Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ada Lovelace Day 2014: The hard-earned fame of Marie Skłodowska-Curie

Today is the 6th annual international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology, science and math, Ada Lovelace Day 2014 (ALD14). I'm sure you'll all recall, Ada, brilliant proto-software engineer, daughter of absentee father, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Lord Byron, she was able to describe and conceptualize software for Charles Babbage's computing engine, before the concepts of software, hardware, or even Babbage's own machine existed! She foresaw that computers would be useful for more than mere number-crunching. For this she is rightly recognized as visionary - at least by those of us who know who she was. She figured out how to compute Bernouilli numbers with a Babbage analytical engine. Tragically, she died at only 36. Today, in Ada's name, people around the world are blogging.

(Cross-posted to the minouette blog)

This year I'm participating in an entire group art show celebrating Ada Lovelace Day. The Art.Science.Gallery show Go Ahead and Do It: Portraits of Women in STEM culminates today! I will share all of my portraits of women in science (and links to where I tell their stories) below.

Marie Curie linocut glows in the dark
Marie Skłodowska-Curie, linocut with glow-in-the-dark ink by Ele Willoughby, 2014

In previous years, I've specifically avoided writing about Marie Curie because she is often the one historical figure people can name. I don't like to do the obvious thing and particularly want to highlight the under appreciated heroines of science. However the result is that her truly remarkable achievements haven't been celebrated here, just because of her fame. So, with a collection of portraits and stories written on the less well known, today I'll write about the well-known and why she in fact deserves her fame.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934), Polish-born, naturalized-French physicist and chemist, as the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the only woman to ever win TWO Nobel prizes, and the only person ever to win in two different sciences: physics and chemistry! She was also the first female professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris. Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, she studied secretly at the Floating University there before moving to Paris where she earned higher scientific degrees, met her PhD supervisor and future husband Pierre.

She was one of the pioneers who helped explain radioactivity, a term she coined. She was the one who first developed a means of isolating radioacitve isotopes and discovered not one, but two new elements: polonium (named for her native country) and radium. She also pioneered radioactive medicine, proposing the treatment of tumors with radioactivity. She founded medical research centres, the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw which are still active today. She created the first field radiology centres during World War I. Each one of these achievements alone would warrant being memorialized in the annals of science and medicine; she did all of these things. She died in 1934 from aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation, including carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets during research and her World War I service in her mobile X-ray units.

Her pioneering work explaining radioactivity earned her the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and with physicist Henri Becquerel. At first, the Committee intended to honour only Pierre and Becquerel, but Swedish mathematician Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, an advocate of women in science, alerted Pierre to the situation. (You may recall that it was the same man who helped Sofia Kovalevski secure a University position in Stockholm and that she collaborated on works of literature and had what was called a "romantic friendship" with his sister Duchess Anne-Charlotte Edgren-Leffler).  After Pierre's complaint, Marie's name was added to the nomination. The 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to her "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element."

Her life and legacy are truly extraordinary!

Marie Skłodowska-Curie, linocut with glow-in-the-dark ink show in the light and dark by Ele Willoughby, 2014

Not only was her work original and providing revolutionary insight on the theoretical side at the time, but the sheer heroic dedication and labour involved in her experimental work cannot be overstated. Having recognized that pitchblende ore must contain multiple elements which were giving off radiation, she and Pierre were able to show in 1898 that two new elements Polonium and Radium were needed to explain their observations. They then sought to actually isolate these elements. From a ton of pitchblende, she separated one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride in 1902. In 1910 Marie Curie isolated pure radium metal - a full 12 years after she and Pierre published their preliminary evidence for its existence. This involved working in a shed, meticulously separating the radioactive material from the inert and then dividing the radioactive material into its various sources for many years - all the while raising their young daughter when not at the lab.

