Thursday, December 19, 2013


Wilson Bentley
snowflake photo
You may have seen the marvellous microscopic photos of individual snowflakes by Wilson 'Snowflake' Bentley, but I'm rather taken with the more conceptual illustrations below, of snowflakes based on sketches of observations made under a microcope from Snowflakes: A Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863)
Snowflakes: a Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863), - See more at:
Snowflakes: a Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863), - See more at:
Snowflakes: a Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863), - See more at:
Snowflakes: a Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863), - See more at:
(via the Public Domain Review) including the geometrical forms "under which the snow-vapor crystalizes."

nder which the snow-vapor crystalizes
nder which the snow-vapor crystalizes

The Public Domain Review hosts the entire book so you can see and read more here.

You can also find 'Snowflake' Bentley's photos in the Smithsonian's collection online.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Minimalist Graphic Design vs. Scientist & Innovators

There are a surprising number of graphic designers and typographers who have riffed on the themes of scientists and the history of science, and there are a large variety of minimalist images for your favorite scientists, mathematicians and their work.

Consider Amorphia Apparel's collections Monsters of Grok, "rock band style t-shirts to celebrate the world's great thinkers" and Hirsute History, "the giants of history, illustrated by their hair", both of which are replete with scientists. I like their captions too, especially for the subset of Badass Women of Science released for Ada Lovelace Day.

Emmy Noether
In the style of Depeche Mode
Mathemetician Emmy Noether was so hardcore I can't even wrap my feeble brain around her accomplishments in the field of abstract algebra, theoretical physics, field theory, ring theory and so on. So I'll have to rely on the good word of Albert Einstein who called her "the most significant and creative female mathematician of all time." She's even got her own theorem, yo, "Noether's Theorem" which explains the relationship between symmetries and conservation laws.

Emilie du Chatelet
In the style of Death Cab For Cutie
Emilie du Chatelet knew a thing or two about a thing or two. During the Age of Enlightenment she was standing toe to toe with her male counterparts in the realms of physics and math. She put forth a new understanding on the nature of light, and predicted the existence of infrared radiation, helped prove that kinetic energy was indistinct from momentum (suck it, Isaac Newton), and invented the idea of financial derivatives. In the words of her boy-toy Voltaire, she was "a great man whose only fault was being a woman" uhhhhhhh, thanks?

In the style of Husker Du
Philosopher, Astronomer, and History's first well documented woman in the field of mathematics, Hypatia of Alexandria was kicking ass in the age of togas and sandals. (Reportedly) murdered by a Christian mob, she has alternately been cast as "a most beautiful, most vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish'd Lady" by fans and a "a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria" by haters.  

Ada Lovelace, Mathemetician and Programmer, Hirsute History
Tycho Brahe, Astronomer, Hirsute History

Or, consider these minimalist math posters by graphic designer Hydrogene.

Pythagoras by Hydrogene - the image neatly summarizes the theory we all recall from high school: the square of the hypotenus of a right angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
Gauss by Hydrogene - the image shows a Gaussian distribution of course

Euler by Hydrogene - the image illustrates Euler's formula

Minimal Posters - Six Women Who Changed Science. And The World. Marie Curie's image illustrates an (old-fashioned) image of Radium, the radioactive element she first isolated, Rachel Carson's image illustrates a ban on DDT based on her pioneering environmental science, Sally Ride is of course shown as an astronaut, pioneering computer programmer and developer of the first compiler of a computer language, Grace Hopper, is also attributed with coining the term 'debugging' based on an actual moth removed from a computer, biophysicist Rosalind Franklin's x-ray crystallography was what allowed Watson and  Crick to deduce DNA's double helix structure, and Jane Goodall is illustrated by a great ape for her revolutionary primate studies
(Source: hydrogeneportfolio)
Kapil Bhagat has cleverly used typography alone to illustrate  scientists and their most fundamental contributions.

Kapil Bhagat's Newton succinctly references his Law of Universal Gravitation and alludes to the (probably apocryphal) story of the falling apple as inspiration

Kapil Bhagat's Einstein incorporates his most famous equation by literally replacing E (for energy) with mc2 (for mass times the square of the speed of light)

Kapil Bhagat's Copernicus shows his heliocentric model of our solar system with C as orbit, yellow o as sun and the little blue dot on the i as Earth.

