Archive for March, 2011

Nature news reports today on a study of algae that could be used for cleaning radioactive waste–research done by regular MASI contributor Minna Krejci!

The algae, called Closterium moniliferum, are members of the desmid order, known to microbiologists for their distinctive shapes, said Minna Krejci, a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. But the crescent-shaped C. moniliferum caught Krejci’s eye because of its unusual ability to remove strontium from water, depositing it in crystals that form in subcellular structures known as vacuoles — an knack that could include the radioactive isotope strontium-90.

Read all about it at Nature’s website.

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If there’s one impression that a visitor might get from your average Ancient Egyptian exhibit, it’s of a culture obsessed with preservation. Mummies, carefully replicated clay tools, records on parchment… Then again, future archaeologists may well get the same idea from modern industrial culture.  After all, we make even the simplest objects from materials that take thousands of years to decompose. (Or there might be a dissertation in the way we use undying plastic for food storage containers, while storing great works of art on the most ephemeral electronic media.) The artifacts we leave behind reveal us remarkably well. And remarkably personally.

Last year, the Oriental Institute created an exhibit around a single mummy, headed by Emily Teeter (hear her discuss their work). Meresamun—her name is recorded on her coffin—served as a temple singer at Karnak around 800 B.C.E.  She made music for the god Amun, both performing in rituals and as an ongoing act of worship. Careful examination of her body tells us a great deal about her life.  Through artifacts, we can guess at still more.

Meresamun, a temple singer for Amun circa 800 B.C.E.

Meresamun’s mummy and coffin are of the highest quality, from the decorations to the amount of linen used to wrap her. Linen was expensive in ancient Egypt, as were good artists. Her wealth and status are also supported by the condition of her body.  There are no signs of malnutrition, suggesting that she had access to plenty of protein and a relatively varied diet. Paintings show the wealthy eating beef, pork, and poultry, supplemented by leeks, fruits, and vegetables. For most Egyptians, though, the primary source of nutrition was bread. This was true for Meresamun as well. The one exception to her good health is her teeth—ground into concave shells by the gritty results of stone-ground grain.

Temple singers enjoyed high status, high pay, and good hours.  Most worked in the temple for one month, then took three months off.  In addition to singing, they made music for their chosen deity on drums, harps, and wind instruments. One common instrument in Meresamun’s time was the sistrum.  Archaeologists have retrieved the instruments themselves, and their use is also recorded in paintings.  Many songs were written down, but the lack of a musical notation system means that we don’t know exactly how they sounded.  We can guess, though, and attempt to reconstruct.

Bronze sistrum from between the third and first centuries B.C.E. Metal disks on the crossbars (now missing) provide rhythm when shaken.

In her time off, a woman with Meresamun’s riches would probably have directed a large household. Although women were legally the equals of men, this sort of oversight was generally considered to fall squarely in their domain. Her staff would have taken care of the household’s needs for food, drink, and textiles. Although we don’t have them for Meresamun, she would probably have kept careful accounts similar to those that have been found elsewhere. Combs, amulets, and dishware from the exhibit illustrate the most common possessions in such a house.

Wooden comb, circa 332 B.C.E. to 395 C.E.

If you add in a few electronics, it’s not so different from what most of us leave around, waiting to intrigue archaeologists of future ages.

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Post by Minna Krejci

What does it mean to “walk like an Egyptian,” anyway?

The 80s song by the Bangles is clearly referring to the somewhat awkward-looking figures depicted on Egyptian wall paintings.  But why do they look like that?  If you’ve ever tried to imitate the pose of one of these figures, you know that it’s not quite possible to stand the way they do.  So why did the ancient Egyptians paint people this way?

On Monday, we heard a bit from Emily Teeter of the Oriental Institute about art in ancient Egypt – apparently, the ancient Egyptians were more into symbolism than realism with their artwork.  Representing the wealth and status of a person was the goal, not describing exactly how the person looked.  By this logic, it made the most sense to depict the body in a way that made each part most easily identifiable, with the head in profile, the eye in front view, the torso in front view and the hips, legs and feet in profile.  These artistic conventions were fairly strictly adhered to, and specific information regarding the person’s status was conveyed through other details, such as size, stature, clothing, and accessories.

