Monday, June 24, 2013

Art as a gateway to scientific inquiry

Did I tell you how frustrated I was when I started to do ceramic sculpture? My "problem" is that I loved tiles. I couldn't think past the goal of developing new designs for flat things. And I made some pretty nice flat things. Flat things that curved, and flat things that bent, and flat things you could see through. I started to build new flat things on top of the fired flat things I had built. I brought my friend and colleague Lynne Allen into the drying room one day. Lynne is a printmaker and I asked her "isn't this the kind of way of making prints?" Don't get me wrong. I'm not bragging or anything but I think I invented the 3-D printer. 

I had a hard time getting past the flat things. Partly because I loved them and partly because I literally couldn't wrap my head around doing anything else. I didn't want to make "pots" because I knew that what I wanted to do was create some kind of sculptural objects. The problem of three dimensions was a real killer.

As an artist in his 50s at the time it looked and felt to me like my brain wasn't flexible enough to think in 3-D. And then one day after a trip to Mexico visiting some incredible ruins in the Yucat√°n, I figured out a way to make columns like the ones I had seen at Ake. True I struggled with that as well. But I woke up one morning and I realized that I had gone beyond the broad, broad flat canvas around to the other side. I was working in 3D. 

So what does this have to do with scientific inquiry? Sometimes we struggle with ideas, problem, or puzzles that just seem impossible to solve. I've realized for a long time that my students have a really hard time with what I teach, for a lot of reasons. For me, playing and playing with the clay "freed" my mind. The play let my hands and heart do the thinking while my mind relaxed. After all how "important" was it to work in 3D. I have my day job as a tenured professor. 

But I think opening your mind, or our students' minds, or both, is a great way to go, a super benefit of letting loose and considering things from a whole different perspective. Art? Science? Ways of thinking, ways of experimenting, ways of problem solving. Let's try some more parallel play and see where it goes!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Permeability: Just for Cell Membranes?

What is permeability? What does it mean when something is permeable? What do we mean when we say something has permeated something else? In class we discuss the semi-permeable cell membrane in detail, but we never really discuss the concept of permeability. It seems that the idea of permeability has to do with the movement of one substance across a boundary, but that is a very general and perhaps incomplete concept. What is a boundary? What is the substance? Does permeability have only to do with size? Porosity? Chemistry? Can we think of permeability in other ways? In common language we use the term permeable in many contexts. For example, we say that people in love are permeated with attraction for one another. Can permeability also relate to vulnerability? In another context we may say that a product has "permeated" the market. Does this imply strength?

As a scientist and an artist I think there are many ways to look at concepts we might otherwise take for granted. We can learn a lot this way. And by exploring "scientific" concepts from different angles, perhaps we can understand more about the properties, propensities, and possibilities of our world.

Here's an example. In this experiment with ceramics I made large balls of newspaper, then covered them with ceramic slip impregnated with salt. I "glued" the balls together with more goopy clay. Once my sculpture was dry I stuck it in the kiln and baked it for a couple of days. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the thing broke apart as I pulled it out of the kiln. But I got to learn a lot about the behavior of my materials.

Look closely at the mess I made and you can see that this is actually an experiment in permeability! How effectively did the slip permeate the newspaper? The thin paper-like formations are actually ceramic "paper," so you can say the permeability of clay slip into paper was pretty effective. Now look at the purple-blue color. That's the salt, vaporized in the heat of the kiln and able to then permeate the almost-molten clay. What do we see here? The salt did not penetrate the whole structure. Reasons unknown. But we have learned more about permeability. To be a bit more "scientific" we have learned something of how a vapor permeates a semi-solid substance in the oxidizing environment of a high temperature kiln.

My next example is from a store window in the incredible Centro Historico of Mexico City. I took this picture when I was preparing for an art residency there, which was supposed to focus on movement and materials of this vibrant market district. Pictured here are bags of plastic objects. The objects themselves are permeated with color. The plastic bags block some of that color and the window glass blocks it more. The lens of my camera blocked more of the color, as did the air between the window and my camera. We could go on. But here the question of permeability arises again. How "permeated" with color is this photo? And how "permeated" with color were the original plastic objects? You can see that in this example we are discussing permeability in a context that is different from my ceramics experiment.

I think we could go on about questions of permeability all day. Probably there have been lots of books written about it. From philosophy to thermodynamics, permeability is a huge question. I like to stay somewhere in between, in the world of biology. I also like to keep my blog posts short. So take a look (or should I say take a sniff) at the photo below. Lilacs. Beautiful luscious harbingers of spring, fragrant, delicious, rich appealing aroma. They permeate the atmosphere with their visual and olfactory generosity. Who says science and art are miles apart?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Plenty city

I struggled all winter with the horrible climate of Boston, seriously thinking about moving to a warmer place. Hated that I had to stay in the house. Mostly it was true because the cold weather has begun to physically hurt me.

