Monday, December 31, 2012

Imperfection and Survival

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini a Nobel-winning biologist, has died. I was reading her obituary in this morning's New York Times and came across this quote from her autobiography:

“It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain..."

What an amazing remark from someone who was immersed in the biology of the brain, someone who had spent decades studying the intricacies of cellular mechanics.

We learn biological systems from handed-down models developed by scientists who we tend to see as flawless. Because so much depends upon our successful assimilation of scientific "facts" we overlook the complexities in biological systems--complexities that by nature introduce and perpetuate imperfection.

Ironically, it may be these very imperfections that permit our continued evolution. "Mistakes," variations, exceptions to the rule all are the raw ingredients that make biological systems malleable, permeable, and changeable. Without these variations, a population of organisms would be unable to survive the random environmental perturbations that occur in every generation. One of Darwin's key concepts was that variations confer "fitness," the ability to survive and reproduce. Variations generally fall outside of the "norm" and may be perceived as mistakes, extremes, or oddities. Nevertheless they fuel the engine of evolution.

I am reminded of the beautiful limestone scholar's rock outside Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The rock is riddled with holes and irregularities, the characteristics that make it a "perfect" example of traditional Chinese art. Vulnerability, imperfection, and flow characterize its features. Unenhanced by the human hand, it represents an awkward yet elegant "ideal," an ideal that accepts nature in all its"imperfections." As a piece of art or as a piece of nature, these features reflect an aesthetic and philosophical understanding of the world that Dr. Levi-Montalcini reached from her analytical-scientific perspective.

It is this kind of unifying world view that makes the study of art and science together so rewarding. How can we encourage this odd kind of appreciation in our own scientific and artistic practices, nurturing variability and "imperfection" in ourselves and in our students?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Taking Apart, Building, and Learning

I think we can all agree that learning takes place when we put together pieces of knowledge to build a larger whole. We can call this larger whole a model. Scientists build knowledge through constructing models and while I'm not sure how other disciplines approach knowing I have a feeling it's pretty much the same. By visualizing a phenomenon we come to know it and communicate it better, and visual models are refined ideas made more or less simple through our critical shaping of them.

A visual model can be sight-based but we can also "visualize" through our other senses, especially through touch. So can we build a 3D model that through touch and eyesight reveals an idea? I think yes.

What about our students? For several years I have asked students to build visual models of the scientific concepts we learn by making short videos that they post on YouTube. My student projects are good but they require thought and time and editing, something that my non-science-major students aren't always willing to invest. It has occurred to me as well that students may not grasp the underlying science of the problems they choose to depict in videos. This leads to frustration and a feeling on my part and on students' part that the videos are a kind of "throw-away" assignment.

So I've been thinking long and hard about how people learn science and how I can foster this process. Ever since I've started teaching I've thought that the process of observation is central to science. But what to observe? The models we present students with in lab represent models that scientists developed over long periods. If we ask students to go through the motions to "rediscover" what scientists have modeled I think it feels dry and meaningless to the students. Even majors feel this way. Somehow it is not their own "process" they are pursuing but a kind of preset recipe they are expected to concoct.

So I've been trying to think more elementally about how observation works. And how people learn from observing. And how warming up the brain through observing might make a person more receptive to exercising the intellect when it comes to more difficult or abstract problems, like the things i talk about in lecture. As I've stated many times, I don't teach science. I encourage my students to think critically about abstract problems.

So, how do we deal with the abstract? With that maddeningly random-seeming set of ungainly, disorganized, stimuli that come rampaging our way? Can I help students take these signals and make something organized of them? Can I encourage students to do this on their own terms and not in a pre-conceived already-modeled learning environment?

If you will forgive me (and if my students will forgive me--they are second year university students and I don't want them to perceive that they are doing kindergarten work!!), I'd like to propose a series of lab exercises that approach nature and observing nature at an elemental, sense-dense way that wakes up students' minds, warms them up for thinking about science, and allows them to build their own models.

