Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cheating at jigsaw puzzles

Recent guest poster and blog follower, Matt informed me of the following interesting example of science helping art. Or more precisely, helping recover art.

"In 1944, a bombing raid almost completely destroyed an enormous Padua church fresco that dated back to the Renaissance and had once been admired by Goethe. Some 88,000 tiny pieces of plaster were rescued from the rubble, and a mathematician has managed to piece some of the masterpiece back together."
Link to the original article.

I recommend going to the original article to properly understand what this clever mathematician has done. If I try to summarise I expect that my chances of accurate description are relatively small, given that I will be summarising a news story that is already a summary of the actual algorithm used by the mathematician.

It's a rare example of the overlapping of art, history and mathematics. The application won't have a profound impact on any of the disciplines, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Of course if the art historians had just given me all the pieces 13 or so years ago I'm sure I could have put them all together on one of the many afternoons I spent in the summer holidays watching cricket and piecing together progressively more complicated jigsaw puzzles. But, I'm sure they had their reasons to wait.

[With apologies to Shaun for editing this post, here are a couple of mathematical explanations of this research, beginning with a summary. -MM]

Massimo Fornasier, "Mathematics enters the picture." Mathematics and Statistics, 2009, Volume 3, 217-228.

Massimo Fornasier, "Faithful Recovery of Vector Valued Functions from Incomplete Data: Recolorization and Art Restoration," Scale Space and Variational Methods in Computer Vision: Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2007, Volume 4485/2007, 116-127.

Massimo Fornasier, Domenico Toniolo, "Fast, robust and efficient 2D pattern recognition for re-assembling fragmented images." Pattern Recognition, Volume 38, Issue 11, November 2005, 2074-2087.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The smoking CMB evidence of the Big Bang

The centre of the galaxy and a sliver of the CMB anisotropies

I was asked recently how I know that the Big Bang definitely happened. This post will be my attempt to answer that question. I will focus on something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB for the rest of this post). The CMB is as close to smoking gun evidence of the Big Bang as you can get. In fact, it's such good evidence that it is better than a smoking gun. The figure of speech should no longer be “smoking gun evidence”. It should be “smoking CMB evidence”.

The other reason I am writing about the CMB is that humanity's prediction of its existence and our subsequent measurements of it and its properties are jaw-droppingly stunning pieces of detective work. If you are ever feeling down about human nature and our propensity to do kind of stupid things then just remember what you're about to read and reassure yourself that at times we can be incredible.

What is “The Big Bang”? (A very brief review)

Everywhere we look things are moving away from us and the further away we look the faster things are moving. This means that the distance between any two unbound objects in the observed universe is increasing. Or, in other words, the universe is expanding. As time goes on things will get further apart, the total density of the universe will decrease and the temperature of outer space will go down.

But what happens if we run the clock backwards? Well, naturally, things will get closer together, the total density of the universe will increase and the temperature of outer space will go up. This suggests that at one point far back in time the universe was in a very hot, very dense state that was rapidly expanding. This, and nothing else, is the essence of what the Big Bang model of the universe is.

Of course, we understand how the matter in the universe behaves at the current, low, temperatures. Also, thanks to results from particle accelerators and other experiments we even know how the matter in the universe behaves at quite high temperatures. This means that we can make very definite statements about what the universe should have looked like when it was below those temperatures. But, although we can and should speculate about what the universe might have looked like above these temperatures, we can't yet say anything about those times with certainty.

So, if you let me repeat myself for emphasis, at its heart the Big Bang model is nothing more and nothing less than the idea that the universe was at some point in the past very hot, very dense and rapidly expanding. To work out whether this is what the universe was actually like or not we need to know what the present day consequences of this might be. To answer that question we should take a closer look at what the universe we see now would actually look like at these higher temperatures.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Muammar Gaddafi

I had a pre-prepared, midweek, filler post ready to upload today but instead, here is my reflection on the death of Gaddafi.

This video really struck me, particularly the complete and utter lifelessness of the body being dragged along the ground. No matter who you are, no matter how powerful you become, no matter how much wealth you acquire, one day you will be nothing more than a sack of meat. I don't mean this observation to spark one of those Carpe Diem, seize the day, make the most of your life, type of realisations. That isn't my natural response to this. If there is a group of people throughout history who have seized the day and lived their life to the fullest, then Mr Gaddafi is definitely a member. What I am drawn to do is to wonder what part of life is worth seizing, because for all of Gaddafi's pride and power and extravagance during his life, he still ended up cowering inside a pipe, in the city of his birth, begging his pursuers "don't shoot". Nothing Gaddafi lived for now remains. Nothing.

