Category: Arts

Watching the Wind

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 4, 2012 1:46 pm

Ever since discovering Richard Long‘s work back in the 80’s, I’ve been incredibly drawn to land art of various forms.  Most work of this type tends to be fairly static, but I recently ran across some pieces that I found mesmerizing, in their capturing and visualizing wind.  (Strictly, these don’t meet the definition of “land art”, but heck, if you’re going to visualize wind, you probably need some help from technology).

Here is northern California artist Ned Kahn’s piece, covering the side of a science center in Switzerland with thousands of pieces of aluminum, whose orientations adjust in response to the wind.  If I could find a way to have this video on infinite loop, I would… Read More


ATLAS Peeped

By Mark Trodden | March 26, 2012 5:19 am

Not wanting to let Sean get away with the only marshmallow-related post this year, I’d like to bring to your attention that, for the fifth year running, the Washington Post recently held its Peeps Diorama Contest. This would be a pretty strange topic to cover on this blog were it not for the fact that one of the entries was the wonderful ATLAS Peeped!

Designed and Constructed by Marilena Loverde and Laura Newburgh, ATLAS Peeped is a painstaking and delicious reconstruction of the detector and its environment, with great attention to detail in adapting it to the peep universe. For example, please note the textbooks in the following (click on the photo for a full-size version)

I really hope Michael Peepskin is reading this.

As a theorist, I can’t help but leave you with a detail with equations

See! And I had thought peeps would naturally gravitate towards the soft sciences.

Update: I had earlier referred to a third person helping create this, but was mistaken, and have edited the post accordingly.

Snobby Connoissuership

By Sean Carroll | June 22, 2011 3:45 pm

xkcd raises an interesting issue or three. Click to see the exciting conclusion, starring Joe Biden.

Naturally, in less time than it takes to eat a sandwich there was a Tumblr account dedicated to Joe Biden eating.

But one can’t help but ask — is it true? Does it really not matter what it is we choose to lavish our attentions upon? Would we find as much depth and complexity in different cans of Diet Dr. Pepper as oenophiles would claim are lurking in a bottle of fine Bordeaux?

I think we have to say no. Some things really are more complex and nuanced than other things. I could provide examples, but they aren’t any better than ones you can imagine yourself.

That’s okay, it doesn’t make the comic any less funny. And there is a clever point that remains true: people pick and choose the things on which they lavish their attention. To one person, all jazz is just noise; another would say the same about classical, and another about punk. The real issue isn’t the existence of complexity, it’s how we choose to recognize and value it. If we went through life taking note of every fact around us, we’d go insane within minutes. Making sense of existence relies heavily on coarse-graining.

But there’s yet another issue! (Yes I know I’m spending too much time analyzing a single comic — or am I deviously making a point?) The cartoon didn’t choose Diet Dr. Pepper as its example, it chose pictures of Joe Biden eating sandwiches. And you know, there really is a lot of depth there. There’s a lot you could say about a large collection of such photographs. So the question is — are any of those things worth saying? Complexity might be necessary for great art, but it doesn’t seem to be sufficient. Paying attention to certain kinds of details seems rewarding in a way that paying attention to others is not.

Anyone have a simple demarcation between the two? When is complexity deserving of study, and when does it merit being ignored? I’m sure aestheticians have argued about this for centuries, and I’m not trying to break any new ground here. I’m just at a loss for a good theory, which isn’t a condition I like to be in.


Because April is Poetry Month

By Julianne Dalcanton | April 29, 2011 10:09 am

Quick Black Hole Spin“, by Edward Sanders

I don’t like it—

two massive Black Holes
each twirling at the core of
                      two merging galaxies

get close enough
to fuse together

then quick as a wink
just as they are melting into a New Black Hole Blob

they undergo something called a "spin-flip"

they change the axes of their spins
and the fused-together Black Hole Blob
gets its own
          quick as a cricket’s foot

Don’t like it at all

And then the new Black Hole Blob sometimes
bounces back and forth inside
                              its mergèd Galaxy

till it settles at the center

but sometimes a "newly" up-sized Black Hole
leaves its Galaxy
to sail out munchingly on its own
                                 into the Universal It

I don’t like it

Nothing about it
in the Bhagavad Gita
the Book of Revelation
Shakespeare, Sappho, or Allen Ginsberg


Playing with fire

By Daniel Holz | March 29, 2011 8:22 am

Last week I saw a performance of Frankenstein at the National Theater in London. I watched it in a beautiful venue in Santa Fe; the play was an HD video stream from a performance a few hours earlier. Frankenstein is directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), and his stamp was evident throughout. The play starts with a desolate and dark stage. You eventually become aware that a placenta-like bag towards the back has a body inside. There are some bright flashes of light, and a monstrously disfigured man emerges. For what seems an interminable length of time, the monster grunts and flops around the stage, eventually learning how to stand and stagger. No words. No plot. Just a creature, all alone, trying to find his way. Finally Frankenstein appears, is horrified by what he has created, and the creature is cast out into the darkness.

