Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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Art says “Science” but in a language no one speaks fluently

dna painting by Katarina Countiss

DNA painting by Katarina Countiss

A response to NPR’s article “When Art Meets Science, You’ll Get The Picture” by Nancy Shute.

“Science inspires art. And the art inspires questions.” Pretty cool idea, but I sadly disagree. Art is definitely a way to pique curiosity. It begins when people want to engage in the work. Art has been relegated in this society to a small subsection of society. The artists, visual communicators, are not valued in a way that when people see a painting that they ask themselves the questions that the article says that they would. People are numb to visual information when it is obscured by symbolism and masked in artistic rendering. Essentially, I think that a painting that transforms an idea into a piece of eye-candy destroys the meaning of the scientific work.

It’s not that paintings are inferior to photographs or slick charts, but that in our culture, there have been many movements to take understanding out of art. See the Dada, surrealist, modernist movements. They are not communicating “Scientists have discovered.” They are saying “blue, like you’ve never seen.” I am not going to engage every painting as if they are trying to communicate new discoveries. It’s a combination of text and image that makes the series in the article have power. A painting that “describes” a fact is not inspiring. I’m not going to ask the questions. It’s merely a supplement to the message. We are not skillful decoders of paintings. It’s like dancing about architecture. It might give further insight, but it’s not enough.


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Drawing by Katarina Countiss 

Excerpt from Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking by John-Steiner, Vera (Book – 1997) p.72

The development of self-knowledge– the realization of one’s special talents and the best way to use them– doesn’t necessarily follow a simple linear progression. Students of creativity have identified cycles in lives of productive individuals. At times a person spends years absorbing new experiences, styles, or theoretical ideas without making his or her contributions to a field, only to be followed by a period of intense bursts of productivity.

An apparently fallow few years in the life of the great French novelist Marcel Proust were described as part of such a cycle by his biographer André Maurois:

“Superficially considered, the four or five years that followed Marcel’s military service were lost years. The truth is that he was absorbing his honey and filling the pigeonholes of his mind with characters and impressions.”

At the end of his lengthy years of apprenticeship after the death of his parents, Marcel Proust “had developed a prodigious memory peopled with scenes and conversations. He had not frittered away the harvest of his childhood and his adolescence… he had reached the age of great undertakings with his granaries filled to bursting.”

The live, active use of memory reported by artists and scientists forces us to use some caution in our language describing this central mode of thought. In the professional literature of psychology, we often use terms such as memory storage, which implies that humans file their experiences, the yields of their lives, into a dark and dusty back-chamber of the mind. A different process emerges from the accounts of poets, such as Stephen Spender, who have described the many ways in which they attempt to maintain the freshness of their perceptions throughout long periods of time. In a similar vein, Stan Ulam has commented on the importance of keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights. Memory, then, is an ever present resource, a potential source of raw materials that are reworked in art and science…

In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual—active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.

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Color Patches, words from Annie Dillard

Painting by Katarina Countiss





Excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Dillard, Annie (Book – 2007) page 27-31


I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. When Westerner surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases; the histories are fascinating. Many doctors had tested their patients’ sense perceptions and d ideas of space both before and after the operations. The vast majority of patients, of both sexes and all ages, and, in von Senden’s opinion, no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables. A patient “had no idea of depth, confusing it with roundness.” Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing. One patient called lemonade “square” because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands. Of another postoperative patient, the doctor writes, “I have found in her no notion of size, for example, not even within the narrow limits which she might have encompassed with the aid of touch. Thus when I asked her to show me how big her mother was, she did not stretch out her hands, but set her two index fingers a few inches apart.” Other doctors reported their patients’ own statements to similar effect. “The room he was in… he knew to be but part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house could look bigger”; “Those who are blind from birth… have no real conception of height or distance. A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby but requiring the taking of a lot of steps… The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal.”


For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: “The girl went through the experience we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” Again, I asked the patient what he could see; he answered that he saw an extensive filed of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, an in motion. He could not distinguish objects.” Another patient saw “nothing but a confusion of forms and colors.” When a newly sighted girl saw photographs and paintings, she asked, “‘Why do they put all those dark marks over them?’ ‘Those aren’t dark marks,’ her mother explained, ‘those are shadows. That is one of the ways the eye knows that things have shape. If it were not for the shadows many things would look flat.’ ‘Well, that’s how things do look,’ Joan answered. ‘Everything looks flat with dark patches.’ “


But it is the patients’ concepts of space that are most revealing. One patient, according to his doctor, “practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets a hold of it.” “But even at this stage, after three weeks’ experience of seeing,” von Senden goes on, “ ‘space,’ as he conceives it, ends with visual space, i.e. with color-patches that happen to bound his view. He does not have yet the notion that a larger object (a chair) can mask a smaller one (a dog), or that the latter can still be present even though it is not directly seen.”