Kapil Bhagat's pioneering chemist Lavoisier is illustrated with 'oi' as one of his glass vessels

Selman Hoşgör, Wilhelm Rontgen, who discovered x-rays

Selman Hoşgör's Emile Berliner, who invented the gramaphone

Selman Hoşgör's Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone

Bruce Seaton, of Seatonworks has a series of minimalist scientists in two colours.

Bruce Seaton, of Seatonworks, Louis Pasteur

Bruce Seaton, of Seatonworks, Oppenheimer

Bruce Seaton, of Seatonworks, Marie Curie 

I love these Saints of Science by Steven P Hughes which hint at their astronomical work.

Steven P Hughes Stephen Hawking (whose halo looks like a blackhole)

Steven P Hughes, Neil Degrasse Tyson (whose shadows look like outer space).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Anti-Submarine Mines for the Home

Marti Karmin, MarineMine, Elliptical Fireplace
On this Remembrance Day, I thought I would show you have some of the artifacts of weaponry and warfare can actually be re-imagined as something useful, and dare I say, beautiful. Estonian artist Mati Karmin and his company MarineMine have taken salvaged cases of WWII era Russian anti-submarine mines and created everything from functioning fireplaces, to tables, armchairs, beds to sculptural pieces like his 'toy' baby carriage (complete with grenades instead of rattles).

Marti Karmin, MarineMine, Spherical Fireplace 02
These sorts of mines were in fact very common. I know from doing marine fieldwork offshore western Canada that we in this country dumped our own on the seabed (at a time when people never imagined that future generations would do anything at those sorts of depths and the scientists and even fishers to whom these are now a real hazard). The ones used in these sculptures and furniture were not deployed at sea, but stored in warehouses in full working order, on an island in Gulf of Finland, for decades. The Soviet army finally removed and destroyed the explosives in the early 1990s, leaving the amazing vessels behind. Karmin has seen the beauty in the cases and had the imagination to put them to better use.

Marti Karmin, MarineMine, Chandelier
His chandelier involves replacing the detonators with Plexiglas mock-ups, serving as light bulbs.

He's even used some of the hemispherical cases to build an aquarium.

(via Twisted Sifter)
Marti Karmin, MarineMine, Davenport Table
Marti Karmin, MarineMine, Baby Carriage
Marti Karmin, MarineMine, Baby Carriage

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Singing about Geology

As a geophysicist, and fan of the history of science, I'm tickled to discover these songs by the Amoeba People, at the place where earth science, music and comedy meet.

by The Amoeba People

Deep beneath the surface
Where tectonic plates collide
The crust is slowly shifting
From the heat on the inside

The pressure builds up
Year after year
Till the pressure's so strong
Something's got to give
Then the plates finally slip
And the energy's released
And the ground begins to shake
Right beneath your feet

Here come the P-waves
Here come the S-waves
Here come the surface waves

Oh no,
What's that?
Did you feel that?

Well it's an EARTHQUAKE!
(and the seismic waves are moving)
Well it's an EARTHQUAKE!
(the clock is falling off the mantel)
Well it's an EARTHQUAKE!
(just stay calm, try to relax
as the seismologists keep track
as it scratches on the seismograph)

The earth's rocky crust
Is broken into plates
They're moving all the time
But at a very slow rate
Convection currents from
Deep in the mantle
Push on the crust
Till it's hard to handle
But every now and then
The plates get stuck
And the pressure builds up
And the pressure builds up

released 28 October 2013
Written by Ray Hedgpeth
Performed by The Amoeba People

A p-wave is a primary, or compressional wave. They move through the Earth at higher velocities than other seismic waves, so they are what you would feel (or see on a seismograph) first, following any earthquake or seismic event. An s-wave is a secondary, or shear wave. These waves follow the p-wave at somewhat slower velocities. The shearing motion (think of scissors... or shears) will be less pleasant so the p-wave is your cue to seek a safe place, should you ever experience a significant earthquake. After the p- and s-waves, you see various surface waves which, as you might imagine, travel along the surface of the crust, rather than diving deep into the Earth. These are things like Rayleigh waves and Love waves (honest! named after mathematician and geodynamist A.E.H. Love).

