Author Archives: michelebanks1

Science Caturday: Tourists Bring Unwanted Gifts


Oh noooo, a new article in The Atlantic says that the huge increase in the numbers of visitors to Antarctica in recent years may be making the penguins sick.

A team led by Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in New Zealand found multiple infectious agents, including Salmonella and E. coli bacteria and West Nile virus in captive penguins dating back to 1947. A paper based on the team’s work published this month in the journal Polar Biology (paywall) reports that outbreaks of disease from those pathogens have killed thousands of penguins over the years.

I sure hope our intrepid polar explorer kitteh didn’t bring along any toxoplasmosis from home.

The Art of Science: The Not-Quite-3D Christmas Tree

The tree in the center was printed with a traditional 3D printing algorithm, while the others were made with the new pyramid technique

The tree in the center was printed with a traditional 3D printing algorithm, while the others were made with the new pyramid technique

Little plastic Christmas trees don’t really count as art, but the science and math behind this one is pretty interesting, so we’ll let the deeper questions of aesthetics and meaning slide just this once.

Computer Science researcher Richard Zhang of Canada’s Simon Fraser University printed the tree as a demonstration of a newly developed 3D printing algorithm that has potential applications far beyond seasonal tchotchkes.

Michael Byrne at Motherboard explains:

“Zhang is solving a real-life problem: saving waste. Printing an object with overhanging parts, like a tree branch, requires the deposition of extra material below to support the top part through the printing process. At the end, this material is cut away and trashed. The answer, according to Zhang, is in using pyramidal components.”

“Decomposing a complex shape into simpler primitives is one of the most fundamental geometry problems,” Zhang and his team write in a recent paper. “The main motivation is that most computation and manipulation tasks can be more efficiently executed when the shapes are simple.”

And pyramids offer an elegant solution, because, Zhang says, pyramids are 2.5D.  (I’ll give you a second to collect your brain cells from the floor)

Byrne explains:  “Two-and-a-half dimensions is a concept used in machining (and computer graphics, with a different meaning) to describe an object with no overhangs. It only has a top, and can be viewed as a projection of 2D flatness into the third dimension.”

There’s lots more info about the science and math behind the printable pyramids in Byrne’s article and in Zhang’s paper.

The Art of Science: A Tragic Beauty

Brandon Ballengee Collapse, 2012 mixed-media installation

Brandon Ballengee
Collapse, 2012
mixed-media installation

A must-see for sciart lovers, Brandon Ballengée’s installation Collapse is on display at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC until March 20, 2015.

Collapse was created in 2012 in response to the devastating effects on the marine food chain following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Simple, beautiful and devastating, the installation consists of a pyramid of gallon jars containing hundreds of preserved fish and other aquatic organisms. Empty containers – and there are many – represent species in decline or those already lost the extinction. A written appendix gives details on all the species represented in Collapse.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the NAS will hold an evening event on Thursday, December 11, on the topic of Art and Ecology. Speakers include Brandon Ballengée, developmental biologist Benjamin Dubansky, Ariel Trahan of the Anacostia Watershed Society, and Kim Waddell, senior program officer of the NAS’s Gulf Research Program.  (More details here)

Science Caturday: Orion Kitteh Soars


After some weather and technical delays, NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which may someday carry astronauts to Mars, completed a perfect high-orbit test flight yesterday. Orion Kitteh provides a dramatic re-enactment, minus the yucky water landing part.


The Art of Science: Biologically-Enhanced Fashion

Mushtari, from the Wanderers project

Mushtari, from the Wanderers project

This is the Björkiest thing I have ever seen.  Wanderers,  a collaborative project to create digitally grown and 3d printed wearables that could embed living matter, looks like a perfect fit for the Icelandic chanteuse, who is famous for her biophilia and wildly adventurous fashion sense.

A team led by Neri Oxman of MIT and Christoph Bader & Dominik Kolb of Deskriptiv is working on a computational growth process which can mimic a wide variety of growing structures.  Based on growth patterns found in nature, computer models create shapes that adapt to their environment.  Once a design is generated, a 3D printer creates a wearable structure.

Filip Visnjic at Creative Applications Network explains: “Starting with a seed, the process simulates growth by continuously expanding and refining its shape. The wearables are designed to interact with a specific environment characteristic of their destination and generate sufficient quantities of biomass, water, air and light necessary for sustaining life: some photosynthesize converting daylight into energy, others bio-mineralize to strengthen and augment human bone, and some fluoresce to light the way in pitch darkness.”

In the long term, the team hopes to produce 3D printed microfluidic devices through which to pump living matter (such as photosynthetic bacteria) to bring the Wanderers to life. In the short term, they’ve created an amazingly hypnotic video showing how the computer simulates growth patterns (watch it here) and some stunning molded plastic breastplates and even a skirt. The pieces, which look a lot like glistening external brains and intestines, are more attractive than I’m making them sound.  And sure, they’re wearable – if you’re Björk.

More photos and information about the Wanderers project are here.