Astronomy Picture of the Day
Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.
Northern Lights and Noctilucent Clouds
Image Credit & Copyright: Adrien MauduitExplanation: Skies after the near-solstice sunset on June 17 are reflected in this calm lake. The tranquil twilight scene was captured near Bashaw, Alberta, Canada, northern planet Earth. Usually spotted at high latitudes in summer months, night shining or noctilucent clouds hang just above the horizon, transfusing light into a darker sky. Near the edge of space, the icy apparitions are condensations on meteoric dust or volcanic ash still in sunlight at extreme altitudes. Also near the edge of space on this short northern night, solar activity triggered the lovely apparition of aurora borealis or northern lights.
Solstice Today: 10:07 UTC
Tomorrow’s picture: galaxy in a crystal ball
Article from the New Yorker
By Siva Vaidhyanathan April 21, 2018
It was like a verbal tic. Last week, in two days of testimony before Congress, Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, invoked a magical-sounding phrase whenever he was cornered about a difficult issue. The issue was content moderation, and the phrase was “artificial intelligence.” In 2004, Zuckerberg explained, when Facebook got its start, it was just him and a friend in his dorm room at Harvard. “We didn’t have A.I. technology that could look at the content that people were sharing,” he told the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees. “So we basically had to enforce our content policies reactively.” In the fourteen years since, the platform has grown to 2.2 billion monthly active users; they speak more than a hundred languages, each with its own subtle variations on hate speech, sexual content, harassment, threats of violence and suicide, and terrorist recruitment. Facebook’s staggering size and influence, Zuckerberg admitted, along with a slew of high-profile scandals, had made clear that “we need to take a more proactive role and a broader view of our responsibility.” He pledged to hire many thousands of human content-reviewers around the world, but he seemed to see A.I. as the ultimate panacea. In all, he uttered the phrase more than thirty times.
Tarleton Gillespie, in his forthcoming book “Custodians of the Internet,” explains what’s at the root of Zuckerberg’s problem:
Moderation is hard because it is resource intensive and relentless; because it requires difficult and often untenable distinctions; because it is wholly unclear what the standards should be; and because one failure can incur enough public outrage to overshadow a million quiet successes.
Should the values of a C.E.O. outweigh those of an engineer or an end user? If, as Zuckerberg stated before Congress, some sort of “community standards” apply, what constitutes a “community”? For Facebook in Iraq, should it be Kurdish standards or Shia standards? And what, exactly, are Sunni standards? In Illinois, should it be rural standards or urban standards? Imagine trying to answer these questions across a platform as vast as Facebook. Imagine trying to hire, train, and retain value judges in places such as Myanmar, where the Buddhist majority is waging a brutal campaign of expulsion and oppression against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. Imagine finding moderators for all eleven of South Africa’s official languages.
Hiring more humans, if there are even enough of them, won’t solve these problems—nor is it likely to be good for the humans themselves. Sarah Roberts, an information scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, has interviewed content moderators throughout Silicon Valley and beyond, and she reports that many are traumatized by the experience and work for low wages without benefits. But Zuckerberg’s A.I. solution, which he sees becoming a reality “over a five-to-ten year period,” is equally untenable. It’s like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan, fooling the people of Camelot with his technocratic “magic.” But, more crucial, it’s also an expression of techno-fundamentalism, the unshakable belief that one can and must invent the next technology to fix the problem caused by the last technology. Techno-fundamentalism is what has landed us in this trouble. And it’s the wrong way to get us out.
The main selling point of automated content moderation is that it purports to sidestep the two hurdles that thwart humans: scale and subjectivity. For a machine that learns from historical experience—“This is an example of what we want to flag for review; this is not”—scale is an advantage. The more data it consumes, the more accurate its judgments supposedly become. Even mistakes, when identified as mistakes, can refine the process. Computers also like rules, which is why artificial intelligence has seen its greatest successes in highly organized settings, such as chess matches and Go tournaments. If you combine rules and lots of historical data, a computer can even win at “Jeopardy!”—as one did in 2011. At first, the rules must be developed by human programmers, but there is some hope that the machines will refine, revise, and even rewrite the rules over time, accounting for diversity, localism, and changes in values.