Since the general shape of humans in ancient Egyptian art remained fairly consistent, the Egyptians developed a grid system to allow them to scale the size of a figure up or down while maintaining constant proportions.  The grid was based on a unit of length called the cubit, which was originally related to forearm length.

So while figures in ancient Egyptian art may not have necessarily looked like the people they were meant to depict, this was clearly not due to lack of effort by the artists.  So much care was put into constraining human proportions that a whole measurement system was designed and utilized for this – yet another example of a model relationship between art and scientific/mathematical themes.

Now good luck getting the song out of your head.

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

My parents would never have considered visiting a city without checking out the museums. So I suspect I got exposed to them rather younger than most. On the other hand, a friend just announced proudly that his not-quite-2-year-old loves the chick hatchery at the Museum of Science and Industry. So maybe I’m not as weird as I thought.

I have a clear memory of staring, awestruck and terrified, at a 15-ton meteorite in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. I was about 7; in my mind, this was the comet that had killed the dinosaurs. Somehow, this didn’t scare me away from my fascination with space science. A few years later, I recall staring with equal fascination at a model of the as-yet-unbuilt International Space Station, tacked on to the end of a Science of Star Trek experiment. Oh! This stuff is real! If they need a cognitive scientist up there, I’m still game.

What are your best (or scariest) museum memories? What exhibits stand out years later?

Me, I’m waiting eagerly for the day my son is old enough to go on a Field Museum sleepover. I also grew up on From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweller, so a night in the Hall of Dinosaurs sounds like the perfect memory.

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Dr. Emily Teeter Egyptologist and Research Associate at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.


Interview Conducted by Henderson

Dr. Emily Teeter has been in love with museums ever since she could remember.  Her mother, a docent, would take her children from museum to museum and expose them to the newest wonders of the ancient world.

One of the most memorable of these visits came in 1962, at the Seattle Art Museum, when the Treasures of Tutankhamun traveling exhibit came to town.

One of the world’s most popular exhibits in the early 60’s, Emily Teeter was one of just over a million people with a front row seat to Egyptian magnificence, featuring some of the best examples of Egyptian culture to date and including the pristinely preserved gold death mask of the “boy king.”

After that, I guess you could say she was hooked.  From that point on, Dr. Emily Teeter has been working to unlock the secret lives of the ancient Egyptians.

The Mobius Art & Science Initiative welcomes Dr. Teeter and her life-long experiences in unlocking the past.

MASI: What were your childhood experiences in museums?

Dr. Teeter:I was always around museums…


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Join us for in-depth discussions next week on Museums and Conserving the Past.

The Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago is a world-renowned showcase for the history, art, and archaeology of the ancient Near East.

Dr. Emily Teeter joins MASI on Monday to discuss her role in re-imagining how our ancient ancestors lived, worked, and socialized and the teamwork that goes into creating a museum exhibit.  She will also speak about the roles of art and science  in ancient Egypt.

Alison Whyte will provide her insights on working with faculty and staff to produce a museum exhibit, and what types of conservation techniques the museum is using.

Emily Teeter

Emily Teeter is an Egyptologist and Research Associate at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. She received a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1990. Her area of specialization includes the history and religion of second millennium B.C. Egypt with emphasis upon popular religion and cult ritual. She has participated in expeditions at Giza, Luxor and Alexandria.

Emily Teeter. Egyptologist and Research Associate - Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

Emily is the author of a wide range of scholarly and popular articles and has served as a consultant for permanent installations of ancient Egyptian art at the Oriental Institute, the Seattle Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has been a consultant for numerous television and productions and multi-media projects.  She also services as the ARCE Chicago Advisor and OI Representative.

Alison Whyte

Alison Whyte holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia, a M.A. in Ancient Studies from the University of Toronto, and a M.A. in Art Conservation from Queen’s University.  Alison is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation and works as an objects conservator at the Oriental Institute Museum where she specializes in the preservation of archaeological material from the ancient Near East.

Alison Whyte, Art Conservator for the Oriental Institute Museum. Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

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Post by Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

We started this week with a tour of public art in Chicago.  It’s easy enough to find art, walking along the city streets, but what about science?  Often the combination is what draws people in.

