Tag: art

Male bowerbirds create forced perspective illusions that only females see

By Ed Yong | September 9, 2010 12:00 pm

Great_bowerbirdRight from its entrance, Disneyland is designed to cast an illusion upon its visitors. The first area – Main Street – seems to stretch for miles towards the towering castle in the distance. All of this relies on visual trickery. The castle’s upper bricks and the upper levels of Main Street’s buildings are much smaller than their ground-level counterparts, making everything seem taller. The buildings are also angled towards the castle, which makes Main Street seem longer, building the anticipation of guests.

These techniques are examples of forced perspective, a trick of the eye that makes objects seem bigger or smaller, further or closer than they actually are. These illusions were used by classical architects to make their buildings seem grander, by filmmakers to make humans look like hobbits, and by photographers to create amusing shots. But humans aren’t the only animals to use forced perspective. In the forests of Australia, the male great bowerbird uses the same illusions to woo his mate.

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An 60,000-year old artistic movement recorded in ostrich egg shells

By Ed Yong | March 1, 2010 3:00 pm

Souvenir shops in South Africa are full of lamps made out of ostrich eggs. The eggs are so big and strong that you can carve and cut intricate designs into their shells. The egg’s contents are emptied through a hole and a bulb can be inserted instead, casting pretty shadows on walls and ceilings. The results are a big draw for modern tourists, but ostrich eggs have a long history of being used as art in South Africa. The latest finds show that people were carvings symbolic patterns into these eggs as early as 60,000 years ago.

Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux discovered a set of 270 eggshell fragments from Howieson Poort Shelter, a South African cave that has been a rich source of archaeological finds. Judging by their patterns, the fragments must have come from at least 25 separate eggs, although probably many more.

Texier says that the sheer number is “exceptional in prehistory”. Their unprecedented diversity and etched patterns provide some of the best evidence yet for a prehistoric artistic tradition. While previous digs have thrown up piecemeal examples of symbolic art, Texier’s finds allow him to compare patterns across individual pieces, to get a feel of the entire movement, rather than the work of an individual.

As you might expect, the millennia haven’t been too kind to the shells but even so, their etchings are still well preserved and Texier even managed to fit some of the pieces together. Despite the variety of fragments, their patterns fall into a very limited set of motifs produced in the same way – a hatched band like a railway track, parallel(ish) lines, intersecting lines, and cross-hatching. It’s possible that, once assembled, these elements would have combined into a more complex artistic whole but Texier notes that he has never found a piece with more than one motif on it.

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DNA sculpture and origami – a meeting of art and nanotechnology

By Ed Yong | May 20, 2009 1:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchDNA is most famous as a store of genetic information, but Shawn Douglas from the Dana-Farber Cancer has found a way to turn this all-important molecule into the equivalent of sculptor’s clay. Using a set of specially constructed DNA strands, his team has fashioned a series of miniscule sculptures, each just 20-40 nanometres in size. He has even sculpted works that assemble from smaller pieces, including a stunning icosahedron – a 20-sided three-dimensional cage, built from three merged parts.

Douglas’s method has more in common with block-sculpting that a mere metaphor. Sculptors will often start with a single, crystalline block that they hack away to reveal the shape of an underlying figure. Douglas does the same, at least on a computer. His starting block is a series of parallel tubes, each one representing a single DNA helix, arranged in a honeycomb lattice. By using a programme to remove sections of the block, he arrives at his design of choice.

With the basic structure set down, Douglas begins shaping his molecular clay. He builds a scaffold out of a single, long strand of DNA. For historical purposes, he uses the genome of the M13 virus. This scaffold strand is ‘threaded’ through all the tubes in the design with crossovers at specific points to give the structure some solidity. The twists and turns of the scaffold are then fixed in place by hundreds of shorter ‘staple’ strands, which hold the structure in place and prevent the scaffold from unfolding.

The sequences of both the scaffold and staple strands are tweaked so that the collection of DNA molecules will stick together in just the right way. Once all the strands are created, they’re baked together in one hotpot and slowly cooled over a week or so. During this time, the staples stick to predetermined parts of the scaffold and fold it into the right shape. The slow cooling process allows them to do this in the right way; faster drops in temperature produce more misshapen forms.

The result: a series of six structures that Douglas viewed under an electron microscope: a monolith, a square nut, a railed bridge, a slotted cross, a stacked cross and a genie bottle. These basic shapes illustrate the versatility of the nano-origami approach, and they can also be linked together to form larger structures. Using staples that bridge separate scaffolds, Douglas created a long chain of the stacked cross units. Most impressively of all, he made an icosahedron by fusing three distinct subunits.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
MORE ABOUT: art, DNA, origami, sculpture

Prehistoric carving is oldest known figurative art

By Ed Yong | May 13, 2009 1:00 pm

Image by Nicholas Conard

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThis sculpture may look a little bit like a roast chicken, but don’t let that distract you – it’s an incredibly important artistic find. This small figurine is arguably the oldest representation of the human body yet discovered.

The figure is clearly human, with short arms ending in five, carefully carved fingers, and a navel in the right position. But its most obvious features show that it depicts a woman, and very explicitly at that. She has large protruding breasts, wide hips and thighs, accentuated buttocks and pronounced vulva between her open legs. In contrast to these exaggerated sexual features, her arms and legs are relatively small and her head has been left out entirely. It was replaced with a carefully carved ring that probably allowed the figure to be suspended like a pendant.

The figurine is very similar to the so-called Venuses of Europe’s tool-making Gravettian culture. These prehistoric works of art also had crazily proportioned breasts, buttocks and genitals, as well as curiously downplayed heads, arms and legs. They were created between 22,000 and 27,000 years ago, but this new find is much older than that.

It was unearthed by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen, who found the Venus three metres underground, within the Hohle Fels Cave in southern Germany. It’s just 6cm long and was carved from the solid ivory tusk of a mammoth. Judging by carbon-dating measurements of other finds from the dig site, Conard estimates that it was fashioned at least 35,000 years ago, although it could well be millennia older.

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