Thursday, March 19, 2015

Star Wars Taxonomy

The Han solo agnostid trilobite is called "solo" because it's the
only species in the genus Han (via). Sure. I buy that.

Since the days of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and his major works Systema Naturae (1st Edition in 1735), and in fact, to some degree beforehand, categorizing life as we know it and building the greater family tree of organisms has been a major scientific endeavour which has helped us to understand where we all come from. The taxonomists I have known, do fascinating and important work, to map who is out there and where they came from and what they are doing.

Today is Taxonomy Appreciation Day (#TaxonomyDay). So, I thought I would take the chance to appreciate not only their fundamental research contributions to categorizing the organisms of the world, but their inventiveness in naming and relating discoveries to important culture - specifically Star Wars. Because this is what serious science is all about.

Consider the one and only species in the genus Han, an agnostif trilobite (above), officially named after the Han Chinese (the fossil is from northern Hunan Province, China). As the sole Han, a monotypic taxon, it must of course be called 'solo'. The similarity of the name Han solo and Han Solo of the original Star Wars triology are purely coincidental, no doubt. (via Buzzfeed)

The 1997 "Special Edition" of Star Wars depicts Greedo
firing a shot at Han Solo shortly before Han reponds in kind.
In the original 1977 release, Han is the only one to fire. (wikipedia)

Many Star Wars fans will recall the 'Han shot first' controversy. The original 1977 version of Star Wars shows Han shooting the body hunter Greedo first; this was changed for the 1997 Special Edition.  A fairly recently-discovered species of  suckermouth armored catfish was named Peckoltia greedoi by an Auburn University trio led by Jonathan Armbruster. Because life is odd, the choice is less of a stretch than you might imagine. See for yourself:

Images: Auburn University via Flickr & Greedo picture courtesy starwarshelmets.com





The trapdoor spider Aptostichus sarlacc (Bond, 2012) is named for the sarlacc sand-pit creature from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi who consumes people and animals thrown into his gaping maw. I don't actually know what type of trapdoor spider is shown below, but I think it illustrates why they might remind you of the hole in the sand from which no one returns.


The Great Pit of Carkoon with the original
sarlacc from Return of the Jedi (1983) (via wikipedia)

A trapdoor spider (via)
Scanning electron microscope image of the oribatid mite Darthvaderum apparently reminded Hunt (1996) of a certain villain's helmut.



Darthvaderum versus Darth Vader (via quazoo)


"Yoda purpurata, or "purple Yoda."The reddish-purple acorn worm was found about 1.5 miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and the large lips in either side of its head region that reminded researchers of the floppy-eared Stars Wars character Yoda." Credit: David Shale via livescience
Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back via wikipedia
Well-loved, diminuative, ancient, green jedi teacher Yoda is honoured in the names of both with an acorn worm, Yoda purpurata, and a parasitic isopod Albunione yoda, with lips and lateral flaps, respectively, which protrude from their heads and remind researchers of Yoda's long, pointy ears. Neither geography, nor shape explains the Tetramorium jedi ant, named for the Star Wars jedi knights. They do not even have any light sabers.

So here's to the taxonomers; may the force with with you.

(with thanks to Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Caroline Herschel: Scientific Cinderella to Comet Sweeper

Caroline Herschel
Caroline Herschel, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2014
Happy birthday Caroline Herschel! German-born Caroline Herschel (16 March 1750 – 9 January 1848), while overshadowed by her brother William (who discovered Uranus, amongst his other astronomical accomplishments), was a real pioneer as a woman in astronomy and made her own important contributions. In fact, she became the first salaried female scientist, when King George III hired her to assist her brother, at a time when there were few professional scientists anywhere. Hers was a real life sort of Cinderella story, where rather than marrying a prince, she made a life and career for herself. Marriage was the expected role for a woman of her time, but she was deemed unmarriageable, since a childhood bout of typhus stunted her growth. Her mother thought she should train to be a servant, and purposely stood in the way of her learning French, or music, to prevent her from seeking employment as a governess. She wanted a perpetual unpaid maid. Her father sometimes managed to include her in William's lessons when their mother was absent. William had fled to England after the Seven Years War and made a life as a musician and composer in Bath. William managed to rescue his younger sister from their mother's clutches, under the pretext that she might have the voice to be a solo singer in Handel's oratorios, as she too was a natural musician. Of course, he also wanted a woman to manage his bachelor household. Meanwhile, he developed a real passion for astronomy. So, by the time she arrived, all his spare time away from music was devoted to astronomy and she found that despite her singing talent, she was roped into assisting with the construction of telescopes, rather than receiving music lessons. By 1781, William had discovered a new planet - Uranus , which he cannily dubbed the 'Georgian Star' after King George III. This had the desired effect of securing himself a pension, so that he could spend his time on astronomy (so long as he would present it to the King when asked).

