Tag Archives: science

The Illusion of Colour

How ‘real’ the things we perceive are has always been a big philosophical questions. How can we really know if what we see if truly there, and if what we see is the same as what others see? We can’t, really, but on a day-to-day basis most people end up going along with the idea that what they see must be real – it all gets a bit complicated otherwise.

One of the questions which often gets thrown in with this lot is the ‘Do other people see the same colours as me?’ question. Colour is something which is a matter of perception – it isn’t an exact quality of nature, it’s do to with the wavelengths of light that we perceive, and how we perceive them. Colour is a property of our brains, not the outside world.

Okay, but, you know, at the very least, we do have something that we can use to signify colour in a scientific way, right? Well, kind of. As I mentioned above, in science, if you’re talking about ‘red’ light, you’re talking about light with wavelength of about 650nm; ‘green’ light has a wavelength of about 510nm; and ‘blue’ light has a wavelength of about 475nm. All in all, the colours we all see range in wavelengths from about 400nm to 700nm, with red being the longest, and violet being the shortest, as can be seen on the spectrum below.

Colour Spectrum!

Have a good hard look at that spectrum. See anything strange? I doubt it, but if you looked good and hard, you might notice something. Pink is missing. Now, I’m talking about true pink, that deep magenta shade, not the baby pink you get from mixing together red and white. And no, it’s not hiding anywhere – it isn’t on the colour spectrum. There is no wavelength that corresponds to pink.

So, how do we see it?

Well, first let me fill you in on something. All the colour in the spectrum have a complimentary colour, an ‘opposite’, so to speak, which lies an equal (but opposite) distance from the center (or green bit) of the spectrum. If you look at a dot of colour for a while, then look at a white piece of paper, you should see that complementary colour. As green is in the middle, it doesn’t have a complimentary colour – both red and violet are an equal distance from it.

So, when your eye detect a mixture of ‘red’ and ‘violet’ wavelengths, it has two options as how to form a colour. It can either try and ‘average’ out the wavelengths, giving you green (which doesn’t really resemble red or violet at all), or it can create a ‘complementary’ colour to green, and mix the red and violet together. And tada, you have pink!

So, well, pink doesn’t exist. Or does it? In reality, pink isn’t the only colour not to appear in the spectrum (I mean, there’s no mauve or brown, for instance), and there’s even talk that it’s possible to see strange, bizarre colours such as reddish greens, and yellowish blues. At the end of the day, every single colour we see is a kind of optical illusion, as they only come into existence within our brains. Still, I think that pink has even less claim to validity that most colours, given it doesn’t have a representative wavelength on the light spectrum. So, the next time someone compliments you on the brilliant colour of your magenta suit, just tell them that it’s an optical illusion.


 

Well, it’s been an age since I last posted, and I’m truly sorry. Things got hectic, and I got caught up in other research (which I hope to post on here at some point) and general life. Back to normal soon I hope however. 

I was first informed about the invalidity of pink through a brilliant Cracked article (which now, somehow I can’t find), and found out a little more from the brilliant minds at Scientific America, and also worked out a lot of the bits and bobs through my own scientific education.

Bit of a shout out to my dad – his ridiculously colourful fashion sense has definitely influenced the way I think about pink and other colours. He can be found here (with a ridiculous amount of puns) on Twitter! 

“Linear visible spectrum” by Gringer – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Linear_visible_spectrum.svg#mediaviewer/File:Linear_visible_spectrum.svg

The Artistry of 3D

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3D printing has opened so many new doors in the scientific world. From everything from engineering to medicine, now scientists can create new parts for machines and people at the click of a button, drastically reducing manufacturing costs (once you’ve bought the ridiculously expensive 3D printer, of course). But now prices are dropping, and you can even find instructions online on how to build a basic 3D printer in your home, and of course, there’s always the concept of renting or borrowing a 3D printer and printing a 3D printer with it. Either way, this once elusive and science fiction object is become more and more of a reality day-by-day.

