Afternoon Inquisition

AI: What’s Your Nerdy Art?

This is by far the most ridiculous question a Comment o’ the Week winner has submitted for an Afternoon Inquisition. Most people see the word limit in the contact form and think, “Right, so I’ll keep it short.” But no, not this week’s winner. Kimberly Chapman went above and beyond to figure out a way to send in a massive post, which ordinarily I would chop up because it’s a pain in the ass to format these, but you know what? She’s just so god damned entertaining. Here’s her question:

+++

I came to this website via the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, which I began listening to a few weeks ago. I’m working on a giant cake for this year’s Austin cake show (http://thattakesthecake.org/), and I like to have interesting podcasts on while I work. I was caught up with my regular science/geeky/newsy podcasts so I went looking through iTunes for links to ones I already like, and somehow on a path of NPR nerdiness I ended up at SGU.

How apropos to listen to a skeptic take on UFOs, aliens, and all things interplanetary while working on a science-fiction themed cake! It brings me great joy to hear news of real astronomical discoveries along with mockery of downright ridiculous claims of the paranormal while making tiny orange suspenders for the little fondant Leeloo Dallas, or piping the finishing touches on the Slurm machine (“It’s Highly Addictive!”).

This isn’t the first time I’ve had art meet science radio. Years ago while everyone else in the ceramics lab made typical angst-dripping sculptures, I was making Klein bottles. I will never forget the day I
heard Neil deGrasse Tyson tell “Living On Earth” host Steve Curwin about letting his toddler daughter deliberately spill milk because she was clearly studying fluid dynamics. There I was smoothing the
surface of a Klein bottle and hearing a story of exactly the scientific-minded parent I wanted to be.

Not long after that, I finally got pregnant and knitted a “Baby’s First DNA Model” (and you can too with the free pattern here: http://kimberlychapman.com/crafts/knit-patterns-dna.html ), which came out of experimentation in knitting and wondering what happens if you take stitches away from one side of a tube and add them back on the other side. I hypothesized that they’d cancel each other out, and my husband hypothesized that it would twist. I tried it and he was right. I had the fun of experimentation and a great nerdy gift for my baby.

My favourite creations all seem to come back to science and geekdom. I’m an artsy type, but even though I let my head soar, my feet remain grounded in science. If you don’t understand some basic principles of physics, you can’t build sound structures out of clay, cake, yarn, or anything else. If you aren’t willing to experiment and see the value in a negative result, you will remain a slave to other people’s patterns and templates. All the feel-good, woo-woo philosophies in the world won’t stop your cake from collapsing under its own weight or help you figure out how many stitches you need to cast on to get the right size of sleeve.

What art or craft do you create with the help of science? What experiments have you done in your hobbies to push the boundaries of that area? How has your love of science inspired you in artistic ways?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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61 Comments

  1. Was inspired to make handmade oak blocks for my daughter, marking them using wood-burned letters, numbers, Japanese, animals, and relevant science facts on each block. Never finished them, but they look pretty neat as is.

    I like creating artsy pyrotechnics displays, and used to be pretty heavy into blacksmithing which led to some interesting experiments in metallurgy.

    I’ve done some interesting things with using science to enhance halloween displays, creating a hand-crafted scary thing, and then throwing in pneumatics or electricity displays for effect.

    Other than that I’d say I like to combine my enjoyment of video production, being a general ham, and science by making science videos. I make no claims that my videos are “art,” but the medium is technically considered an art form.

  2. Surly-Ramics is obviously my geeky self-created world of science and ceramics. I am constantly experimenting at different temperatures and with different material. Right now I am finding bits of recycled glass and mixing it in with the glazes and melting them at various temperatures to see what color combinations I can create. It’s exciting because you can put a piece of say, blue glass in the kiln and when you open the lid you never sure what you are going to see. After the chemical reactions with the various glazes and the high heat process of the firing, the glass bits might turn clear or blue or black or even other colors! Sometimes it beautiful and sometimes it looks like poop. You have to take notes so you can reproduce your beautiful findings later!

    Science and skepticism also inspires my paintings and other art projects. It’s all one big thought experiment with many interesting roads to wander off on.

    Science and art when they work together is a natural way of exploring, understanding and then communicating about the world around us.

    Cool post, Rebecca!

  3. I have been memorized by fractals ever since I learned about them in the 1980s. (Is math science?) Every few years I’ll dust off my fractal generator and apply what I’ve learned about coding over the intervening time to make it better.