One exercise I'm working on right now is allowing students to come to lab and play with water. The forms of water, the movement of water, and the way water interacts with different surfaces, substances, and environments. This means i have to jettison my beloved "water and plants" lab where students observe and record leaves, cacti, etc. and copy down notes about how water behaves in different plants. It means I will have less "material" that is "fair game" for exams. It means that students won't docilely (but hurriedly) write down my every word before they rush out the door.

But maybe it will mean students take a brief moment or maybe more to observe what's really important--water as a phenomenon.

This is a lot of food for thought, something I'll have to construct a bit further, but with some luck and hard work I may provide a framework through which students can do their own cognitive construction projects.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Proteins, Art, and Aesthetics: Transducing Meaning

Science and art rule the world. Without them the world, especially human life, would be not just a duller place. It would not function. A year ago when I started writing about art and science it was hard to find popular work on the subject. Search now and you will find abundant material. But I'm a bit worried about where that effort is headed.

There is so much popular enthusiasm for linking, combining, and conflating art and science. There's nothing wrong with current concepts about art-as-science or science-as-art. But I sense the lack of a philosophical basis for these activities. Science isn't art nor is art science, but they do have many commonalities, especially in the way they approach problems. This idea has been wonderfully elucidated at the MIT List Center exhibit, "Man in the Holocene," which runs for a couple more weeks. Thank you Julia for encouraging me to go and see it!

Without the conceptual basis laid down in that exhibit, in year or two when the excitement has subsided I'm afraid we'll be right back where we started, an intellectual paradigm where science and art are seen as polar opposites, neither informing the other.

So many people right now are confusing art and science. A beautiful scientific image, a sumptuous map, or a brightly colored microphotograph do not, in my opinion, comprise a work of art. Nor do artists' works depicting nature or what they perceive as scientific phenomena actually inform science. Instead of these approaches, I have been exploring subjects related to the "Holocene" exhibit. How do we circumscribe a set of approaches that are common to both art and science? I think I am getting close in what I describe broadly as an "aesthetic" approach, something you can read in my recent previous posts.

Can we take the aesthetic approach further and unlock the way it works in a scientific context? I think we can.

Consider this. Composition, volume, proportion, and dynamics are abstract signals, properties within which we make and critique art. They are combined to create an aesthetic, which makes “sense” out of random signals, and through which we can understand the work of an artist. They hold the code that is translated into an aesthetic, which leads to an interpretation of reality. These signals are the carriers of meaning by which we organize abstract perceptions into articulated concepts, into a system of understanding. They do not have "meaning" on their own but combined and translated they can be transduced into artistic meaning.

From a scientific standpoint these carriers of meaning are like cellular ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA delivers an abstract code (a sequence of nucleotides) to a submicroscopic body called the ribosome, where the code is translated into protein. The nucleotide sequence by itself does not have meaning. It has no function other than conveying a message. Only when the message is translated by the ribosome into a protein does it "make sense."

Proteins subsequently “make sense” of cellular activities by mediating all of the biochemical behaviors of the cell. Certain proteins act as pumps for other molecules, using energy to transport substances from one part of the cell to another. Other proteins behave as gatekeepers, allowing certain things into a cellular space and keeping others out. Proteins also function as electron transmitters, guiding the process of energy utilization (metabolism) in the cellular environment. Many proteins are classified as enzymes. In their role as enzymes, proteins are the "chemists" of the cell. They add to, take away from, or change the shape of other molecules.

To take the aesthetic-protein analogy further, these same abstract properties of composition, proportion, volume, and dynamics determine protein function. Proteins need to be a certain shape (conformation) in order to function. Protein conformation, folding, and affinities for other molecules are the basis of protein function similar to the way in which aesthetic principles determine to "function" or meaning of a work of art. Art has to have guiding principles of aesthetics. In the same way, proteins are defined by their ability to behave in certain specific ways. If proteins did not possess these characteristics they could not function in the cellular environment.

I would be interested to hear what you think about these ideas, and whether they have introduced you to a new way of thinking about art and science.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mass Flow

Heavy rain in the forecast for Boston today. As I sit here writing in the predawn light I see the trees out front swaying in the wind.

