Category Archives: art

Strings of Collaboration

Before I became a scientist, I was a musician. I started piano lessons when I was six, despite some warnings to my parents that I was too young. My mother was sick of hearing me ask to learn, so she caved in and signed me up for weekly lessons. That I loved. Sadly, I rarely play today, but Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are old friends whom I love to visit.

Last year, we discovered Chattanooga’s String Theory chamber music series at the Hunter Museum of Art. My science geek self can’t help but love the name, and the schedule is top notch. World class musicians who I rarely could have afforded to hear in New York City come to my local art museum and play chamber music for sold out audiences. (I worry about the age of those audiences– mostly men and women a generation older than I am. I’d like to hope the classical music lovers my age are busy raising a new generation, but most of the data out there suggests that interest in classical music has waned dramatically.)

In addition to the sounds that weave together seamlessly, I’m fascinated by the relationships in chamber groups. There are subtle signals, cues, movements, the way that individuals play off of each other. Musicians learn and even intuit each other’s ticks. And it’s hardly surprising that chamber music groups often include people with close personal as well as professional relationships. In December, the String Theory concert featured sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian, and Ida’s husband Steven Tenenbom.

I experienced this subtlety when I played chamber music in my teens. Though I loved to play the piano, I disliked performing solo. Nerves got the better of me at recitals, and though working toward that performance goal was satisfying in certain ways, I rarely came out of a recital or performance feeling happy with the outcome. Then I began taking lessons from Bernice Maskin, a piano teacher who had made it her mission to create opportunities for kids to play chamber music. She knew all the local string teachers in my hometown, and she’d pull together trios, quartets and quintets, based on ages, playing level, and even existing friendships if she knew of them.

Chamber music is the essence of teamwork, where every member of the group contributes a critical component of the tapestry. Unlike an orchestra or concert band, where a weak link can sometimes go unnoticed, every member in a chamber group is vital, essential, a lifeline of the fabric as a whole. Playing in a group wasn’t easier, but it taught me to collaborate. Following a great musical plan, I learned when to charge forward and show off my part and when to dial back and let the cello, violin, or clarinet take the lead. If I faltered, I had to adjust, and my fellow players would adjust along with me. When they had problems, I covered as best I could. The music is both simple and delightfully complex as is the lesson. Keep going, don’t stop, be flexible, and enjoy the ride.

Those lessons have extended far beyond the piano bench, to the chemistry lab and the writing desk. Great relationships and collaboration make good work much sweeter.

Image Credit: Phil Ortenau via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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The Science of Monet

Before we left New York City, we finally made it to the New York Botanical Garden. What finally kicked us into gear to make the trip was a special exhibition about Monet’s Garden at Giverny (It closes October 21).

Though Monet can sometimes loom on the edge of a giant Impressionist cliche, I’ve always been a fan. In college, I slept under a comforter covered in one of his famous garden bridge scenes. And during college, my roommate and her mother went to Giverny on a summer trip. “If you get the chance,” she said, “just go.”

I took her advice nearly 5 years later as I traveled in France with friends. We were in Paris for a few days, and I’d spent time in the city before.  So one day while they did some city sightseeing, I hopped on a train to Vernon and a bus to Giverny.

Though I’m sure the garden is amazing throughout the growing season, it washed over me in waves of color delight in May, like eating a multi-course artisanal meal. Monet harnessed as much creativity in his garden design as he did as he when spreading those paints across the canvas. I’d always imagined that some of the pinks and purples that worked their way into the water lilies were enhancements, creative license that Monet took in his paintings. But the day I was there, the cloudy sky and the surrounding blooms imbued the water with rosy hues that were factual rather than fictional.


My brain didn’t quite make this leap as I wandered through the garden, but over time I’ve realized that– though I’d never describe him that way first– Monet was a scientist. He experimented with a garden, and his paintings are his lucious lab notebook.

The NYBG does a nice job of recreating his garden and framing Monet as a botanist. It’s a stunning exhibit, and a good proxy of the real thing (Though if you’re in France, as my roommate said, just go!). But the analogy is far broader– he was a creative observer. To top it off, almost any art history discussion of Monet talks about his declining eyesight and the increasing abstraction in his work. He’s a classic example when psychologists talk about color perception. Monet was scientist, observer, case study, and an amazing artist all in one.

