Science Vocabulary = Better Art - repost

(This week I'm reposting some of the posts from the past 4 years I consider noteworthy.  Yesterday, "Inspiration and Drugs". Today, here is a post from July 2009.)


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Today in keeping with the general discussion of evolution culture (see Goldstein's article) and evopunk (see badassRenaissance Oaf) I thought I would re-post a piece I originally wrote for Alternate Reality Existence back in May 2009. 

(The painting Symbiosis was at one time, my personal benchmark as a painting so I threw it in there.) 

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An Increase In Our Allegorical Vocabulary
 

Realism in painting has a long history, from the linear narratives of the ancient world to the shattered realities of the Twentieth Century. For the lay-gallery-goer, the artwork of the Renaissance Masters, Symbolists, and the Surrealists captures the viewer's gaze through the feat of technical ability. Immediately recognizable figures surrounded by unfamiliar objects help the viewer to enter the unusual world by connecting through the shared human experience. 


In my own painting, this is the sort of challenge I place in front of myself. The recognizable objects are the hook: the less-familiar organisms are the mystery that invites people to look further. Science, paleontology and biology have always figured into my work. The natural world is full of a staggering variety of forms to challenge a representational artist. 


About a dozen years ago, I had a gallery show that encouraged me to pursue this path with renewed vigor. This oil painting, entitled Symbiosis, was garnering a fair bit of attention from friends and visitors attending the show's opening. A coffee-shop colleague and zoology-major stopped me and asked, "Ok -if this makes no sense to you, forget it- but is that a tardigrade?" I smiled and replied that it was, and she grinned, "Oh I could tell. They have those distinctive hooked feet!" 

That was inspiring. Art for scientists who get it. Symbiosis, about the microbes in our ecosystem and in our guts. In these scientifically exciting times, why not stretch the public perception and appeal to everyone's curiosity? Why not delight scientists in their myriad disciplines? 


When Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion debuted, I was excited, having enjoyed his previous books. In it, he held a challenge for every artist. If you are interested in science -atheist, agnostic, Bright, or not- take the time to consider this artistic call-to-arms: 


"If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn't he have produced something at least as inspirational as as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart's opera The Expanding Universe." 
(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p 86-87) 

Will we see a scientifically-inspired artistic genius of that stature this century? It is my sincere hope that we we will. The world deserves to be that inspired, and to experience the wonder scientists engage in our universe. 


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Art Monday: science vocabulary = better art

Today in keeping with the general discussion of evolution culture (see Goldstein's article) and evopunk (see badass Renaissance Oaf) I thought I would re-post a piece I originally wrote for Alternate Reality Existence back in May.

(The painting Symbiosis was at one time, my personal benchmark as a painting so I threw it in there.)

- - - -
An Increase In Our Allegorical Vocabulary


Realism in painting has a long history, from the linear narratives of the ancient world to the shattered realities of the Twentieth Century. For the lay-gallery-goer, the artwork of the Renaissance Masters, Symbolists, and the Surrealists captures the viewer's gaze through the feat of technical ability. Immediately recognizable figures surrounded by unfamiliar objects help the viewer to enter the unusual world by connecting through the shared human experience.


In my own painting, this is the sort of challenge I place in front of myself. The recognizable objects are the hook: the less-familiar organisms are the mystery that invites people to look further. Science, paleontology and biology have always figured into my work. The natural world is full of a staggering variety of forms to challenge a representational artist.


About a dozen years ago, I had a gallery show that encouraged me to pursue this path with renewed vigor. This oil painting, entitled Symbiosis, was garnering a fair bit of attention from friends and visitors attending the show's opening. A coffee-shop colleague and zoology-major stopped me and asked, "Ok -if this makes no sense to you, forget it- but is that a tardigrade?" I smiled and replied that it was, and she grinned, "Oh I could tell. They have those distinctive hooked feet!"

That was inspiring. Art for scientists who get it. Symbiosis, about the microbes in our ecosystem and in our guts. In these scientifically exciting times, why not stretch the public perception and appeal to everyone's curiosity? Why not delight scientists in their myriad disciplines?


When Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion debuted, I was excited, having enjoyed his previous books. In it, he held a challenge for every artist. If you are interested in science -atheist, agnostic, Bright, or not- take the time to consider this artistic call-to-arms:


"If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn't he have produced something at least as inspirational as as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart's opera The Expanding Universe."
(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p 86-87)

Will we see a scientifically-inspired artistic genius of that stature this century? It is my sincere hope that we we will. The world deserves to be that inspired, and to experience the wonder scientists engage in our universe.


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery
*** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Ooo, I like this term: "evolution culture"

What a great description. "Evolution culture".

Adam Goldstein has penned an academic's guide for blog-newbies in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, entitled Blogging Evolution. After discussing the style and structure of blogs, Adam Goldstein turns to an insightful and apt look at some loose categories of evolution blogs.
Over at Laelaps, Brian Switek has a careful analysis and there's some interesting comments shaping up about missing categories. I find the practice of categorizing the interconnected community of blogs apt and self-referential -and funny. An organizational tree of evolution blogs sprang immediately to mind.

Adam shared via my twitobite account that he had included The Flying Trilobite under the taxonomic family category of "Imaginative" along with Carl Zimmer's cool The Loom. From the article:

I hesitate to call blogs focused on art and culture “imaginative,” because doing so suggests a contrast with the other categories of blogs as “non-imaginative.” I see science as an imaginative endeavor, even at its most arcane. Perhaps “evolution culture” would be a better name for this category.


I like that. We need more of that. We need Richard Dawkins' suggestion for a Mesozoic Symphony. We need evolution hipsters. Oh no wait, hipsters are out. Evolution b-boys then. That never goes away. I sound flippant, but I'm quite serious. Evolution as a concept in nature is tremendously cool, and infinitely fashionable. It needs to reach heights of creative output - and not be mixed up synonymously with development. Understood as it is, simple rules leading to emergent, beautiful, myriad forms and behaviours.

Goldstein's article showcases some interesting categories and a number of blogs. Including some that are not ones I'm familiar with. Seeing it from an outsider's perspective also interests me. Blogs I can't live without were missed, though I credit the author with hitting on so many of the of blogs about evolution. The Flying Trilobite appears alongside The Loom, and with Pharyngula, The Beagle Project, Why Evolution is True, The Evilutionary Biologist and The Wild Side. (How have I missed Genomicron? He's like an hour away from me!) Be sure to check it out - this is not an accomodationist list. This is an (albeit incomplete) list of the right stuff.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.
Flying Trilobite Gallery *** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop *** Twitter

Gift from god? I don't think so.

It happens to artists. Surgeons. When someone marvels at the eye, or bacterial flagellum.

"Your art ability is amazing. A gift from God, no doubt."

*sigh*

Just because something is hard to understand, just because complicated processes occurred that you did not witness, does not mean it was caused by a benevolent mythical being who hands out aptitudes like Santa with presents.


It has been a source of fascination to me, -and not a little frustration- that the ability to create art and the complexity of biological features each sit in the blind spots of members of the devout populace.


Like a gift from god. It's throwing your hands up in the air and casually (lazily) admitting ignorance.


I get it: it's supposed to be a compliment. But it actually insults me, though I usually reserve my cringing to myself. I have worked really hard to get where I am in my artistic ability, and I still reach and try to learn. There was no magic *poof* granted to me as a child that allowed me to render a decent life drawing or balance colours in a composition.


That was studying. That was attempts at keen observation. That was making countless mistakes I attempted to learn from. Feedback. Crits and criticisms. Learning from indifference. Trying new materials. Replicating happy accidents. Sharing techniques.


If this happens to you, encourage a bit of reasoning. I don't like being a jerk. Somehow, any response I can think of seems like a rebuke.

"Those years of school I paid for were earned. Not a gift. " (Those heart-wrenching hours when you push a painting too far and ruin a perfectly good life drawing don't feel like gifts either.)

How does one say it? How do you lead a person to reason? How do you encourage them to pull the holy book out of their mouth before they speak?



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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow under Creative Commons Licence.
Flying Trilobite Gallery ### Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ###

Look over there!

Considering the Dimtrodon-Sphinx subject of my inaugural Artwork Mondays series, I had to share this.

Artist Zachary Miller is throwing out one of life's biggest "why?" questions, that only science, and not religion can answer: Why did some organisms develop sails? Head on over to When Pigs Fly Returns and throw in your speculative 2 cents.

While you're there, make sure to check out Zach's magnificent dragon sculptures and keen scientific descriptions, as well as his reconstructed tyrannosaur skull!
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All original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.

What do you read outside?

Spring in the city! The last few days, I've stopped in Trinity-Bellwoods Park on my way home from work, and read a chapter or three of Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan.

There is something satisfying about reading outdoors in the sun. I pass through Trinity-Bellwoods usually twice a day on my 30 minute walk. I've mentioned the park before, and here are a couple of even better pics of the stunning little albino squirrel, having a snack with a friend.

Parenting Beyond Belief is an excellent book I found out about backwards, through reading the editor-author's blog, Meming of Life. Dale McGowan is entertaining and informative, and also heartfelt. He knows how to mix appealing anecdotes with research, so the literary calories are not hollow.

Here in Toronto, Chapters/Indigo/Coles/World's Biggest has it listed in their system, but I can't seem to find it. A new Book City moved in, and were happy to have it delivered to the location on my walk home. Nice! The sales consultant thought it looked pretty interesting too.

It's easy for me to pick a favourite in this book. Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder, by Dale McGowan. I like anything by McGowan in particular. Even the endnotes can be entertaining.

There are science experiments you can do with kids. A beautiful letter to his daughter by Richard Dawkins, whose writing has inspired much of my painting in the past. Essays on how to deal with concepts of death with your children (and for me - this was good stuff).

This is not a ponderous, heavy book, and is not meant to be. It is a nimble conversation-starting book, a catalysing book, a deeply interesting book. It does not matter if you are atheist, Bright, religious-but-liberal-and-a-little-lapsed; a parent of adopted or natural children, an educator, or involved in some young person's life.

Never quite understood the fuss about evolution? Chapter 8: Jaw-Dropping, Mind-Buzzing Science has the easy explanation of what Darwin discovered. Order this book, and while you're waiting for it to arrive, read The Meming of Life.

There is something a little sublime when sitting below a massive, twisty old tree, reading an excellent book while the sun is shining, buds are slow-mo bursting, kids are on bikes, dogs are lolling on their backs in the grass, and you have a bottle of blueberry-green tea.

Spring is back. What have you read outside? What do you plan to read?

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All original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details. Squirrel photos by Glendon Mellow. I tried not to hound the little guy; this was taken from a distance. It's a squirrel, ya gotta be respectful.

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

A blogging and scientific experiment.

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ...".

Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

*You can leave them exactly as is.

*You can delete any one question.

*You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...:, or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".

*You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...”.

*You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the "parent" blog you got them from, e.g.
The Flying Trilobite to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.
---------

My grandparent is
Pharyngula.
My parent is
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is:
Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

The best romantic movie in scientific dystopias is:
Gattaca (1997).

The best sexy song in rock is:
#1 Crush by Garbage from William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet Soundtrack.

The best cult novel in Canadian fiction is:
JPod by Douglas Coupland, 2006.

I call upon the following to continue this scientific experiment:

Fresh Brainz

A Blog Around the Clock

Life Before Death

Leslie Hawes (after you finish your excellent series, of course.)

Pro-Science

Fish Feet

Anyone else who wants to play out this science experiment, please do, and let me know!

Life Drawing - Male

Nothing is as interesting to human beings as looking in a mirror, or looking at each other. Humans evolved on the African savannah and as a species became very good at some specific things.

We can hurl medium-sized rocks and sticks a medium distance. We can run and throw at the same time, better than any other animal.

We are excellent at recognising patterns, to the point of finding frequent, imaginative false-positives.

We can instantly see the mistakes or novelties in depictions of the human form.

A strange thing has happened while reading two different books at the same time. I was reading the hard-sci-fi novel about global warming, Fifty Degrees Below, by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I am still enjoying philosopher Daniel Dennett 's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and both of these books are mentioning Acheulean hand-axes.

