Category Archives: The Art of Science

The Spiral of Life

"How to Build a Human" by Eleanor Lutz (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

“How to Build a Human” by Eleanor Lutz (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Greetings from the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station

The Main Building of the Kilpisjarvi Biological Station

The Main Building of the Kilpisjarvi Biological Station

Regular readers of the Finch & Pea are aware that for the past few weeks, I’ve been doing an art residency at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, way above the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. It’s quite an unusual place. Let me show you around.

The station, which belongs to the University of Helsinki, was founded in 1964 to promote biological and geographical research in the north. Conditions were quite primitive at first, with researchers renting rooms from some of the very few year-round inhabitants of the area. (There are still only about 100 full-time residents of Kilpisjarvi)  Twenty years later, the current building was built, and additional facilities have been added over the years.

No shoes!

No shoes!

The Station sits between Saana Fell and Kilpisjarvi Lake. An extremely clean, modern facility, it still has a few quirks. For starters, the station has a strict “no shoes” policy. You leave your boots at the entrance hall and pad around in your socks. If your city boots are not equal to the winter snow and ice or the spring and summer mud, there are dozens of pairs available to borrow, along with backpacks, bikes and cross-country skis. Alas, during my visit there was too much snow for bikes, but too little for skis. There are not one but two saunas. Hey, this is Finland.

The Library

The Library

The very nice little library is well-stocked with books and journals, mostly about science and nature, in Finnish, English and a few other languages. The nicely-equipped labs are filled with all the usual equipment and supplies, and lined with posters showing the projects that teams have undertaken here. They run the gamut of Arctic themes, from lake sediments and the size of fishes to birch tree growth patterns, bird populations and, of course, lots of work on lemmings. The station’s logo is this wonderful image of two lemmings in either a fight for dominance or a passionate embrace.

What are those lemmings doing?

What are those lemmings doing?

Although the station has hosted dozens of artists through the Ars Bioarctica residency program, there’s really no place to make art. I did some painting either in the lab or, on the weekends, in the residents’ kitchen. Most days, I would go for walks, take photos and pick up a few interesting samples of lichens or plants in the morning. Then, after lunch, I would go to the lab and look at my finds under the microscope. The first week, I drew pictures in pencil like a 19th century naturalist. After that, they set me up with a microscope and software so I could save images to use in my work after I get home.

Some finds from my walks

Some finds from my walks

At the end of my second week here, another short-term resident of the station made a stunning discovery: an entire room full of mounted rodent skins, including mice, rats, voles, moles, weasels, hedgehogs, squirrels and even bats. In addition, there were drawers and cases full of skins and bones, all carefully catalogued and dating back as far as the 1960s. Apparently this “Mouse Museum”, as it is known, was the work of a longtime lab assistant at the station.


The “Mouse Museum”

Altogether, it’s been a privilege to visit this utterly unique place. Kilpisjärvi is the quietest and most remote place I’ve ever been in my life, and it allowed me to observe in depth the sub-Arctic landscape as it moved from fall to winter. I look forward to reflecting more on this experience and incorporating it into my artwork in the months and years to come.

Art of Science, Arctic Edition: Getting Here



It’s a long way to Kilpisjärvi. This is essentially true wherever you start. In my case, I left Washington, DC about 5pm on Friday and arrived in Kilpisjärvi about the same time on Sunday, having traveled by plane, train, bus and car. At each stage of the journey, I left my usual mode of life farther behind.


The airplane part of the trip was only noteworthy for the huge contrast in the style of airport security between the Nordic countries and the United States. Last week, when I traveled to Chicago for the Society for Neuroscience meeting, I was patted down, swabbed for bomb residue and questioned by TSA agents at both BWI and O’Hare. In transit at Reykjavik, by contrast, the immigration guy took a quick glance at my passport photo, decided it was probably me, and nodded me on. After I retrieved my bag in Helsinki, I simply walked through the door marked “nothing to declare”.  I will think wistfully of this experience every time I hear someone say that Obama wants to turn the US into Europe.

From Helsinki airport, you can take a subway train right into the center of town. But first you have to descend deep into the bowels of the earth, on no fewer than four escalators. (This is probably to avoid disturbing the trolls. Finland is apparently full of trolls, and not the internet kind.) Once in town, I met some twitter friends, Janina and Tommi, who took me for lunch and showed me the beautiful library at The University of Helsinki.


