Art of Science: Natalie Jeremijenko, Idea Factory

AgBags and Flower Food, part of the Farmacy Project, 2014

AgBags and Flower Food, part of the Farmacy Project, 2014

Natalie Jeremijenko calls herself an artist, but she’s really more of a one-person idea factory. A professor of Visual Arts at NYU with a PhD in engineering and a background in neuroscience, Jeremijenko heads up The Environmental Health Clinic, a cross-disciplinary lab that develops and prescribes systems that improve human and environmental health. In a recent talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, Jeremijenko focused on the idea of mutualism, a concept that suggests that, since all the species of an ecosystem depend upon each other, they should work for mutual benefit.

She contrasts this idea with sustainability, saying that, rather than try to use less and less resources, or disturb the environment less, we should seek out ways to actively improve it. In her talk, she described a number of the conceptual projects that she has developed toward this goal.

One of these projects is the Farmacy, a group working on ways to not only reduce food miles and fertilizers and pesticides, but improve environmental health and shift patterns of food consumption toward foodstuffs that enhance the biodiversity of both our surroundings and our gut flora.

Jeremijenko is enthusiastic about the idea of getting people to eat flowers, which are vitamin-dense, support pollinators and suck up air pollutants with their leaves. She came up with the idea of the AgBag, a system which allows flowers to be grown in Tyvek bags on the sides of urban buildings.  And because flowers are highly perishable, Jeremijenko came up with ways of making them into drinks and cotton candy, which…might not be the basis for a healthy diet.

Another project aimed at the food/environment interface is The Mussel Choir, in which live mussels equipped with magnetic sensors “sing” different notes depending on whether the mussels are open or closed. “It tells us a lot about water quality. When they’re open the track is singing, when closed there’s a humming, which is less good.”

Among the other projects Jeremijenko described were a butterfly bridge, designed to attract butterflies to urban areas with “bridges” of plants installed above roads, a “tree office”, which would allow people to work in a natural setting, and a system for turning paper waste into fertilizer.

While some of Jeremijenko’s projects may be more practical than others, all are aimed at a noble goal: rethinking our relationship with natural systems. You can read much more about her and the Environmental Health Clinic here.

Filed under: The Art of Science Tagged: Environmental Health Clinic, Natalie Jeremijenko, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Art of Science: Philip Beesley’s Sentient Chamber


Sentient Chamber, 2015, Philip Beesley Architect and Living Architecture Systems Group

I’ve written before about Philip Beesley’s immersive installations, so I was delighted to learn that the National Academies of Science was bringing one to their headquarters in Washington, DC.  Last week, I had the opportunity to see it on a special tour with Beesley, and to hear him speak on a panel at NAS that night. The installation is called Sentient Chamber, and it looks a bit like a cross between an open-air tent-style church and a ghostly Rose Parade float. Beesley describes it as an “experimental architecture and sculpture installation [which] acts as a test-bed for ongoing research that combines the disciplines of architecture and visual art, computer science and engineering, and synthetic biology.” It’s silver and white, and as you come close it clanks and beeps in a friendly way, shimmying its fronds and extending slender robotic fingers.

The main structure consists of a flexible grid made up of many triangular shaped elements in metal and plastic. Beesley explains that the shapes of the structure are based on hyperbolic geometry, which creates maximum strength from minimum materials. Above and among the arches are clusters of “acoustic and kinetic mechanisms” – microprocessor-driven fronds and branches that reach out and whirr and clank and light up when people interact with them. Fruit-like clumps of glass globes and tubes contain what Beesley describes as “the beginnings of a synthetic biology system” – oils that react to each other and to changes in the environment.


Detail view from Sentient Chamber 

Beesley is an amazing talker, ranging from the concept of a structure as a box or a “raindrop” to metal-rod cores and distributed mechatronics within a single breath. But he returns often to a central theme – the idea of a new approach to shelter that is gentle and designed to be responsive to and integrated with nature, rather than an attempt to keep natural forces at bay with thick walls and high-tech climate-control systems.

He dreams rather about building gathering places that breathe, that learn, that welcome both humans and nature, and that are resource-positive – that is, generating energy and other resources rather than just conserving them. Although his Sentient Chamber at NAS is not ready to live in – it’s full of fragile pieces and there are laptops nestled in the treetops – it conjures up tantalizingly novel ideas about how we could live in the future. If you can, go see it now.

