Tag Archives: science

Moments in Research: A Poster Series

I love poster design. I love decorating my house with See America and WPA posters; I love designing posters about my passions. I haven’t posted any science designs because I find science hard to illustrate. I see lots of designs with beakers and test tubes, atoms, lab coats, and petri dishes. The challenge is that these are the tools of science, but they aren’t what makes science exciting. Science occurs between the ears, and the standards symbols are just tools of the craft. But how do you make posters of people thinking? Even the WPA posters promoting math-related careers are pretty listless, and that is a series of posters that used dinosaurs to promote syphilis treatment.

It occurred to me that the unifying thread of scientific inquiry are the highs, lows, and puzzlements of research. My friends in mechanical engineering have little need for beakers or lab coats, while my friends in biology aren’t (usually) immersed in coding. Different disciplines use different tools, but every discipline knows the elation of a published paper or the frustration of explaining what the heck it is you research to granny.

So, this inspiration broke my science poster designer’s block. I have three designs, but ideas for many more. For the style, I was inspired by World War I illustrator Lucien Laforge. There will be more, but I’m pleased with the start!

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Turing Patterns: What do a leopard’s spots, vegetation in arid zones, and the formation of fingers have in common?

Please excuse my inconsistent posting of late, I have been deep down the rabbit hole of science. Last week, I attended the Society of Industrial and Applied Math (SIAM) dynamical systems conference. What fun!

I learned about Turing Patterns, named for mathematician Alan Turing. Complex patterns can arise from the balance between the diffusion of chemicals and the reaction of those chemicals. For this reason, Turing’s model is also called the Reaction-Diffusion model. In general, these kinds of patterns can arise when there’s some kind of competition.

This sounds abstract, but suspected examples in nature abound. Have you ever wondered how the leopard got his spots or what’s behind the patterns on seashells? We often don’t know the chemical mechanisms that produce the patterns, but we can mathematically reproduce them with generic models.

Image from wired.com discussion of Turing patterns.

Mary Silber and her grad student Karna Gowda presented research on Turing patterns in the vegetation of arid regions. When there isn’t enough precipitation to support uniform vegetation, what vegetation will you observe? If there’s too little water, their model yields a vegetation-free desert. Between “not enough” and “plenty” the model generates patterns, from spots to labyrinths to gaps. Their work expands at least two decades worth of study of Turing patterns in vegetation.

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Figure by Karna Gowda, see the full article at SIAM news.

Silber and Gowda considered an area in the Horn of Africa (the bit that juts east below the Middle East). Here, stable patterns in the vegetation have been documented since the 1950s. They wanted to know how the patterns have changed with time. Have the wavelengths between vegetation bands changed? Are there signs of distress due to climate change? By comparing pictures taken by the RAF in the 1950s to recent satellite images, they found that the pattern were remarkably stable. The bands slowly travelled uphill, but they had the same wavelength and the same pattern. They only observed damage in areas with lots of new roads.

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From google maps of the Horn of Africa! I screen-capped this from here.

Turing patterns have even been studied experimentally in zebrafish. Zebrafish stripes might appear stationary, but they will slowly change in response to perturbations. So scientists did just. Below is a figure from the paper. The left shows the pattern on the zebrafish, the right shows the predictions of the model.

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Experimental perturbations to the patterns of zebrafish are well-predicted by the Turing model. Read more in this excellent Science paper.

The model has been used to explain the distribution of feather buds in chicks and hair follicles in mice. Turing’s equations have even been used to explain how fingers form.

If you want to learn more, the links above are a great start. And if you want to play with the patterns yourself, check out this super fun interactive. These waves aren’t stationary like the Turing patterns I described here, but they arise from similar mathematics. The interactive can make your computer work, fyi.

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Reaction-diffusion pattern I generated with this online interactive. It’s super fun!

#Trypod: Favorite podcasts

March is “Trypod” Month, where podcasts are asking enthusiasts to recommend their favorites. I only started listening to podcasts last summer, but I already have several favorites. One of the reasons I took so long to try podcasts was that I hadn’t heard of many. I tried out my first podcast after reading an interesting episode, and now I’m hooked.

Podcasts are great companions to life’s chores that occupy the hands but not the brain. I listen to podcasts when I do the dishes, when I fold clothes, and when I work in the garden. I love to learn, and this way I can learn at times I couldn’t before.

I listen to quite a range of stuff, as my favorites list will show. I’m also eager for new oddball recommendations.