Frankenstein is one of the great scientific novels. Mary Shelley wrote it in the early 1800s, when the study of electricity was at the forefront of science. It was considered, quite literally, the spark of life. In the play this science was represented by hundreds of lightbulbs hanging over the audience. The birth of the creature arrives as a brilliant electric spark, with all the bulbs burning simultaneously, so bright as to wash out the rest of the world (and, momentarily, saturate the digital projector). I saw the play a few days after the Sendai earthquake and tsunami, as the nuclear incident was unfolding, and fear and uncertainty hovered over Japan. The parallels with the play are unmistakable. The full title for the novel is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. For his crime he was condemned to have his liver eaten by a giant eagle every day, only to have it grow back at night (the Greeks were nothing if not creative). Frankenstein “steals” the spark of life, bringing the gift of creation to humanity. For this, he suffers at the hands of his creation. Now, as we struggle to contain the nuclear fire at the center of the Fukushima reactors, there is a similar feeling of dread. What monster have we unleashed on the world?

The novel only remotely resembles the conception of Frankenstein in the popular imagination. It is not a gothic horror story, so much as a comment on science, humanity, and society. The story is a beautiful and thoughtful reflection on what it means to be human. The monster is sympathetic and compelling, in a similar manner to Satan in the unadulterated genius of Milton’s Paradise Lost (a poem which Frankenstein’s monster reads and is profoundly affected by). One forgets that “Frankenstein” is not the name of the monster, but rather the name of the scientist and creator. This misconception is perhaps appropriate, since in many ways Frankenstein is indeed the true monster. He denies and betrays his own creation, and is incapable of showing him love or understanding. His creation becomes a complete outcast, being the only one of his kind on Earth, instantly loathed and detested by all who see him. Frankenstein, by casting out his child, creates a monster where none was present before.

Despite the dangers of fire, we would not turn our back on Prometheus’ gift. Frankenstein’s creation is not inherently evil. He is endowed with the spark of life, and becomes twisted into a dark and inhuman creature through mistreatment, abandonment, and neglect. The nuclear spark is similarly indifferent. Although it can have terrible consequences, it also offers the ability to power our civilization without warming our planet. The dangers attendant with nuclear power almost certainly pale in comparison with the dangers of global warming. The challenge is to learn to control our discovery, rather than become engulfed by it.


Pepsi Galaxy, Pepsi Universe

By Sean Carroll | October 26, 2010 2:48 pm

Warning: following links may lead to places no thinking person was meant to go. At least that’s what I discovered when I was reading this Discoblog post about a recent branding fiasco involving the Gap. I was led to a Times article about the incident, thence to a Gawker post, and ultimately to an investigation of Pepsi’s new logo. You know the one I mean:


How much thought do you think went into creating this bit of branding genius? Even better, of what did those thoughts consist?

Wonder no more! Here is the full marketing document prepared by the marketing group that reveals the unique blend of physics, theology, symbolism, art, and a certain je ne sais quoi that made this landmark of design possible.

Excerpts presented below the fold without further comment, which could only be superfluous.
Read More


Edge-Serpentine Map Marathon

By Sean Carroll | October 14, 2010 1:01 pm

Edge is collaborating with the Serpentine Gallery in London on projects at the art/science interface. Last year they looked at equations; this year they’re looking at maps. It’s a playful and broad conception of what constitutes a “map”; you will see a few astrophysical examples in there.

Here’s an excerpt from a map of the emotions by Emanuel Derman, based on Spinoza’s Ethics. I zoomed in on the cluster centered around pain, because that’s what people will be drawn to first anyway.

Map of Emotions, according to Spinoza

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts, Science and the Media

Carefully arranged

By Daniel Holz | September 20, 2010 8:37 pm

kate_joyce_photoI opened the New Yorker last week to find a full-page photograph by a friend of mine, Kate Joyce. The photo graces the issue’s Fiction piece: “An Arranged Marriage”, by Nell Freudenberger. It’s a good story, and the photo is surprisingly relevant. It turns out that the New Yorker puts out requests to a group of photographers, giving an abstract description of the sort of photo they have in mind. The photographers do not get to read the story. In this case, the descriptive fragments included: “A woman is covering part of a photograph of a man’s face with her hand (so that only the blue eyes and blond eyebrows and forehead were visible or covering everything but the nose)”, “symbolic/conceptual image of a wedding/marriage”, “red sari”, and “American wedding dress”. Kate was intrigued, and came up with the beautiful and unsettling image you see. The man’s face, which at first I took to be reflected in a mirror, is actually a photograph (as in the story). The ambiguity makes the image all the more compelling. Some of the other photos submitted for the piece can be viewed here. I also highly recommend a visit to Kate’s website, where there are many arresting images (including ones from both Santa Fe and Chicago, two of my favorite cities).