This is where the promise of artificial intelligence breaks down. At its heart is an assumption that historical patterns can reliably predict future norms. But the past—even the very recent past—is full of words and ideas that many of us now find repugnant. No system is deft enough to respond to the rapidly changing varieties of cultural expression in a single language, let alone a hundred. Slang is fleeting yet powerful; irony is hard enough for some people to read. If we rely on A.I. to write our rules of conduct, we risk favoring those rules over our own creativity. What’s more, we hand the policing of our discourse over to the people who set the system in motion in the first place, with all their biases and blind spots embedded in the code. Questions about what sorts of expressions are harmful to ourselves or others are difficult. We should not pretend that they will get easier.
What, then, is the purpose of Zuckerberg’s A.I. incantation? To take the cynical view, it offers a convenient way to defer public scrutiny: Facebook is a work in progress, and waiting for the right tools to be developed will take patience. (Once those tools are in place, of course, the company can blame any flubs on flawed algorithms or bad data.) But Zuckerberg isn’t a cynic; he’s a techno-fundamentalist, and that’s an equally unhealthy habit of mind. It creates the impression that technology exists outside, beyond, even above messy human decisions and relations, when the truth is that no such gap exists. Society is technological. Technology is social. Tools, as Marshall McLuhan told us more than fifty years ago, are extensions of ourselves. They amplify and distort our strengths and our flaws. That’s why we must design them with care from the start.
The problem with Facebook is Facebook. It has moved too fast. It has broken too many things. It has become too big to govern, whether by a band of humans or a suite of computers. To chart the way forward, Zuckerberg has few effective tools at his disposal. He should be honest about their limitations—if not for his company’s sake then for ours.
After a series of significant events in my county’s community college district, I’ve decided to write a series of short posts about Higher Education and Democracy for the Write 6X6 project on my campus.
If you want to hear something that might make you feel like you were just punched in the gut, take a listen to Newt Gingrich with his address at ALEC Fiscal Responsibility in Higher Education Academy in October 2017. You need to know what people are thinking and where they are headed.
Let me know what you think!
A pioneering photojournalist hopes VR can restore war photography’s dramatic power to influence and inform us.
A split screen shows Gilad, at left, a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, and Abu Khal, at right, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Sun streams through a grid of skylights, carving the gallery’s wooden floor into a checkerboard. When I look up, I can see wispy clouds passing overhead. Large photos hang on the gallery walls. They’re pictures of a landscape devastated by war and portraits of men fighting in those wars.
I hear footsteps behind me. I turn around and watch two figures enter the room and take up stations in front of the portraits. They’re the men from the pictures.
An unseen narrator explains that the shorter one, Jean de Dieu, was a child soldier recruited by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). It’s a Hutu group waging war against Rwanda from its base in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The other, Patient, is a sergeant in the Congolese army, which is allied with Rwanda’s ruling Tutsi ethnic group.
I know they’re both virtual characters, re-created through 3-D scanning and computer graphics. But they’re startlingly realistic—far more lifelike than anything I’ve seen in a game or movie.
As I approach Jean de Dieu, who looks sad and tired, a conversation begins. The narrator asks: Who is your enemy? What is violence for you? What makes your enemy inhuman? Jean answers in halting, vulnerable tones. I listen to his story of being forced into a refugee camp at age 11 and seeing Congolese militia kill his parents, their brains splattering onto him. Of course he’d hate the Tutsi, and everyone aligned with them.
Now the narrator quizzes Patient. He says the army pursues the FDLR because its soldiers rob, rape, and murder Congolese citizens. “He has no human values and can no longer change his mind,” Patient says of his despised FDLR enemy. “He wants to stay in the forest as part of the rebellion like a savage. Only beasts live in the forest.”