Filed under: The Art of Science Tagged: Art, National Academy of Sciences, Philip Beesley, science art

Science Caturday: The Mysteries of Pudge


Plenty of evidence says that average portion sizes of food have increased over the last fifty years, and obesity rates have risen too. But the seemingly obvious conclusion – that the former is to blame for the latter – may not hold up, according to a new paper released this week.

Every smart kitty knows that correlation does not equal causation. The paper published this week in Physiology and Behavior (paywall) suggests that there is little evidence that large portions are making us fat.  While the authors concede that further studies covering longer time periods may find stronger evidence of a causative link between big portions and bigger hoomins, it’s just not there yet. “It is at least conceivable that larger portions at home could simply mean more leftovers,” the authors write.

ate too much

Kate Wheeling in Pacific Standard explains that the authors of the paper “present at least one other reason to be skeptical such a link exists: The obesity epidemic has not struck the population evenly. Mean weight has increased faster than median weight, which means the heavier end of the spectrum has become much heavier, while the lighter end has barely budged. What data we have on the portion size effect so far indicates that it does not discriminate; people of all shapes and sizes fall victim to the psychological trap, so larger portion sizes alone can’t explain the pattern of obesity we see today. The focus on portion size, the authors argue, blinds us from targeting other potential culprits of obesity, such as the increase in meal frequency—another well-documented trend.”


Hmmm, so maybe we’re eating too often? Again, clever cats know that anecdotes are not data, but a story from England backs up this case. Clive the cat went missing from his home in Toton, England, more than a year ago…and turned up recently at a pet food warehouse nearby. On being reunited with Clive, his hoomin, Tanya Irons, said “I can’t believe he’s so porky!” (I personally would count this as evidence that that she is quite rude and none too bright.)

Clive was astutely taking advantage of the opportunities he was offered, Tanya. Be like Clive.






Filed under: Science Caturday

Art of Science: Chasing a Comet From Lab to Studio


Ekaterina Smirnova, 67P V, Watercolor on Paper, 2015

Some painters grind their own pigments, but Ekaterina Smirnova is the first artist I know of who makes her own water. Smirnova was inspired by the landing of the robotic probe Philae on comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014. When she learned that scientists had discovered that the water on the comet is very different from the water on Earth, she decided to try to generate water that is similar in composition to the water found on 67P and use it in her paintings.

Smirnova found out that the water on 67P was heavy water, containing D20, or deuterium oxide. Since it’s not the kind of thing you can pick up at the grocery store, Smirnova set about McGyvering a system to make some in her studio, using electrolysis. (blog) That didn’t produce quite the results she wanted, so she bought some from a nuclear energy source and mixed until she was satisfied.

The artist says that through her work she studies the relationship between humans and the universe. She is particularly interested in the vapor that is released when the comet passes close to the Sun, forming the comet’s tail.

67p VII

67P VII, Watercolor on Paper, 2015

The focus on vapor and spray carries through to her painting technique: “I use splashing techniques, vaporizing watercolor paint before it hits the paper, this allows me to create an effect of mist, little droplets of water streaming with a strong force to the dark vacuum of space. Painting most of the work without touching paper with a brush, I use 30 to 40 layers, which helps to create complex textures on the painting.”

Next month, Smirnova will show her 67P-inspired work, including a musical collaboration to an audience of scientists at the 50th ESALAB Symposium which will be held in Leiden, in the Netherlands.  If you can’t make it there, she’ll be showing in New York later this year.






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Science Caturday: Nautical Naughty Cat


Despite heavy competition, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen emerged as obnoxious billionaire of the week, amid reports that his 300-foot luxury yacht destroyed 14,000 square feet of protected coral reef near the Cayman Islands.

According to the Cayman News Service, the anchor chain of Allen’s yacht, the MV Tatoosh, caused “extensive damage” to the reef earlier this month. The incident comes just five months after Allen announced that he would provide funds for research to “stabilize and restore coral reefs” through his Seattle-based company, Vulcan.

A spokesman for Vulcan said Wednesday that the boat’s mooring position was “explicitly directed” by the local port authority and that Allen was not on board at the time. It added that Vulcan and the ship’s crew had immediately moved the ship from the affected area and were “actively and cooperatively working with local authorities to determine the details of what happened.”

Well, OK…but still, bad billionaire! Coral is precious. Fat Cats should be more careful.