This New Yorker issue includes articles about Francis Colins [the Christian True Believer who heads up the National Institutes of Health] and Steve Coll [a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, arguing for a more nuanced and immediate engagement with Pakistan]). But I found Kate’s photo to be the highlight. Love, mystery, globalism, family, poverty, and the dream of a better future. All in one image.



By Daniel Holz | September 5, 2010 7:52 pm

A few weeks ago I watched the film Restrepo. It’s a documentary about a platoon of US army soldiers in Afghanistan. Documentary doesn’t do justice to the film. It has no voice-overs. There’s no plot or point, per se. The film follows the soldiers from just before deployment, through their year-long tour at the most dangerous and remote outpost in Afghanistan (the Korengal Valley), to their departure from the country. The movie is a strange mix of Hurt Locker, Platoon, Three Kings, and Jarhead. What makes this movie different from any other I’ve seen, however, is that it is all real. This is filmed up close and personal. The camera was in the middle of everything. The gunfire is real. The bombs are real. When people die, they stay dead.

restrepo1After the movie one of the directors (Tim Hetherington) and one of the main “characters” (Major Dan Kearney) got up on stage for an interview and Q&A. It was jarring to suddenly see the Major, in person and in civilian clothes, after having spent a year with him in Afghanistan. There were a few clear take-home messages.

  • The main “accomplishment” of the platoon, which was much heralded, was the establishment of an outpost (named “Restrepo”, in honor of a fallen comrade) on a strategic hill, less than a kilometer farther down the valley than the main staging area. This past April, the hard-won outpost was abandoned.
  • The (British) director went out of his way to commend the US military for allowing them full access. He claims that there was no editing or censorship of the film, and that the US military’s policies towards the media are better than any other nation with which he’s had experience, including Britain, Germany, and Russia.
  • There are scenes showing marines discussing issues with Afghani Afghan elders, and it is entirely apparent that neither side trusts the other. The marines simply do not belong in the valley. They are not welcome. They are not wanted. It is unclear what is being accomplished. And lives are at stake.

One of the most poignant moments of the evening was the last question. A woman (who in many ways was the quintessential representation of Santa Fe) asked (in a fairly emotional tone) how the Major lives with himself, knowing that he has killed Afghan children (as we had just witnessed on screen). The woman argued that the life of a soldier is not “as valuable” as that of a child, and that she was disturbed by their disregard for young Afghan lives. The Major’s answer was clear and unapologetic. He has no trouble sleeping at night, and he feels good about whom he sees in the mirror. His job is to protect his soldiers. He agonizes about decisions that may involve “collateral” damage (e.g., ordering a helicopter strike on a house), but his job and duty was to try to make the valley safe. In the long-run the goal was to allow a road to be built through the valley, thereby bringing more economic development, and making it a safer and healthier place for the civilian population to live. He did the best he could to make this happen at minimal cost. But it is war, and casualties are inevitable.

The film leaves one with a feeling that the whole situation is hopeless. Why are we still there? The director, a self-described “left-leaning liberal”, urged against a knee-jerk reaction and in favor of a deliberate approach, where the consequences of our actions are anticipated. He pointed out that the 17,000 civilian deaths to date in Afghanistan are significantly less than the 400,000 deaths estimated from Taliban rule, and a tiny fraction of the million deaths which resulted from the Soviet invasion. If we abruptly pick up and leave, the country will no doubt plunge back into civil war and Taliban rule, and things will get much worse for much of the civilian population. Instability in the region will, eventually, impact the developed world, even those of us sitting in cozy movie theaters. So what is to be done?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts, Politics, Top Posts

I Wish Your Wish (Would Fall Off)

By Julianne Dalcanton | July 21, 2010 9:09 am

A few weeks ago, the New York Times highlighted the work of Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander. The article focused in part on her piece “I Wish Your Wish”, shown below.

The conceit of the piece is rather lovely. As described in the article, the piece “is derived from a tradition popular among pilgrims to the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Bahia, who bind ribbons to their wrists or the church’s front gate in the belief that when the ribbons fall off or disintegrate, their wishes will be granted.” I had the pleasure of seeing this piece at the 2008 Carnegie International, and being completely charmed, I found a wish I loved, picked the ribbon, and tied it on.

Two years ago.

And that damned wish will just not fall off:


I’m assuming that the pilgrims in Bahia did not use modern synthetic materials, but sadly, Neuenschwander did.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar