Thursday, August 30, 2012

Science & Art

I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but I need Summer to be over (luckily I'm about to get my wish) because I need to get some sort of routine going that allows me to go back to blogging regularly. Working Summer hours and traveling on the weekends is not conducive to such things. However, lest I write one measly blog post for the entire month of August, I'm here to provide a lot of links to some great artists who find inspiration in science because the intersection of science and art has been on my mind  since I watched this video on painting with cells from the Broad Institute.

As someone who isn't particularly artistically talented, but strongly admires those who are, I've really started picking up on how many great science artists there are. My foremost source for science art and related science art news is the Scientific American blog Symbiartic. The blog is co-authored by scientific illustrator Kalliopi Monoyios (she did the illustrations for Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish which is an awesome book by the way) and scientific illustrator and fine artist Glendon Mellow. I think the blog is an awesome thing to have in the SciAm blog network because it brings up content and issues that I find really interesting, but wouldn't necessarily find or think about without prompting. 

An artist whose work I found through Symbiartic is "Surly" Amy Davis Roth whose Surly-Ramics etsy shop is full of necklaces that are beautiful and unique, with great science themes. I covet the majority of them, and would have gone on a shopping spree by now if I didn't need to cut back on my jewelry buying ways. Surly Amy is also a blogger for Skepchick and Mad Art Lab

Perhaps the only area of art that I have some sense of knowledge and ability is photography, but I certainly don't come close to having skills like those of biologist and photographer Alex Wild. Wild's blog Myrmecos is full of up close pictures of insects. He can even make a wasp look cute

I recently moved, and have been on the look out for awesome science art to fill my currently blank white walls. Lucky for me I didn't have to look too hard because Michele Banks' Artologica etsy shop was right in my twitter feed. I think sometimes that twitter is a time-sink, but etsy is worse. I could spend hours looking through all the amazing things that I couldn't make myself like a painting of Unicorn blood cells

Every single year I am completely dazzled by the entries in the Nikon Small World photomicrography contest. Photomicrography is just what it sounds like, taking a picture of something that you see through a microscope. With some incredibly high powered microscopes and cameras, and a little fluorescent staining, the images are truly spectacular. The contest now also has a video component which I think is pretty cool. The contest is held every year, but I think the 2009 winning photograph of Arabidopsis thaliana by Heiti Paves is my favorite.

That is just a (very) small sampling of some of the science art that you can find out there on the interwebs. I would really love any recommendations for other artists whose websites, shops, or blogs I could check out. Who are some of your favorite science artists? What do you like about them? 

Note: Sorry for the post about art that has absolutely no pictures. I didn't include any pictures of these artists' work because I wrote this post spur of the moment and thus didn't ask for permission to do so. I do hope that you'll click the links though and see their work for yourself!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: Newjack Guarding Sing Sing

When I try to explain to friends and family why I prefer to read nonfiction I usually tell them it is because the best stories are the ones that are true. Yes, making things up and presenting them in a way that is creative, entertaining, eloquent, and even beautiful takes skill and talent. I’m not arguing against fiction in general, I will certainly concede that there are wonderful works of fiction. There is definitely something appealing about getting lost in a made up world. However, it is my personal experience that I find myself more compelled and moved by stories that I know are real.

I’m of the opinion that what happens in real life can be so fascinating that you can be transported completely into another time and place within this world rather than the Middle Earths or Panems of fiction. We see the world from a point of view that is shaped and focused by our own experience, knowledge and understanding about the way that things work. But the scope of my world is narrow. There are a lot of things in this world that I know absolutely nothing about. In a lot of instances, this is because I have had a very comfortable life. I want to understand the rest of the world, but can you ever really understand something that you haven’t experienced yourself?
I ask this most rhetorical of questions because I recently finished reading Ted Conover’s 2000 book about the New York State prison system Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Conover is the kind of writer that I think anyone who has ever dreamed about writing nonfiction thinks that they would love to be, until you realize exactly what he goes through to get his story. Combining anthropology with nonfiction writing Conover has made a career out of becoming his subject. Two years ago I read his first book, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America’s Hoboes, for which he became a hobo and rode around the country in the cars of freight trains. For Newjack, he went through training to become a prison guard and spent a year working in New York’s Sing Sing prison. Talk about being transported into a completely different world, within our world.
I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what the inside of a prison is like, but Conover can. He created a completely different life to infiltrate Sing Sing and become a part of the prison. I don’t think I’ve ever read another writer’s work that so successfully opened a door to give readers a look inside a type of life that many of us will never even come close to understanding. The drama of Newjack is entirely wrapped up in the fact that it really happened. Conover isn’t just retelling stories; he’s telling his own story wrapped up into his subject. You can feel his fear, his stress, his exhaustion, his amusement, his appreciation for the kindness of others, and his strong desire to try to understand.
A book like Newjack illustrates my opinion that the best stories are the ones that are true. Not only did it increase my knowledge and understanding about a place, a system, and people that I would never on my own come into contact with, but it also tapped into the rawness of the human experience. The darkside of reality seethes through Newjack. It pushes you forward, and combined with the knowledge that it all really happened it opens up a world within the world. It isn’t really a fun read, but I think it is a necessary read. I recommend Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, and am looking forward to checking out Conover’s other work.