In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. Soon after his operation a patient “generally bumps into one of these color-patches and observes them to be substantial, since they resist him as tactual objects do. In walking about it also strikes him—or can if he pays attention—that is continually passing in between the colors he sees, that he can go past a visual object, that a part of it then steadily disappears from view; and that in spite of this, however he twists and turns—whether entering the room from the door, for example, or returning back to it—he always has a visual space in front of him Thus he gradually comes to realize that there is also a space behind hi, which he does not see.”


The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, collapsing into apathy and despair. The child can see, but will not make use of his sight. Only when pressed can he with difficult be brought to look at objects in his neighborhood; but more than a foot away it is impossible to bestir him to the necessary effort. Of a twenty-one-year-old girl, the doctor relates, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for such much from this operation write that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of blindness.” A fifteen-year-old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, “No, really, I can’t stand it anymore; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren’t altered, I’ll tear my eyes out.”


Some do learn to see, especially the young ones. But it changes their lives. One doctor comments on the “rapid at complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression. While he was blind he was indifferent to objects unless they were edible; now. “a shifting of values sets in… his thoughts and wishes are mightily stirred and some few of the patients are thereby led into dissimulation, envy, theft, and fraud.”


On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision. To one patient, a human hand unrecognized, is “something bright and then holes.” Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out, “It is dark, blue and shiny… It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which s\he only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights on it.’”  Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world. If a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, “The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.” One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that “men do not really look like trees at all,” and astounded to discover that every visitor had an utterly different face. Finally, a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!”



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The Beauty of Evolution, part 2

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 318-320

Real cities display this same principle of evolutionary beauty. Throughout history, humans have found new cities ugly. For years people recoiled from Las Vegas. Many centuries ago the first few versions of London were considered heinous eyesores. But over generations, every urban block was tested by daily use. The parks and streets that worked were retained; those that failed were demolished. The height of buildings, the size of a plaza, the rake of an overhang was all adjusted by variations to suit current needs. But not all imperfections were removed, nor can they be, since many aspects of a city—say, the width of streets—cannot be changed easily. So urban work-arounds and architectural compensations are added over generations, upping the city’s complexity. In most real cities, such as London or Rome or Shanghai, the tiniest alleyway is hijacked and then utilized for public space, the smallest nook becomes a store, the dampest arch under a bridge is filled with a home. Over the centuries, the constant infilling, ceaseless replacement, renewal, and complexification—in other words, evolution—creates a deeply satisfying aesthetic. The places most renowned for their beauty (Venice, Kyoto, Esfahan) are those that reveal intersecting deep layers of time. Every corner carries the long history of the city embedded in it like a hologram, glimpses of which unfold as we stroll by.

Evolution is not just about complications. One pair of scissors can be highly evolved and beautiful, while another is not. Both scissors entail two swinging pieces of metal joined at their center. But in the highly evolved scissors, the accumulated knowledge won over thousands of years of cutting is captured by the forged and polished shape of the scissor halves. Tiny twists in the metal hold that knowledge. While our lay minds can’t decode why, we interpret that fossilized learning as beauty. It has less to do with smooth lines and more to do with smooth continuity of experience. The attractive scissors and the beautiful hammer and the gorgeous car all carry in their form the wisdom of their ancestors.

The beauty of evolution has put a spell on us. According to psychologist Erich From and famed biologist E.O. Wilson, humans are endowed with biophilia, an innate attraction to living things. This hardwired genetic affinity for life and life processes ensured our survival in the past by nurturing our familiarity with nature. In joy we learned the secrets of the wild. The aeons that our ancestors spend walking in the woods finding coveted herbs or stalking a rare green frog were bliss; ask any hunter-gatherer about their time in the wilds. In love we discovered the bounty each creature could provide and the great lessons organic forms had to teach us. This love still simmers in our cells. It is why we keep pets and potted plants in the city, why we garden when supermarket food is cheaper, and why we are drawn to sit in silence under towering trees.

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The Beauty of Evolution, Part 1

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 317-318

Most evolved things are beautiful, and the most beautiful are the most highly evolved. Every living organism today has benefited from four billion years of evolution, so every creature live—from a spherical diatom to a jellyfish to a jaguar—displays a depth that we see as beauty. This is why we are attracted to natural organisms and materials and why it is so hard to create synthetic objects with a similar glow. (Facial beauty in humans is a different phenomenon entirely. The closer a face hews to an ideal average human face, the more attractive we find it.) The complex history of a living creature gives it a patina that holds up to inspection no matter how close we get.

My friends in Hollywood special effects business who create the lifelike virtual creatures for movies like Avatar and Star Wars series say the same thing. They first engineer their made-up creature to follow the logic of physics, and then they make it beautiful by layering on history. The monster on the ice planet in the 2009 film Star Trek was once white (in its virtual evolution), but after it became the top predator in its snowy white world, camouflage was no longer necessary, so parts of its body shifted to bright red to display its dominance. The same creature once had thousands of eyes not visible in the movie, but these organs shaped its form and behavior. Watching it on the screen, we “read” the results of this fantasy evolution s authentic and beautiful. Sometimes directors will even transfer the development of a creature from one designer to another, so that it does not acquire a homogenous style but feels deeper, more layered, more evolved.

