my Copernicus linocut with Kepler’s scales for planets and moon. 

In retelling the history of science it can often be presented as a series of facts or discoveries, sanitized of wrong turns, misleading presentations and striped of the story of how it was communicated to contemporaries. (I should point out that I'm not talking about how historians of science retell the history of science, but more everyone else). We rarely learn that the giants upon whose shoulders we stand were often also just lucky or got to the right answer for the wrong reasons or simultaneously believed some very strange, unsubstantiated things. There's a story to be told by the way thinkers and early scientists communicated their ideas to their contemporaries, and it's not a story which is well-known.

“Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”

-Alexander Pope, 1688

It's occurred to me that basically, I'm railing against Pope, cause that's nonsense. Don't get me wrong. I'm a physicist by training. Newton's impact on physics and science broadly was tremendous. Newton's laws of motion, Newton's law of universal gravitation, and optics were genuinely revolutionary. But they didn't occur in a vacuum (no pun intended). Our knowledge of Newton's science is not due to his existence and the sudden consequential enlightenment for us all. Newton was a piece of work. We owe the publication of his grand book the Principia (1687) largely to the patience, diplomacy and determined persuasion of Edmond Halley (of comet fame) because otherwise, Newton might have taken much of his knowledge to the grave in a paranoid and antisocial fashion. Newton also had some very odd, arguably heretical religious and occultist beliefs and practised alchemy, which while it was a precursor of chemistry, was definitely filled with ideas that were not scientific and based on ideas about magic. Further, other scientists were working toward similar scientific ideas as Newton, which belies the lone genius myth. Robert Hooke (another real character) had deduced that gravitation was an inverse square law; the two argued over who had first made this discovery and I suspect Newton added Hooke to his long list of enemies. But even Newton acknowledged that Hooke and others knew the form of the law of gravitation by the 1660s.  Halley himself had a weird and incorrect hollow Earth theory. We learn about Johannes Kepler's brilliant laws of planetary motion, building on Copernicus's heliocentric model, but it's rarely stressed that he came to his ideas not just through mathematics. It's not often that teachers point out that Kepler's model was based first on music and what frequencies of revolution would make nice harmonies if they were interpreted as notes and later on the proportions of regular Platonic solids, rather than simply trying to model Tycho Brahe's observations (though in his defence, it would decades before the long-awaited publication of the Principia, which would have provided him the tools needed). But my point being, this is not a story of confusion punctuated by insights which suddenly clear everything up. This is a much messier story.

Kepler's Platonic solid model of the Solar System, from Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596)

I think we also often forget that a standard protocol of professional peer review scientific journals is quite recent. Scientific societies go back centuries, and did publish and otherwise disseminate scientific results but quality was mixed, and certainly influenced by biases like the sex, nationality, race, class and rank of the author. There was not a standard method for presenting results. Some discoveries were announced in letters to say, the Royal Society, which can be seen as an early precursor to scientific papers as we know them. Many early discoveries were presented in books. Something I find interesting is how they were combined with literature, in several instances, though not always without danger and risking accusations of heresy. Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake after including some imaginative speculation with his science, arguing the universe is infinite and filled with innumerable potentially inhabitable worlds in 1600. Galileo presented his evidence supporting the Copernican model in 1632 in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo) which is quite literally written as a dialogue between two philosophers and a layman. The staunch anti-Copernican follower of Ptolemy and Aristotle is name Simplicio as a broad hint to the reader! Galileo, like others including Hooke and Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens*, sometimes announced new results in an anagram, to establish priority without actually revealing what they discovered!  English clergyman and natural philosopher John Wilkins wrote The Discovery of a World in the Moone in 1638, inferring from the recent discovery of lunar mountains that it might also have inhabitants. Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kirchner (who disagreed with Kepler and Galileo) wrote only two pieces of imaginative fiction, but one was a mystical dialogue about space travel between an angel and a narrator called Itinerarium exstaticum in 1656. Huygens also wrote a book length speculation about extraterrestrial life, Cosmotheoros, in Latin, which he had published posthumously in 1698 for fear of censure (written partially as an annoyed response to Kirchner). It was translated in English as The Celestial Worlds Discover'd. When Margaret Cavendish, the first and one of the only women who was able to attend a Royal Society meeting for centuries (as her wealth, rank and connections helped supersede the bias against her sex) and one of the first women to publish in her own name wrote Observations upon Experimental Philosophy in 1666, she appended one of the earliest science fiction novels, a sort of imaginative complement to the science: The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, better known as The Blazing World, a fantasy, utopian satire. So with this sort of context, perhaps it makes sense that Kepler thought to try and write persuasively about his knowledge of lunar astronomy in the form of fiction, and in fact, an even earlier** example of science fiction. 
Margaret Cavendish and the Blazing World linocut 11" x 14", 2018, by Ele Willoughby