BackStory: American history from the experts

On BackStory, three University of Virginia professors of history discuss a topic as it has played out through American history. (In 2017, they switched to four professors.) Topics include the history of church and state in America, the history of scandal, and the history of infrastructure, among others. Backstory delights in illuminating the bizarre and exciting about history, while connecting these topics to the present day. And with professors of history, you know you’re listening to real, researched history. Hooray!

Myths and Legends Podcast: Delightful myths from around the world

Narrator Jason brings good cheer to myths, legends, and fairy tales from around the world. Whether it’s the Norse Volsung Saga, Native American stories about giant skunks that can fart you to death, or Russia’s Baba Yaga, who’s home stands on chicken legs, Myths and Legends is guaranteed fun once a week. And that doesn’t even get into the weekly creature segments, like the butter cat, who steals butter from the neighbors for his master.

Russian Rulers History Podcast: Russian rulers, history, and culture

I’m a long-time Russian history enthusiast; if you aren’t this might not be your cup of tea, but it’s one of my favorites. The host isn’t a historian, he just likes Russian history, and does a good job telling it. Nothing flashy, just the history of this massive and enigmatic country, from the time of the Kievan Rus through the present day. The first ~130 episodes cover the Russian rulers, but from there it branches out. There is a massive archive for this podcast, and it’s one of my favorites for doing chores.

Science Magazine Podcast: The week in Science from America’s premier science publication

It’s hard to find good science journalism. That’s why the Science Magazine podcast is so spectacular. Beyond being informative, Science Podcast is fun. I understand my corner of science well enough, but I didn’t have a good insight into advancements in biological studies, for example. Everyone’s read about hair-brained sounding science studies, like making shrimp walk on treadmills (yes, this is real!); the podcast reveals how these strange studies are often really clever ways to answer tough questions. Science Magazine is a product of AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science), of which I am a member and highly recommend.

Stuff You Missed in History Class: Miscellaneous history from around the world

My gateway podcast. Missed in History focuses on the topics given short shrift, often focusing on women, people of color and history from Asia and Africa. Everything that isn’t commonly taught history is fair game, from the Montgolfier brothers who invented the first hot air balloon, to Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori school, to a history of Rhodesia. This means the podcast leaps around from week to week, but it also means that if one topic doesn’t suit your fancy, another will. Missed in History also has years of archived episodes.

Nature Podcast: the week in science from the UK’s premier science publication

Science and Nature are the top publication venues in the physical sciences. And Nature has a podcast as well! Nature does a wider variety of podcasts within the main podcast–it features a monthly science fiction story and a monthly roundtable discussion, in addition to the weekly review. Nature also did a series called PastCast that discussed historical publications in the journal. The journal goes back to 1869, so there’s a lot to work with. Nature also focuses more on science in the international community.

Movie/Short Story Review: “Arrival”, “Story of your Life”

If you love science fiction, you should see “Arrival” and read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Each is a lovely representation of the genre.

I don’t normally review movies on this blog, but since “Arrival” is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, it seems like a good time to make an exception. “Arrival” is a good science fiction movie based upon a good science fiction short story “Story of Your Life.” It’s been about 5 years since I read the story, which was published in 2002. Before seeing the movie, I didn’t know it was based on this story, but it was faithful enough that I figured it out relatively early in the movie. For those of you who have seen the movie, imagine my surprise that I already knew how events would unfold. =)

“Arrival” is the story of an alien arrival. Numerous obelisks appear around the world, to the dismay and fascination of humanity. Our protagonist, Louise, a linguist, is recruited to attempt communication. She and a physicist make up the pair of experts on the American team. Louise’s efforts to translate the alien written language is the primary focus of the movie and the short story.

The Movie

The movie has received great reviews, with 93% on rotten tomatoes and 81% on metacritic. If you like science fiction movies, you should go see this one. I generally don’t like science fiction movies, and I liked this one. “Arrival” has good world-building, good science, and good thinking. This is a story that can’t be told without the tools of science fiction. It is a question of humanity, not of technology. The techniques of movie-making allow the story to unfold visually in a way that complements the print story.

How the story and the movie line up

Both the movie and the story play with their timeline. In the story, I found it distracting; In the movie, it felt more organic. I enjoyed watching a literary device play out on screen. For me, the biggest difference between the movie and the story was the role of the physicist—he makes some neat mathematical insights in the story, but he’s basically useless in the movie. As a mathy person, the math in the story was very compelling, but probably most movie goers won’t miss it.