But Patient and Jean de Dieu also tell the narrator something else: they just want to live in peace with their neighbors and families. And as I walk through three more rooms and meet more combatants—gang members in El Salvador, a reservist in Israel and a Palestinian fighter in Gaza—I hear that shared hope flicker through in answer after answer. These men all have different stories, different traumas, and different allegiances. But their dreams are the same. Abu Khaled, in Gaza, says 23 of his family members have died during the Israeli occupation, but he still hopes for “peace and brotherhood” in the region.
- The EnemyA project by Karim Ben Khelifa
After 40 minutes, I’m guided to a spot on the floor that resembles a Star Trek transporter pad. An assistant helps me remove my Oculus Rift VR headset and backpack, and I’m back on the ground floor of the MIT Museum, where this ambitious virtual-reality exhibit, “The Enemy,” made its North American premiere in the fall of 2017.
The exhibit—or maybe “experience” is a better word—is the creation of the Belgian-Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa. He interviewed and filmed the fighters and then worked with Fox Harrell, a professor of digital media and artificial intelligence at MIT, and French partners Camera Lucida, France Télévisions Nouvelles Ecritures, and Emissive to bring them to life inside the virtual gallery.
Part of what’s groundbreaking about “The Enemy” is the sheer size of the simulation: the museum cleared out a 3,000-square-foot space so that up to 15 Oculus-wearing visitors at a time could roam freely in the virtual world. The fidelity of the characters and their movements is also striking. You can see the stubble on their chins and the tattoos on their arms and torsos. Thanks to eye-tracking sensors, each figure’s gaze is locked onto yours, cementing the illusion that the fighters are speaking directly to you. The technology works well enough to disappear, allowing you to form direct, empathetic connections with Jean, Patient, Abu, and their fellow combatants.
Which is exactly what Ben Khelifa wanted. “My interest was, can you look at these people in the eyes?” he told me. “Can they look you in the eyes? And what is happening when two people look at one another in the eyes? There is a connection, whether we want it or not.”
Right now, the “The Enemy” is accessible only to museum visitors, but Ben Khelifa says he wants those trapped in conflict zones, especially young people, to experience it too. If the installation can help people see that every conflict is grounded, to some extent, in stereotypes and misunderstandings, they might come to understand one another better and stop fighting, he believes. It’s a noble goal—but will all future VR producers have such benevolent aims?
The idea that VR might be a medium for a new kind of journalism took hold around 2015, when the New York Times released its first VR documentary, “The Displaced,” about three young war refugees. Technically, the pieces produced by the Times’ VR studio are 360° films. Viewers can look in different directions, but otherwise, they watch passively. Sticklers reserve the term “virtual reality” for simulated 3-D environments in which users can move around at will and control objects, as gamers can on platforms such as HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and Oculus Rift. That’s the type of virtual reality that Ben Khelifa, a freelancer who has covered conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Israel, Yemen, Somalia, and many other countries, wanted to employ for “The Enemy.”
A virtual-reality re-creation of a fighter, speaking in his own words, might help viewers feel the impact of war more deeply, Ben Khelifa believed. So he went to Israel and Gaza, where he found soldiers willing to be videotaped. While they talked, he scanned them with a Microsoft Kinect and photographed them from multiple angles. He says his experience as a photojournalist helped him get the subjects to open up. “These fighters understand that I’ve been through a lot of fighting too—without holding a gun, but holding my camera,” Ben Khelifa says. “And I think there is—I wouldn’t call it a brotherhood, but an understanding that we both know what war is.”
In April 2015, at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, Ben Khelifa showed a prototype of “The Enemy,” featuring only Abu Khaled and an Israeli soldier named Gilad. “People were just blown away by the realism of the fighters,” he says. But these early figures didn’t walk, turn their heads, or react to users. “From there, what I’ve been realizing is, the more the fighters are modified to recognize your presence, the more you recognize the presence of the fighter,” he says. “You spend less time wondering if he’s real or not. And you get to listen.”
A few years earlier Ben Khelifa had met MIT’s Fox Harrell, whose book Phantasmal Media explores how creators of VR and other computational media can build experiences that mutate depending on the user’s actions. Harrell says he’s fascinated by the narrative techniques of the 1950 Kurosawa film Rashomon, which retells the story of a brutal rape and murder from multiple perspectives. “I’ve been interested in how you can use algorithmic processes in AI to trigger these kinds of effects,” he says.