I had never heard of these before, and they are a fascinating part of our prehistoric heritage, throughout the Old World continents, really, that I am quite upset this was never mentioned in school. I mean, they were in use for almost a solid million years! Some mysteries still elude us as to their use, but they were obviously important enough to be so abundant, and in my book, by age 12, should have been mentioned, studied and discussed.

One of my favourite characters that I have read in years, is Frank Vanderwal in K.S. Robinson's Fifty Degrees Below. He finds out about these hand axes from some target-frisbee-throwing freegans, and decides it is a nice neolithic way to get exercise.

After a nearly a million years of making and teaching about Acheulean hand-axes to generation after generation, might there be a propensity for making and caring for tools, and feeling satisfied when using them well that is reinforced neurologically? Do we have a receptor that releases a trickle of endorphins when tool use is successful? As an artist, I feel it seems likely. However, that is anecdotal, and not worth as much as evidence pursued, double-blind trials followed, and theories confirmed.

In the spirit of our forebears, those deadly upright artisans, this post contains images of life drawings I did last spring, where the model was holding a long pole throughout the poses.

the boy on the back of the turtle

Brief Book Review of...
the boy on the back of the turtle:
Seeking God, Quince Marmalade and the Fabled Albatross on Darwin's Islands
by Paul Quarrington

The title immediately caught my eye, and well, you can't judge a book by its cover, but I am a very visual person.

I actually have a copy signed by the author that my wife bid on at a fundraiser here in Toronto, so that's a lot of fun. I had never read Paul Quarrington's work before (that I know of; now I am noticing his writing cropping up in front of me in magazines, since the name is distinctive). I also have a copy of his book, Storm Chasers.

I took this book with me on my trip to Alberta in July, and I whipped through it much faster than I usually do on vacation. Perhaps there is a subtle quality in the writing of a fellow Torontonian that made it feel like an especially rich conversation. And it was a conversation, since it made me laugh, and shake my head, and look forward to my time with it each evening or lazy afternoon.

The story is a biographical one, with the authour going on a trip to the Galapagos with his 7-year old daughter and 77-year old father. Mr. Quarrington immediately caught me with a high-falutin' opening paragraph that quickly tripped over some vulgarity on it's way to conclusion.

A lot of research into Darwin's life, and the history of the Galapagos (or 'Encantadas', Enchanted Isles) was poured engagingly into this book. Which is why the following had me whipping out my own pen to retort on the margins of the book:

"Whales are interesting. They are in a sense the largest example of Paley's hypothetical watch, because there are no clear evolutionary ancestors for them, no proto- or mini-whales. They seem to have been popped into the waters by the Almighty. " (p97)

What about pakicetus?! Ambulocetus? The ancestry of what evolved to modern whales is almost as clear as the horse, or our own primate ancestors and relatives. I flipped out, grabbed for a pen. (Cool skeleton re-created here.)

As my fervour abated, I flipped to the frontspiece of the book. Ahh. Published in 1997. That may explain it. On vacation and without easy internet access, I resolved to check when the amazing discoveries in Pakistan were published. It seems that in 1996, J. G. M. Thewissen, S. I. Madar, and S. T. Hussain published their work. It hardly may have been seeping into the consciousness of a Toronto writer by that point. The stellar Walking With Beasts t.v. series by the BBC had not yet aired.

But still. Although this was a footnote in a relaxed style, the book was well-researched and insightful. It was a bit of a shock to see the authour jump from no current evidence to the Almighty in the span of a footnote. It happens again later in the book, when he refers to "the unliklihood of complexity arising out of chance," (p175). However, you can't throw the whale out with the flood. (Or something. ) What a truly excellent book while I was on vacation looking at fossils! Part of the arc of this journey was to come to what Quarrington referred to as the Big Insight, and discover something meaningful in his family for his daughter, and perhaps about his father.

I think he did. The book leaves you with an intimate sense of travel, family, and how searching for self-discovery can be done in the outside world. I found the story to be a gripping one with how a person (perhaps agnostic), can search to be moved, and find it in the natural (not supernatural) world. I would recommend this book heartily to other members of the BrightsOnline, Atheist Blogroll and PaleoWebRing communites.

The rollicking history and natural history lessons of the Encantadas in Quarrington's "voice" make this a great book for people interested in science, family, or just curling up and relaxing.