A Scientist in an Art Museum

I’m taking my sabbatical as Scientist-in-Residence at the Peabody Essex Museum (http://www.pem.org). You may ask, what could a scientist possibly have to do in a museum of art and culture? Quite a lot, it turns out. In fact, I could be kept busy for decades with the projects I’ve envisioned. More on that later.

Today I’d like to discuss the following question, one that has come up in my discussions with the education folks at the museum: Where exactly lies the intersection of art and the natural sciences?

I would argue that the crux may be found in observation. Read this quote by Lane Cooper, highly-regarded English educator from his book Louis Agassiz: Illustrative Extracts on his Method of Instruction (1917):

The Agassiz statue, Stanford University, California toppled by San Francisco earthquake, April 1906

The Agassiz statue, Stanford University, California toppled by San Francisco earthquake, April 1906

“It is simply the fact that, reduced to the simplest terms, there is but a single method of investigating the objects of natural science and the productions of human genius. We study a poem, the work of man’s art, in the same way that Agassiz made Shaler study a fish, the work of God’s art; the object in either case is to discover the relation between form or structure and function or essential effect. It was no chance utterance of Agassiz when he said that a year or two of natural history, studied as he understood it, would give the best kind of training for any other sort of mental work.

While Cooper compared the study of literature to the study of natural history, the same comparison holds for the visual arts and any natural science. Seeing requires time and focus. The more we look the more we see, the more we find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the more clearly we can identify the relationship between form and function. We must always give our students ample time to observe and then ask, What Do You See?

Electric Firefly


I first met the fabulous China Blue at the 2013 Darwin Festival (http://w3.salemstate.edu/~pkelly/darwin/). My colleague, Dr. Susan Case, organizes the festival and alerted me to the fact that this ground-breaking artist would be in attendance. She’d noted that China Blue’s work sits nicely at that intersection of art and science, where my own interests lie, and thought we might have something to discuss. It turned out that we did. A visit to her Firefly Grove installation at the John Brown House in Providence, Rhode Island, inspired our discussion below.

FF%20Tree%20China%20Blue-36SHLD: Hi China Blue! That was a great visit we had – great food, amazing dinner conversation, and then a visit to your public art exhibit, Firefly Grove. You’ve written that this piece addresses public concern about the loss of fireflies, but there are so many threatened and endangered species. As a conservation biologist with an interest in the process of setting conservation priorities I wonder – why have fireflies in particular been a focus of your efforts?

 CB: Fireflies have captivated me when I first discovered them on a visit to Italy, many years ago. I did not know they existed until then because their range sadly does not include California, where I come from. About five years ago I was experimenting with electronics, you would not think of electronics and fireflies together but one of the first exercises is to turn on and off an LED. As a sculptor I thought that was very dull and the idea of an LED turning on and off inspired the thought of making an electronic firefly. That lead to a series expanded from one to the field that you saw.

There are many interesting things about fireflies. In addition to providing us with nostalgic memories of childhood experiences collecting them, they are also bioindicators of a loss of habitat and diversity. Additionally they produce chemicals that create their nighttime illumination. One these chemicals is Luciferin. This is a chemical that is now used as a research tool to track cancer cells in the body and illuminate neuronal pathways in the brain.

 LD: I grew up with fireflies in my backyard, and I miss them. So, I’m glad they’re a focus of your work! And why were you experimenting with electronics?

 CB: My experimentation with electronics evolved out of my development of sound art works. When that began about 20 years ago, I wanted the work to be small, self-contained and without the usage of a computer or large speaker and amplifier systems which were the mode at the time. So, I taught myself how to burn sound files onto EPROM chips to loop the files. I then created small speaker systems for the work I built so I could camouflage the hardware. Finally, I attached movement sensors that would turn the audio on when people walking by. Operating in this way enabled me to create work that could then be played self-sustained in galleries over a sustained periods of time.

As time went by I realized that learning how to build circuits would be helpful to me in developing new work so that is how I ended up experimenting with electronics. 