All photos are mine taken in May 1999 and May 2012.

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Pondering medium and “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

replica of a Chauvet Cave painting from a museum in Brno, Czech Republic

I’ll admit a kind of mixed relationship with 3D movies. Done well, I love experiencing the depth, but it seems to me that 3D should be an artistic choice for its ability to convey an experience, rather than just a way to make sure that people see a movie in the movie theater.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog‘s new documentary, is the perfect match of its subject, Chauvet Cave in southern France, and the medium. A 2D film would not do this 30,000 year old cave and its intimate, yet expansive space, justice. The 3D glasses aren’t a gimmick, but a window to a moving diorama, a museum experience, a sacred journey.

This cave and its paintings were buried in rock slides thousands of years ago, only to be rediscovered about 15 years ago but closed to nearly everyone except the scientists who study it. So this space is mysterious, exclusive, and wondrous. Science meets art on every level: stalactites, stalagmites, natural artwork from above and below. But the undulating walls of these caves mesmerized me as they must have mesmerized the artists who drew on them. Cattle, bears, and even a mammoth, simple forms integrated into the movement of the walls, ancient, but fresh as if they were painted just a few years ago.

The film is an experience, well worth the money. But I found Herzog’s chosen coda to the film jarring. He talks about crocodiles that live in the warmed waters next to nearby nuclear plants. His comments were about the passage of time, how humans have changed the world and what life on earth might be like in another 30,000 years, and how those crocodiles might experience this world. Those could be worthy topics, but it’s unsatisfying information that leaves a giant question mark, with little context, at the end of a beautiful film.

With such a perfect match in the film, I’ve been thinking about subject and medium more in my work. I primarily work in printed words: the dizzying choice of nouns and verbs etches clear lines, subtly shades or brings out a new color. Words change color on radio or accompanied by video. When I spend hours in the pottery studio, I shape emerging forms from clay, add detail, think about designs on a surface.

Herzog matched his medium to an amazing subject, a cultural gift and a way to share the experience of this delicate space with a much wider audience. It’s a museum piece (in the best sense of the word) as much as a film. Ancient painters depicted their world, animating their world on a waving canvas of stone. I hope to channel an iota of that creative synergy.

Image Credit: The Adventurous Eye on flickr

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Almost Saturday Science Video: A Möbius World

Möbius stripSeveral years ago, my husband introduced me to Flatland, Edwin Abbott Abbott’s novella about a two-dimensional polygon world that also ventures into a single dimension. The social satire goes far beyond geometry, but it’s also a fascinating mental leap into a world with no depth.

In a Flatland-esque homage, Vi Hart has created a video of a Möbius world based on a triangle who lives on the infinite loop with a half twist. Most math classes pull out these strips at some point, but the creativity here comes in the narrative loop that Hart creates.

Who is this woman? Ken Chang profiled her this week in the NY Times Science section. She’d like to become “an ambassador for mathematics.” And  her audience includes teenage girls. Very cool.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: David Benbennick

UPDATED: Video now embedded.

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Science, humanities, and education

On this day before Thanksgiving, my brain simmers as I think about the importance of a well-rounded education for human society, creative innovation, and even curious individuals.

In the last few days, David Kroll has cross-posted on his blogs about this move and one prominent response. I’ve already commented briefly on his blog, but the topic is still nagging at me.

Here’s the background. Nearly two months ago, the George Philip, the president of SUNY Albany announced that he was eliminating several humanities programs from that campus. No more French, Russian and Italian. Bye-bye, classics and theater.

Enter Greg Petsko, a Brandeis professor who has written a scathing (and spot-on) critique of the move. Kroll’s post lauds him as “a cool dude.”

As a science writer, it’s probably no surprise that my brain is perched somewhere between the science and humanities most of the time. But that’s not something that happened after being solely immersed in science for years. I think I surprised myself, my family, and even some of my friends when I became a chemist. I read, I wrote, I loved history and travel, and I learned to speak a foreign language. In college, I double-majored in chemistry and German. But German could have just as easily been English or history. Those interests balanced my “how things work” push that led me to science. Though I’ve always had a bit of the engineer’s desire to deconstruct, those details were meaningless to me outside the context of what they mean to society. I’m not objective in valuing a well-rounded education.

