I draw to learn the way life perpetuates itself, moves, and holds itself in space.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Allen Human Brain Atlas

A month ago, I saw a piece by Jonah Lehrer on Wired Science Online interviewing Allan Jones, CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Illustrations were bursting from the seams of that piece, and I quickly contacted Mr. Lehrer to ask for permission to visually map his interview. I wanted to take the reader, with very graphic graphics, through what it means to make a map of the human brain. What a trip!

These are the results, which were slow going due to a new gig scribing at AlphaChimp Studio, Inc. As usual, click on each image to see it full size in a new tab. Use the magnifying glass to increase its legibility. Enjoy!

Creative Commons License
Allen Human Brain Atlas by Perrin R Ireland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at smallntender.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Masters Were Tracing!

I'm on an optics tear right now. It's precipitated by an idea a fellow artist-in-resident at Gallery F and I have been working on, to curate a show pairing abstract paintings with abstractions of biology made through the use of scientific imaging technologies, like SEM's, Confocal Microscopy, etc. Remembering the amazing scientific photographer Felice Frankel's work, I went to the public library yesterday to check out one of her older books, Envisioning Science, which is not only a really visually yummy book, but also lays out for the scientist how to produce compelling and communicative images.

While I was there I remembered a book my father had given me for Christmas years ago, David Hockney's Secret Knowledge, which lays out his argument that the great masters were using a variety of optical technologies, and that the leap in highly realistic paintings occurred in the 1420s, quite suddenly. The book is beautiful, a demonstration of the advancement of imaging capabilities, with beautifully reproduced Caravaggios and Giottos juxtaposed against each other. I've had my nose in the book all day, enmeshed in a compelling case for the relationship between science and art. Hockney says the painter Vermeer and Van Leuweenhoek, the great microscopist, were neighbors, and that Van Leuweenhoek was executor of Vermeer's will. Vermeer was clearly privy to developments in lenses, and Hockney makes the argument, through showing us his paintings, that lenses were at play in his work. So much for CP Snow's Two Cultures (which, happily, is a theory that's been taking the heat recently.)

I found this image of Joseph Wright of Derby's painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which I'd never seen before reading this book. He made a lot of paintings about science, and Hockney argues was using the lens technology widely available by the eighteenth century.*

When I go to the library, it's an opportunity to book binge for free. I typically follow the bread crumb trail of a particular interdisciplinary thread and wind up with a sore back from lugging around tomes of a similar tune. Yesterday I came out of there with seven or eight books I didn't expect to find. I had Felice Frankel, David Hockney, and Roger Ballen, for his weird and impressive photographic compositions. I stumbled upon a book called Brought to Light: Photography and The Invisible, 1840-1900, which promises to reveal the efforts of imaging science to evidence the intangible; a Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind, that is apparently "the book she was born to write", about the way our brains work, which I found while looking for Empire of Light, Sidney Perkowitz's book about science and art's simultaneous discoveries about light. I also got Simon Ing's book which relates science and art in his exploration of how and why we see, and the imaging that has resulted from that power. To keep up on the times, I took out Nato Thompson's book Experimental Geography, which explores mapmaking and visualization of geographic data in the information age. Museumophiles might like the book Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium, which, in addition to the Clarie Bishop edited Participation (part of the WhiteChapel/MIT Press Documents of Contemporary Art effort) I took out to learn what performers and exhibitioners are saying about communication in the interactive, three-dimensional realm.

I'm so excited I can go to my public library and connect with thinkers from different periods, from all over the world, probing at how we see, and how to harness that sense in the making of effective images. I'm still more satisfied by seeing real paintings, then real books, and lastly, the internet does help. I suppose I'm still an analog girl in a digital world, as E. Badu would say.

*The image of the Wright painting is from the website of the Journal of the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society : http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/jom/0706/byko-0706.html

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Moonage Daydream

This post is in honor of David Bowie, who has an uncanny understanding of what it's like in space; the noble astronauts that have pioneered the physical manifestation of man's insatiable urge for expansion; and mostly for the dogs that paved the way. These fearless mutts accompanied dummies and guinea pigs on the first trips in orbit. They overheated, disintegrated, and bred with other space dogs back at the base so that we could fulfill our Cold War destinies. Laika, this one's for you.
Again, click the image twice for the best viewing!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eye On Science Vol 1

Aloha science fans. I am going to be posting weekly visual digests of my favorite science news this spring. Click the image to open it large and legible in another screen. I hope you enjoy the first installation!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Darwin Day February 12 2011

Lording over science above the creationist tree of rhetoric are Georges Cuvier, founder of the discipline of paleontology, who rose to scientific prominence in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Traumatized by the social chaos and violence of that time, despite accumulating a good deal of evidence that supported some form of “transmutation of species”, as the early strains of evolutionary theory were called, Cuvier vehemently overlooked these findings for fear that the theory might lead to more social upheaval. He supported the theory of a great flood, as did Louis Agassiz, who we find here in the cloud to the right, who has become an oft-quoted hero of modern creationism. Some of his statements about truth in science have been used to mischaracterize the scientific pursuit. He was our first filter in America on Darwin’s theory, as he wrote the first review of The Origin of Species, and was a denier. His geological studies are well respected even today, but at the time the fossil record was far less explored than it is today, so who could blame him?