Water in a stream or lake or ocean. Every molecule attached to others so its as if the body of water were a massive molecule with its own properties and behaviors.

One behavior of water in rivers is mass flow, where in a sense the whole body of water is moving as one. Mass flow is also a phenomenon in plants also, where a column of water under great pressure is loosely attached to vessel walls and the molecules behave as one, gliding up the walls of the xylem cells.

If you have ever seen the tide go out you have observed mass flow in all its drama. Likewise the onslaught and retreat of waves along a beach.

In meditation I have visualized that mass of water flowing back into the ocean, carrying with it pebbles, bits of wood, and turning larger stones over and over as they move with the strength of the water. That water is like the flow of time.

Mass flow to the tips of plants, mass flow in a stream, mass flow of the tide. All of these are markers of, and evidence for temporal passage, the movement of time.

In fifty years my children will be well into their seventies, their children well into adulthood, their grandchildren flowing forward with the "tide" of time unaware of my years floating and flowing. This is natural. My great grandparents are unknown and unimaginable to me, who barely knew his grandparents lives.

Somehow these thoughts caused no anxiety when they came to me in the middle of the night. More of a waking dream, a meditation, a warm blanket of reality.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Process Process Process

I put together some dough last night that would not rise. Did I introduce the yeast to too-hot water or was this another co-op failure, moldy veggies, sour milk, inactive yeast? Strange that the bit of sugar I added to the water to start off the yeast just wasn't digested...the dark heavy bread ( just a thin baguette so no real harm done) was sweet with that sugar.

I couldn't help but remembering poor Lucy's experience with Crohn's this year where her gut got more and more constricted with self-inflammation until ultimately it closed off. Finally she threw up three days of food and we were admitted to the Brigham for the surgery we knew was inevitable (her brother Ben had had the same condition several years ago with the same outcome). Process and cycle...

In a like fashion I teach my students the weirdly abstract concept of cellular respiration, (something they hate learning) which ironically occurs in every living cell in their bodies...The citric acid cycle. the flow of electrons, the terminal electron acceptor, oxygen, and the dire consequences that occur when the cells are deprived of oxygen (pyruvate poisoning, stoppage of ATP production, death).

So with these less than cheery ideas (though the emotions are cheery!) we enter the winter solstice. But with recollections of our amazing readings for last summer's NEH travel seminar, among them Ramson Lonetawama's distinctly Hopi take on seasons and cycles...

So it's not too off base or off-putting I hope to refer to it "all" as a cycle, a series of additions and enzymatically mediated breakdowns, a sequence of repeats and breaks, a sort of time's circle, a gentle or not-so-gentle eddy that we are all swimming around in.

As a mycologist-ecologist-artist-parent it all seems to make sense.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Caves, Cognition, and Feeling Our Way Toward the Light

My first mentor in botany, a wonderful woman named Alix Wennekens, told me that before she learned botany the world was like a green tunnel to her, uniform and indecipherable.

I carry those words with me all the time; when I introduce my students to scientific problem solving, when I visit a new place and the plant families are like old welcoming friends, and whenever I set out to learn something new about my world.

Alix spoke those words to me when I was first engaging the world of plants and practicing botany in the sense that's truest to the etymology of its name, studying the shape and growth dynamics of buds. Soon after that I was using more sophisticated empirical tools like the light microscope and the scanning electron microscope, but the intuitive aesthetically-derived ways I first learned botany never left me.

I think all learning is intuitive. Each of us has our own way of intuiting the world but I think we also share some unifying cognitive characteristics of learning. All of these learning pathways, call them problem solving if you will, can be considered in a broad sense as aesthetics. I've been playing around with the idea that aesthetics, as broadly defined here, is an algorithm for taking the abstract world-- for example Alex's green tunnel, and making it into something understandable.

This brings me to the question of caves. In the past few years I have visited many places where I observed caves both natural and man-made. How did our ancestors use these caves? Were they temporary encampments? Permanent residences? Sacred spaces? Defensive posts? Perhaps all of the above?