I think the text version may address the Big Reveal of the story better than the movie, but it’s hard for me to judge. The story and the movie approach the Big Reveal in different ways—we see it unfold in the movie in a way that isn’t possible in text.

In Short:

As I said at the top, you should read and see this story. I know of no other example of a work that performs so well in print and motion; while I think the print version is a little better, the movie addresses certain aspects better. The movie is 2 hours, and the story is 55 pages, so you can put forth modest effort for great science fiction rewards.

 

Supermoon

If you haven’t heard already, today is a “supermoon.” Today, the moon is closer to the Earth than it has been since 1948. Visually, that means it will be bigger and brighter than usual. Intellectually, it’s gratifying to watch the cosmic ballet go on. Our solar system is like a Swiss clock, all the parts proceeding and, for the most part, fitting together perfectly. Winter (northern hemisphere) supermoons are slightly bigger because the Earth is closer to the sun; the sun’s gravitational power pulls the moon slightly, such that the supermoon is bigger. Astrobob explains it better here.

For more pontifications on the moon, check out What If the Moon Didn’t Exist, which I reviewed here. Below are some of my favorite photos of the moon, and a moonrise video over Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

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Chaco Canyon moon, stars, and clouds

The impermanence of color: the treachery of entropy

Color seems like an easy, marvelous thing when you get that 64 color box of Crayolas as a kid. 64 sticks of pure color. But, of course, color is complicated. It can be impermanent, difficult to obtain, and toxic. To understand the life and chemistry of colors is to peek under the hood. It’s not what catches your eye, but it’s the heart of the drama.

Many paintings are known to be fading; it’s the newer paintings that draw the most concern. To some extent, the older paintings had probably already faded, but the older paintings also used old tried-and-true methods. The works of Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) are considered to be about as colorful today as when they were painted. Van Gogh’s daisies are fading. Renoir’s red has been digitally re-envisioned to show its pre-faded look.

The 1800s were a boom time of chemistry and industrialization, and the art world participated in this expansion too. 12 elements, including sodium and potassium, were discovered between 1800 and 1810. As Chemistry exploded, and new colors exploded. Mauve, the first synthetic dye, was produced in 1856 from coal tar. Renaissance painters (or their apprentices) prepared their own dyes and pigments (think of those scenes from “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” where Scarlett Johansson is grinding various things); 19th century painters bought paint from chemists. Like the disintegrating trade paperbacks of the early 1900s, when industrialization took over an old process, it was faster and cheaper, but took a while to match other characteristics. Books from the early 1800s are often far more intact than the wood-pulp books that followed them.

Artists like Van Gogh knew the strengths and limitations of their new tools. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, noting that the Impressionist paints “fade like flowers,” so he used the brightest colors he could, doing what he could to counteract impermanence. Even now, not all paints are equally durable; here’s a table for watercolors including such measures.

Today, scientists are studying the precise chemistry that causes fading using X-rays. So far, nothing can be done to stop or reverse the fading; they can only be kept away from light. At least we have the tools to imagine their former glory.

Further reading: Victoria Finlay’s Color is a great read on the chemistry of color without diving too deep technically. I reviewed it on this blog a couple of years ago. This article about the history of oil colors is also really fascinating. And finally, if you’re a chemistry buff, the scientific article about Van Gogh’s fading yellow is open source, and available to the public here.

 

 

More Awesome NASA Space Travel Posters

Thinking about a trip to Mars or Ceres? Book today! Don’t forget to ask about your Pi Day discount.

NASA is in the travel agent business again! JPL released travel posters for Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and several moons. They explore some different styles from the first set, and are cool as hell. Below are some of the preview sizes. They are available to download free at high res, suitable for printing up to 20″ x 30″.

And if you’re a vintage poster enthusiast like me, also check out the Library of Congress site. Tons of WPA posters are available free at high res, among other historical documents. (Beware, though, their site requires patience. It’s not organized for quick browsing, but there are some real gems in their collection. I linked to some of my favorites in this old post. I decorated my bathroom with them. Yes, I have a poster about syphilis in my bathroom.)  And finally, the National Parks posters are amazing vintage posters, though they aren’t free. I just made a few of my own last week.

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Proof! I did indeed print and hang the travel posters. Also in this room: a tea towel with a graphic of the Very Large Array (VLA). Nerd factor infinity!