William Jennings Bryan, a reform politician and Protestant fundamentalist, took these antiquated theories that disagreed with evolutionary theory and ran with their outdated ideas, quoting Agassiz on scientific “fact” and effectively imprinting an inaccurate understanding of the scientific process on the American psyche. He associated the teaching of evolution with a social apathy toward reform, and as reform was his main agenda, he became very vocally involved in anti-evolution events like the Scopes Trial. A common creationist rhetorical demand is for evidence of the “missing link” between humans and monkeys, despite the abundance of evidence in the form of transitional fossils. This is part of a large-scale creationist trend of continually making claims against the validity of evolution despite evidence to the contrary.

More than a century after Darwin’s death scientists are still trying to establish evolution as a central part of science education. Creationists increasingly understand that it’s not necessary (nor effective) to use the law to accomplish their goals in public schools. By merely introducing a policy that implicitly permits that antievolution material be taught, creationist pressure at the local level often ensures that it gets taught. A common creationist tactic is to paint evolution as a theory in crisis, on the verge of scientific collapse, and to invite students with no understanding of the scientific process to assess the validity of the evolutionary theory.

The creationist tree of nonscientific arguments has the power to be dismantled by the “ax” of evidence: science is a process of understanding the world through natural explanation. Moderates who have aligned their faith with their acceptance of the evidence for evolution can do much to aid this effort for effective science education.


Evolution needs a better public relations representative. Scientists are routinely caught off guard by the well-honed PR campaigns of creationists, and, in the classroom, teachers are attempting to introduce concepts to creationist students that have done their homework and are ready to counter each scientific point with creationist misinformation.

Evolution also needs scientists and teachers of faith to speak about their acceptance of the evidence behind evolution. According to a poll reported in 1999 by Scientific American, about 40 percent of scientists believe in God. The scientific community and educators need to support these scientists in speaking out about their faith.

Students coming from an anti-evolution home are struggling with an emotionally charged conflict: do they choose the faith of their family or the science they’re being shown? Scientists need to acknowledge the emotional component of this struggle, and to pay attention to the power of language in this debate. For the past decade, two professors at the University of Tennessee have presented a survey the first day of their biology course designed to assess the comprehension of evolution by incoming students, and to compile data on the demographics of the persistence of anti-evolutionary ideas. The survey allows the professors to find out about their audience before proceeding, and to engage them in dialogue right away. They use carefully phrased questions to elicit discussion about the limitations of empirical science, to highlight differences between scientific uses of certain terminology, like the word “theory”, and the common usage. They get the students to ask them if they believe in evolution, to which they respond that they accept the evidence for evolution. Science does not address belief; it deals in evidence.

Another friend of the evolution unit is Inquiry Based Learning, an education tactic that introduces activities before concepts, and asks students to come up with the explanations themselves. Students participate in the scientific process as a means of learning about it. They come to understand that science is a way of knowing distinguished by evidence. By seeing the difference between natural and supernatural explanations they can start to reconcile what their parents are telling them and what they see for themselves.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Making Science and Art in Nashville

The Island, 2009

It took me about a year, but I've found the balance I want to make in my life here in Nashville- a potpourri of science, art, and writing.

First, last week I walked into Gallery F at the Scarritt Bennett Center and had a great talk with their gallery director Sabine Schlunk, who invited me to be an Artist-In-Residence. I'm delighted. In exchange for studio space right near Dragon Park, (my favorite spot for a mid-day lie in the grass) I get to work in their cozy coffee shop. Sabine has a good eye, and is putting together some of the best contemporary shows in Nashville. I especially like the gallery's emphasis on "outsider art", if you even buy into that concept, and their representation of artists that perhaps might not be in orbit in the gallery world. I think this gallery really stands out in Nashville. I am pleased to be involved.