Kepler wrote his Somnium (or The Dream) in 1608 and it was published posthumously in 1634 by his son. Its origin is even earlier. It harkens back to his frustrations with his dissertation of 1593 where he argued that an observer on the moon would see the Earth move just as we see the moon move from our frame of reference. But the Tübingen faculty, who disallowed new Copernican astronomy (and forced Kepler's mentor Maestlin to keep his thoughts to himself) vetoed debate on this idea. Kepler was able to graduate and continue with his career, but never forgot how this irked him. He eventually publishing a mystical combination of Aristotelian and Copernican astronomy called Mysterium Cosmographicumwhich landed him a job with Danish astronomer and Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor, Tycho Brahe. Kepler inherited both Brahe's position but more importantly his unparalleled decades of observational data, which ultimately allowed him to deduce his law of ellipses published in his Astronomia Nova in 1609. Then his friend and ecclesiastical advisor to Emperor Rudolph, Wackher von Wackenfels asked him what he thought caused shadows on the moon. Unlike the Aristotelian Emperor who thought they were shadows of Earth's land masses, Kepler knew they were mountains and other geological features. Wackenfels encouraged Kepler to publish his own thoughts on this. So Kepler reimagined his thesis as Somnium, an imaginative story to get around the objections of the Aristotelians and to allow him to introduce a supernatural means of travelling to the moon to give him a reason to speculate about the lunar surface. 

Like Cavendish, he inserts himself into the story, but only as a framing device. Also like Cavendish, his prose is pretty clunky. The plot of the story is that Kepler himself falls asleep, reading a book of legends, and has a dream. He dreams he's reading a book! The book tells of a young 14 year old Icelandic boy named Duracotus, being raised by his widowed mother Fiolxhilde, a wise woman who earns her living selling pouches of herbs to the sailors at port, as lucky charms with healing powers. The boy curiously cuts open a pouch and looses its contents. His mother sells him to the sailor in a fit of pique. Luckily for the boy, the sailor sails promptly to Denmark to deliver a letter to Tycho Brahe, who questions the boy, deems him clever, and decides to train him in astronomy, much to his delight. After five years, he takes his leave and returns home to find his mother had suffered after her rash decision and was overjoyed to see him. He tells her of his experience and training and she is thrilled. She reveals she has her own source of astronomical knowledge, the Daemon of Lavania, or spirit of the moon. Even more astonishingly, it is possible to travel to Lavania (the moon) with the Daemon's help and she proposes they both make the voyage. After sunset, she summons the Daemon and they make the voyage of "fifty thousand German miles" to the moon. This is about a factor of 5 too small, but it's the right order of magnitude and a decent estimate for the day.

Kepler's Somnium, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2022

The voyage is four hours and very difficult, and travellers are "hurled just as though he had been shot aloft by gunpowder to sail over mountains and seas," (to overcome what we now know is gravity) and thus are drugged with opiates to avoid shock. Damp sponges are used to allow them to breathe. The speed is so great the body instinctively rolls up and continues (due to what we now know as inertia) to move forward. They can only travel at the eclipse (notably a maximum of 4.5 hours, long enough for their 4 hour trip) to avoid the solar radiation in transit. The exhausted travellers are immediately brought to a cave, to shelter from the sun, and meet other daemons to learn about the moon's geography. This is an excuse for our author to basically dump all of his lunar astronomy knowledge so there's a long section of facts which don't advance the story as Kepler retells his thesis research. Then he describes a  moon divided into Subvolva (which is below Volva, aka the Earth) and Privolva which never sees Volva (our far-side of the moon). Our moon is tidally-locked to the Earth so we only ever see one side. Kepler explains that the lunar day is a month of two weeks of scorching heat and two weeks of cold. He imagines the Earth, Volva, has a moderating effect on climate. He describes geography like our own but exaggerated with soaring mountains and plunging valleys. Likewise his imagined lifeforms are monstrous in size. He imagines nomadic Privolvans, some with legs larger than camels, or wings, following receding water in boats or diving under water (to survive the extremes of climate). Thus he's imagined intelligent extraterrestrials, which was a radical (and arguably heretical) idea in his time. He imagines Subvolvan like giant serpents wit spongy skin and animals shaped like pinecones. The story ends abruptly. 

