Angular Momentum I #finchstagram

Photo by Josh Witten (CC BY-NC-SA) via Instagram

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.

Lise Meitner

I’m taking a writing class at the moment, and one of the assignments was to write a profile about Lise Meitner:

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

On Christmas Eve, 1938, sitting on a tree trunk in the snow in Sweden, Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch figured out the mechanism of nuclear fission. They had gone for a walk during a family holiday to discuss a letter Meitner had received from her colleague Otto Hahn. He asked for her opinion on a strange scientific phenomenon he had discovered.

Until a few months earlier, Meitner and Hahn had worked closely together at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) in Berlin, where they studied the effect of bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons.

Meitner had moved to Berlin shortly after completing her doctorate degree in her birth city of Vienna. She was one of the first women to reach this level of academia, and encountered some archaic attitudes and ideas: in Berlin, she worked unsalaried for a few years, and was occasionally expected to entertain the wives of visiting physicists while the men talked about science.

During the three decades she worked in Berlin, Meitner made Germany her home, but when the Second World War edged closer, it was no longer safe for Jewish people in Germany. With her piercing brown eyes, dark frizzy hair and pronounced nose, Meitner’s heritage was unmistakable. She fled to Sweden in July 1938, with help from an international group of friends and colleagues from the physics community.

Now, six months later, Hahn’s curious letter had reached her. He described how, after another round of shooting neutrons at uranium, he discovered barium in the reaction mixture. Where had it come from? Pondering this question with Frisch during their winter walk, Meitner realised that the neutron in Hahn’s experiment must have split the uranium atom in half. This would leave two smaller atoms in its place, which would continue to produce even smaller atoms, and generate large amounts of energy.

The discovery came at a dangerous time: Could the Nazis use this technology to create a weapon? The USA quickly launched the Manhattan Project to ensure they were the first to build an atomic bomb. Meitner was invited to join, but she refused. She didn’t want to be part of such a violent application of her discovery – not even to defeat the enemy who had chased her out of Germany.

After the war, Meitner spent several months in the USA as part of a visiting professorship. She was named Woman of the Year there, in 1946, and was interviewed by Eleanor Roosevelt for NBC radio.  Roosevelt told her: “We are proud of your contributions as a woman in science”.

Meitner continued to inspire women in science throughout her retirement years. A photo taken at Bryn Mawr, in 1959, shows her sitting casually on the steps of a university building. Her frizzy hair now grey, but with the same dark piercing eyes, she is surrounded by students in long floral skirts who have come to hear her fascinating stories.

Maybe she told them about the time she went for a walk with her nephew, through the snow in a cold Swedish winter. Or maybe they asked her about that other winter in Sweden, when in December 1945, Hahn – and Hahn alone – received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at the award ceremony in Stockholm.

It’s an oversight that’s still often mentioned, especially in the context of continuing challenges to retain women at the top level of science.  But even without a Nobel Prize, Meitner was well-respected, and happy to sit down for a chat about her work: in the snow with her nephew, on the radio with a former president’s wife, or casually outside on the steps with admiring students.

Image: Meitner and Hahn. Public domain, via Wikimedia. Other image described in the text was not free to use, so click that text for a link.

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.






Not My Skill Set

There was a time when, to be a biologist, you either had to be able to draw well (or be able to may someone to do your drawing for you). Toilets also did not flush. It was a rough time. You can revisit some of that magic at The British Library’s Flickr page where there are literally oodles of images from old books provided free from copyright restrictions, because the books are old.


I don’t know what this critter is*, but I am glad that I am a lot bigger than it is. I think I’m bigger than it…

*It literally comes from a tome entitled The British Miscellany: or, coloured figures of new, rare, or little known animal subjects, etc. vol. I., vol. II