Both of the elements she discovered are radioactive, meaning that they spontaneously give off radiation. All of the isotopes of polonium emit alpha particles, but Polonium-210 will emit a blue glow which is caused by excitation of surrounding air. Radium emits alpha, beta and gamma particles - that is 2 protons and 2 neutrons, electrons as well as x-rays. Thus, I've shown her sample surrounded by the symbols of these particles: the straight and wiggly lined arrows for the massive particles and high-energy light photons or gamma rays respectively, and made the sample with glow-in-the-dark ink. While the materials she discovered and worked with would have glowed due to radioactivity, never fear... these prints glow due to phosphorescence - a different process which is not dangerous. The ink will absorb UV light (for instance, from sunlight) and re-emit it in the dark.

The linocut is printed on Japanese kozo paper 9.25" by 12.5" (23.5 cm by 32 cm) in an edition of eight.

You can also find my complete set of women in STEM portraits here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Music about Data

Gafurius's Practica musice, 1496 showing Apollo,
the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical ratios.
Science and music, like other arts, have a longstanding, close connection. Music can be described in terms of physics; notes translate to waveforms at a certain frequency, or equivalently certain pitch. Acoustics, tempo, rhythm, tones and overtones, harmonies and more can be explained in terms of physics. We can likewise discuss our physical world in terms of music.

In ancient Greece, Pythagoras and his followers placed a mystical meaning on his discovery of the mathematical underpinnings of music; he found that the length of a plucked string determined its pitch and that   simple (rational) ratios of a given length produced harmonies. They turned this idea on its head and apparently concluded that other fundamental patterns in nature were due not so much to mathematics, but that there was a musical underpinning to the known universe. Hence, the idea of the 'music of the spheres' and the hypothesis that planetary motions obeyed mathematical equations corresponding to musical notes and that the whole solar system together played its own symphony.

Kepler's musical notation for planetary motion and the range of sound
he ascribed to Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury
The idea was so persistent that when Johannes Kepler (1571- 1630) was developing the best model of our solar system to fit the beautiful dataset gathered by his mentor Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), one of the first notations he used was not mathematical, but musical. In fact, the idea was pervalent, and Kepler ended up embroiled in a priority dispute with Robert Fludd (1574-1637), whose own harmonic theory had been recently published in De Musica Mundana. While we tend to think of Kepler with his rational, more precise elliptical version of a Copernican heliocentric solar system as one of the first, modern scientists, he progressed from his musical notation, to a model based on a rather mystical appreciation for the Platonic Solids. That is, rather than explaning planetary motion in terms of his laws, as we know then today, he tried to make a model spacing of the planets from the sun based on the relative size of a nested spheres just large enough to coat a  series of special shapes called the Platonic Solids: the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, the dodecahedron and icosahedron. He progressed from there, in his Harmonices Mundi (literally, harmonies of the worlds) to describe planetary motions in musical terms. He found that the difference between the maximum and minimum angular speeds of a planet in its orbit was very close to a harmonic proportion. For instance Earth's maximal angular speed relative to the sun varies by about a semitone (a ratio of 16:15), from mi to fa, between aphelion (the furthest point from the sun on its elliptical orbit) and perihelion (its closest point to the sun). In his words, "The Earth sings Mi, Fa, Mi", and he built up a choir of similarly singing planets. He found that all but one of the ratios of the maximum and minimum speeds of planets on neighboring orbits approximate musical harmonies within a margin of error of less than a diesis (a 25:24 interval) - to use a musical term.

Today we would attribute these patterns to the underlying mathematics of planetary motion, or the physics of music, rather than a music of the spheres underlying everything. Nonetheless this trick of Kepler's, of mapping observed patterns onto music, or of writing data as music still has its place. I recall a professor extolling the virtues of plotting data as it was collected, because we are wired to see patterns and would for instance, recognize a friend's face in a crowd with much greater ease than their phone number from a list of 7-digit numbers. The same can be said of sound; we are wired to recognize musical patterns. We can both appreciate the beauty of regular data mapped onto sounds we can hear, or use what we hear to recognize patterns.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the son of a famous lutenist, composer, and music theorist, which may have primed him to be observant of the measure of time, rhythm and periodic patterns. In Galileo's Daughter, author Dava Sobel argues that in the absence of accurate time pieces, music likely played an important role in his experiments. Many experiments involved timing repeated observations as precisely as possible and it is likely that he may have used song as his yardstick of time.