Of course, there have been a large amount of worries surrounding the fact that is becoming increasingly easy to download plans for anything off the internet, and print it yourself. Will people just stop buying things completely, and high street shops go into a downward economic spiral? It seems unlikely, although there’s sure to be a shift towards more personalised products as it becomes easier and cheaper for companies to produce one off items through 3D printing.

But what about people printing things they can’t find in high street stores – things like guns, and other weapons. Already there is a group based in America called Defense Distributed who have created a working, fully 3D printed plastic gun. It’s a worrying thought that nearly anyone could print out a working gun that would be undetectable to metal detectors (legally Defense Distributed have to insert a block to metal into all their guns so that they can be detected by metal detectors, but who’s to say that every person who 3D prints a gun will be so law abiding).

But whilst there’s been a lot of worry surrounding the danger of 3D printing, and excitements surrounding the technical and scientific breakthroughs it could bring, there’s been less focus on the amazing new format it gives to artists. For the first time in history you can create a picture-perfect sculpture – scan anything you like in, and print it exactly as it. What photography was for the visual arts, 3D printing is for sculpture. And just like photography did, it opens up new avenues; both by opening up sculpture to a whole new realm of artists, but also through the ability to edit sculpture. Instead of working for months to try and create a perfect representative of the real world, 3D printing allows artists to capture reality instantly, and then do with it what they will – destroy it completely and build it up even more. Whether it be digital customisation before you print the sculpture, or whether you print as is and edit after, it opens up a whole new world within sculpture that the other visual arts experienced at the dawn of photography. And look how many amazing artists of the past century were photographers – will the coming century spawn it’s own generation of 3D printing artists?

There are some who are already using this new material. Nick Knight and SHOWstudio have used 3D scanning in many of their projects, both 3D printing the final images, or purely using the scans themselves to create strange ‘more-than-2D, less-than-3D’ images, things which are almost fractal, but one dimension up. Iris van Herpen created the first 3D printed garments to grace the catwalk. There are so many artists from so many walks of life now using 3D printing as their medium, and their numbers will only grow as it becomes more accessible.

3D printing is literally something out of a science fiction novel, and although it brings with it so many opportunities, it also brings a large amount of responsibility. Like all exciting and new technologies, it is in the end not defined by the technology itself, but by the way people use it. Let’s try and make sure we use it well, and for the right reasons.


This blog post was inspired by the Science Museum’s ‘3D: Printing the Future‘ exhibition (hence the subtitle), which you should definitely go check out, but if you can’t they’ve got lots of very interesting information about the whole thing right here. It was also partially inspired by Nick’s use of 3D scanning and printing in his work – it really opened my eyes up to a whole new way of using the medium. Iris van Herpen’s 3D printed clothing also got me so excited, and I wish I could have seen the show it was all in! However, there are many many 3D artists out there, and I do not know all of them, and couldn’t talk about each and everyone one anyway. If there are any out there whose work you really admire and love, please leave a comment below about them, as I’d love to learn more!

On the more general things: I’m back! My exams are over! (Although I’ve still got a big project going on, which is why things may still be a little rushed and hasty at the moment). It’s all very exciting, and now I will be getting back to regular posting, and I’ll also hopefully be uploading some of my older work (essays, poems, etc) soon, so you have some new stuff to peruse. 

The Fractal Universe

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Think about the coastline of Britain. Yeah, I know, it’s probably not your choice of scintillating subject (unless you’re a geologist), but hopefully that’s going to change. Now, if you were to measure the coastline of Britain with a 200 km ruler, you’d get a value around 2400km. If you measure it with a 50km ruler, you add about 1000km on to that number – the coastline is now 3400km. And as the ruler gets smaller, the coastline gets bigger and bigger, all the way to infinity. To put it in mathematical terms, as the length of the ruler tends to zero, the length of the coastline tends to infinity.