 LD:  So, did your work with electronics change the way you thought about the biology? Or did the biology affect the way you understood or approached your art?

 CB: It was a bit of both. I did not have a strong education in science because my degrees are in art, so considering science as a topic for my work has been a slow but organic process. Through my work making the Firefly 2.0 etc., I developed an interest in biomimicry and how it can effect and influence technological changes in our world. It’s influences are wide ranging from impacting the creation of robotic gate to velcro tape (inspired by burrs) to self healing materials. And by studying fireflies and bioluminescence I was inspired to approach my work from a vantage point that I never thought of before and one that I find has both meaning while illuminating the human condition and our impact on nature.

FF_Grove_Web LD: China Blue, this sounds like cutting edge work from lots of interesting angles. I could imagine that it might appeal to undergrads looking for an internship or work-study. Do you ever take on assistants, and if so, what type of work do/would you have them do?

CB: Yes, I often work with interns and assistants. The work I assign is based on a their strengths. One assistant I am currently working with is designing new software for various projects I am working on. His strengths are in knowing a variety of computer languages (MAX/MSP, Ableton Live, Open GL and Java script) and a familiarity with Arduinos and physical computing. Another assistant I had was helpful with running the magazine for my non-profit, The Engine Institute (http://theengineinstitute.org) which requires an interest in art journalism and knowledge of WordPress, MS Word, photoshop and some d-base work. I have also worked with sculptors using new technologies and people familiar with 3d printing.

Photinus%20Biomimeticus%2072Readers, I hope you enjoyed this little interview, and that it may inspire you to combine art and science in your work. In the process I learned that her work includes not only Animal Behavior, Conservation Biology, electronics, sound engineering, and robots, sculpture and sound art, but also dance! Check out these videos to see and hear her work with Lance Massey and the Providence Ballet Theater (http://www.providenceballet.org/providenceballettheatre.htm  ): http://theengineinstitute.org/events. And maybe you can send China Blue some great candidates for an internship!

Virtual STEAM

The field of scientific visualization represents an authentic connection between the arts/design and the STEM disciplines.  Daniel Keefe (http://www-users.cs.umn.edu/~keefe/dfk_iweb/Home.html) and David Laidlaw (http://cs.brown.edu/~dhl/)  recently reported on what they’ve learned through the their teaching in the field of Virtual Reality (http://ivlab.cs.umn.edu/papers/Keefe-2013-VR-Design-for-STEAM.pdf). VR is advanced visualization technology that has broad appeal for undergraduates of all disciplines.

Stenger with VPL gear. Nicole Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality

Nicole Stenger with VPL gear. Stenger is a French-born, American artist and pioneer in Virtual Reality.

The authors discovered that when art and STEM students worked together on Virtual Reality data visualization projects, they each began to develop some expertise in the other’s discipline. This exploration improved cross-disciplinary communication, facilitating the collaboration.

The authors incorporated important elements of art classes into their teaching. For one, they used a critique-style discussion of work-in-progress. Scientists knowledgeable about the data joined in. They found these classroom critiques so useful that they brought this teaching/learning technique into other computer science courses. (I could see how art-style classroom critique could be useful in other STEM courses as well.) Both groups of students faced the additional challenge of effective communication with the scientists whose research they were representing. In life-after-university, this third party could represent a client or additional collaborator.

They also emphasized the importance of “sketching” prior to programming. Sketching took various forms including paper & pencil, a series of concept sketches using Adobe Illustrator, acting out possible user experiences, short films, sculptures, and prototyping in the CavePainting virtual reality system. Data display environments help to align sketches with the reality of the data.

This paper causes me to reflect on my own teaching and on the importance of reflection for learning. It’s important to slow down, develop lots of ideas, get lots of feedback, and learn how to understand each other.

The paper described here was published in the refereed proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2013 which was held as part of the 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

Sculpture and Biology: Birds of a Feather

Greater Bird of Paradise.Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist)

Greater Bird of Paradise. Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist)

In an earlier post, I wrote about the use of sculpture to explore the sub-microscopic subject of protein folding (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/the-use-of-sculpture-to-teach-protein-folding/) . As you might imagine, sculpture can be used in the investigation of macro-scale subjects as well.