Filed under: Science Caturday Tagged: Cayman Islands, Coral reefs, Paul Allen, science cat

Art of Science: Frozen Fractals All Around


A Sierpinski Triangle by Simon Beck

In the wake of snowstorm Jonas, the east coast of the US has been consumed with snow math – counting up the number of inches that fell, the miles of roads plowed, and the days of work lost – but that’s basic arithmetic compared to Simon Beck’s advanced snow mathematics.


A Mandelbrot Set in progress

For more than a decade, Beck has made elaborate designs in snow, mainly in the French Alps, using only snowshoes and a compass. He started out making mandala-like circular shapes, but moved on to much more complex designs over the years. Beck told Discovery News that he started incorporating fractal patterns into his work after reading James Gleick’s book “Chaos: Making a New Science.”

Each image takes him up to 11 hours to make, as he walks 25-30 miles to make a design of about 100 meters square.  Beck says that he started making snow art mainly as a form of exercise, but it has now become his life’s work. You can see much more at his website.


Sierpinski Circle by Simon Beck

Filed under: The Art of Science Tagged: Fractal art, mathematical art, science art, Simon Beck, Snow art

Science Caturday: Gas Giant? Sounds liek a doggy planet


Caltech astronomers, including Mike “Pluto Killer” Brown, announced this week that they have strong evidence for a ninth planet in our solar system. “Planet 9” as they call it, is a gas giant 5,000 times bigger than Pluto and billions of miles farther away.

The catch: nobody has actually seen Planet 9 yet. The astronomers reported their research, based on mathematical and computer modeling, in The Astronomical Journal this week. They anticipate its discovery via telescope within five years or less, and they want help.

“We could have stayed quiet and quietly spent the next five years searching the skies ourselves and hoping to find it. But I would rather somebody find it sooner, than me find it later,” Brown told The Associated Press. “I want to see it. I want to see what it looks like. I want to understand where it is, and I think this will help.”

Well OK then! Space kittehs, to your telescopes! There are new planets to be found.



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Art of Science: Jantje Visscher’s Kuiper Belt


Jantje Visscher, Kuiper Belt, 2015, Light Sculpture

The Kuiper Belt is a vast region of space filled with “small bodies”, icy remnants of the formation of the Solar System made of compounds like methane, ammonia and water. It is also home to everyone’s favorite dwarf planet, Pluto.

Artist Jantje Visscher made a light sculpture inspired by images of the Kuiper Belt and the idea of microwaves dancing in outer space, created when the Big Bang occurred. The piece is made from drawings etched into silvery Mylar sheets that bounce light from an overhead fixture onto the wall.

Simple, beautiful and dazzling, Kuiper Belt invites viewers to reflect on the existence of celestial bodies almost unfathomably old and distant, now brought closer by both art and technology.

You can see more of Jantje Visscher’s work here.

Filed under: The Art of Science Tagged: Jantje Visscher, kuiper belt, light sculpture, science art, space art

Science Caturday: Who Run the World? Squirrels!


This week, we learned that one of the top threats to the US power grid is neither terrorists nor hackers but – wait for it – squirrels. According to ossim website, more than 600 successful attacks have been launched on power networks by squirrels since 1987. Squirrels are by far the most active, but birds, raccoons and snakes have also launched over 300 successful “cyberattacks”, while human hackers, foreign and domestic, have managed only to take down a few twitter accounts and magazine websites. It’s pitiful, really.

What does this have to do with cats, you ask? Who do you think is running those crack troops of cybersquirrels? Dogs?


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Art of Science: Anatomical Art, in So Many Words



Beat Poetry, Digital Print, Stephen Gaeta

When cardiologist Stephen Gaeta was finishing his PhD on cardiac arrhythmias, he decided to do something more creative than just hang his diploma on the wall.  He used the words of his dissertation as create an image of an anatomical heart, which he signed with a segment of his own ekg. He later redesigned the heart using an 1809 monograph on cardiology and renamed it Beat Poetry. Since then, he has continued to create images from classic scientific texts, including an eyeball, a transgenic mouse and a set of lungs (below). The lungs feature the text of the 1628 treatise Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings) by William Harvey. You can read more about his work and buy prints at Street Anatomy.


Airway, Digital Print, Stephen Gaeta

Filed under: The Art of Science, This Mortal Coil Tagged: Anatomical Art, anatomy art, cardiology art, digital art, science art, Stephen Gaeta