Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Leonardo: A Painter at the Court of Milan, for the Twenty-First Century

Study of Arms and Hands, c. 1474
Study of a Woman, c. 1490

Earlier this month, one of those once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions opened in London: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. It runs at the National Gallery until early February.

This isn't a review, since I haven't seen the show. But it amazes me that an exhibition like this exists, so consider this another 'live stream' post—a placeholder for reflections and mullings on and around Leonardo's unbelievable images, with some suggestions about why we are seeing more of this work; and subject to being updated with new links, reviews and so on.

To state the obvious, it isn't easy to put together an exhibition like this. In fact there has never been, and will never be, a 'complete' Leonardo retrospective in the manner of a Picasso, a Judd, or a Richter survey—those big, bulky exhibitions that cover the full range of a capacious individual's oeuvre, and of which one can say, with a certain admiration, "I am large, I contain multitudes." These kinds of shows are necessarily overwhelming because they cover a multifaceted life. But in this case the reasons are practical: some of these fifteenth- and sixteenth-century frescoes are site-specific (painted directly on a wall), and they are universally under bureaucratic lock and key: all Leonardo's work, from the most magnificent painting to the quickest, most fleeting of drawings are owed by institutions and individuals (and the Royal Family). So the problems of red tape for any curator contemplating this kind of mountainous show is unimaginable.

Studies of Water passing Obstacles and falling, c. 1508-9

Monday, November 28, 2011

Real time World War II

[Edit: the url to follow this twitter account is this one, https://twitter.com/#!/RealTimeWWII. You don't need your own twitter account to read the page. Also, I somehow convinced myself that yesterday (when I wrote this post) was the 29th, when it was actually the 28th. The Winter War starts on the 30th.]

There is a twitter account that tweets as if it is a news agency reporting World War II live (@RealTimeWW2). I find this account fascinating and have been following it now for more than a month.

The depth and the breadth of what this account adds to one's understanding of the war is actually quite large, so I can only touch the surface in this post. The first thing I noticed was how this method of telling the story of WWII really gives you a much more accurate sense of the timescales involved than you get from reading a history book. Six years is a long time. I discovered the account a few days into the initial German invasion of Poland; Britain and France soon declared war and yet no military action has taken place between any of these nations, apart from a few skirmishes at sea.

It would be foolish to interpret this as somehow making the war boring. Though, in fact, contemporary Britain did make this mistake. There are regular tweets describing British behaviour that makes it obvious why the name they gave this part of the war was the “Phoney War”.

“German pilot who fought off 3 planes to let his crew escape is guest of honour tonight at an RAF dinner in France. Off to POW camp tomorrow”

However, it can be assured that from the perspective of the Poles, the Czechs and the Jews in occupied Germany, this war has been far from phoney so far.

“New German decree: 'Aryans' married to Jews have been given 1 year to divorce their Jewish husband/wife or 'face the consequences'.”
"Occupied Poland: New decree orders all Jews in Krakow to wear an armband with a blue Star of David, as seen being sold: "
I have toyed with writing a post about this account for a while and decided sometime ago that today would be the day I write the post. Today is the eve of the second major event of The War. That is, the Winter War between Finland and The Soviet Union. Tweets that have gone out in the last 48 hours are ominous and frightening:

“The USSR has renounced its non-aggression treaty with Finland due to "hostile actions"; Moscow radio reports 3 more incidents on border”

The “incidents” were of course incidents that were faked by Soviets on their own outposts to justify military action. By doing such acts their aggression is made more morally ambiguous and their own populace can be made much more supportive of any action.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Nature, red in tooth and claw." and blue, and green, and yellow, and...

The picture above is a 'brainbow' created by a lab in Harvard - it is a fluorescent microscopy image of the hippocampus of a mouse genetically engineered to express three fluorescent proteins. Depending on how the genes of the individual neurones are randomly recombined, each cell will express a different combination of the three proteins, giving each a unique colour! I love the beauty of the resultant image, and it is a great example of the meeting of scientific and aesthetic research that is becoming more and more widespread. Another example is given below - natural fireworks revealed by labelling actin microtubules in dividing cells. These pictures and plenty of others are available in an online exhibition run by the journal Cell at the Cell Picture Show. The images are incredible and there are explanations of what's being shown for those without a biology background - well worth a visit!

Image rights belong to Cell and the original creators.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Adaptive by name, adaptive by nature - your immune system the tactical genius!

The previous post in this series can be found here.

In my last post I described how the adaptive branch of the immune system is the real player when it comes to fighting infection. In this post I hope to give you some idea of just how sophisticated a tactical machine this system is.

The battle plan

As any good general knows, not all enemies can be fought in the same way. History is littered with examples of mighty empires who were stopped in their tracks by relatively small opponents who simply fought in a way that they were not used to and couldn’t adapt to. The wars that are being fought inside you right now are no different, and require your battle strategies to be adaptive if they are to keep you alive.

Pathogens come in all shapes and sizes. They can be viruses that highjack your cells’ own replicating machinery to make more of themselves; intracellular bacteria that smuggle themselves into your cells and devour them from the inside; extracellular bacteria that float around in the blood or other fluids and generally make a nuisance of themselves; or they can even be multicellular parasites that can be big enough to see, such as tapeworms or the Plamodia that cause malaria. The fact that they all have different molecular components is not a problem since, as discussed in my last post, your B and T cells all have different antigen recognition receptors, and so you’ve most likely got one somewhere that can recognise whatever’s invading you. However, deploying those B and T cells in the most effective way possible is the tough task that awaits your immune system when a pathogen first invades you. A strategy must be devised and honed to the specific weakness of the enemy – but how is this achieved?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Three Impossible Images

Marianne Moore, A Jellyfish (1959)

Of course this first one isn’t even an image, but a poem—a lyric. In this digital audio file at the SFMA Poetry Center you can hear Marianne Moore reading it. Listening to this clip is lovely, because it gives you a sense of the witty, self-depreciating charm of the personality behind the language.

If this poem is an ‘image,’ it is a drama of the almost-visible, starring a jellyfish. Quite a specific, individual jellyfish, swimming around as they do, and momentarily caught in a small poetic narrative. It is the jellyfish that is both visible and invisible: fluctuating, transparent, ethereal, sometimes translucent and sometimes highly colored, jewel-toned, gem-like, strangely compelling, very beautiful, intensely desirable, and alive.

The first lines of the poem contain so much all-over movement that you sense the liquidity before articulating it. Yet when the “arm/ approaches” everything changes. Suddenly it hits you that there’s no glass barrier, an aquarium or a zoo, to separate the person from the jellyfish, so that that this might actually be an eco-drama: a story of ecological ethics in which the arm is in the ocean with the jellyfish.

And this realization introduces two important other movements. When the arm drops back it registers fear, but also something else. “Abandon[ing] your intent” isn't exactly giving up. There’s a hint of purposeful letting go: a deliberate act of relinquishment, or an instinctive reaction to the liveness of the jellyfish’s quiver.

This poem is a kind of motionless animation. It is a drama in which what is not visible becomes more practically significant than we can see, so that a very attractive ‘thing’ is not removed from its environment.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Your weekly minute of physics

Minutephysics is a youtube channel that produces weekly, minute long videos about... physics (and maths sometimes too, but from a physicist's perspective).

I think the videos are great. I think the guy behind it is very talented. One small caveat should be given before I link you to some of my favourite videos he has made. He limits himself to explaining, in just one minute, some topics that are quite intricate. As a result he sometimes has to be a little liberal with the truth. I wouldn't say that anything he says is wrong, but I would say that it is often a highly simplified version of the truth, sometimes missing some very important pieces.

But if I put that caveat aside, I think minutephysics is an excellent and well executed idea. The video I've embedded above explains Dark Energy. It isn't actually the minutephysics guy talking but is a guest voice-over from physicist and prominent blogger Sean Carroll. So, if you're wondering what those guys won that Nobel Prize for a few weeks ago, have a watch and see (but do keep the truth-ness caveat in mind).

Really all of the minutephysics videos are worth a watch, but two of my favourites are:

Adding past infinity and There is no pink light

You should definitely watch both of them.

The feat of mathematical craziness worked through in the first one should blow your mind a little. You probably won't believe the claim made in the video, so check out this link to understand it a but further. If that isn't enough crazy for you, check this link out. This sort of crazy mathematics has some application in physics, but I don't feel confident enough right now to try to walk that minefield of balancing understandable explanation, without falling into over-simplification.

I really like the second video. I will explain why sometime later in the week in the comments. Anyway, it is also a (loosely) relevant video given the recent conversation about light that developed in the comments here.

Twitter: @just_shaun