The world-making wizards create beautiful artifacts in the same way. They give a prop the convincing heft of reality by layering on “greeblies,” or intricate surface details that reflect a fictitious past history. To produce a stunning cinematic city in one recent movie, they took photographic bits of decaying Detroit buildings and added modern structures around the ruins according to a backstory of past disasters and rebirth. The resolution of the detail was not as important as historically meaningful layers.

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The Rise of Extropy

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 57-58
Author’s Note: (from page 10) “I dislike inventing words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in ‘technology accelerates’).

Most hydrogen atoms were born at the beginning of time. They are as old as time itself. They were created in the fires of the big bang and dispersed into the universe as a uniform warm mist. Thereafter, each atom has been on a lonely journey. When a hydrogen atom drifts in the unconsciousness of deep space, hundreds of kilometers from another atom, it is hardly much more active than the vacuum surrounding it. Time is meaningless without change, and in the vast reaches of space that fill 99.99 percent of the universe, there is little change.

After billions of years, a hydrogen atom might be swept up by the currents of gravity radiating from a congealing galaxy. With the dimmest hint of time and change it slowly drifts in a steady direction toward other stuff. Another billion years later it bumps into the first bit of matter it has ever encountered. After million so years it meets the second. In time it meets another of its kind, a hydrogen atom. They drift together in mild attraction until aeons later they meet an oxygen atom. Suddenly something weird happens. In a flash of heat they clump together as one water molecule. Maybe they get sucked into the atmosphere circulation of a planet. Under this marriage, they are caught in great cycles of change. Rapidly the molecule is carried up and then rained down into a crowded pool of other jostling atoms. In the company of uncountable numbers of other water molecules it travels this circuit around and around for millions of years, from crammed pools to expansive clouds and back. In day in a stroke of luck, the water molecule is captured by a chain of unusually active carbons in one pool. Its path is once again accelerated. It spins around in a simple loop, assisting the travel of carbon chains. It enjoys speed, movement, and change such as would not be possible in the comatose recesses of space. The carbon chain is stolen by another chain and reassembled many times until the hydrogen finds itself in a cell constantly rearranging its relations and bounds with other molecules. Now it hardly ever stops changing, never stops interacting.

The hydrogen atoms in a human body completely refresh every seven years. As we age we are really a river of cosmically old atoms. The carbons in our bodies were produced in the dust of a star. The bulk of matter in our hands, skin, eyes, and hearts was made near the beginning of time, billions of years ago. We are much older than we look.

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Graph from page 51

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 50-51
Author’s Note: (from page 10) “I dislike inventing words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in ‘technology accelerates’).

… Sometimes a trait advantageous for one problem will turn out to be advantageous for a second, unanticipated problem. For instance, feathers evolved to warm a small, cold-blooded dinosaur. Later one, these same feathers, once installed on limbs for warmth, proved handily for short flights. From this heat-conservation innovation came unplanned wings and birds. These inadvertent anticipatory inventions are called exaltations in biology. We don’t know how common exaptations are in nature but they are routine in the technium. The technium is nothing but exaptations, since innovations can be easily borrowed across lines of origin or moved across time and repurposed.

Niles Eldredge is the cofounder (with Stephen Jay Gould) of the theory of punctuated, stepwise evolution. His professional expertise is the history of trilobites, or ancient arthropods that resemble today’s pill bugs. As a hobby he collects cornets, musical instruments very similar to trumpets. Once Eldredge applied his professional taxonomic methods to his collection of 500 cornets some dating back to 1825. He selected 17 traits that varied among his instruments—the shape of their horns, the placement of valves, the length and diameter of their tubes—very similar to the kinds of metrics he applies to trilobites. When he mapped the evolution of cornets using techniques similar to those he applies to ancient arthropods, he found that the pattern of the linages were very similar in many ways to those of living organisms. As one example, the evolution of cornets showed a stepwise, progress, much like trilobites. But the evolution of musically instruments was also very distinctive. The key difference between the evolution of multicellular life and the evolution of the technium is that in life most blending of traits happens “vertically” in time. Innovations are passed from living parents down (vertically) through offspring. In the technium, on the other hand, most blending of traits happens laterally across time-even from “extinct” species and across lineages from nonparents. Eldredge discovered that the pattern of evolution in the technium is not the repeated forking of branches we associate with the tree of life, but rather a spreading recursive network of pathways that often double back to “dead” ideas and resurrect “lost” traits. Another way of saying the same thing. Early traits (exaptations) anticipate the later linages that adopt them. These two patterns were distinct enough that Eldredge claims one could use it to identify whether an evolutionary tree depicted a clan of the born or of the made…

But by far the greatest difference between the evolution of the born and evolution of the made is that species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct. A close examination of as supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it. A technique or artifact may be rare in the modern urban world but quite common in the developing rural world. For instance, Burma is full of oxcart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa hand spinning is still thriving in Bolivia. A supposedly dead technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for ritual satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities, or fanatical vinyl record collectors. Often old technology is obsolete, that is not very ubiquitous or is second rate, but it still may be in small-time use.