The artist Diana Beltrán Herrera (http://www.dianabeltranherrera.com) creates breathtaking, exquisitely-detailed paper sculptures of birds and other wildlife. The birds in her Disecciones series are partially transparent, allowing a view of the organs inside.  Her sculptures demonstrate a detailed understanding of morphology, anatomy, and animal behavior. They also carry a message about appreciation of the natural world that surrounds us no matter where we live (http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/artscience/2013/09/diana-beltran-herreras-flock-of-paper-birds/).

Students who are asked to create sculptures of animals can learn about morphology, anatomy, and behavior, necessarily becoming experts on their subjects. Perhaps they will even come to care about the animals they sculpt!  We can hope, right?

Great Grey Shrike. paper cut. 2012. Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist.)

Great Grey Shrike. Cut Paper. 2012. Diana Beltrán Herrera. (photo courtesy of the artist)

P.S. To see another form of visual art that addresses similar STEM topics click through to extraordinary textile art at https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/a-yarn-about-anatomy-2/

P.P. S. Also notable, paper is the material of choice for the costumes and sculptures used by Isabella Roselli in her series for the Sundance Channel.  She and Andy Byers, her costume designer, selected paper for its low cost and relative ease of use, among other artistic considerations (http://www.bradfordshellhammer.com/interviews/2010/01/andy_byers.htmlhttps://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/oh-isabella/). Maybe these folks have identified a good material for our use in STEM teaching through the arts.

Origami Origami

Origami authentically merges art and design with mathematical theory, algorithms, and technology. Math is central to learning in STEM, and is a language shared by STEM, art and design (http://cjvrose.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/stem-to-steam-report.pdf).

Origami artist Dr. Robert J. Lang of Alamo, California, also a physicist and engineer with expertise in R&D, has written and spoken extensively on these ideas (http://www.langorigami.com/science/science.php). Paper folding artist Michael LaFosse of Origamido Studio (http://origamido.com) in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a biologist by training and uses organisms as subjects for his art.

There are even conferences about this type of work. The Sixth International Conference on Origami in Science, Mathematics, and Education (6OSME) (http://www.origami.gr.jp/6osme/) will take place at lovely Yayoi Auditorium on the Hongo campus of The University of Tokyo (http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/) in August 2014. The conference is currently taking submissions from “art, design, mathematics, science, computer science, engineering, liberal arts, history, education, and other fields and their intersections.” 

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper cranes, folded as prayers for peace. Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Fg2)

Paper folding is something that interests undergraduates, as evidenced by the origami club at MIT, OrigaMIT (http://origamit.scripts.mit.edu/index.php), so it may suggest a new type of active learning for incorporation into university courses, especially those in math and engineering.

The Use of Sculpture to Teach Protein Folding

One of the main challenges in teaching through STEAM is to find authentic connections between the science and the arts/design. The relationship between sculpture and protein folding is one of these authentic connections. At DePauw University, a collaboration between students and faculty members from the chemistry and sculpture departments involved the creation of sculptures that showed the folding of proteins. The result was true arts integration, a step beyond STEAM.


T0281-bakerprediction_overlayThe project, led by Daniel Gurnon, Julian Voss-Andreae, and Jacob Stanley, combined an art class and a science class, and included the participation of a guest artist. The students collaborated, solved problems, were inspired to do additional research, raised important questions about the science, and developed metaphors to address the conceptual challenges related to physical and temporal scaling. They certainly spent more time thinking about protein folding than they would have otherwise, and time-on-task often equates with greater learning. The tactile experience of constructing the sculptures also likely contributed to learning. The resulting sculptures continue to inspire learning by both art and science students through questions that are raised by the works and the resulting discussions.

In your own STEM teaching, are there structures that are challenging for students to visualize? Could sculpture be a useful approach? Would it be useful to collaborate with an art class? Would it be helpful to have an artist visit your classroom?