For “The Enemy,” Harrell helped Ben Khelifa and his team of developers in France build a system that surveys visitors before the experience and then monitors them on camera and via the Oculus headset as they interact with each fighter. Visitors’ responses determine the order in which they experience the three conflicts, the message they receive in the final gallery, and even the weather visible through the skylights.
John Durant, the director of the MIT Museum, says “The Enemy” took the museum into untested territory, both technologically and politically. “It was very appealing, because a lot of us talk about the ways in which technology may or may not contribute to addressing certain kinds of social and political issues, and sometimes people talk about it more than actually experiencing it and trying it,” he says.
The poignant stories told by Amilcar and Jorge, members of two rival gangs in San Salvador, give that section of the exhibit a sticking power that a photo essay just wouldn’t have, Durant says. “Most of the people who are likely to visit this museum don’t have the experience of growing up as members of a gang where a kind of tribal loyalty is perhaps the most fundamental thing you know,” he says. “So it takes some effort, honestly, to try and think about what the world might be like from that point of view. I think ‘The Enemy,’ to me, made it much easier.”
Visitors to the museum report similar revelations. “I’m from Colombia … I’ve lived close to war,” one visitor wrote in the guest book. “Forgiveness is gonna be always the hardest part. For forgiveness to appear, there’s gotta be compassion, and that is what ‘The Enemy’ brought me. Thank you.”
VR has, in fact, begun to compete with old-fashioned photojournalism and TV news. VR producers have been flocking to Southeast Asia lately to document the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim-majority ethnic group under assault in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. A refugee featured in a searing Al Jazeera VR film recounted how security forces in Myanmar had killed her husband and raped her. An Emmy-nominated VR film shot inside a Rohingya confinement camp by the anti-atrocity group the Nexus Fund showed prisoners languishing with little food or medical care. “I can’t put everybody on a plane and take them to Myanmar, but I know that if I could and they could see this in person, there’s nothing they wouldn’t do to help,” Nexus Fund executive director Sally Smith told CNN.
But if VR is an empathy machine, where will all that empathy be directed in the future? Here in the United States, meddlers have hijacked Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to generate outrage and spread falsehoods, with political consequences we are only beginning to understand. VR’s immersiveness and realism pull even more directly on our heartstrings. There’s nothing to stop Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, for instance, from making VR films designed to further inflame passions against the Rohingya. “Am I scared by it? Yeah,” Ben Khelifa says. “If you can create empathy, you can brainwash people too.”
In “The Enemy,” the VR storytelling is even-handed to a fault. In fact, if the piece has a limitation, it’s that it refuses to judge the merits of each fighter’s cause. But that limitation is also a strength. The parallel questions put to each combatant allow the visitor to construct “this kind of model of what’s the same and what’s different” for each fighter, Harrell explains. “And that can be some impetus to thinking beyond the preconceptions you had of the conflict.”
Without this kind of commitment to fairness and factuality, VR could easily devolve into a propaganda tool. But that’s true of all journalism. We’re fortunate that a creator with Ben Khelifa’s vision and conscience is showing the way.
Wade Roush is a technology journalist and the producer and host of Soonish, a podcast about technology and the future.
“The Enemy” was produced by Camera Lucida, France Télévisions, the National Film Board of Canada, Emissive, and Dpt, and was staged at the MIT Museum in late 2017. It will continue its North American tour in Montreal and other Canadian cities. For tour dates visit theenemyishere.org.
Today is the first day of Glendale Community College’s Write 6X6 and the birthday of one my favorite poets, Langston Hughes. His words and social activism have always resonated with me. Every year, I typically pick one of Hughes’ poems and share it with others. This year my choice seems unusually relevant given the current state of affairs in our national politics. In spite of the worries I have about our country today, the words of a son of a school teacher, speak to me and remind me of the importance of my work in higher education and make me feel a little more optimistic.