A couple of contemporary examples of expressing experimental data musically have been in the news of late.

The European CERN particle physics lab in Switzerland celebrated its 60th birthday with this delightful composition by physicist and musician Domenico Vicinanza, which turns data from four detectors at the Large Hadron Collider into LHChamber Music. Performed by CERN scientists and engineers, the result is surprisingly musical, like Baroque chamber music. Vicinanza has 'sonified' data before (including the satelitte Voyager I's magnetometer data), employing an algorithm to assign a musical note to each measurement created by experiments, so that the same data is presented as a musical score, much like Kepler did.

Sonifying data also allows scientists to hear patterns, to cope with massive datasets and find complexity which may otherwise have escaped them. Above, cicada calls are replaced with notes. The University of Uppsala team explains their sonification and visualization of the data:
The circles represent recording stations in the Australian bush that pick up the calls of cicadas. The intensity of the circle’s colour and its size is proportional to volume of sound in that area of the forest at that time (the videos is 15 x real time).
They could also add the sound of the cicadas themselves (speed up 15 times), but in the words of researcher James Herbert-Read, "that would be horrific". Instead they decided to translate cicada calls into music.
Each one of the four different coloured block of recorders also plays a different chord (we chose the standard I–V–vi–IV progression in the key of C major). By doing this, you can now not only see, but hear when cicadas in different areas of the forest start to sing, when other cease singing, and listen to the additive effect of all individuals singing together across large swathes of the forest.
The video is the cicada 'morning chorus' beginning at 5:30 am when light strikes the right hand side of the area shown, where the  first cicadas call. You see and hear other cicadas join, the early oscillations in volume and then the crescendo to full volume for the remainder of the chorus.

Locals had noted waves of cicada song moving through the forest and the researchers wanted whether they could prove the cicadas were in fact synchronized. They found quantifiable waves did in fact move through the forest. Though, they theorize that this is an emergent pattern, where each cicada follows his own rules and does not consciously try to synchronize with his neighbours.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Earth Sci Animation

This is a very simple post, but I really must share this great little animation. I am after all, a geophysicist by training, and this elegant animation “Everything You Need to Know About Planet Earth” by Munich-based Kurzgesagt, covers much of a first year physics of the Earth course in a lucid, fun, succinct way, with a great minimalist aesthetic, and a few extra dinosaurs.

Their rapid summary of plate tectonics does leave out mid-ocean ridges, transform faults, collision zones and more... but in fairness, an entire plate tectonics future video is promised. Way to go Kurzgesagt!

(via Laughing Squid)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Illustration/Math Venn Diagram

Even those who do not happen to revel in mathematics, know a little set theory - or least one of its useful visual tools: the Venn diagram. Today would be the 180th birthday of English philosopher and logician John Venn (4 August 1834 – 4 April 1923) remembered for the eponymous diagrams. Somehow by making a way to visualize sets and their intersections, he created a mathematical tool beloved of illustrators and graphic designers. (It's the subject of today's Google doodle). This sort of math one can "see" has made it into - dare I say - a large set of fun and fabulous illustrations. I thought I'd gather some for his birthday.

I love this hilarious example by Tenso Graphics:  

'Math' by Tenso Graphics available here

The diagrams are so recognizable, people even take liberties with the concept and we still understand, say that moustaches are the intersection of shaved areas with facial hair:

Venn diagram of facial hair by Tim Easley
 Or this interesting one:

one of a series of Venn diagrams by Satchel And Sage
Though sometimes they are quite literal, as in these Venn diagrams in the 'light theory' pillow:

Light theory pillow by dirtsastudio
But, I think this one is my all time favorite,

by Elise Towle Snow of Argyle Whale

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Transparent Still Life

Physicist Arie van 't Riet specializes in radiation physics, and very low energy x-rays in particular. He began making artwork employing x-ray nature photographs, where radiography intersects fine art. His colourized x-ray photos of bioramas are a sort of see-through wunderkammer. He creates entire scenes in x-ray form. It makes me think of how the natural world might look if my eyes could see in x-ray wavelengths (or those back-of-the-comic-book x-ray specs really worked).