Even as spring progressed, now diving into summer, uncomfortable to get on a bike most days. Rain, cold breezes, the prospect of never ending suburbs as my prime destination, all kept me off my bike. Today with only 60% chance of severe thunderstorms I decided, "it's now or never! "

I got on the bike and rode along the Charles River. I had the bike path almost to myself. Abounding nature, sun flecked woods, brilliant open fields dotted with flowers, and vistas across the river were my reward. I found ripe mulberries and ate them right off the tree. The shaded paths were redolent with aromas of the riparian environment, still damp and puddled from yesterday's storms.

At a certain sunny bend in Allston I felt the eastern breeze. Harsh and cold earlier in the spring it put up a benign caress today. But why was it there? I turned around to see a bank of dark clouds to the north and west, the promised cold front swallowing up the atmosphere and sucking in ocean air off the coast. Whatever. I needed a moment to write down these impressions on a bench by the river. I'll get home before it pours.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Water feature

The water feature in our garden is a large ceramic container that I lug in every winter and bring out again in the spring. Last week when it looked like it might finally warm up I filled it with water and got a couple of floating plants. Water lettuce and water Hyacinth do well in the bright morning sun and afternoon shade. They also have extensive underground rhizine systems that provide plenty of habitat.

After I had plants floating in the water for a few days I noticed that the container was full of mosquito larvae. I rode my bike quickly to the local pet store and bought 80 cents worth of minnows and black goldfish. The larvae were gone in two days.

Now the fish patrol the water for whatever falls in. Sometimes I see them break the surface as they capture something. As much as I love the plants in my garden the most intriguing and peaceful spot seems to be next to the water. Here I sit on the front step on a rare warm morning looking into transparent water filled with shadows and movement.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Art and Science of Urban Drainage

After days and inches of rain the warnings have popped up all over the Boston metropolitan area. Small stream flooding, major urban drainage problems, more rain to come. In our built environments drainage is an issue that can't be ignored. And this applies whether we live in rain-soaked regions like the northeast United States or in desert-dry localities like the southwest. Pavement leads to floods.

Why is this? In part we can attribute it to the physical properties of water. A sheet of water is an infinite series of interconnected molecules. Water not only "finds its way." It does so as part of a mass flow of molecules. Water collects in sheets on pavement and other non-absorptive surfaces. Once it overflows whatever bounds exist it moves with force.

The more paved surfaces the more force. The more water gathers the more it finds a way to move to another level. "Controlling" water is almost impossible. And the more water you want to control the greater the cost and the harder it is to accomplish. Are there any ways in the built environment to ameliorate the detrimental effects of water?

So-called green roofs are one attempt to "soften" the paved landscape. I've discussed in other posts how they're a not-always-reliable solution. The planning, infrastructure, and maintenance that is needed for green roofs is not an easy thing to accomplish. And the biology of green roofs is still poorly understood. How do we plan for the inevitable change in plant species that occurs on green roofs?

Maybe one way to ameliorate urban flooding is to promote more green spaces in our cities. This can be accomplished through something as simple as individual gardens. In our crowded old neighborhood in the heart of Boston, simple gardens show us the contrast between paved and unpaved when it comes to urban drainage. Asphalt, brick, and concrete surfaces collect water, which moves uncontrollably to places we may not want it. The varied contours and rich variety of a growing garden absorb, store, and ameliorate water. They change water into a resource instead of a nuisance.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Landscape of Tides

I went out early this morning to take a walk near the House of my friend Nina Berson. We got in yesterday afternoon in driving rain that had let up by 6AM this morning. Good thing I turned around when I did, exactly 15 minutes after I left the house the wind and sheets of rain, remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea, were lashing the house again.

This tidelands world of bay side Cape Cod is so beautiful and so mysterious. Part of the beauty and the mystery is the constantly changing landscape. Here where the land ends, the liminal space near the ocean, I feel that change keenly. It's here that atmosphere in its awesome variations joins the show of change and mixes up the pallet in a vortex of color, line, and texture. A wonderful place to be an artist. And a scientist.

The temporary nature of air and water, currents, tides, and landforms is so powerfully apparent here. And the fragility of our own nature is mightily exposed. A house of four walls, thoughtfully built in the '50s, suddenly precarious in the wind, suddenly vulnerable near the water. Isolation, apprehension, the looming presence of our own limitations all emerge in the storm. And like the tide they retreat, subdued, when the wind dies down.