Kepler did not get the opportunity to publish this manuscript during his lifetime, but he did circulate it amongst friends. He lost control of the manuscript in 1611 and strangers, not up on the latest debates in science got access to it. Though he literally put himself into the story as the dreamer, readers saw the boy Duracotus trained by Tycho Brahe as a self-insert for Kepler. So they deduced that the fictional mother Fiolxhilde, wise woman and herb seller who communes with a demon, was a stand-in for Kepler's mother Katherine Kepler, an herbalist who was known to her neighbours for her vile temper, raised by an aunt, who had been burned as a witch. Ironically, it is really the Daemon of Lavania who is the voice of Kepler, revealing his lunar knowledge. By 1615, Katherine was arrested on suspicion of being a witch. Kepler's scheme to express his ideas and knowledge in fiction, to avoid the ire of the Aristotelians, had backfired badly, contributing to his mother getting caught up in the witch-craze. Kepler appreciated the danger and dropped all work to fight to exonerate his mother. The fight took 5 years, some of which she spent in prison, and the ordeal hastened her death two years later. Kepler felt culpable and her loss weighed on him. All of his work was set aside during this fight and publishing the Somnium in particular was out of the question. Over the last decade of his life he added 223 footnotes to the text, to insert most of the hard science. Having already faced such extreme consequences he no longer feared reprisals from Aristotelians. But, he died in 1630 with only 6 pages typeset. His son-in-law Jacob Bartsch took over, but he too died suddenly before it was published. Finally, his son Lucas published the book in an effort to help with his mother's financial distress. While not widely known today, the strange text casts has influenced science fiction and a marks one of the earliest scientific studies of an extraterrestrial planetary body.

*Huygens had his own dispute with Hooke over who invented the balance spring to regulate portable watches. 

**But in my book, by no means the earliest. See for instance A True Story by Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE) which includes space exploration, aliens and interplanetary warfare - and which Kepler owned. There is also a near contemporary Copernican lunar science fiction story written by English historian Francis Godwin (1562-1634), The Man in the Moone, written in the 1620s and published 1638. Of course, clearly defining what counts as science fiction isn't entirely straightforward either.

The Somnium Project, accessed March, 2022
Somnium (novel), Wikipedia, accessed March, 2022
Gale E. Christianson, Kepler's Somnium: Science Fiction and the Renaissance Scientist, Science Fiction Studies, #8, vol. 3, part 1, March 1976
Greg Gbur, Somnium, by Johannes Kepler, Skull in the Stars blog, February 23, 2018

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Lichen Love

Lichen is a strange and beautiful life form, or rather a mutualistic relationship between algae or Cyanobacteria and fungi to make a composite organism. They have different shapes, sizes, parts, colours and somehow have properties which differ from those of their component parts. Like plants they photosynthesize, but they have no roots. I recall learning as a child how they were the trailblazers, making their home on the rocks of the Canadian Shield, and allowing a succession of other organisms to grow on top, till we have large trees which appear to grow straight out of the rock, but without lichen it could not be there. When lichen grows on trees it is not a parasite, it just uses plants as a surface on which to grow. They grow in a huge range of environments, even tundra, deserts, mountains and rainforests on virtually any convenient surface. Scientists estimate 6 to 8% of the Earth's land surface is covered by lichen, and yet we can walk right by without giving it a second thought.

Some though, have long admired lichen, especially its extraordinary colour palette and variety of textures and forms. This is a selection of the colour charts based on lichen from the Svensk Lafvarnas Farghistoria by Johan Peter Westring. Printed in 1805-09. Via the Biodiversity Heritage Library archive. 

Svenska lafvarnas färghistoria Stockholm :Tryckt hos C. Delén,1805-[1809]

One of my favourite lichen artists is Dr. Immy Smith (website, Etsy, Patreon). They make a wide variety of artwork, much of it about natural history, or drawing on their background in neuroscience, but clearly they love lichen and have observed it very closely.
'Lichen makes the landscape' - Immy Smith with Herbarium RNG curators

They collaborated on the 'Symbiosis' project as part of the part of the Imagining Science Polymathic Art & Science Collaborative, with fellow member Scott Mantooth and other artists, scientists and the University of Reading Herbarium and EM Lab (Centre for Advanced Microscopy). Other drawings illustrate scanning electron microscope images of lichen. You can read more here.