Clearly this passion is personal for Petsko, too. He writes:

Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

Philip’s justification for the cuts at Albany are all about money. Yes, money is tight everywhere. At the same time, this issue touches deeper societal questions. What is a university education? And should it be a prerequisite for getting a good job?

The problem is that an education isn’t job training. It’s an immersion of ideas, critical thinking and creativity. Classes in French, Russian or classics belong at a university. Those classes probably aren’t going to lead directly to a job, but that isn’t their purpose. Not everyone will want to take them, and– for many people– that’s okay. But an educational institution should support and nurture scholarship and give students the benefits of a broad education.

Job training, well, that’s a whole separate issue. An education is only one piece of that puzzle, and I’d like to see more opportunities that allow individuals be able to choose programs that fit their interests and needs: vocational programs that will prepare them for a specific job or a degree with broader educational goals. My point is that institutions need to be honest in what they call themselves. If you’re in the business of education, you need to live up to that promise.

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Wondering like an Egyptian

Fascinating pendant from King Tut's tomb from the Egypt Archive via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, I finally fulfilled my inner 9-year-old’s wish: to see artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this case, it was a relatively short journey, to Times Square rather than Egypt. One of these days, I’ll actually see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs Hairston, introduced me to both science and the wonders of King Tut. After learning about ancient Egypt in class, I came home and dug through my parents’ back issues of National Geographic that included the layered cellophane images of nested sarcophagi all the way down to Tut’s shriveled mummy.

I was too young to see Tut when he last came to the United States, so I decided to visit while the artifacts were in my backyard, at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. I’m guessing that the 1970s show was a bit less commercialized. The kicker for me came in the amusement park style photos taken as we arrived that we could buy for a cool $20 at the end complete with digital Egyptian backgrounds– so tacky that they crossed the barrier to amusing. And, yes, it’s overpriced.

But the artifacts are still stunning– the artistic detail, the materials. And I was struck by some of the old photographs of the tomb when Howard Carter opened it: these priceless items were piled up like old furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit. And the exhibit space has done a 21st century upgrade of my old National Geographic magazine, using light and projection and space to show how the nested sarcophagi fit together, even without the coffins themselves.

Considering the wealth of history and culture in Ancient Egypt, the attention lavished on the decade of Tutankhamen is out of balance with the thousands of years of Egyptian history. And I live in a city with two wonderful Egyptian collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But the Tutankhamen artifacts hold a kind of magic: they inspire wonder, curiosity, and creativity. Partly, they carry the illusion of being shiny, new and untouched despite their age. I walked out a little awe-struck.

As my husband noted as we left, “we’d know a lot less about the Ancient Egyptians if they’d believed in cremation.” The 9-year-old me is glad they didn’t.

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Piled higher and deeper

Webb of Science has been on the road this weekend, celebrating a Ph.D. commencement in the family. Congratulations to my sister, the most recent Dr. Webb.

To get to the commencement ceremony, we’re having to dodge the marathon (scheduled for the same day?). But outside of the inconvenience, it’s actually pretty symbolic. I often characterize the process as an “academic marathon.”

I’m awed by actual marathoners, though I’m not sure I actually have one in me. But I understand that need to take on a big project, a project that involves risk, that you worry that you might not complete. Maybe you even despise it in the darkest moments, but when it’s done, no one can take away the accomplishment.

I like commencement ceremonies for that reason. Even if the speeches don’t inspire, stories lurk behind each graduate. At the end of today’s ceremony, confetti (officially sanctioned) exploded into the arena to mark the end of the ceremony. People carrying knowledge and walking out into the world.

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Traveling the (AMNH’s) Silk Road

Pick up a passport, and travel along an ancient road  with silk, haunting melodies and the simmering whiff of oils and spices.

At its best, the American Museum of Natural History’s  Traveling the Silk Road exhibition evokes as many senses as possible, particularly smell and sound. There’s a wonderful market where you can test your abilities to match smells, and, as a bonus, we also heard music by musicians involved in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (performing on Sundays at the museum).