And why did our ancestors decorate them, embellish them, build them? Could caves have been a place of meditation, enlightenment, inspiration? Might they have been something like the libraries or museums of today?

We have so much to learn about our relationship with caves. Whether in present day Spain, Mexico, or the desert southwest of the US (all caves pictured at the end of this post), our ancestors engaged with these places at some level beyond the pure physicality of shelter or protection.

Today's New York Times featured an article about caves in the Brazilian rainforest, now threatened by mining, that provide archeological clues to the earliest peopling if the Americas. It seems that not only our ancestors used caves aesthetically as a way to figure out their world. There's so much we can still learn from them.

So, thinking about intuitive ways of learning, aesthetic approaches to problem solving, using caves in all their darkness as a way to pursue the light.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Solving Problems by Taking Apart & Abstracting: An Exercise in Aesthetics

So I feel like the direction of my blog is changing as I continue to define aesthetics and the ways we can use it in solving problems, visual and otherwise. Yesterday I posted about the amazing 12-panel woodblock print by James Kerry Marshall on exhibit at Harvard's Sackler Museum.

I decided to pursue my thoughts about Marshall's work a bit further and I decided on a little aesthetics/rhetoric experiment. 
My inquiry was to find out whether I could observe the work at several different levels, all descriptive, and each time using less words to describe what I saw. 

This is a challenge I encounter frequently when reviewing books for the American Library Association journal "CHOICE," where my comments are limited to 191 words. Most of the time I enjoy the challenge and I especially like presenting it to students. 

In all of my classes I assign writing within strict word constraints, ten words, 100 words, 500 words. If you've tried something like this you may have noticed that students don't particularly like to be held responsible for limited word counts. All of us like some wiggle room, especially when we're not quite sure how to organize our thoughts.

But I think it's important to try. Words are an abstraction and when we put anything into words, whether oral or written, we are creating an abstraction. Can words help solve problems by taking apart an image, a situation, a phenomenon, and abstracting it? I think yes. And further, I think this can work in all kinds of settings, not just art criticism but science problem solving and, hey, why not? conflict resolution.

Anyway, here's my exercise in "taking apart" and abstracting what I consider to be a formidable piece of art. 

I studied each panel and wrote my "long" description, then came back to each panel and wrote a shorter description, and finally returned a second time to write my "short" description, comprised of only one word. Below I've included some photos of the panels and all of my written work. Of course I'd love to hear what you think about this approach.


James Kerry Marshall
Untitled  1998

Color woodcut with hand coloring
Twelve panels

Panel 1

The city endless grid stamped like dollar bills a sky of floating clouds

17 blocks straight line perspective


Panel 2

The brick wall yellow and flower box fake planting?

Five flowers three bricks angle



Panel 3

The rug a lamp inside a line a space an opening

Rug and wall horizon table plays


Panel 4

An upturned head a hand outreached a host in shorts ballet

Shoes and legs three men kitchen


Panel 5

Spare couch with resting hand food plates on floor & table

Three plates one hand


Panel 6

Three men sit on the green rug under lampshade and black box

Back and front torsos, verticals


Panel 7

A corner bisect pink & yellow quiet but empty & expectant

Two panels and a rug


Panel 8

A frank pink wall but lighter than the wall in panel 5 a corridor

Large panel narrow run of rug


Panel 9

Opens a door and first glimpse of new space. The door is pink

Door jamb white formal angles


Panel 10

A bed well made recessed under a black hole in the bedroom private

Tight secret


Panel 11

Shadow of a a vase & flowers in a shadowy black vertical rectangle

Abstract secret


Panel 12

Turn the corner for another pink wall a rectangle a lost black face

Humorous secret


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Abstract to Aesthetic; The Interior Topology of Personality

Confronted with the monumental woodblock series yesterday of Kerry James Marshall at the Harvard Sackler Museum. An ethereal roomscape cityscape landscape in spare shapes and swaths of pink yellow and green. But constructed within a world of formally arranged perpendicular lines. The power of a Beckman series combined with a delicacy, an almost painful intimacy. Certainly a mammoth task from conception to concoction, carving, printing, and coloring.