William and Caroline worked together at Slough, observing the night sky with a variety of telescopes. William built some very large telescopes and had Caroline take notes of what he observed, while she used smaller 'sweeper' telescopes to sweep the skies for interesting object. She discovered 11 nebulae (2 of which turned out to be galaxies) which were previously unknown! She also found 8 or 9 comets, as well as making and sharing observations of comets discovered by others. The portrait is based on a miniature of Caroline, as well as her own notes and diagrams from 1 August 1786, when she discovered her first comet, now known as Comet C/1786 P1 (Herschel). On the left, her sketches of the object "like a star out of focus" which she correctly identified as a comet, is at the centre of the three circular diagrams labelled I, II and III. On the right, her Fig I and Fig II show her observations the following night, noting the position of the comet relative to the constellations of Ursa Major and Coma Berenices.

She also independently re-discovered Comet Encke in 1795, first recorded by Pierre Méchain in 1786. Later, in 1819, her observations help Johann Franz Encke recognize it was a periodic comet, like Halley's comet. Encke was able to calculate its orbit, partially due to her observations. The comet shown behind Caroline is based on a recent photo of Comet Encke, which returns every 3 years.

In order to calculate orbits of newly discovered comets, it was important to let other astronomers know as soon as possible. The letter post was often not fast enough, if the weather turned cloudy. She discovered her 8th comet while her brother was away. So, she took matters into her own hands. After an hour's sleep, she saddled a horse, and road the roughly twenty-six miles to the Greenwich Observatory of the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, much to his astonishment.

One of her important impacts on astronomy was that her early success showed her brother how even an amateur using a small telescope could find previously unobserved nebulae, and hence that there was real value in making systematic sweeps of the night sky. Partnering together, with William sweeping the sky with his 20 foot telescope and Caroline taking notes by lamplight just inside the window, they went on to discover 2507 nebulae and clusters over two decades of work. Further, she acted as 'computer', doing the mathematical grunt work for her brother's observations. William's study completely revolutionized astronomy, and it couldn't have happened without Caroline's help.

They worked side by side nightly until 1788, when William married (at age 49). Caroline was no longer needed to run his household, and he offered her money as compensation. She, however, convinced him to request her own salary from the King, which she received. She moved to a cottage in the garden. She did a lot of her own observing for the next nine years (while William was otherwise occupied at nights), and gained more fame in her own right.

In 1797 the standard star catalogue used by astronomers was published by John Flamsteed. It was tough to use since it appeared in two volumes, with discrepancies. William suggested that a proper cross-reference would be a great help and a project for Caroline. She produced the resulting Catalogue of Stars, published by the Royal Society in 1798. It contained a index of all of Flamsteed's observed stars, all of the errors in his volumes and a further 560 additional stars.

When William died in 1822, she returned to Hanover, where she was born, but she continued her cataloguing and confirming of William's observations. Her catalogue of nebulae aided her nephew John Herschel in his astronomical work. The Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal in 1828 for this catalogue. She was the first woman to receive the honour (and remained the only woman until Vera Rubin in 1996).

She and Mary Sommerville were the first women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, when they were elected Honorary Members in 1835. In 1838 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. In 1846, at age 96 she also received a Gold Medal from the King of Prussia, for her astronomical work (presented by none other than Alexander von Humboldt). An asteroid and moon crater have been named in her honour.