"The sad but true story of the man who proposed the idea that the continents had once been joined together in a single landmass he called "Pangaea." Time, and new data, finally vindicated Alfred Wegener and his hypothesis of Continental Drift. A posthumous triumph indeed."

Continental Drift (or: the posthumous triumph of Alfred Wegener)
by The Amoeba People

In the year of 1910 there was a scientist
whose name was Alfred Wegener
He noticed that the continents looked just like
pieces of a broken puzzle
By 1915 he called it Continental Drift
It caused a rift
With his fellow scientists
Who sang:

Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
You are a crazy man!
Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
You are a crazy little man!

They reminded him he had no proof for how or why
the continents could do this
And until you show just how or why
you merely have one interesting hypothesis
Until this evidence we see
You don’t have a theory!

Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
You are a crazy man!
Ha! Ha! Alfred Wegener!
You are a crazy little man!

In the year of 1930, on an expedition to Greenland
Wegener got caught in a blizzard
When they finally found him, it was much, oh much too late
And they buried him in an icy mausoleum

Thirty years after he died
A new idea came to light
(Plate Tectonics, Plate Tectonics)
It changed the way geologists saw the world
And brought Continental Drift back to life

Now everybody sings:

Yee haw! Alfred Wegener!
You are a brilliant man!
Yee haw! Alfred Wegener!
You are a brilliant, brilliant man!

Continental Drift! Alfred Wegener’s theory!
Continental Drift! Alfred Wegener’s theory!
Continental Drift! Alfred Wegener’s theory!
Continental Drift! Alfred Wegener’s brilliant theory!

released 02 August 2013
written by ray hedgpeth
performed by the amoeba people

The Geologists Are Coming!
by The Amoeba People

They carry tiny hammers,
They're chipping at the crust.
Like a John Fante novel
They're inclined to ask the dust.

Converging on the continents,
They're fearless and they're brave,
Cruising down through canyons
And exploring every cave.

Uncovering the mysteries
Of the planet's history,
Deep into the Cambrian
For all the world to see.

The geologists are coming!
Yes, they're trudging down the hill.
When they say that mountain's young
They're talking ten to twenty mil.
They're classifying rocks
From destruction to rebirth
The geologists are coming!
They're converging on the Earth!

The G is for granite,
The E is for eon,
O is the outcrop
Which they're inclined to be on.
L is for the layers
Showing how things have evolved
The O is for "Oh, my!
Another puzzle to be solved."
The second G is meant to give
A little bit more insight
For nine times out of ten
A granite rock is granodiorite
The I is for igneous,
The S is for sand,
T is for the timeline
That they're holding in their hand.

The geologists are coming!
They're emerging from their tents,
Braving steep volcanoes
To explore volcanic vents.
They take note of the processes
That shape the planet's crust.
They're driven to inquire,
Explore this Earth they must!

The geologists are coming!
Yes, they're trudging down the hill.
When they say that mountain's young
They're talking ten to twenty mil.
They're classifying rocks
From destruction to rebirth.
The geologists are coming!
They're converging on the Earth!

released 06 April 2012
written by Ray Hedgpeth

The Amoeba People have many other science songs written about other fields and a Kickstarter campaign to launch a musical science show.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Smell, Taste and Hear the Data

Some of our contemporary computational and graphics tools make data visualization an exciting, rapidly advancing field. Sometimes scientists presenting data are not visual thinkers and may not be communicating their results transparently. Sometimes graphic designers put aesthetics ahead of the essence of what we could be communicating with a given dataset. But, when we get it right there is some real innovation occurring. Today I want to show you some 'visualizations' which are not in fact visual at all; I want to show some playful and intriguing forays into expressing data for senses other than vision.