I've been meaning to discuss with my friend Neil Gore the origins or at least outline of personality development. How does it arise, what are its boundaries and byways? Are there mechanisms of personality development we can detect? Are there limits? And how does the personality process the world it encounters? How does the personality interpret its world? Or is it even part of the realm of the personality to interpret, navigate, and function within an abstract canvas, to "make sense" of the world?

In earlier posts I've written about "touching" a problem-a haptic response to artistic (and possibly wider) problem solving challenges. Here's another take.

A waking dream early this morning, based on these questions and on my observations of the Marshall prints.

The mind finds itself in a large enclosed space. Something about it is as if it were a glass room but the ceiling is low and opaque and white. Arrayed in a landscape is a series of large rocks. Different sizes, heights, textures but overall smooth and rising higher than the line of sight. The rocks cannot be scaled and even if you could scale one rock all you would get would be a view of the landscape of rocks.

What is this abstract topography and what does it mean? Does the mind perceive it in a fog so that the space between rocks is invisible or is it clear inside this landscape so that the space between rocks is available but invisible, blank. In either case the tops of the boulders are invisible so their overall shape can't be discerned. Do the rocks relate to one another? Is there a "plan" beside this abstract landscape?

So I wonder, in personality development is it the task of the mind to perceive and decipher this mystery of abstracts? Is it the role of personality to determine how the individual will negotiate through this landscape of boulders? How the individual will "make sense" or "make peace" with or interpret this topography? Is the personality in part the formation of an aesthetic, the development of an explanation for all this randomness?

How does the personality order the world, find explanations, aid in interpretations? If aesthetic = interpretation or ordering, how much of the personality plays an aesthetic role? And if every person interprets the room if boulders differently does this act as a kind of proof that each person's personality is unique?

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Taxonomy of Movement

One of the goals of my residency at the Andes Sprouts Society was to document the movement of composting worms. This goal was part of a larger plan to observe and document movement as a way to connect science and art, part of my sabbatical activities.

I got wonderful results from observing the worms move, though it wasn't easy, especially at first. Worms hate light, and I knew that if I tried to film them I would be observing their back ends as they slid into the comfortable dark world of their bin.

With this in mind I came to the residency prepared with a couple of infrared lights, which I knew the worms wouldn't mind. Alas, the solar panels that were supposed to provide electricity at the cabin hadn't been installed yet. As in many instances of the residency, I had to improvise.

I mixed up a medium of sand (for texture) and while clay slip (to trace their movement) and let the worms move freely through that medium in an environment that was exposed to indirect (cloudy) light. Since they didn't have anywhere to hide, I was able to approximate their natural movements, or at least to extrapolate how worms might move in their natural state if we could observe such a thing.

I was enchanted by the way their bodies made beautiful curves in the medium, the way they seemed to pulsate as they activated a sequence of muscles, and the way they formed sharper curves with the part of their bodies leading the movement. 

Several hours of recording yielded about 15 minutes of video, some of which I'm including here. 

After observing the worms for hours in an inorganic substrate I decided to trace their movement in a two-dimensional medium of ink. I found them to be willing and talented collaborators whose work I documented here in an earlier post. Seeing the worms work with the ink gave me some insights into the way we might classify their movement.

First we have to consider that as "unlimited" as the worms' movement seems (and we can assume it would be more so in the three-dimensional compost bin habitat) there are certain constraints. For example, the musculature of the worms limits the way they move in certain ways. Gentle arcs, broadly rounded curves, and body pulses are three things that come to mind. Another constraint, consider that worms moved one way in a "natural" inorganic substrate of sand and clay slip but differently on a smooth surface with ink. So within the large taxonomic class of "red wiggler movement" we can see that there are variations depending on the immediate environment of the worms.

Worm movement is one of multitudes of types of animal movement, which we might classify together because of their common genetic origin.