You can find more in the great article  on Caroline Herschel by Micheal Hoskin AAS Comittee on the Status of Women site (to which this blog post is indebted), Caroline Herschel's wikipedia entry,  and the ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY entry on her notes.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pi Art for Pi Day

If you like numbers, you cannot help but like one as famous as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, π. Likewise, what's not to like about π day? I confess, I like to write the date in the metric fashion (day, month, year), but if you represent it numerically the way we say it in English, March 14, '15 looks like the first several digits of this famed irrational: 3.1415 (and this post is scheduled for 9:26 to continue with the fun). 



http://mkweb.bcgsc.ca/pi/art/
path connecting segments traces out the digits
of π. Here the transition for the 6 digits is
is shown. Concept by Cristian Ilies Vasile.
Created with Circos.
Martin Krzywinski, bioinformatics researcher and artist, has created a number of artistic representations of π (and other mathematical concepts) at that place where scientific visualizations meet art. He created Circos, a software package for visualizing data and information in a circular layout; he writes, "Cristian Ilies Vasile had the idea of representing the digits of π as a path traced by links between successive digits".

He found that they could weave  a mandala by continuing this process. Then he proceeded to add more employing concentric circles of dots to indicate the number of transitions between any two figures. The colour of the dot indicates which figure (0 through 9) was visited next and the size is proportional to frequency of a given transition.

Check out his other lovely and fascinating projects (including how he mapped π on an Archimedean spiral, as above) on his site.




Martin Krzywinski, Progression and transition for the first 1,000 digits of π. Created with Circos. (PNG, BUY ARTWORK)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nudibranch Fashion, Jellyfish Couture: Marine Invertebrates Do the Oscars

Nudibranch photographed by David Doubilet (via Photoshelter blog)

Recently, I was tickled to read a tweet;


For context, the Golden Globes were the previous evening.

Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (1904),
plate 43: Nudibranchia
A someone who enjoys the most weird and wonderful specimen of the animal kingdom and who has done a lot of fieldwork at sea, I knew instantly what she meant. If you are not familiar with arguably the most weird and wonderful sea creature going, you should watch National Geographic photographer David Doublet introduce the nudibranch. National Geographic calls the short film an introduction to "the glamor slugs of the sea" and Doubilet himself says, “Of all the creatures in the sea, these are the high fashion models.”

Leopold and Rudolf Blashka, glass model of a nudibranch,
late 19th/early 20th century











These spectacular marine invertebrates, are perhaps improbably, mollosks who shed their shells after the larval stage. They are multifarious and come in thousands of species, though they are often confused with sea slugs. You may have seen the illustrations by famed 19th century biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (whom I've written about previously) or the amazing glass models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. They inhabit the all the oceans of the world. The come in every conceivable colour combination, it seems, a range of improbable shapes and though most are small they can range from roughly 1 to 50 cm in length like the fabulous Spanish Dancers. The name "nudibranch" comes from the Greek for "naked gill", a description of the rosette of branchial plumes protruding from their backs. The tentacles on their heads are sensitive to touch, taste, and smell. They are hermaphrodites, each having both types of sex organs, but they do need two to mate. They may appear harmless, but they are carnivores, and some produce and use toxins defensively. Even cannibalism is not unknown, and they will eat other species of nudibranch.

This marvellous hat is part of Fashion at the Races'
Deep Sea series, and is specifically inspired by the
nudibranch. It is a headpiece which "is hand
sculpted out of hot pink jinsin straw, and it has
battery operated LED lights to mimic the
bioluminesene that many deep sea creatures have."
The tweet sent me down the "nudibranch fashion" rabbithole. These amazing creatures don't merely ressemble the more out high fashion, they are sometimes their inspiration. Entire seasons for some designers may be inspired by sea creatures like the nudibranch.

Mirella Bruno Print Design Project
Direction Boards SS/2014.
Note that this includes a few nudibranches.
The logical thing to do, of course, is to have a go at it: matching award show gowns to nudibranch species, and see if in fact they do all ressemble nudibranches! I've written previously about how origami has inspired fashion, crystallography has inspired fashion or a wonderful mash-up of dresses and gig posters. So what about a mash-up of fashion and nudibranches? First, I thought to check whether this has been done.  Where I See Fashion,  is a visual feast; fashion student Bianca Luini creates an on-going blog of mash-ups of fashion photography and everything else, from natural history to abstract art, where the everything else echos the lines, patterns, shapes and colours of the fashion. Searching through their images, it seems she has paired fashion imagery with marine invertebrates, but only (as far as I can tell) with jellyfish.