Community Colleges, by providing an accessible pathway to education, are gateways for those who might otherwise not find equality or opportunity. The feeling of helping people from all walks of life working to make a better life has always made me proud of the work I do. I’m even more proud of all of the students who have persevered and accomplished great things. They give me hope for our future.
Written in 1935 by American poet Langston Hughes.
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.
A golden cage protesting Donald Trump’s border-control measures and an “obese house” in Vienna are among some of the installations created in 2017. Continuing our review of 2017, editorial assistant Natashah Hitti selects her top 10.
All located in New York, the structures include a giant golden cage in Central Park, and an enclosure that slots inside the Washington Square Arch.
Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson used a combination of mirrors and coloured screens to create illusionistic, abstract scenes for Wayne McGregor‘s Tree of Codes ballet, which was on show at London theatre Sadler’s Wells in March.
The performance is based on, and named after, an artwork in the form of a book by Jonathan Safran Foer, which was created by cutting apart Bruno Schulz’s book The Street of Crocodiles to form a new narrative.
Earlier this year, Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm installed his “obese house” in the grounds of Vienna’s 18th-century Belvedere palace.
Similar in form to a conventional suburban house, the seven-metre high sculpture was created as a commentary on middle-class consumer culture. The house’s walls appeared to have swollen out, giving the impression of fatty flesh rather than an architectural structure.
Shown as part of this year’s Dutch Design Week, this audiovisual installation by Studio Nick Verstand, in cooperation with VPRO Medialab, reinterpreted people’s emotions as pulsing light compositions.
Equipped with multiple biosensors that register brainwaves, heart-rate variability, and galvanic skin response, visitors sat or laid down on the floor as a musical composition played out in the background, triggering emotional responses. The visitors’ emotional “data” was then analysed and metamorphosed into different forms, colours and intensities of light that were beamed down onto them from above.
American artist Doug Aitken built this house-shaped structure clad in mirrors, which reflects the surrounding desert landscape of the Coachella Valley.
The Mirage installation was modelled on a ranch-style suburban American house, and also found inspiration from the modernist ideas of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
British sculptor Anish Kapoor filled a room with over 100 tonnes of earth spread across the floor before spraying it with a bright red pigment, to represent the unseen borders that separate the modern world.
The installation, titled Destierro, was on show at the Parque de la Memoria in Argentina, which was created as a memorial to the victims of the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
This shed-like pavilion by artist Matthew Mazzotta features a cloud-shaped element over its corrugated roof, which rains whenever someone sits inside.
Once a person is sat on one of the rocking chairs in the shelter, pressure sensors in the floor are activated, causing pumps to transport water from an underground storage tank up into the cloud, which releases the liquid through tiny holes to simulate rain. Those inside can hear the “warm pleasant sound” of the drops hitting the tin roof, and watch the water permeate through the window lintels to feed plants growing in the sills.
British artist Alex Chinneck created this “cartoon-like” installation from 4,000 bricks, intended to look like a page ripped from a book.
Titled Six Pins and a Half Dozen Needles, the sculpture was designed to appear as if part of the building’s facade had cracked in two. The installation was situated on the site of Assembly London – a campus of offices, retail units and restaurants situated in Hammersmith.
These colourful translucent doorway structures represent all the different places that Korean artist Do Ho Suh has lived and worked, in a bid to explore ideas about identity and migration.
Displayed at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery, the Passage/s installation gave physical form to Suh’s idea of life as a journey, “with no fixed beginning or destination.”
Featuring in an exhibition titled Hana So (Fireworks), the mirrored landscape reflected the flower arrangements placed around the space, resulting in kaleidoscopic visual effects.
When it comes to quantum mechanics, it’s easier to show than tell.
That’s why artist residencies at particle physics labs play an important part in conveying their stories, according to CERN theorist Luis Alvarez-Gaume.
He recently spent some time demonstrating physics concepts to Semiconductor, a duo of visual artists from England known for exploring matter through the tools and processes of science. They’ve done multiple short films, museum pieces and festivals all over the world. In July they were awarded a CERN residency as part of the Collide@CERN Ars Electronica Award.