'Reading campus twig' - Immy Smith with Herbarium RNG curators

UK textile artist Amanda Cobett makes papier maché and machine embroidered sculptures, often fungi and extraordinarily life-like lichen.

Amanda Corbett lichen

Amanda : Moss and Lichen TQ 085 439, 2018, Built up layers of free machine embroidery (Photo credit, Fraser James)
Amanda : Moss and Lichen TQ 085 439, 2018, Built up layers of free machine embroidery (Photo credit, Fraser James)

Amanda Cobbett: Moss, bark and Lichen detail TQ 085 44, 2018, Built up layers of free machine embroidery, materials used; paper, silk, thread, dye, backing cloth, (Photo credit, Fraser James)
Amanda Cobbett: Moss, bark and Lichen detail TQ 085 44, 2018, Built up layers of free machine embroidery, materials used; paper, silk, thread, dye, backing cloth, (Photo credit, Fraser James)

Artist and researcher Sarah Hearn makes artworks inspired by biology. She has made several lichen-inspired series of artworks. 

Sarah Hearn, Artificial Lichen Colony #8

10" x 15" cut photographs and watercolor, 2015

Sarah Hearn, Artificial Lichen Colony Collage #5

42" x 24" cut photographs, watercolor and graphite, 2016 (private commission)

Sarah Hearn, Artificial Lichen Colony #6

15" x 10" cut photographs and watercolor, 2016

There are whole worlds to contemplate in these extraordinary things if only we stop to look.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Insects in Textiles

 Insects have been used as adornment and recreated in textiles for centuries. I'm sharing a smattering here of some beautiful contemporary textile art of insects.

Check out the sensitive textile nature art of Dutch-born Australian artist Annemieke Mein here. She works in various media including textiles, and the textile art includes these beautiful insects:

Butterfly textile art by Annemieke Mein

Dragonfly textile art by Annemieke Mein

Butterfly textile art by Annemieke Mein
Textile insects by Annemieke Mein

Born in England and based in Kenya, artist Sophie Standing uses textile art to portray the wildlife she sees. I absolutely love this bee:

Sophie Standing Bee
Bee textile art by Sophie Standing

She does a lot of the African megafauna, but this dung beetle is charming:

Dung Beetle textile art by Sophie Standing
Dung Beetle textile art by Sophie Standing

Michele Carragher is a London costume embroidery for film and TV who has done extraordinary work (for shows like Game of Thrones). Some of her insect-themed work: 

The Head Artefact, Hairpin
The Head Artfact, Hairpin, (c) MCE 2021

The Hand Artefact, Gauntlet
The Hand Artefact, Gauntlet detail cicada motif, (c) MCE 2021

Cicada detail from Game of Thrones costume embroidery by MCE
Detail of Game of Thrones costume embroidery by Michele Carragher

You can find the delightful work of UK embroiderer Humayrah Bint Altaf on instagram and Etsy as The Olde Sewing Room. 

The Olde Sewing Room butterfly
She wished for wings, Papilio Demoleous Swallowtail Butterfly with Goldwork Embroidery

Goldwork scarab beetle by The Olde Sewing Shop
Goldwork scarab beetle with crystals and antique wires

Goldwork dragonfly by The Olde Sewing Shop
Madelaine (n.), something that triggers memories or nostalgia - gold work dragonfly embroidery

Friday, June 18, 2021

Historical physics and astronomy as .gifs


Galilei, Galileo, 1564-1642. Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari e loro accidenti, 1613.
Galilei, Galileo, 1564-1642. Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari e loro accidenti, 1613.

Put Galileo's 1612 drawings of sunspots together and what do you get (via Houghton Library, Harvard University)? 