This sounds bizarre – am I really trying to say that if you measured the coastline of Britain with perfect accuracy that it would have infinite length? Yes. Yes I am, however counterintuitive that may sound. And funnily enough, the coastline of Britain isn’t some sort of anomaly of nature – shapes like these show up everywhere, from clouds to bark to lightening strikes. They’re called fractals, and are characterised in ‘the broken, wrinkled and uneven shapes of nature’ (in Mandelbrot’s words, who was actually the person to coin the word ‘fractal’), and on a deeper level the characteristic of self-similarity within an object, where smaller part of that object look the larger bits.

To fully understand this, it’s probably best to give an example of a classic fractal, the Koch snowflake. For the Koch snowflake you first start with a normal equilateral triangle. Then you put a triangle a third of the side in the middle of each of the edges, then a triangle a third of the size of that triangle along all the new sides. Lather, rise and repeat an infinite amount of times, and you have the Koch snowflake! Magnify any part of the Koch snowflake, and you see the pattern at the macro scale repeated at the micro.

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The steps to create the Koch Snowflake fractal, but you’d kept on going infinitely so that no matter how far you zoomed in you get the same patterns. From here.

Fractals are far more representative of the real world than the traditional ideal Euclid forms. They are not perfect in the sense of being smooth and impeccably formed – they are perfect in their complexity, in their pitted and splintered nature. From the minimalist Sierpinski’s gasket, to the (initially apparently simple) infinitely intricate Mandelbrot set, fractals are mesmerising, and oddly familiar. Once you’ve got the concept in your head, you start seeing fractals everywhere, both in the physical world, and in art. Complex subtext in literature doesn’t have a linear relationship, it has a decidedly fractal one. More than one dimension but less than two, fractals have a kind of convoluted cohesion that springs up everywhere in nature, and lends itself equally to both the scientific and artistic eye.

Fractals are everywhere around us – in the sky, in the plants in your garden, even in your food. (Believe it or not, broccoli is fractal – that’s why smaller broccoli florets look like shrunken heads of broccoli!) You’ve probably seen fractals hundreds of times, and maybe even admired their beauty, whether it be appearing in the bark on trees or in clouds in the sky, and learning and understanding the mathematics behind the art just makes it even more mesmerising. Learning the mechanics behind the artistry of the universe does nothing to detract from it’s beauty, as some would like to claim, but simply adds to it. Ignorance, in this case, is most definitely not bliss; knowledge is.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, I strongly recommend ‘Introducing Fractals: A Graphic Guide‘, which was one of the first books/comics I read explaining the subject, and was such a great form of media to get into fractals via – it’s definitely a subject in which the use of images helps out! (I also recommend ‘Introducing … : A Graphic Guide’ series in general – they’re very good at explaining a subject in brief without overly simplifying the concept!)

Also, if you’re loving the beauty behind fractals, there are so many mesmerising videos out there which zoom in on the border of the Mandelbrot set which I could watch for hours – here’s one I found quite quickly on Google. I must also give credit to Theo Emms (who’s does theoretical physics with me, and lives in the same halls) for the enlightenment that broccoli is fractal!

This blog post was inspired by the topics I babbled on about in the recording for the fashion video for The Elegant Universe editorial which just came out (and I’m the star of – let’s not forget to mention that!), most of which got cut out in the final video (as I babbled on for over an hour!). If you love the influence of science on art, and vice versa, you should definitely check out the editorial – it’s in V magazine, with so many amazing people who worked on it. Nick Knight shot it, Amanda Harlech styled, Sam McKnight was on the hair, Peter Philips did the make-up, Marian Newman did the nails, and last but not least, Kev Stenning did the 3D scans (yep, there are 3D scans!).

Imperial Geek Chic

Geek chic is a look that has been done many times, and all too often seems to revolve around a pair of glasses and a button-up shirt. Although I wanted to keep elements of this, I also wanted to portray the modern ‘geek’, someone who is more than just books and libraries, someone who I would identify with, and whose outfit I would want to wear. I also didn’t want the look to be too androgynous or masculine as too often intelligent women are seen as intelligent despite their femininity, whereas in fact many are both  intelligent AND feminine – one does not negate the other.