I can't help but compare Gaddafi's death to the also recent death of Dennis Ritchie. Most of us probably didn't even know who Dennis Ritchie was before he died (I didn't). Yet, he played an instrumental part in developing one of the most widely used computer programming languages. He also played a key part in developing the computer operating system who's descendants power the world.

One of these two people lived his life full of glory, fame, fortune and grandeur. The other did not and I highly doubt was any less happy because of it. But which one's life has the greater legacy? Who's impact will still exist hundreds of years from now and who's impact is gone already (mere hours after his death)?

While most of us are not going to become dictators of oil-rich nations or design programming languages that end up used throughout the world, the same decision exists for anyone with the tiniest shred of ambition. Strive for popularity and acceptance, now? Or, strive for a lasting impact on tomorrow?  Certainly the second path can often lead to the same destination as the first. But, any time we spend pursuing the first path for its own sake inevitably leads us further away from the destination of the second.

No matter how much glory we obtain, or seizing of the day that we do, one day we will all be soulless sacks of meat, just like Colonel Gaddafi.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Historical Transparency-washing?

[Note from Shaun: the following is a guest post from Matthew Metcalfe. Just like our previous guest poster, Matt and I went to school together. While, at heart, Matt is as kiwi as a 50 cent lolly mixture, he currently lives in Munich. He is also a trained historian. The following is Matt's searching account of an attempt by one of the richest families in Germany, the Quandt dynasty, to transparently(?) reveal their family history.]

"The Rise of the Quandts"

Since I agree with the premise of this blog – the desire to combine the arts and science – I wanted to open up a short chapter on a development out of the circles of German historiography (in German such courses of study belong to the “breadless arts”).

Where most people see politics as current affairs, when you are an historian, you tend to see history everywhere; behind trade deals, bilateral agreements, political and religious conflicts in northern Africa or the Middle East.

If I had to explain how I see the world, for me the world events seem to happen like untidy piles of photos. At any one point you can see the top photos, showing a snapshot of history. But they always overlap, are different sizes and of varying quality and sharpness.

As you pick off the top photos (for most people the current affairs on the news) you see that the motifs are similar but the faces are different. The overlaps and the connections move back and forth as you go through layer on layer.

Three-and-a-half years ago there was an industrial family dynasty where the stack of photos seemed rather short and orderly. The Quandts were a quiet bunch, not talking about their family in detail, typical for tight-knit powerful families. This was all the more interesting because of the sharpness of some of the photos (both real and metaphorical).

For those unfamiliar with the name, the Quandt family, among the richest in Germany, has been the controlling shareholder of BMW since the 1950s. Even though the shareprice is down and analysts are currently saying to buy while it is underpriced, the total fortune of the various family members is estimated at a total of upwards of US30bn, thanks to the wealth of companies they control.

As is the case with many industrial dynasties in Germany, it was safely assumed that the Quandts had profited disproportionately from the policies and crimes perpetrated during the period of National Socialism.

In spite of this, due to the facts that

  1. the members of the family directly involved had died before the major wave of investigations into companies were initiated after intense pressure by victim organisations (e.g. companies like Allianz, Deutsche Bank) 
  2. the successors to the family fortune had never really wanted to delve into the darker corners of their father’s closet and jealously guarded the archival material,

the exact details of the involvement had never surfaced.

Until, however, a documentary called “The Silence of the Quandts” in 2007, produced and broadcasted by the German broadcaster ARD let off a bombshell and accused the family of intentionally silencing their history and the growth of their fortune, social and political influence on the backs of concentration camp slave labour during WWII.

Friday, October 14, 2011

...But That Was [Yesterday]

Hello dear readers,

So on Monday we will be receiving our second ever guest post. That almost makes us a legitimate, web-worthy, ready to be viewed by the masses blog, right?

To tide us all over until that momentous moment I will let a discussion from the comments on the last guest post spill over into a new blog post. As you might remember, that post was on whether games can be classified as art. In the comments, Michelle pointed out that one way in which games challenge our definition of art is that the interaction which is such a necessary element of games, also lessens how contemplative they can be. And in "conventional" art, contemplation is almost the entire point and purpose.

