Author Archives: michelebanks1

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.

Art of Science: Philip Beesley’s Sentient Chamber

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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.

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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.

Science Caturday: The Mysteries of Pudge

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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.”

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Art of Science: Chasing a Comet From Lab to Studio

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Science Caturday: Nautical Naughty Cat

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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.