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Even though the official colour of Imperial College London is purple, we’ve got navy blue everywhere, and my deep imperial blue Uniqlo shirt was one of the first pieces I knew I wanted to include, accessorising with my brass feather necklace (a charity shop find). Initially I was going to pair this up with a pair of dark trousers – but I own mainly jeans, and as soon as I tried that ensemble on I knew it wasn’t going to work. After being stuck for a while, I opened up my cupboard to browse, and as soon as I saw the black pleated school-style Topshop skirt I knew it was meant to be.

As always, it was then the eternal question of what shoes to wear – heels to make it classy, DMs to punk it up, Converse to make it fun. In the end, I wanted to go with a strong feminine edge, so it was my (surprisingly comfy) lace up heels.

The whole look ended up being quite a slick/glam geek chic look, which I liked – it most definitely wasn’t the stereotype of the physics student stuck in the library, but the type of girl who can is intelligent and attractive, fashionable and bookish – like geek girls most definitely are.


Once again, most of the stuff I’m wearing is no longer available in stores; the Uniqlo shirt and Topshop skirt are both from previous seasons, although I’m sure you can find similar garments in store now. The brass feather necklace was a charity store find, so I have no idea where that’s from, and the heels are from Office, but from at least five years ago (if you find any like them, please tell me as they’re falling apart and I want new ones!). Finally, the backed seamed tights were from trusty old M&S who are really great when it comes to that sort of thing. 


We (meaning me and the fabulous Freya, who you should definitely follow on twitter and instagram) shot this look out and around Imperial, in an area colloquially known as ‘Albertopolis’, which encompasses the Albert Hall and the surrounding areas such as the museums. We were very lucky with the weather – about half an hour before we shot this in the dazzling sun it was raining! It’s such a great area to shoot in – there’s so much great architecture, and even the brickwork is fabulous. There’ll definitely be future shoots done around there, both because of the beauty, and because it’s right around the corner from my halls! 

 

The Da Vinci Code

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The general understanding of science in society heavily influences where and how science turns up in art. However, often that understanding is flawed, with many misconceptions. Whether it be the fact that here in Britain we start academic specialisation very early (first GCSEs, then A-levels, before down to usually a single subject at university), or simply the way that art and science are taught as mutually exclusive subjects, most people in the artistic community have little core knowledge of science through no fault of their own (although many do hold pet interests in the topic).

One of the major problems faced with people trying to get their heads around science isn’t even a problem of academic knowledge; it’s one of definition. Too often scientific terms lack clarity; the Big Bang wasn’t actually a big bang, the ‘God Particle’ doesn’t have many religious properties (apart from the fact it holds mass, hah!). If you don’t know the details of the theory (as most don’t), terms such as this can really throw the whole concept into confusion – I’ve had a number of people ask me questions about the Higgs boson, having heard of it as ‘the God Particle’, who are severely disappointed when I inform them that it isn’t actually the be-all and end-all of particles. Yeah, it’s pretty damn important, but it’s more part of a pantheon than the One True God.

Even if you do happen to understand all the terminology, you could still be doomed if you wanted to try to understand the science in more detail. Ever tried reading a scientific paper? I wouldn’t recommend it – they’re usually dry and boring, filled with equations and without any human touch. The reasons behind this writing style are valid – it can reduce bias to remove the human elements – but it creates a form which makes the media very hard to access, and difficult to get used to. The whole thing makes papers read like all experiments were performed by some kind of magic science fairy, who makes things happen with a puff of their wand, instead of actual human involvement having happened.