Gifs taken from a 1929 film by Nobel laureate William Lawrence Bragg demonstrating his research into surface tension and spectroscopic analysis of light reflected from a soap film. (via the Royal Institution tumblr)

NASA imagery of Pioneer via the US National Archives on GIPHY

This work from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology,  Celestial scenery, or, The Wonders of the planetary system displayed (1845) was written by Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister and science educator.
This work from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology,  Celestial scenery, or, The Wonders of the planetary system displayed (1845) was written by Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister and science educator. (via the Smithsonian)

And of course Eadweard Muybridge:

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Mildred Thompson and the Art of the Cosmos

Mildred Thompson 'Magnetic Fields' 1990, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 150” (triptych)
Mildred Thompson 'Magnetic Fields' 1990, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 150” (triptych)

American artist Mildred Jean Thompson (March 12, 1936 – September 1, 2003) worked in many media, including printmaking, sculpture, painting, drawing and photography, as well as a writer. Critics see the influence of German Expressionism, West African textiles, Islamic architecture, spiritualism, metaphysics music and particularly jazz as her work grew increasingly abstract and improvisational. All these things are important, but her interest in physics and astronomy also shines through in the art about music and sound, to the later work specifically about mathematics, magnetic fields, radiation, particles and planetary systems. Thompson said, “My work in the visual arts is, and always has been, a continuous search for understanding. It is an expression of purpose and reflects a personal interpretation of the universe.” 

Mildred Thompsn, String Theory Series, 1999, acrylic on vinyl, 61.5 x 46”

Finding her ability to show as a Black woman in the US was hampered by racism and sexism, she spent a decade in Germany. She had studied at Art Academy of Hamburg and returned to live and work in the Rhineland town of Düren in the 60s. By the 70s her work had become completely abstract. From 1975 to 1986 she lived in Tampa, Washington D.C, Paris, before settling in Atlanta, where she wrote for the periodical Art Papers, taught at the Atlanta College of Art and worked as an artist for the rest of her life. Thompson explained, "My work has to do with the cosmos and how it affects us," to Essence magazine in 1990.

Mildred Thompson, Helio Centric III, 1993, intaglio vitreograph, 40" x 30" each
(image size 30" x 24")


For me the Helios Centric series evokes the swirling chaos of the nascent solar system, as masses spun in a disc around our sun, colliding and aggregating over time into a string of planets and smaller bodies. She did not make literal interpretations of sound, forces, space or any underlying physics of the universe but expressed these concepts imagination, emotion, colour and rhythm. There's a great deal of joy to be found in her work. She explored the universe from the smallest scales of her Wave Function, Radiation and String Theory series to the astronamical scale of our solar system and beyond and what she saw and expressed was quite beautiful.

Mildred Thompson
Radiation Explorations 8, 1994
Oil on canvas
87.5 x 110.1 inches (222.3 x 279.7 cm) overall

Wave Function III, 1993, intaglio vitreograph, 30" x 22.5" (image size 20" x 16")

References & Further Info

Deanna Sirlin, Melissa Messina and the Mildred Thompson Legacy Project, interview on The Arts Section

Mildred Thompson, on 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Owl, Pussycat, Scientific Illustration and Other Nonsense by Edward Lear

owl illustration by Edward Lear

Edward Lear's illustration of a cat, Private collection promised to the Ashmolean Museum

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea 

In a beautiful pea-green boat, 

They took some honey, and plenty of money, 

Wrapped up in a five-pound note. 

The Owl looked up to the stars above, 

And sang to a small guitar, 

‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love, 

What a beautiful Pussy you are, 

You are, 

You are! 

What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

illustration of a lioness by Edward Lear

Poet Edward Lear (1812–1888), remembered affectionately for his delightful nonsense poems like 'The Owl and the Pussycat' or 'The Jumblies' is less well remembered for his exceptional, carefully observed scientific illustration but he was a talented and sought-after natural historian and illustrator. He believed in working from life, if not in the field, at least observing animals in zoos and menageries, rather than basing drawings of flora and fauna on museum collections of dead animals. He wrote “I am never pleased with a drawing unless I make it from life,” in 1831. He befriended zookepers to gain access and make measurements of animals; his work was praised by Charles Darwin and John James Audubon. He apprenticed with scientist Prideaux Selby, gaining confidence in his bird illustraions. His work shows a real understanding of how animals move and their 'personalities'which can be missing from work produced from drawing dead specimen. His first publication was a book about parrots, Illustrations of the Family Psittacidae or Parrots, published when he was only 19. It was the first book published about a family of birds. Then he worked for scientific illustrators John and Elizabeth Gould, helping him illustrate the birds of Europe and her illustrate birds for Darwin’s Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, as well as producing illustrations for William Buckland, Thomas Bell, and William Jardine. His careful observation and illustrations lead Lear to identify several new species and several are named after him like Lear's macaw (Anodorhynchus leari), a large blue Brazilian parrot.