Above, Buckminster Fuller poses with students in his geodesic dome at Chicago’s Institute of Design.  You can find a similar structure on the museum campus, just past the Field Museum, in a very science-influenced playground.  The C60 molecule shares the shape of Fuller’s dome, and is often called a Buckminister Fullerene or Buckyball. So children playing around on an odd-shaped jungle gym are also getting a feel for chemistry and design.

The Sears (now Willis) Tower is the second tallest building in the world! Architecture is a form of art that depends heavily on physics, and more so with such a large and impressive structure.  But the tower is perhaps best appreciated from inside, through the view from the top.  Science contributes to this as well.  A pilot project on the 56th floor will replace the windows with a special type of transparent photovoltaic glass. Their diffused light will increase the building’s energy efficiency, at the same time providing a clearer view out. The whole floor will be powered by solar generated electricity from the windows. How cool is that?

There are also many projects around the city that deliberately combine art and science. For example, in recent years, the Art Institute of Chicago has been working with Northwestern University to explore and conserve art through science.

Where else do art and science meet in the city?  What are your favorite examples?

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

Welcome to MASI’s new occasional series highlighting work by our favorite science-inspired artists. We’re starting with Glendon Mellow, AKA Flying Trilobite. Mellow builds fantasies from fossils, ranging from the namesake piece that heads his blog to fuzzy pink dinosaurs. I talked with him about two of his more unusual pieces.

Haldane’s Precambrian Puzzle

Evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane was not known for his patience. At one point, a Darwinian doubter suggested that evolution wasn’t specific enough to be a good theory—that it could be stretched to account for any conceivable set of findings. He asked Haldane to describe any imaginable evidence that would falsify evolution. Haldane’s terse reply: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”

Haldane’s Precambrian Puzzle, done in oil on 9 pieces of shale, at first seems a whimsical depiction of this never-found evidence. But as Mellow points out, there are clues that this is the wrong interpretation. The trilobites, for a start, don’t match up properly from section to section. And the rabbit is suspiciously un-fossil-like. It’s made of bone rather than rock, and it’s not in the typical back-arched pose.

“Scientific results,” Mellow points out, “can appear to mean one thing at first, but then turn out to mean something else.”

Put together properly, most of the “rabbit” becomes integrated into creatures you’d expect to see in the Precambrian. And the trilobites now add up. (Mellow admits a goof—one trilobite works in both configurations. Call it the sort of coincidence that keeps data analysts awake at night.)

Mellow describes the piece as an artistic challenge. Both configurations needed to work, and be plausible at first glance. He intended to play with the “debate” over evolution—with the idea that people can make arguments both ways, but if you look carefully at the evidence, one way is clearly right. In retrospect, he says, the white bones may stand out a little too much in the second configuration, and he’s considering modifications. So this piece may yet mutate and evolve.


Sowing Seeds and Fossils

This unusual, multi-layered piece plays with the history of the landscape around York University in Toronto. During the Cretaceous period, the area was covered by an inland sea. Most fossils that survived later glacial incursions were ammonites and other sea life. Later—much, much later—the land was used for farms. Many of the remaining fossil stones were removed when the land was tilled, and used for walls and garden boundaries. “So the idea I had behind this was to think about farmers, and then think about the fossils themselves.”

In the top left, a farmer sows flax and fossils by hand. To the right, a seed splits to release tentacles. This is reversed in the bottom left, as plant fronds grow from an ammonite. In the remaining corner, shale holds the simple image of a shell.

As a child, Mellow loved the discovery boxes available for exploration in the Royal Ontario Museum. Thinking of these, and of fossil strata, he built in additional layers to be removed and revealed. He describes the text layer as combining comments about the process of making the piece, scientific facts, and occasional bits of nonsense.

York University’s motto is “The Way Must Be Tried,” and Mellow followed that instruction by taking an experimental approach. The bottom left square is made from an acrylic polymer, mixed with ground pumice, that dries to a rocky surface. The pencil transfers were done with a gel medium, and worked particularly well with the hand on the wooden square. The piece used more materials, and more layers, than his usual digital artwork and sketches.