Match #226
Yiqing Yin Fall 2012 | Jellyfishes at the Aquarium of The Bay in San Francisco, CA

Match #157
Jil Sander Spring 2011 | Jellyfish in a tank lit up with coloured lights photographed by pixelmama
Where I See Fashion: Match #1 gown and jellyfish
Where I See Fashion Match #8 photo and bioluminescent jellyfish

So, without further ado, and with thanks to all the people and creatures mentioned for their inspiration, here are my Oscar dress/Nudibranch pairs:

Marion Cottilard attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards, February 22, 2015
(MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images) and dorid nudibranch
Cadlina luteomarginata (Jeff Goddard, Santa Barbara).
Rosamund Pike attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards, February 22, 2015
(Photo by Jeff Vespa/WireImage) and a spanish dancer nudibranch
off Australia (Photoe by Chris, Underwater Australia)
Emma Stone (Getty) and Manned Nudibranch Aeolidia papillosa
(Photo (c) Luc Gangnon, 2015 Aquatic Biodiversity Monitoring Network)

Blanca Blanco (Getty) and nudibranch (via here)

Scarlett Johansson (Mark Raulston/AFP/Getty) and green nudibranch
(by Saffron on scuba-fish gallery)
Gwenyth Paltrow (Getty) and a Nudibranch egg rosette

Thursday, February 19, 2015

De Revolutionibus - a portrait of Copernicus & his heliocentric solar system

DeRevolutionibus1
De Revolutionibus, linocut, 2008, Ele Willoughby

To celebrate his birthday, here is my portrait Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543) and his model of the celestial spheres, or as we would say, the solar system. Copernicus is shown in green with a lily of the valley, the standard Renaissance symbol to indicate a medical doctor, since like most proto-scientists, or 'philosophers' (doctors of philosophy) he learned his astronomy incidentally, since astrology was considered a vital diagnostic tool for medicine. His planetary model is shown as he conceived it in gold. Using the ancient Greek and Roman symbols, the heliocentric solar system has the following planets: Mercury (the fleet-footed messenger with his serpents and staff, the caduceus), Venus (goddess of beauty - the mirror, like an ankh), Earth (4 cardinal directions), Mars (spear and shield), Jupiter (thunderbolt) and Saturn (the scythe of Time). The outer planets had yet to be discovered. Beyond Saturn, he envisioned the sphere of the "fixed stars".

Copernicus' great work, "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex" (or "Six Books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres"), commonly known as "De Revolutionibus" (or "On the Revolutions") was finally approved for publication as he lay on his death bed. Was this due to perfectionism, fears, or religious belief and the concerns that displacing the Earth from the centre of the universe might conflict with literal interpretations of the Bible? Perhaps we will never know. But we do know that as a consequence of the publication of this provocative volume, the Western world experienced what is now known as the Copernican Revolution. This is a landmark in the history of science and culture.

The story of precisely how De Revolutionibus entered Western culture is told in Owen Gringrich's The Book Nobody Read (see sci & lit), which details the census he made of existing first and second editions of Copernicus' famous posthumous work, how he went about this and what he learned. There are at least 600 existing copies of the 1st and 2nd edition. There is plenty of evidence of enthusiastic readings, rapid transfer of information about interpretations, as well as negative reactions, amongst a Renaissance who's who. I learned several things from this book including a convincing argument that the "epicycles upon epicycles" story is a myth (one does not need circles upon circles to be added to the Ptolemaic geocentric planetary system model to predict "retrograde" motion) and contemporaries of Copernicus were often more excited about the details of the math and getting rid of the Ptolemaic equant than they were about the idea that we could live on a moving planet in a sun-centred solar system (bizarre to the modern reader)! Also interesting, is that Eames, of mid-century designer-chair fame (amongst other things), took many of the photographs in the book (The Book Nobody Read), having been hired to design IBM's display in honour of the 500 year anniversary of Copernicus' birth.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ernst Haeckel & Artforms in Nature

Ernst Haeckel portrait
Ernst Haeckel, linocut on kozo, 30.5 cm by 30.5 cm, 2011, by Ele Willoughby