While I think both Barnabas and Michelle would argue that games need not be contemplative to succeed in becoming art, this needn't stop me from trying to point out some contemplative games.

So, as some candy for the weekend, I give you ...But That Was [Yesterday] (which was actually buried in a list of recommended games in one of the links in Barnabas' original post).


Go here for the game designer's blog post about the game. At the link you can see links to other games by the same designer. How My Grandfather Won The War is also a very good game that forces the player to think about the game while playing. Difficult, but good.

I like ...But That Was Yesterday. It is not a game so much as an interactive story. The game elements are there not to give you a game, but to force you to take part in the story. When events happen to the character, the actions you are forced to take then force you to think about and also even feel to a certain degree what is happening.I think it is done well, it certainly drew an emotive response out of me when I played it. And I think it did so in a way that was only possible because of the interactive element, not despite it.

If you have the time (which you do because it shouldn't take longer than 10 minutes) it is well worth a play through, especially if you don't normally "play games". Give this one a try. Once you've played it through, your thoughts are certainly welcome in the comment section. As are links to other games that might pass the contemplative test.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elegy in the Turbine Hall

I was sad to realize while in London in September that I was narrowly missing two shows at Tate Modern: an impressive looking Gerhard Richter survey, and Tacita Dean's commission for the Turbine Hall. Dean's work opened last night to a chorus of reviews, with lots more undoubtedly to come. I'll keep an ongoing roster of interesting commentary at the end of this post.

The piece is called FILM. It's a striking installation of poetic cinema: a jewel-toned, silent, 11 minute film presented as a monumental projection onto a 13 meter screen nestled toward the back of the Turbine Hall. The projection system uses 35mm film and a cinemascope lens turned around at 90 degrees to achieve the very unusual vertical format. And it contains no digital post-production - all the visualizations, superimpositions, and image combinations are made with "analog" methods: during production, inside a 16mm camera, and with splices on a Steenbeck editing machine.

That would be because the piece is a strong polemic for the material of film, and a claim for the differences between celluloid and digital. Tacita Dean talks about celluloid film as her medium here and here, likening it to oil paint. She wrote an impassioned manifesto for it earlier this year, and in the exhibition's accompanying catalog surveys 80 cinematic artists about this question of filmic obsolescence. "Pitched against this," she writes - 'this' being the film industry's absolute turn to the digital in recent years - "art is voiceless and insignificant." You don't have to be sympathetic to this point of view to still hear in it a Shakespearean question -"How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?" In a sensitive documentary, produced by the Tate to contextualize the show, Dean describes the intensity of her commitment to this medium around a question of intimacy:
Film and digital are just different mediums. They're very intrinsically different: they're made differently, they're seen differently. Film is my medium, just as oil is the medium of painters. I need the time of film for my work, and the atmosphere of film.
Anticipating the end of celluloid is like waiting for a tsunami to arrive. A lot will change when the wave finally hits, and there have been plenty of indicators of its encroaching already - practically for a generation. But we're probably near the crucial moment now, which adds a certain pathos to this work. The last lab in Britain that would process 16mm film closed during the production of Dean's FILM, and inexperience in the Dutch lab that was able to process it resulted in some major errors.

The material medium of celluloid film has remained essentially unchanged since cinema was invented in the nineteenth century. I think this is partly why its passing away is experienced so emotionally, as an enormous loss, by cinephilic aficionados. But the analog/digital debate can easily devolve into a retrograde fight, which is why I think it matters that Dean claims that her stance isn't absolutist but aimed at demanding ongoing choice between the two:
that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.
I'd be curious to hear from people who are able to actually see the piece since my sense of it is, of course, digitally mediated.