Consider another large taxonomic class of plant movement, which Darwin studied in detail. In a post I made in my blog "Botany Without Borders" I wrote some about plant movement, which is highly varied and includes growth, endogenous locomotion, locomotion by wind and water, and locomotion by the agency of other organisms. 

We are not limited to classifying movement by genetic category and that might not even be a satisfactory way of looking at things. Consider the movement of water vapor over a pond, the flow of a stream, the movement of a sand dune, the movement of a rock as it breaks through freeze-thaw action, or the movement of continents over time.

In a sense all of these movements are abstract signals that exist when we observe them. They are part of the world and they partially define the world but they are a tiny sliver of what the world is about. As a scientist or an artist, it is my job to interpret movement through an aesthetic moment and articulate it in a meaningful way (through some kind of communicative message) to other humans. 
It seems to me that a taxonomy of movement holds enormous potential for further study as I continue to explore connections between the world of art and science. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bicycles and the Urban Landscape

I've been on a bike since I was about 10, when I got my first 3-speed Sears bike hand-me-down from a cousin. The freedom of riding a bike around my neighborhood in Chicago was a sensation that stayed with me for the rest of my life. I think the only time I haven't been on a bike regularly was the 18 months we lived in Alaska. 

It occurs to me I never write about being on a bike and that's kind of strange. Especially because I'm a true believer when it comes to the benefits of bicycles in the urban landscape.

I was on Janet's bike yesterday when the thin wheels, a muddy street, a gap in the sidewalk, and ill-timed aim sent me for a nice spill. Ouch! I screamed and bellowed my way all four feet to the sidewalk in slow motion, startling the pedestrians into trying to help me up. The great thing about adrenaline is that you don't feel any pain for a couple of hours so I rolled the bike into our neighborhood repair shop, came home, slugged down a couple of aspirins, and only started complaining when poor Janet got home. 

Anyway her bike was well ready for a tune up before my little crash. Today I walked over to pick it up and the bill came to $160 including a new chain, back gears, brake pads and a bunch of other stuff. Not bad when you think of what it would cost you to repair a car. Actually....our wonderful (not) American-built (quality!-not) Ford Taurus station wagon cost us about ten times this amount each year as it limped toward its 70,000 mile death. We threw it out when our youngest kid went to college and never looked back. Goodbye insurance payments, parking hassles, and those awful repairs. Actually when Janet took it in the last time for repairs the click and clack guys asked her what zip code she lived in. "02139?" they asked..."You don't need this thing any more!"

It's true, we have two Whole Foods, a co-op and a Trader Joes all within walking distance. When we have to have a car we get a zipcar or rent one if we're going away for a weekend. Living five blocks from the T we can get public transportation to the airport and anywhere else in the city. Pretty luxurious and oh, the time we're NOT on the road commuting!

So, where was I? Oh, bicycles. Silent, lightweight, practically self-propelled, emission-free, carbon-neutral, and in Boston traffic, often the fastest way to travel. As a scientist I know how good this kind of conveyance is for the environment. As an artist I know how nice it is to be oxygenated to get your creative juices flowing. 

Come to think about it I will be writing more about bicycles in the city. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Billion Possibilities

Last day of my Abstract Sculpture class at the MFA and a fine conversation with my friend Renato Riccioni. Renato is an outstanding instructor, a sensitive and persuasive critic. During our parting conversation we touched on many topics. One that stands out fore the most are his comments on perception.

We all perceive different things in a room, in a work of art, in a landscape, in a relationship. Renato stressed in our convo the way we make decisions based on those perceptions and our responses to them. How we decide to focus our lives, our work, our creative energies depends on those responses.

We are used to seeing things, and problem solving, within a narrow spectrum of perception. Often, perhaps too often, we hold into things for the sake of holding in. Not letting go preserves some sense of security, continuity, or status but it may lead us to being blind to change.

The world changes and we change. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge change and move through it permits us to be open to what comes. Instead of defending some ambiguous mental turf, being open to change challenges us to engage the world for what it is. In this way we can evolve more as artists, scientists, or whatever we pursue.