“I tried to show them how we develop an intuition for quantum mechanics by applying the principles and getting used to the way it functions,” Alvarez-Gaume says. “Because honestly, I cannot explain quantum mechanics even to a scientist.”
The physicist laughed when he made that statement, but the artists, Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, are comforted by the sentiment. They soaked up all they could during their two-month stay in late 2015 and are still processing interviews and materials they’ll use to develop a major work based on their experiences.
“Particle physics is the most challenging subject we’ve ever worked with because it’s so difficult to create a tangible idea about it, and that’s kind of what we are all about,” Jarman says, adding that they are fully up for the challenge.
Besides speaking with theorists and experimentalists, the artists explored interesting spaces at CERN and filmed both the construction of a new generation of magnets and a workshop where scientists were developing prototypes of instruments.
“We also dug around a lot in the archives,” Gerhardt says. “It’s such an amazing place and we only really touched the surface.”
But they have a lot of faith in the process based on past experiences working in scientific settings.
A 2007 work called “Magnetic Movie” was based on a similar stay at NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratories at UC Berkeley, where the artists captured the “secret lives of invisible magnetic fields.” In the film, brightly colored streams and blobs emanate from various rooms at the lab to the sounds of VLF (very low frequency) audio recordings and scientists talking.
“Are we observing a series of scientific experiments, the universe in flux or a documentary of a fictional world?” the artists ask on their website.
The piece won multiple awards at international film festivals. But, just as importantly to the artists, the scientists were excited about the way it celebrated their work, “even though it was removed from their context,” Jarman says.
Picturing the invisible
At the Department of Energy’s Fermilab, another group of artists has taken on the challenge of “visualizing the invisible.” Current artist-in-residence Ellen Sandor and her collaborative group (art)n have been brushing up on neutrinos and the machines that study them.
Their goal is to put their own cutting-edge technologies to use in scientifically accurate and “transcendent” artworks that tell the story of Fermilab’s past, present and future, the artist says.
Sandor is known as a pioneer of virtual photography. In the 1980s she invented a new medium called PHSColograms, 3-D images that combine photography, holography, sculpture and computer graphics to create what she calls “immersive” experiences.
The group will use PHSColograms, sculpture, 3D printing, virtual reality and projection mapping in a body of work that will eventually be on display at the lab.
“We want to tell the story with scientific visualization and also with abstraction,” Sandor says. “But all of the images will be exciting and artistic.”
The value of such rich digital visuals lies in what Sandor calls their “wow factor,” according to Sam Zeller, neutrino physicist and science advisor for the artist-in-residence program.
“We scientists don’t always know how to hit that mark, but she does,” Zeller says. “These three-dimensional immersive images come closer to the video game environment. If we want to capture the imagination of school-age children, we can’t just stand in front of a poster and talk anymore.”
As co-spokesperson of the MicroBooNE experiment, Zeller and team are collaborating with the artists on virtual reality visualizations of a new detector technology called a liquid-argon time projection chamber. The detector components, as well as the reactions it detects, are sealed inside a stainless steel vessel out of view.
“Because she strives for scientific accuracy, we can use Sandor’s art to help us explain how our detector works and demonstrate it to the public,” Zeller says.
According to Monica Bello, head of Arts@CERN, programs that combine art and science are a growing trend around the globe.
Organizations such as the Arts Catalyst Centre for Art, Science & Technology in London commission science-related art worldwide, and galleries like Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia, present contemporary art focused largely on science and technology.
US nonprofit Leonardo, The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, supports cross-disciplinary research and international artist and scientist residencies and events.
“However, programs of this kind founded within scientific institutions and with full support are still rare,” Bello says. Yet, many labs, including TRIUMF in Canada and INFN in Italy, host art exhibits, events or occasional artist residencies.
“While we don’t bring on full-time artists continually, TRIUMF offers a suite of initiatives that explore the intersection of art and science,” says Melissa Baluk, communications coordinator at TRIUMF. “A great example is our ongoing partnership with artist Ingrid Koenig of Emily Carr University of Art + Design here in Vancouver. Koenig tailors some of her fine art classes to these intersections, for example, courses called ‘Black Holes and Other Transformations of Energy’ and ‘Quantum Entanglements: Manifestations in Practice.’”