Listen to wikipedia is a wonderful multimedia audiovisual exploration of an unexpected dataset: the recent changes to wikipedia feed. It is in fact surprisingly musical. Data are shown as circles in white (for edits by registered users), green (for unregistered users) and purple (for automated bots) on the Payne's grey field, like in the screenshot above. Text labels appear briefly to show which articles are being edited, the frequency of edits (84 edits per minute at the bottom left) and to post notices when new users register. Data make different sounds: bells indicate additions and subtractions sound like plucked strings. Pitch is proportional to the size of the edit; larger edits result in lower notes. While visualizations can communicate a lot of specific information compactly, this audio display of information certainly communicates a great deal while still allowing an observer to do something else; I am listening to it as I write. It is quite easy to pick up on the frequency of edits, their nature (additions or subtractions) and with a little more attention to the pitch and hence size of edits. Listen to Wikipedia was written by Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi, and is open-source. It was inspired by Listen to Bitcoin which plays tones with pitch scaled to the value of Bitcoin transactions.

BevLab image via Spark blog
You might recall magpie&whiskeyjack wrote about Kate McLean's SensoryMaps which plot scents on imaginative maps of places like 'Auld Reekie', Edinburgh itself. But smell and taste themselves can be used to express datasets. The CBC radio show Spark episode 227 profiled i & j ideations and their BevLab project which translates data into different flavoured beverages and invited the public to 'taste the data' of real-time tweets about food. The words they recorded were mapped onto flavour profiles which controlled proportions of ingredients (for instance blueberry juice for sweet, lemon juice for sour, and ginger juice for spicy, standing in for salty) in a beverage. A beverage can be produced at any given moment which is thus intended to represent the food words posted on twitter at that given moment. I am not certain of our ability to identify this three dimensional sweet/sour/spicy beverage and comprehend how the data is changing in time, by drinking a series of beverages, but the idea is playful and intriguing.

Artists are also playing with the use of data in their art - and these projects too sometimes involve more than just sight. Artist Charlotte Jarvis collaborated with the Netherlands Proteomics Centre on a fascinating project called 'Blighted By Kenning', described in the video below. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was encoded* into DNA of bio-engineered bacteria which was sprayed onto the surface of apples grown near the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The concept was that The Hague was 'contaminated' with the message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on these contemporary 'forbidden fruit'.  Then they sent the apples were sent to Genomics laboratories across the world, which were asked to sequence the DNA and to find the message hidden within. Finally, the scientists who sought the hidden message were also invited to eat the fruit. So this is a very different way one can taste data.

*There is an established means of encoding letters in DNA by mapping each letter onto a codon, a tri-nucleotide unit consisting of a specific combination of Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Guanine (G) and Cytosine (C). Read more on Charlotte Jarvis' Blighted by Kenning site.


Blighted by Kenning installation (Photo by James Read)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Reconstructionists Women in Science for Ada Lovelace Day

Lisa Congdon, 'Ada Lovelace'
Today is the fifth annual international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology, science and math, Ada Lovelace Day 2013 (ALD13). You may recall Ada, brilliant proto-software engineer, daughter of absentee father, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Lord Byron, she was able to describe and conceptualize software for Charles Babbage's computing engine, before the concepts of software, hardware, or even Babbage's own machine existed! She foresaw that computers would be useful for more than mere number-crunching. For this she is rightly recognized as visionary - at least by those of us who know who she was. She figured out how to compute Bernouilli numbers with a Babbage analytical engine. Tragically, she died at only 36. Today, in Ada's name, people around the world are blogging about women in science and technology, whose accomplishments have all too often gone unrecognized or unacknowledged.

Lisa Congdon, 'Maria Mitchell'
Today, I thought I would direct you to The Reconstructionists, a year-long collaboration of artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon and writer Maria Popova (of Brainpickings fame) to celebrate remarkable women, including the subset of the scientists I've selected to share here, artists, writers, other unsung heroes. Each woman they feature is illustrated by Congdon along with quotation and posted with a succinct biography by Popova.  Each represents someone "who have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture and live our lives as individuals of any gender." These two have created a beautiful and remarkable series. You should go enjoy the project in its entirety (thus far)!