All this opacity within science added to the general misinformation and ignorance surrounding scientific topics means that effective scientific communication is absolutely crucial. This has been getting better in recent years – we’ve got all of Brian Cox’s programs, and then we’ve got David Attenborough as always – but there’s still a long way to go. For one thing, whilst we love our mainstream science celebrities, they don’t truly show the great variety of people who love science – that science isn’t just for scientists, it’s for artists, and musicians, and dancers, and writers: it’s for everyone. We need to demystify the language of science – to clear up the hazy metaphors, and inject some life into the whole thing. We’re in luck though, because there are people out there who do that, people who show just how varied science can be. When I went to Imperial Festival this weekend – a festival held by Imperial College London (my uni!) to showcase and celebrate so many really cool scientific things –I had the privilege of encountering so many people who went outside the stereotype of scientists being maths geeks who never leave the library. I met a doctor of material sciences who does ballet on the side (and she’s pretty damn good – she’s en pointe) with whom I made cocktails with in the name of science, a science songstress with the voice of an angle (get it???) who did the same course as I’m currently doing at Imperial, and shares my interest in the bizarre sexual habits of animals (definitely look up angler fish – you may be scarred for life, but it’s worth it!) and so many others. When people try to portray science as some dull, textbook filled subject, it might be a good idea to remind them that one of the greatest artists to walk this Earth was also one of the greatest scientists – Da Vinci! Maybe we should try and take a leaf out of his book, and add some science to the art, or perhaps some art to the science.

 


Being a student of Imperial College, I felt that this week I definitely had to write something up on the Imperial Festival, so I have! I saw so many wonderful and interesting things there, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to mention them all, as that would have become extremely cluttered. The en pointe materials scientist I mentioned is the lovely Dr Suze Kundu, whilst the science songstress is the amazing Helen Arney, who was joined by Simon Watt (Life President of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society) and Gemma Arrowsmith as part of The Science Comedy Collider. The other group of people who really helped with this piece are the wonderful Science Communications MSc students, whose talk ‘Playing with Perception’  informed the topics discussed above. 

Although Imperial Festival only happens once a year, there are events going on at Imperial College throughout the year, and at the Science Museum and Natural History Museum right next door. If you want to keep on top of all the events going on, I recommend following them on twitter at the links I’ve just given. I particularly recommend the Lates at both museums, and also the Imperial Fringe events (mini themed versions of the festival) which’ll be starting back up again in September. In the meantime, you can keep on top of imperial events by following Imperial Spark

 

Empirically Curated Art

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Imagine the scene. You’ve had a long day at work: maybe your boss was being especially cruel today, or your boyfriend broke up with you at lunch over the extra special anniversary picnic you had planned. Maybe you’ve been nominated to organise the surprise birthday party of that one person in your friend group who is just never satisfied. Whatever it is, now you’re home you just need to take a break from it all. You turn on your TV (A.I. controlled of course – everyone has one now darling), and the biosensor around your wrist bleeps once. Almost immediately, Mulan is playing on the screen in front of you, and before you know it your troubles begin to melt away as you join in singing ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ (with choreographed dance and martial arts routines, of course).

It’s actually a scenario which isn’t that improbable; one where A.I.s can gauge your mood through biosensors and respond accordingly – in this case, choosing just the right film to allow you to let out the stress of a hectic day. Of course, we’re not quite there, but a performance at the V&A last Friday – ‘Conducting Shakespeare’ – went someway towards opening the door to let us have a peek at what it might be like.

The set-up at the V&A involved four volunteers all hooked into biosensors. There was a muscle tension gauge, a heart rate monitor, a brain wave monitor (which measures electrical signals from neural activity, giving a measure of ‘emotional arousal’), and a galvanic skin monitor (measures the conductivity of the skin, which increases when we sweat). All of this data was then combined together in a linear weighted sum and interpreted by our “A.I.” in this scenario to curate the arts that would be seen and performed. However, our A.I. here has a not-so-artificial intelligence, being Alexis Kirke from Plymouth University. He was to act as conductor, orchestrating and guiding the emotions of the performance. Performance of what, you ask (although you may have guessed, given the subtitle)? Well, performances that have captured the hearts and minds of audiences for centuries – the words of the bard!