Reactions to the two pieces have been positive, and not always limited to the scientific art community. The Haldane piece, for example, was used to illustrate an editorial on fossilized ideas in economics. “It was interesting that an economist was looking at basically outmoded and wrong ways of thinking about his field, and using Haldane’s Precambrian Puzzle to illustrate it.”

Mellow has described Sowing Seeds as “evopunk.” A steampunk fan myself, I asked him about the term. “I believe the term was coined by Sean Craven, who blogs at Renaissance Oaf. He was directly thinking of things like cyberpunk and steampunk. I think he was talking about a sort of post-biological technology story… about a world after genetic engineering has come into its own and been normalized.”

He continues: “I think one of the hallmarks of both cyber- and steampunk is making things. They add an element of craftsmanship even with mundane items. Evopunk incorporates both of those, and also found biological objects.”

Finally, I asked Mellow about his interest in the mutual inspiration between art and science. This blog often explores that connection, particularly the way that art can be based on, and communicate, scientific findings. Mellow is constantly on the look-out for examples of the reverse—science influenced by art.

His favorite example is, of course, from paleontology. Researcher Andy Farke has described seeing, his whole life, illustrations of triceratops smashing their heads together like bighorn sheep. Finally, he decided to find out whether they actually did so. He built replicas and simulated those clashes, and discovered that they were indeed possible. Then, checking the originals, he found denser bone at the most common impact sites. It’s a terrific example of science learning from art.

Mellow’s portfolio, full of winged fossils, gothy trilobite-human hybrids, and startlingly cute dinosaurs, can be found at http://glendonmellow.com/.

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Some art could be made anywhere.  Other pieces are closely tied to the place and time of their creation.  How is your art influenced by where you live?  And is scientific research affected the same way?

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Post by Minna Krejci

Art, or vandalism?

Or maybe a platform to show off some crazy cool technology?

Amidst continuing efforts by public officials to crack down on graffiti in most cities, the graffiti culture continues to evolve.  In Chicago, no-nonsense “graffiti blasters” erase the work of writers within days or even hours, which has led to the emergence of a new, more competitive breed of artists.  In Tucson, new anti-graffiti coatings that allow paint to be washed off with a garden hose threaten to shorten the lifetime of graffiti art even further.  In Bridgeport, past and current street artists are working to legitimize the craft, by holding graffiti-inspired art shows and working with the city to create a “legal wall” for live art.

And in this age of technology, some tech-savvy artists are turning to media other than spray paint and stencils, with the help of groups such as the Graffiti Research Lab.  GRL, which was originally supported by the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York City and is now part of the internet-based Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Lab, proclaims to be “dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists and activists with open source tools for urban communication.”

So what does this mean?  See below:

GRL's Laser Tag projecting onto a building in Rotterdam (via http://muonics.net/blog/index.php?postid=15)

With their L.A.S.E.R. (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”, apparently) Tagging System, the GRL team writes on buildings from hundreds of feet away.  With lasers.  Over and over again.  Complete with the illusion of dripping paint.

Here’s how GRL explains the technology: “In its simplest form the Laser Tag system is a camera and laptop setup, tracking a green laser point across the face of a building and generating graphics based on the laser’s position which then get projected back onto the building with a high power projector.”

And if demonstrating their Laser Tag setup wasn’t enough, GRL offers do-it-yourself instructions and the open source code.

Here are a few other geek graffiti inventions by the graffiti engineers at GRL:

LED throwies – LED’s taped to a battery and a strong magnet that can be stuck onto any ferromagnetic surface:

Electro-Grafs – graffiti using magnetic and conductive paint to embed LED display electronics:

Members of GRL, Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks, and The Ebeling Group have also teamed up with a legendary graffiti writer named TEMPTONE, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, to develop the The Eyewriter – an eye-tracking system to allow ALS patients to draw using only their eyes:

The Eyewriter (via http://www.eyewriter.org/)

And again, GRL offers DIY instructions for each of their inventions.

Now, if you’re still a fan of the more traditional street art, never fear – classic graffiti artists like the infamous Banksy aren’t going to get swept under the carpet that easily.

Stencil by Banksy in London (via http://www.banksy.co.uk)

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