  Arie van 't Riet

Cameleon, begonia, Arie van 't Riet

Barn owl, Arie van 't Riet

Arie van 't Riet

frog, Arie van 't Riet

Arie van 't Riet
Arie & Hans van't Riet

 As a printmaker, I also appreciate how he's worked with Hans van 't Riet to produce Toboyo prints, or photo-polymer etchings, using UV light to transfer the x-rays to a plate which was inked and hand-printed. There's something poetic about using one non-visible wavelength to photograph right through lifeforms and show their structure, and then use another non-visible wavelength to bite an etching plate and print onto paper- combining the high tech with the centuries-old artistic medium.

Transparent flowers, revealing their skeletal structures, are also the subject of  architecture-student-turned-artist Macoto Murayama's work, but his is a very different medium. He uses computer graphics, 3dsMAX software usually employed in architecture (or animation), to model and then Photoshop and Illustrator depict the anatomy of flowers. It's like a specialized form of scientific illustration, as he bases his images on his own careful dissection of flowers
Chrysanthemum, Macoto Murayama
Rose, Macoto Murayama

Yoshino cherry, Macoto Murayama

Chrysanthemum, Macoto Murayama

Satsuki azalea, Macoto Murayama

(via the scientist)

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Caroline Herschel
Caroline Herschel, linocut by Ele Willoughby (aka minouette), 2014
I'v been working of late on this linocut of astronomer Caroline Herschel (16 March 1750 – 9 January 1848), known for her discovery of at least 8 comets, and in the process, I've come across all these historical images of comets, which I thought I would share.

Comets have long been interpreted as harbingers, of often terrifying events, though sometimes of wonderous things to come. When something new appears and moves through our heavens, it's not surprising that they have been recorded, especially when obvious even to the naked eye.

a depiction of a comet that may have been an aurora borealis, 1527, Germany, anonymous
from Kometenbuch, written in 1587, a book containing descriptions of comets and hand painted illustrations.

[Notable comets of the period 1577-1652]

Types of cometary forms, illustrations from Johannes Hevelius' Cometographia (Danzig, 1668)
'Halley's Comet' & 'Enckee's Comet' from The Phenomena and Order of the Solar System, c. 1843.
Reynolds' Series of Astronomical Diagrams. Comets and Aerolites
Flowers of the sky, by Richard A. Proctor. New York, A.C. Armstrong and son [1879?] p.24
E L Trouvelot - The great comet of 1881. Observed on the night of June 25-26 at 1h. 30m. A.M

French paste comet brooch, c. 1950, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Inspired by Science

Inspired by Science on The Etsy Blog

The Etsy blog just posted Karen Brown's article featuring 5 Etsy artists who are inspired by science, including me!

Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission Linocut History of Physics by minouette


“I think the idea that art and science are separate is unfounded,” says print maker Ele Willoughby of minouette. “It takes creativity to be a good scientist and experimentation to be a good artist.” In her Etsy shop, Ele explores art and science through a series of portraits of scientists inspired by the bi-monthly challenges of the Mad Scientists of Etsy team. “I love hearing from parents who want to inspire young children with portraits of scientific heroes or heroines,” she says.

There are some fabulous artists in that inspiring intersection of art and science, and several of my prints included.