Helsinki University Library

Then it was time to get on the overnight train to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. The train is very comfortable, with two decks of berths with cute little bunk beds. In the summer, the view from the top is probably beautiful, but because it gets dark early in the autumn, I couldn’t see much.

My bed on the overnight train to Rovaniemi

My bed on the overnight train to Rovaniemi

On the train, my first Stupid Foreigner Problem (SFP) struck. The train made many stops, but there were no station announcements, so as not to wake sleeping passengers. Since the route continued beyond Rovaniemi, how would I know where to get off? I had also cleverly planned my trip to coincide with the very day that clocks go back in Finland for daylight saving, complicating the issue of arrival time. Fortunately, the train had great WiFi (since 2010, Finland has classified internet access as a legal right), so I was able to tell from Google Maps when we were arriving in Rovaniemi and get myself safely off the train.

Rovaniemi is supposed to be the true home of Santa Claus, and has a theme park devoted to all things Santa.   On this particular Sunday morning, however, it was gray and rainy and everything was closed, so I hopped on the bus to Kilpisjärvi without regret. There were four passengers. After two hours or so, the other three got off, and I continued to Kilpisjärvi alone with the friendly bus driver.

We stopped for a lunch break in Muonio, where I had been advised to eat in the local Thai restaurant. As Muonio is basically a one-intersection town, it was easy to find. Alas, on a rainy Sunday in the off-season, the cook had not prepared any Thai food, so the other customers (both of them) and I made do with tea and pastries, which we ate to the discordant accompaniment of loud Asian pop music. The adjoining visitor center and gift shop offered reindeer hides for 149 Euros.

The visitor center at the Thai restaurant in Muoni shows the distance to Bangkok and Kilpisjarvi

The visitor center at the Thai restaurant in Muonio shows the distance to Bangkok and Kilpisjarvi

I saw my first small herd of reindeer almost immediately outside Rovaniemi! Then some more. Then a couple more reindeer. Then a few more reindeer crossing the road. The driver, who called reindeer “the local mosquitoes,” told me there are 8,000 reindeer vs. vehicle accidents a year in Lapland. Apparently reindeer are not very smart.

The driver told me that the local Sami people use every part of the reindeer – not just the meat and hides, but also the bones and antlers, from which they make tools. He said that they even grind up the hooves for medicine.

“What kind of medicine?”

“Medicine for men. You understand?”

I understood, but even so, he clarified further. “It makes the stick stand up!”

I hadn’t even arrived in Kilpisjärvi yet, and I had already learned so much.

Art of Science: As Time Goes Bloop

Ferrolic by Zelf Koelman

Ferrolic by Zelf Koelman

Ferrolic can be filed under “so nice we blogged it twice”, because it is not only cool, but Michele did a much better job of explaining how this works than her erstwhile stand-in did.

From the department of supercool things that may or may not have a point: Ferrolic, a screen display that uses electromagnets and ferrofluid. Created by Dutch designer Zelf Koelman, Ferrolic consists of a sort of tank with a screen, behind which drops of ferrofluid (a compound containing iron and a surfactant) are moved by an array of electromagnets controlled by programmable software.

The software can be edited via the web, allowing users to direct the blobs of ferrofluid (which Koelman calles “creatures”) to display numbers, letters and other shapes. Ferrolic does not produce light and is completely silent, since it does not contain any mechanically moving elements.

So is Ferrolic a work of art, a technology of the future or just an expensive toy? Who knows? But it sure is mesmerizing to watch.

Action Potential Lab

Imagine a cross between 826 stores, the Wellcome Collection, makerspaces and the best birthday parties you remember from your childhood. That’s Action Potential Lab. Located in a century-old pharmacy building in Toronto, Action Potential Lab welcomes kids and adults to explore the intersection of art and science.


Lisa Carrie Goldberg started Action Potential Lab when she returned to Toronto after eight years studying in Boston and Perth. When I visited Toronto recently, I dropped by the lab to meet her. Even though I was there after hours, Lisa’s day was far from over, and she had to briefly interrupt our conversation to receive some samples for an upcoming thermochromatic dye screenprinting workshop. She had a few minutes for an interview, though:

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