Reviews, Tacita Dean, FILM, Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 11 October 2011–11 March 2012
(in chronological order, more or less):
e-flux, press release
Background interview at Phaidon Press
In the artist's voice, the making of: a lovely process documentary from the Tate
Sylvie Lin, The Disappearance of Film-An Interview with Philippe-Alain Michaud (Art Taipei Forum)
Adrian Searle, The Guardian
Emily Eakin, New Yorker
Sarah Kent, The Arts Desk
Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman
GertiesGirl, Inscape (blog) 
Jackie Wullschlager, The Financial Times
Charles Darwent, The Independent
Alison Roberts, This Is London
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Royal Academy of Arts Magazine
Cate Smierciak, Berlin Art Link
Sally O'Reilly, Art Review
And the last word, perhaps, to the curator :
In reading about Dean’s filmic works, which document edifices either derelict (Bubble House and Palast) or belonging to another era (Boots and Fernsehturm), or sitters captured towards the end of their life, a word that is all too often used to describe them is ‘nostalgia’. This characterisation of Dean’s films gives me pause. It strikes me as wrong, or at least reductive and misleading. Dean’s works have thus far tended to be written about in terms of ruins, remnants and obsolescence, and while those words may be applied to some of the subjects captured by her camera, the images within her films, and in FILM particularly, are not fragmented or entropic, but instead alive and vital. They are images which very much seem to be making a case for why they should, why they must, be preserved in order to go on existing. And this difference between my account of Dean’s work and those of others hinges upon a simple perception.

Where some see fossilisation in the subjects captured by her camera’s lens, I see revivification, every time the projector is switched on and these images are summoned back to life once more. If film is a medium that seemingly lacks a physical presence or substance, and is instead one which flickers and fades phantasmagorically before us and then persists largely in the memory, then this immateriality is echoed in Dean’s films, capturing that which is fugitive or fleeting – light changing, places or people before they vanish, time passing. Those who see only nostalgia in her films miss the point, because what I see in Dean’s work, and in FILM in particular, is wonderment at what can be salvaged by the camera’s lens. 

Image credits: Ian Nicholson / PA; Sarah Lee for The Guardian; Ray Tang/Rex Features, all from The Guardian; video from the Visit London Blog

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why you’re not dead - surviving in a world of enemies

I hate to break it to you, but I’m afraid you have a potentially life-threatening disease; in fact you have quite a few. Aren’t you fortunate that you have the most sophisticated protection system ever devised fighting to keep you healthy? If I took away your immune system right now you most likely would not live to read my next post. What would kill you would be the everyday bacteria, viruses and fungi that are, quite literally, on everything you touch, eat, drink or breathe, and are trying to use up the precious resource that is your body as your read this now. Luckily for you, I’m not going to take your defences away, but I will try and give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of this incredible system and what we know about how it works.

The innate immune system - stone-age defences

Broadly speaking, the mammalian immune system is split into two branches: innate and adaptive. The innate immune system is what’s left over from earlier stages in our evolution and is basically a way of making ourselves a tough place for pathogens to survive. This is done in a number of ways of varying sophistication. One simple mechanism is inflammation at an area of infection. In inflammation, innate immune cells (a branch of white blood cells known as non-lymphocytic leukocytes) such as macrophages or dendritic cells detect fragments of pathogens that are common for many species, things like components of the bacterial cell wall  or particles of viral DNA. This detection is achieved by receptors present at the surface and in the interior of these cells that have developed alongside pathogens throughout our evolutionary history and so are well-tuned to detect them. The activation of these receptors by pathogenic components causes the cells to release a whole host of pro-inflammatory molecules - one well-known example is histamine, which causes vasodilation and hence inflammation, and is why you will have probably taken anti-histamines if you suffer from allergies.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Total Perspective Vortex

[I apologise to all readers of the blog who also take the time to read the comments because you have probably already have seen the following videos. For those who don't read the comments, you're missing out on half of the purpose of the blog.]

Michelle asked in this post what role cinema plays in science. I think this is an interesting question and a smart choice of post from Michelle. Opening a dialogue between science and art isn't easy. We speak very different languages. We sometimes tackle similar questions, but we do the tackling in very different ways. Moving images though are something that exist in both worlds. They may be used very differently, but that's the interesting thing; how are they used differently? How are they used similarly? There are tools such as sculpture and advanced mathematics that probably aren't used in both worlds, but moving images are.

So moving images are a great example for this blog because they give us that first piece of common ground from which to begin a conversation. 

My first contributions to Michelle's questions were the following two films. They are the best examples I know of that properly show how insignificant the Earth is. Watch them in high definition.

The first film, above, is a film of the dark matter particles in the Millenium Simulation. This is what we expect the universe should look like if we could see the dark matter in it. As stated in the wikipedia link, each individual particle in this simulation (i.e. pinprick of light in the film) has a mass one billion times the mass of the sun. Not only that, but the total volume of the simulation is much less than the total volume of the observed universe. Keep that in perspective when watching... this video shows only a small fraction of the total volume of the universe and each dot in the video is much bigger than an entire galaxy! (don't forget that one galaxy will itself be 100,000 light years wide - this is so big that in one human lifetime light could only travel 0.1% of its width - and that is just one galaxy, something just big enough [edited from the original - "not big enough"] to be seen in this video.)