(x-posted to the on-going saga of minouette)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


3D objects by Lydiaka Shirreff

Minerals and crystals are so common in contemporary culture I decided to make a second post on crystals. The distinction is sometimes a bit arbitrary, as many minerals are crystals, but today's post is about art and things which celebrate the wondrous shapes of crystals, and remind you (if mathematically inclined) of group theory. Often, you see crystalline forms growing out of everything from fashion:

Iris van Herpen, Capriole collection
Pastel Stud Vest by Mallory Weston, strangefeelings on Etsy

Eva Soto Conde dress, 2013, photo by Tomy Pelluz for Vogue Italia

Pankaj and Nidhi's glowing geometric dress, SS12 show at Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week 


to architecture, like the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, an addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, created by architect Daniel Libeskind, here in Toronto,


or the watercolour drawings of the Los Carpinteros collective (Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés and Dagoberto Rodriguez Sanchez)

Los Carpinteros, 2011, watercolour / paper, 80 x 114 cm.
Courtesy: Sean Kelly Gallery, NY.
Los Carpinteros, 2011, watercolour / paper,

Los Carpinteros, 2011, watercolour / paper,

Los Carpinteros, 2011, watercolour / paper,

 To ceramics, like Michelle Summers' whimsical illustrations:

Michelle Summers

Michelle Summers

Michelle Summers
And, of course, crystals themselves abound in art.

Crystals by Carin Vaughn

Installation by Gemma Smith
Acryllic sculpture and painting by Gemma Smith
...amongst many others. Do you have a favorite interpretation of crystals?

Monday, January 27, 2014


Crystals, minerals and gems have been a recurring theme in a lot of contemporary art and culture of late. This is a round up of some of those mineral inspired items that have caught my eye. You see minerals in art like the spectacular paintings by Carly Waito previously covered by magpie&whiskeyjack. You can also find artist-made minerals in all sorts of media.

Ashley Zangle, detail of bubble bath pour

Ashley Zangle, Nine Pours Spring: 2012, 44 x 60"

Ashley Zangle uses bubble bath and ink on paper to capture and sculpture the multifarious look of minerals.

Studio installation by Ashley Zangle
Ashley Zangle

Rocks and minerals show up in the collages of collections by Amber Ibarreche.

Gemz, collage by Amber Ibarreche

Keetra Dean Dixon and JK Keller produced a series of layed wax sculptures with embedded text which look like giant mineral specimens.

Layered Wax Type: Become; in orange, Detail. 24" x 13" x 7", 
wax, acrylic paint and foam, 2009
by Keetra Dean Dixon and JK Keller

Layered Wax Type: Become; in orange, 24" x 13" x 7", wax, acrylic paint and foam, 2009
by Keetra Dean Dixon and JK Keller

Layered Wax Type: Become; in orange, Detail. 24" x 13" x 7", 
wax, acrylic paint and foam, 2009
by Keetra Dean Dixon and JK Keller
Tabirtha Bianca Brown, or thepairabirds, has some great mineral and gem prints on Etsy.

Soft Rock Geometric Facet Art Print by thepairabirds

Amethyst, Geometric Facet Art Print by thepairabirds

Lindsay Jones has a whole mineral calendar.

2014 Minerals Calendar by shoplindsayjones

David Scheirer has a great print of a rock collection watercolour.

Rock mineral collection by studiotuesday

I love the more stylized illustrations of crystals and minerals by Ryan Putnam too.

Ryan Putnam, crystals and minerals

I myself have begun making linocuts on Japanese kozo paper with iridescent chine colle of different minerals.

Quartz linocut by minouette

Minerals show up in fashion, like this 'Mineralogy' scarf by Charlotte Linton:

'Mineralogy' scarf by Charlotte Linton
Or more photorealistic silk scarves with photos from Jen Altman's Gem and Stone:


Labradorite scarf, photo by Jen Atlman

You even see minerals in street art, like the fabulous paper and resin 3D 'urban geode' works by Paige Smith of A Common Name.

A Common Name, Geode #3, DTLA 

A Common Name, Geode #10, Arts District
A Common Name, Geode #33, Uluwatu

Perhaps the most unexpected and delightful medium is soap!


2 oz. Soap/Amethyst Crystal Soap by amethystsoap


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