This was no ordinary performance of Shakespeare – this was to be a Shakespeare remix, with successive scenes being chosen based on the emotion reaction of the audience (as measured by the biosensors hooked up to the volunteers), the whole thing being curated by Alexis the conductor, who could then direct the path of our emotions as he liked.

We started out with a bit of light comedy, with Benedict and Beatrice’s quick-witted sparring duologue from the opening scene of Much Ado about Nothing. Romance then began to spark in the air with Juliet’s ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’ monologue, before the tone begins to turn altogether more sombre with an appearance of Hamlet in his tortured ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ speech. Staying sad (although with a distinct change of tone) we move to Hermione’s ‘Tell me what blessings I have here alive that I should fear to die?’ monologue from A Winter’s Tale, before back to Hamlet, although this time he is chastising Ophelia and demanding she ‘get thee to a nunnery’, ramping up the anger and bitterness.

Finally we get a reprise from all the sorrow (although anyone with knowledge of the play will find it bittersweet), as Romeo and Juliet enter and talk of love – ‘how silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night’ – before straight back to the sorrow with Queen Gertrude’s dead Ophelia monologue from Hamlet. Then we’re back to anger and annoyance with Richard II, and ‘no matter where, of comfort no man speaks’, before tricksy ambition enters the room as we see Lady Macbeth reading the letter describing Macbeth’s encounter with the three witches. Staying in the same play, the power begins to build as we see the Macbeths planning the murder of Duncan, with Lady Macbeth chastising Macbeth and telling him to ‘screw your courage to the sticking-place’, before we come full circle, and return to humour with Katharina and Petruchio duelling with words, a nice bit of comedy with allows us all to let off the tension that was building in the room – sexual innuendos will make anyone laugh, especially those of Shakespeare’s finesse – ‘my tongue in your tail’ indeed!

The performance was extremely effective – my heart was in my throat the whole time – and the eternal iambic pentameter of Shakespeare (and the brevity of the scenes) meant that even with the differing plotlines and characters, the whole thing flowed together smoothly. However, whilst the scenes were in part chosen from the data provided by the volunteers’ biosensors, a certain amount of human intuition was needed to make the whole thing run perfectly, as demonstrated by the final scene, an artistic decision on the part of the director that worked perfectly to let everyone let off some steam.

The need for this human component (instead of simply letting the conductor be an A.I.) comes down to many reasons – not least because this set-up had only been calibrated once before so the output data itself needed to be taken with a pinch of scientific salt. More so, however, the biosensors themselves can only detect the (fallible and fickle) physical symptoms of emotions, not the emotions themselves. In fact, with our limited biological understand of emotions, it’s hard to see how we could use biosensors to perfectly measure emotions (although some could argue this is the role of a combination of biosensors and fMRIs), and therefore whilst this problem still exists, the role of human understanding and intuition is crucial in this scenario.

Whilst perhaps we’re not quite at the stage to implement handy empathetic TVs, the use of measured emotional and physical responses to guide and curate performance (and other kinds of) art opens up some very interesting avenues, as demonstrated by ‘Conducting Shakespeare’ at the V&A. Imagine exhibitions where you wear headsets, and your emotional arousal if monitored as you wander through the gallery, and you get directly to things that you’d probably like based on it! The ability to empirically measure the body’s response to art is extremely interesting, and opens up the possibility of looking into things like how art affects your short-term and long-term mental health and emotional state. It’s an area that holds much potential and interest, both for the scientific and artistic communities, and as a personal interest for myself!

‘Conducting Shakespeare’ was part of a series of events held at the V&A to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. It was produced by Alexis Kirke and Peter Hinds from Plymouth University in collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, with actors Melanie Heslop and James Mack playing the female and male roles respectively. 


 

And, well, there’s my first ever blog post done! The image used in the header is part of a tie-in little shoot I did inspired by Shakespeare (it kinda turned into a femme Puck look by the end) which will be published this Wednesday. I hope you enjoyed the piece, and please comment below (I’d really appreciate concrit and suggestions)!