The collaboration invites physicists to Koenig’s studio and draws her students to the lab. “It’s a wonderful partnership that allows all involved to discover news ways of thinking about the interconnections between art, science, and culture on a scale that works for us,” Baluk says.
Fermilab’s robust commitment to the arts reaches back to founding director, physicist and artist Robert Wilson. His sculptures are still exhibited around the lab, says Georgia Schwender, curator of the Fermilab Art Gallery.
Schwender finds that art-science programs attract the community through the unconventional pairing of subjects; events such as the international Art@CMS exhibit last year at Fermilab are very well received.
“It’s not just a physics or an art class,” she says. “People who might be a little afraid of the art or a little afraid of the science are less intimidated when you bring them together.”
Fermilab recently complemented its tradition of cultural engagement with a new artist residency, which began in 2014 with mixed media artist Lindsay Olson.
Science as a subject for art has grown since Sandor’s first PHSCologram of the AIDS virus bloomed into a career of art-science collaborations.
“In the beginning it was almost practical. People were dying, and we wanted to bring everything to the surface and leave nothing hidden,” the artist says. “By the 1990s I realized that scientists were the rock stars of the future, and that’s even truer today.”
Sandor relishes being part of the scientific process. Drawing out the hidden beauty of particle physics to create something scientifically accurate and artistically stunning has been one of the most satisfying projects to date, she says.
Like Sandor, Semiconductor works with authentic scientific data, but they also emphasize how the language of science influences our experience of nature.
“The data represents something we can’t actually see, feel or touch,” Jarman says. “We reference the tools and processes of science and encourage the noise and the artifact to constantly remind people that it is man observing nature, but not actually how it is.”
Both Zeller and Alvarez-Gaume have personal interests in art and find value in the similarities and differences between the fields.
“Our objectives are very different, but our paths are similar,” Alvarez-Gaume says. “We experience inspiration, passion and frustration. We work through trial and error, failing most of the time.”
Like art, science is abstract but enjoyable, he adds. “Theoretical physicists will tell you there is beauty in science—a sense of awe. Art helps bring this to the surface. People are not interested in the details: They want to get a vision, a picture about why we think particle physics is interesting or exciting.”
Zeller finds her own inspiration in art-science collaborations.
“One of the things that surprised me the most in working with artists was the fact that they could articulate much better than I could what it is that my research achieves for humankind, and this reinvigorated me with excitement about my work,” she says.
Yet, one key difference between art and science speaks for the need to nurture their growing intersections, Alvarez-Gaume says.
“Science is inevitable; art is fragile. Without Einstein it may have taken many, many years, and many people working on it, but we still would have come up with his theories. If Beethoven died at age 5, we would not have the sonatas; art is not repeatable.”
And a world without art is not a world he would like to imagine.
Labs around the world open their doors to aesthetic creation.
Natsai Audrey Chieza is a designer on a mission — to reduce pollution in the fashion industry while creating amazing new things to wear. In her lab, she noticed that the bacteria Streptomyces coelicolor makes a striking red-purple pigment, and now she’s using it to develop bold, color-fast fabric dye that cuts down on water waste and chemical runoff, compared with traditional dyes. And she isn’t alone in using synthetic biology to redefine our material future; think — “leather” made from mushrooms and superstrong yarn made from spider-silk protein. We’re not going to build the future with fossil fuels, Chieza says. We’re going to build it with biology.
Natsai Audrey Chieza is a trans-disciplinary design researcher whose fascinating work crosses boundaries between technology, biology, design and cultural studies.
This talk was presented at a TED Institute event given in partnership with BCG. TED editors featured it among our selections on the home page. Read more about the TED Institute.
November 16–January 28, 2018
Explore small, surreal worlds at Curious Contraptions, an exhibition featuring charming, often hilarious mechanical sculptures known as automata. These whimsical machines are brought to life by intricate arrangements of simple, handmade mechanisms.