Culminated Toucan, Ramphastos culminatus (mid 1830s).
Plate 1 in Lear's Monograph of the Family of Toucans.

A Stanley parakeet, one of 42 plates in Edward Lear's Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. Biodiversity Heritage Library/CC BY 2.0

His nonsense poems came after, and in a sense, out of his scientific illustration. He was commissioned to illustrate the collection of parots in the menagerie of naturalist Edward Smith-Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby at his home Knowsley Hall near Liverpool. He was treated like the help, and ate with the servants in the basement, but became a great hit with Lord Derby's grandchildren and began entertaining them with cartoons and limericks and this was how he began creating work for children. The Earl began inviting him to eat upstairs with guests and other nobles. He meanwhile gained a real reputation for his painting and even became the personal drawing instructor to Queen Victoria. So when he first began published Book of Nonsense, in 1846, he used a pen name to avoid tarnishing his reputation as a serious painter and scientific illustrator. He revealed his name only after his poems became a great success, a great surprise to him. This was a great boon to him as his ailing health and eyesight meant he could no longer work as a zoological draughtsman, and this new success came when he really needed it.

His scientific illustration and nonsense come together delightfully in his “Nonsense Botany” series, like this Piggiwiggia Pyramidalis! (Image courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS Eng 797.1 [20])

Edward Lear's Cockatooca Superba from the Nonsense Botany series

Edward Lear's Crabbia Horrida from the Nonsense Botany series


Beth Marie Mole, Poetry and Pictures, circa 1830, The Scientist, November 2012.

GrrlScientist, Edward Lear featured at the Royal Society, The Guardian blog site, 2016 

Donna Ferguson, How Edward Lear's artistic genius led to the Owl and the Pussycat, The Guardian, Sunday, 31 January, 2021. 

Anna Lena Phillips, Serious Nonsense, American Scientist,.com

'Edward Lear', illusrtaion History resource from the Norman Rockwell Museum

Art, Nonsense and Science, The Biologist 64(6) p24-27

Friday, May 21, 2021

Make like a cicada and scream! Cicadas in and as art.

I have been following the prompts for #mathyear, created by mathematician/illustrator Constanza Rojas-Molina and computer scientist/illustrator Marlene Knoche. For the "prime number" prompt earlier this year I was reminded of how cicada lifecycles famous employ prime numbers. 

Prime cicadas by Ele Willoughby
'Prime cicadas' by Ele Willoughby


I printed the first 25 natural numbers with primes in green and non-prime numbers in pink with a cicada. Periodic cicadas lay dormant for years. Then in the spring of either their 13th or 17th year, mature cicada nymphs emerge from underground synchronously, in huge numbers and the males fill the air with their droning chorus. It’s been postulated that lifecycles in prime numbers of years have an evolutionary advantage. It may be predator avoidance by making it impossible for predators to boom at a divisor of their lifecycles. Or, it may be that prime number lifecycles prevents hybridization between broods (who emerge in different years), and that this was particularly important during the Pleistocene glacial stadia when there was heavy selection pressure. We've just now seeing the Great Eastern Brood (Brood X) emerge this year! It has the greatest range and concentration of any of the 17-year cicadas.⁠ ⁠ (A small confession: the specific cicada in my print is a dog-day cicada, an annual cicada and not a member of the Magicicada genus of 13 and 17-year periodical cicadas. I’m taking a little artistic/entomological liberty.)⁠

 I've been seeing that this amazing or overwhelming event, and the beauty of cicadas, has definitely inspired many artists, so I thought I would do a round up of some I enjoy. 

Cicadas Print by Rachel E Lettering on Etsy

Cicada oil painting on wallpaper by Emily Uchytil. Archival prints available here.

Angels diptych by Chloe Ashton

Eugene Alain (E.A.) Seguy’s insect illustrations from the 1920s

Kitagawa Utamaro,
Grasshopper and Cicada, 1788

Cicada, late 19th to early 20th century China, via the Met

Otani Haruhiko, 1941, Stylized Cicada Suiteki

There are also, of course, artists inspired to make art from cicadas and their sloughed off carapaces. Some Japanese high schoolers even built action figures and Godzilla from cicadas shells.


Defense mechanism by Adrienne DeLoe


“Velo de luto (Mourning veil)” (2020), magicicada wings, sewn with hair, 32 x 47 x 2 inches. By Selva Aparicio, Photo by Robert Chase Heishman.



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