The film above is the real world equivalent. This film shows the locations of individual galaxies in the observed universe as seen by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. SDSS has only mapped a fraction of the sky and can only see galaxies that are within a certain distance of us. So you see less of the universe, but at a finer resolution. In each galaxy in this video there will be billions and billions of stars just like our sun. This website helps if you find it hard to visualise what the number one billion actually means.

As the conversation develops I will hopefully find time to explain the scientific gains from both SDSS and the Millenium Simulation as well as what a scientist gains from watching the films themselves. But for now, let's just treat these as eye candy for the weekend as we wait for James' next proper post, due to arrive on Monday.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Congratulations Cosmology

The news today had an almost poetic structure to it, as if it was part of a well crafted story.

Firstly, for all those rock dwellers out there, the Nobel Prize in physics, announced today, went to two groups who, in 1998, turned the world of cosmology upside down. Their discovery subsequently planted a great big question mark in the rest of the world of fundamental physics, for it was the observations made by today's Nobel prize winners that caused the entry into the standard cosmological model of that most mysterious of concepts:
Dark Energy
The observation these groups made is all the more beautiful for how mundane it actually is. They simply made the observation that a bunch of distant supernovae were dimmer than had previously been expected. But, still today, nobody has any good idea what causes this dimming. Subsequent cosmological observations have made it clear that the dimness of these supernovae probably means the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but why? And if it isn't accelerating, what profound property of our universe is so cleverly mimicking this acceleration.

This was great news for cosmology and if the fact that observations of exploding stars can completely change our understanding of the make up of the universe wasn't poetic enough, today also happened to be the day that ESA announced its next wave of big experiments. One of these was Euclid (artist's impression below). The confirmation of Euclid's eventual launch is also great news for cosmology. On the same day that one beautiful cosmological experiment wins the most prestigious prize available to a scientist, another beautiful cosmological experiment is announced.

What is ESA's stated goal for Euclid? Nothing else but:
To understand the nature of dark energy and dark matter by accurate measurement of the accelerated expansion of the Universe through different independent methods.
And so, while today the big news headlines were of the Nobel Prize being awarded to the two groups who pointed out an enormous cosmological mystery, it is not outside the realm of possibility that hiding subtly in the news background the experiment that will solve this mystery was also today finally made a certainty.

You couldn't write a better script if you tried.

An artist's impression of the Euclid satellite

Monday, October 3, 2011

Games are art.

[Note from Shaun: The following is a guest post from Barnabas Soon. Barnabas and I went to school together and often used to discuss whether computer games could be considered art. Barnabas has always thought yes, he is also the first person to give into my "will you write a guest post for us" harassment. Thank you Barnabas. Enjoy.]

What is Art?

According to Google's definition, art is defined as:
"The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."
Following this definition, for me, works of art, be they painting, sculpture, drawings, literature or film are a medium in which the creator is also trying to convey a message, reveal something interesting, create a visual impact or create an emotional impact.

Are video games art? 

A video game is also a medium in which the creator is trying to convey a message or create an emotional impact. If art is a creation that makes you think, imagine or feel, then just as film, literature and TV can be art, games can be art.

In the same way that film and comics have evolved, changed and eventually gained acceptance in mainstream society as art; video games are now following this same trajectory. They have evolved from merely being simplistic simulations to something much greater. They have evolved into an experience.

Unlike the passive mediums of books and film, games are an interactive medium. They are dramas that require audience participation. If you don’t make choices, the game will never continue, the story will never unfold. Your character will remain there passive, or worse, die. This interaction, and the mental, psychological and emotional commitment required by the player sets games apart from other mediums. It is also because games can reproduce the same feelings that other forms of art can elicit that numerous games can be considered ‘art’. The experience of a video game is multimedia. Sound, graphics, interface and interaction with the game world and feedback of your actions all come together to create the experience.

Like any other medium, there will be good games and bad games and others that are downright weird. Your enjoyment of video games will depend a great deal on your personality. Strategy games like Simcity which simulate running a city are video games which wouldn't probably be classified as 'art', but are still fun and interesting in their own right and can often teach us valuable lessons about life.