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:

Continue reading “Action Potential Lab”

Art of Science: Philip Beesley’s Glittering, Radiant Soil

From Radiant Soil, Philip Beesley and Living Architecture Systems Group, 2013
From Radiant Soil, Philip Beesley and Living Architecture Systems Group, 2013

When artists depict soil, it is often as a dark, heavy, brown mass. Philip Beesley sees it differently. His 2013 installation, Radiant Soil, is full of light and movement, glittering with metal and glass. As Beesley describes it, “this contemporary soil seethes with a myriad of seeded viscera, miniscule fragments gathering and efflorescing, redolent with chorusing oceans of growth to come.”

Radiant Soil forms interlinking clouds of industrial design biomimetic components of polymer, metal and glass, arranged in suspended filter layers contain a near-living carbon-capture metabolism. Frond-clusters fitted with shape-memory alloy mechanisms react to viewers as they approach, flexing and setting off bursts of light that stimulate the protocells and trigger chains of motion that ripple throughout the environment. Scent-emitting glands attract viewers and encourage interaction with the system, providing stimulus that increases air circulation and protocell formation.” (source)

Is this really happening beneath your peaceful front lawn? Well, yes and no. Beesley is not trying to make an enormous, interactive scale model of actual soil. His goal is to make us rethink the boundaries of our environment. There may not be flashing lights in soil, but there are signals flying among plants, animals and microbes, there are minerals glinting and spores bursting. There’s a lot going on beneath our feet, and Beesley brings it to the surface with bravura.

In his ongoing Hylozoic Series of installations, which have been exhibited around the world, he and his team are “trying to provoke a reconception of architecture, not as a set of closed walls where you see your office as a fort, but rather to think of architectural walls and roofs as deeply layered zones for interchange.” (Wired)

Originally an architect working on much more conventional projects, Beesley changed direction in 2001 after meeting Mitchell Resnick, an MIT professor who introduced him to the possibilities of digital fabrication and low-cost sensors. Using what he calls the “little bits of intelligence and interactivity” the technology provided, he began to create interactive, immersive environments, evoking forests, jungles, plant cells, or in this case, soil. Beesley now works with a team of architects, mechanical engineers and chemists, who (among other things) create interactive features that move, “breathe”, and release scents when activated by visitors

The series title, Hylozoic, refers to the belief that all matter is alive. Looking at Beesley’s conception of soil as a light, airy, sparkling and motion-filled space (video), it’s hard to disagree.

Detail from Radiant Soil, 2013
Detail from Radiant Soil, 2013

Science for the People: Lovelace & Babbage

sftpThis week we’re learning about a pair of 19th-century geniuses, and the friendship that gave rise to the era of modern computers. We’ll speak to artist and animator Sydney Padua about her graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. We’ll also talk to Suw Charman-Anderson, founder of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Don’t forget to support the Science for the People Patreon Campaign to keep the sciencey goodness flowing toward your ear holes.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.