Mitote, October 2010

Second, I met with Kevin Seale, who's in charge of the Systems Biology and BioEngineering Undergraduate Research Experience at Vanderbilt, a rare gem of an interdisciplinary center that includes scientists working in disciplines including engineering, physics, mathematics, and biology, all trying to understand how the basic unit of life works. Essentially, Cliff's notes, they build little chips that trap cells and give them various inputs in order to understand exactly how the cell works, because we still don't really know. It was amazing to talk to a scientist with such an interdisciplinary bent. What would he say to public audiences given the chance? Eat well and exercise, it can change your health. He owns and runs a farm in the highly contested area of Nashville called Bell's Bend, is obsessed with getting fresh produce to the working poor, and is interested in poking around at the point where faith meets science. We have big plans. I'm going to meet with him and the lab director, John Wikswo, next week, to talk about how to tell the story of their lab and its mighty slew of characters in the best way. I think it will be a perfect case study for how to merge disciplines in science, and by telling it, to step across the invisible line between academia and the public.

Flight Machine, Summer 2007

And third, I've been accepted to be the local Nashville "Science News Expert" on examiner.com. I'll be posting 3-4 articles a week detailing news on science in Nashville, a topic I feel has a huge dearth going on- I can't find a darn thing to please my palate at the Tennessean or City Paper, so I suppose I'll have to do it myself. Stay tuned! I get paid in proportion to my subscribers, so please sign up!

Bruni and Babarit, Fall 2009 and 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I'm thinking a lot this week about framing, as I enter the second week of a Science Communication "Virtual Internship" with the Scientists and Engineers for America. The readings this week have exposed me to a reality that I had been, I realize as I read, deliberately blinding myself to: that a lot of thought needs to go into how science communicators talk to the public about science, and part of that involves a blurry boundary between "selling" and "informing". What I like about what I'm reading is that it's exposing me to the pretentiousness of an assumption I'd been making, that if only we informed the ignorant, poorly educated public more effectively and thoroughly about science, then they'd smarten up and start wanting evolution taught in schools and get off the grid ASAP. Anna Kinzig, in an article in Seed Magazine from May 2009, presents the luxury of scientist's own opinioning perfectly: "My own personal opinion is that we (scientists) — writing and thinking in our robust homes, from a room devoted exclusively to study, fueled by three square meals a day produced in another room devoted exclusively to cooking — tend to think more negatively about humans and their impact on the nature we so love. People are apart from nature. They are “shortsighted” and they “destroy” environments and their behaviors need to be controlled."

It's been an interesting experience to be a scientist in the South, because I had forgotten, living in New England on a liberal campus, that not everybody takes climate change and evolution as givens. I had made the mistake of assuming that the south (note the massive generalization I make, which I too take with a grain of salt) is skeptical because of a disproportionate amount of poverty and the condition of being ten or so years behind the north, perhaps dating back to the Civil War. None of this is any indicator of intelligence; I'm just saying I had previously thought that a public engaged and passionate about science was merely a matter of those immersed in the science telling those not immersed about it, and they'd hop on the bandwagon. I now realize, not everybody cares about the environment, and the populations that lack access to science information aren't helped by current efforts at communicating science. What I'm learning as I read eye-opening articles like Nisbet and Schuele's piece in the American Journal of Botany from October of last year, called "What's Next for Science Communication", is that (of course!) people who are interested in science and take a vested interest in science policy debates in their communities are already rather highly informed, and that social values and religiosity cannot be underestimated in their impact on how science information is filtered by public audiences. My job, therefore, as a science communicator, will be to try to access people behind the veils of varying degrees of education, religious beliefs, and socio-economic status. The point is not necessarily spin, but, I'm delighted to realize, a respect for "storytelling as a foundation for the human community", as Clark Miller puts it. I'm a combination of resistant, not surprised, and excited that I have the task of "framing" science, honoring the utter subjectivity of what I formerly considered "facts." Some of the recommendations at the end of the article included using humor and satire in television programming and museum exhibit content about science, as well as using local television to access audiences, both of which have occurred to me as projects to tackle in the past. I wonder how to transform nerdy lab scientist-to-scientist jokes into the kind of knee-slapping stuff they feature on 30 Rock without being too offensive, as I'm inclined to do...

For now, I wanted to share two relatively non-partisan delights in the recent news. The best part about them, as a student in science communication realizing how much I've yet to learn in order to teach, is that they're just pictures!

One is a slide show from the recent NYTimes article on the Census of Marine Life. I've had the privilege over the last several years of working with many scientists involved in this noble collaboration. If you can handle a few paragraphs, it's a fascinating read, and also a great time-killer to check out the images amassed. Who says the ocean is a desert? I love underwater optics! http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/10/04/science/20101005-marinecensus.html

Also, last week's Time Magazine featured the media's favorite lady oceanographer, a true genius self-promoter, Sylvia Earle, and a great slide show on ocean flora and fauna. http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2020841_2192138,00.html

We'll tackle the words behind the images next week...Sigh.