I just found myself wishing that there were a few more things that I was allowed to touch, particularly with beautiful silks, looms and a video demonstrating how weavers transform worm cocoons into stunning garments.  I heard of at least a couple ancient trading posts that I’d never read about, hubs where ancient roads met for the exchange of all kinds of goods and information.

This trading network was the information superhighway of its time– 600 to 800 AD– exchanging science, culture, design patterns. I was enthralled with the water clock and fiddled for a while with the astrolabe, attempting to tell time from the night sky. I gained a whole new respect for ancient sailors– the number of steps it took just to find out where and “when” they were.

I’ve recently rekindled an interest in ceramics, so I spent a lot of time contemplating classic curves and forms of the various pots and vessels– beautiful, functional, ancient and, yet, somehow modern, too. The exhibit was a wonderful experience in seeing connections between past cultures and my daily connections to a distant past.

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The business of creative endeavors (including science)

When I was reporting my most recent article for Science Careers– about the financial end of setting up a new academic laboratory– I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to the day-to-day nuts and bolts of my own work. Though I never set up an independent laboratory, it’s clear to me that both freelance writing and scientific research are “businesses” and that cash flow (and the management of it) is key to creativity, productivity, and progress.

Traditionally academic scientists are reluctant to talk about the management of their labs as “business” and starving artists are beyond cliche. But both groups face the challenge of finding a niche where you can find assignments, gigs, or grant support that achieve a delicate balance between paying bills and pursuing passions, teetering somewhere between the practical and the high-risk– and the adrenaline rush that comes with living in that space. Money clearly isn’t the only part of a creative endeavor, but if you have a creative career, it has to be part of the puzzle.

What comes back to me from my conversations with scientists about setting up their laboratories was this question: “What do I need to be successful?” And sometimes they have to be creative when negotiating that answer with the institutions around them. But as an independent writer, I need that question on my front-burner, too. No, I don’t need five- or six-figure equipment to do my job. But I do need a careful plan– and balance, of collaborative-time vs alone-time, project types and more. I have to remain in-tune and honest with myself about what’s working,  in terms of my personal goals, my clients’ needs, and an ever-changing media landscape.

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Daily blogging like daily exercise

So, it’s day 31, and I made it! I’ve decided that daily blogging is  like daily exercise– it’s much easier to keep going when you’re supported by a group of other people with the same goals and mission. So, I’m grateful for the support of my fellow bloggers and the new friends I’ve made along the way.

It took me a long time to start blogging, in part because I thought I needed a plan mapped out before I started. I was also worried about time– keeping up with my other work while I also maintained my blog. But I underestimated myself.

  1. Blogging has kept me focused. Having that daily deadline along with my other assignments was stressful, but it also forced me to be as productive as possible.
  2. I’m playing more with language. Over the last few days, I’ve been reflecting on a blog post that I wrote in the middle of the month about creativity, science and blogging. This structured sense of play, on a schedule, has forced me to put words on a page. Some of my favorite posts have come out of not having a plan, out of taking a topic and letting myself run with it. It’s a good reminder that I have to throw words around first before I’ll know where they fit and what they mean.
  3. Blogging has improved my other writing. That’s the corollary to having a creative outlet. I’m finding ways to infuse the ideas and creative flow that has been moving here into the words that I write in other places. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that synergy.

I still have a lot to learn about the interactive piece of blogging. I want to spend more time reading and commenting on other blogs and trading ideas. That process will take more time.

I still feel conflicted about trying to blog about scientific topics because it’s so easy to unintentionally smudge factual accuracy. I do my best to present careful, correct information, but it’s a huge challenge to be literate, accurate and engaging in a short time and space.

Thanks to all of you who’ve been reading me this month! I’d love to hear your feedback about the May experiment. Do you like the Molecule of the Week? Any favorite posts?

I’ve had fun, but I’m also glad to be able to step off the treadmill of daily posting. It’s been a fantastic jumpstart, and I’ll be figuring out a regular (though not daily) posting schedule. Like finding time for a walk, a jog or a yoga class, blogging provides a healthy writing workout.

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