Ernst Haeckel's Artforms in Naure, 1904 can be viewed here
Biologist, naturalist, and scientific illustrator par excellence Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel (February 16, 1834 – August 9, 1919), and his beautiful and well-known Artforms in Nature can be credited for the fact that people who are not say, marine microbiologists or geostratigraphers or their colleagues, know and are inspired by the extraordinary forms of radiolarians (as I've written about before), or are familiar with any number of exotic marine invertebrates.  Here we have the man himself, surrounded by several of the creatures he depicted. Clockwise from the top we have: rugosa, a foraminifer (or foram), a tubularid hydroid, homo sapiens (Ernst Haeckel), a dinoflagelate, and a sea slug or nudibranch. His was a form of descriptive science, where his art, his depictions of lifeforms was science, or his science was art. As such, he can be seen as a sort of culmination of centuries of work of his predecessors, gathering their cabinets of curiosity, their wunderkammer of creatures, driven almost as much by aesthetics as by exploration of the biosphere. You can trace this sort of scientific collecting from luminaries of the scientific revolution like Robert Hooke who gathered microscopic wunderkammer, and many others throughout the age of exploration, who travelled the world gathering specimen through to the Victorians whose obsession with cabinets of curiosity has been explained as an indication in fact of a morbid fear of death (in Olalquiaga's The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury Of The Kitsch Experience).

His particular presentation of life*, which highlights the inherent patterns and beauty, has long been an influence on artists (myself included). Consider the rococco jellyfish chandeliers of Timothy Horn, a hommage to Haeckel's drawings. Haeckel's influence can also be seen in the surreal and imaginary zoological and botanical style drawings of Katie Scott, or the entire otherworldly visual encyclopedia in an alien language Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini. You can compare his drawings with the glass sculptures of the near contemporary Blaschka father and son, who created fabulous menageries filled with marine invertebrates as well as other creatures and botanicals and whose work likewise straddles art and science and their fertile intersection. His work lead to the incorporation of forms from nature finding their way into everything from furniture to architecture, as well as the more obvious influence on fine art and scientific illustration.

*Sadly, his deep appreciation of life in its many forms did not translate into an enlightened view of his own species. While he did make contributions to evolutionary biology, and was a great popularizer of Darwin's work in Germany, he also used a confused hodgepodge of Darwinian and Lamarkian ideas and far more speculation than a we would consider reasonable in a modern scientific sense. Some of his discredited scientific ideas were in vogue during his lifetime, and his errors should be considered within context. Most disappointing however, were his wrong-headed and repugnant social Darwinist ideas about race and his evolutionary racism which have been linked to the rise of Fascism. I've long enjoyed his extraordinary art/science and was saddened to read that he harboured such ideas, but I think it's important to avoid lionizing people, for instance for their artistic or scientific ideas, and to acknowledge their failings as well as achievements. I can admire his scientific illustration and tireless zoological investigations but still repudiate his ideas about human evolution.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Anatomical Valentines

My Heart Needs Your Breath - Isabelle Dalle, complete with lungs and heart
Happy Valentine's Day! As an antidote to the over-sweet sentiments of love we often see expressed in the name of St. Valentine (a matyred victim of torture, if he was one person, apparently), here are some more anatomically correct Valentines, or at least, Valentines and art inspired by anatomy and anatomical diagrams.

Collage artist Isabelle Dalle runs a virtual cabinet of curiosities, and creates anatomical collages which are also a sort of clever visual pun.


Heart and soul, by Isabelle Dalle

Collage artist Travis Bedel merges vintage anatomical drawing and other etchings from old science texts to create his exuborant works bursting with life. You can purchase prints of his work here. (via HonestlyWTF and Laughing Squid)


 Travis Bedel

 Travis Bedel

 Travis Bedel


Anatomical hearts come in other media too. From textiles,

Eat your heart out, crochet art by Kate Jenkins

le corps humain, (or "the human body") 15 cm x 15 cm embroideries by Cécile Dachary, 2011 
Hearts Crocheted satin cord, stainless steel 30x 30x 82 cm, by Sarah Maloney, 2000

to sculpture with beading,

Beaded heart by Jan Huling

to drawing

ai no toriko” (which means "slave for love") by Yuka Yamaguchi

to painting and pyrography, like the many hearts of Fay Helfer (via Street Anatomy).

Asparagus Heart pyrography, natural pigment and pastel on wood 10” x 22”, by Fay Helfer

Clover Heart pyrography, natural pigment and pastel on wood by Fay Helfer

Sea Fan Heart pyrography, natural pigment and pastel on wood 8” x 12” by Fay Helfer



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