Some of my favorite heroines of the history of science they've selected to portray include Ada Lovelace, shown above, astronomer Maria Mitchell (at right),  mathematician, physicist, writer and gifted educator and popularizer of science Mary Fairfax Somerville (read more about Somerville in my review of Seduced by Logic - Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville And the Newtonian Revolution by Robyn Arianrhod cross-posted to sci&lit) and physicist Rosalind Franklin (whose incredible x-ray crystallography provided the first indication that DNA is a double helix - they gave the Nobel to the colleagues who helped themselves to her research and didn't happen to die). Other scientists portrayed include astronaut Sally Ride, primatologist Jane Goodall and unsung mathematical genius, pioneer of communications engineering and glamourous Hollywood actress Hedy Lemarr.
Lisa Congdon, 'Rosalind Franklin'

Lisa Congdon, 'Mary Somerville'

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Periodic Table of Storytelling

Since I've been thinking about the intersection of science and literature, I thought I'd share the Periodic Table of Storytelling.

Periodic Table of Storytelling by Dawn Paladin/ComputerSherpa

You can find a larger version here. I really like how he used the concept behind a periodic table of elements, rather than being too strictly literal and arbitrarily forcing their categorized tropes into the precise formation of the periodic table.  Each element has a one to three character acronym and little description to describe a trope, and they are grouped in periodic table-like families. Also, I'm charmed that he's listed Tbl Parodic Table of the Elements as one of the (pale yellow) Metatropes. Ooh, self-referentiallity! Further, the atomic number is replaced by 'Popularity in kilowicks' or the number of thousands of links to its page within the wiki. At the bottom he explains how the elements bond together in various stories (only two of which I know....  so I can't really tell is there is anything more than a design choice behind the nature of the drawn bonds), much like elements in a chemical compound. This is a a Parodic Table of the Elements made with some care and love.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

paper botanicals

Mary Delany, Crinum Zeylanicum: Asphodil Lilly,
a paper collage, 1778 (via The British Museum)

The lovely and precise paper collage, or as she called them 'mosaicks' depicting various botanical illustrations by Mary Delany were recently brought to people's attention by Molly Peacock's book The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work At 72. She wished her work to ressemble dried flowers, and was so successful that some could be mistaken for actual specimen. Peacock describes a woman who in fact invented an entirely new artistic (or scientific illustration) medium, very late in life. Describing her method in a letter to her niece, dated October 4th, 1772, Delany wrote: “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers”.

Mary Delany, Magnolia Grandiflora (Polyandria Polygynia),
the grand Magnolia. 1776
Delany used hand-tinted tissue paper to create 1700 of these paper cuts, working until the age of 88, when her eyesight failed. She worked with plant specimen, and it is believed she dissected them to better observe their detailed anatomy; her works carefully reproduce petals, stamens, calyx, leaves, veins, stalk and other parts of the plant in hundreds of tiny layered pieces of paper, generally against a black background. She lived in a time where there was a revolution in botanical knowledge, a great passion for gardening, and no photography. The intersection of botany and art played an important role in contemporary descriptive science, and Mrs. Delany became a major botanical artist. (via Things that quicken the heart).

Mary Delany, Pancratium Maritinum (Hexandria Monogynia),
Sea Daffodil. 1778
Mary Delany, Vicia Cracca (Diadelphia Decandria),
Tufted vetch

Mary Delany, Iris Susiana, Chalcedonian. 1781
Anandamayi Arnold is a contemporary San Francisco-based artist who makes paper 'surprise balls', a desceptively simple medium: she wraps trinkets and ephemera in layer upon layer of crepe paper, to build up gorgeous, three-dimensional botanical objects. She calls them 'three dimensional trompe l'oeil'. Aya Brackett has photographed Arnold's work in a way which clearly alludes to Mary Delany's work, against a dark background, showing these objects to be more than paper and toys, but a sort of continuation of the paper botanical illustration tradtion, tracing all the way back to the late 18th century and Delany's pioneering work. Further, she's playing with the ideas of the ephemeral and permanance, since these objects are at least nominally built so that someone could unravel them to find the toys inside.

Anandamayi Arnold, Paper Passion Fruit (photograph by Aya Brackett)
Anandamayi Arnold, Paper Pomegranate (photograph by Aya Brackett)
Anandamayi Arnold, (photograph by Aya Brackett)
Anandamayi Arnold, Kumkuat branch, 2012 (photograph by Aya Brackett)

Anandamayi Arnold, paper botanicals photograph by Aya Brackett
Anandamayi Arnold, paper botanicals photograph by Aya Brackett


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