    I also love to photograph the patterns that ice can form especially on exceedingly cold days. I’ve seen large sections of ground pushed up by 1 cm ice towers that were astonishingly beautiful close up. I wish I’d had had a decent macro lens back then.

    I haven’t pushed any boundaries yet, but I hope to soon. I’m starting work on a drawing program that will incorporate real world elements such as pens that leak and smear, and shapes that melt. I’d also like incorporate AI critters that do things like eat straight lines and poop out furry lines or spontaneously grow moss or grass or trees. More than anything, however, I’d like to recognize shapes. To get a circle you just sketch a circle and the computer does the rest. I saw tech like this on a Xerox Star computer ages ago, but have never seen this in a mainstream program.

  4. Two versions of the chordae tendineae fairy:
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Chordae-Tendineae-Fairy-v1-0-143922886
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Chordae-Tendineae-Fairy-v1-1-144210658

    The DNA flower:
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/DNA-Flower-145621763

    Crappy old scientist-hall-of-fame wallpaper:
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Mehr-Licht-wallpaper-118743238

    Amoeba…thing:
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Giant-Amoeba-65915030

    And the speculative evolution series thing:
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Krethel-Tree-93988044
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Grazer-The-Original-91857960
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Spoon-Krethel-91857690
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/The-Forker-91857472
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Filtering-Krethel-91857197
    http://lilianmarvolo.deviantart.com/art/Sickle-hoof-Krethel-91856794

    As for the written material, I dunno what qualifies, usually it’s about promotion of science than actual science (I’m not very confident in my actual science skills yet). One of my characters is a teenage girl studying forensics from her only friend, a qualified forensic scientist. So I’m both anchored and inspired by science in mostly everything I do.

  5. Back in the day, I did photography. I was lucky enough to have a darkroom in my basement, and spent a lot of time there playing with light and chemicals. I don’t really care for the digital photography world, but the materials for real photography are too expensive now, and it’s just not the same. Plus I’d have to refurbish the darkroom, and probably the enlarger as well.

    Now I’m all sad.

  6. I’m a musician and if it weren’t for music theory I’d get no where quick. I constantly test and prove the theory with my noodling.

    Beyond that I sometimes need the instruments only from a song (say Strawberry Fields Forever) Duplicating the track, and inverting it gets rid of the vocals. Why? Because in many Beatles songs the vocals are in the middle of the song (as opposed to the instruments which are usually panned to the sides). If I invert the track that inverts the sound wave. Play the original along side the inverted and the waves cancel each other out leaving the instruments (because their waves aren’t identical). The science of sound, it’s my life.

  7. I make electro-acoustic music, and the science behind sound is a necessity. Acoustics, Fourier theory, sampling theory, trigonometry, computer programming, and the like are all tools in the palette. Granted, I don’t necessarily have to have perfect knowledge of these (especially since the computer handles most of the math), but it helps to know the basics so I can transform sound in the way I want.

    As far as science influencing the content of my work, it is definitely there, even if only an afterthought. Sound is such a cool medium (for me, anyway) because it is so real and alive – the mass of air surrounding the listener vibrates in a particular way, bringing out associations and emotional reactions from seemingly nowhere. The deeper you listen to sound, the more interesting it becomes. To me, that is a pretty good allegory for the scientific outlook.

  8. I too am a musician. I play a bunch of instruments in a bunch of styles, but my favorite is punk rock. Science has in the past snuck it’s way into my music, most notably with my former band The Regurgitones’ song Toxoplasmosis (basically, a happy sounding poppy/ska punk song based around the tune of hava nagila about parasites and crazy cat ladies)

    My next project, if I can find musicians, is going to be a surf/twang/sleazy/rockabilly type of sound (think The Cramps, or that song from True Blood) and all the songs will be skeptical in nature.

  9. I keep getting distracted by life and job, but over the last few years I’ve taken up a new hobby: steampunk horology.

    I’ve built several brass celestial clocks and I’m working on the design for a commercialized one:

    Celestia Mark 1

    Celestia Mark 2

    PreVisualization for Celestial Mark 3

    There’s a lot of art, physics, robotics and software engineering involved.

    I’m not sure where I got the original idea, but I was definitely inspired by the Clock of the Long Now at the LongNow foundation – located within walking distance of my home.

    Does that qualify as nerdy or is it merely geeky?

    -S

  10. None of the art I do really has much to do with science unless you count using Photoshop since Photoshop is surely a product of science. But that’s kind of cheating – you can use Photoshop without understanding any computer science just like you can drive a car without understanding the underlying physical principles of what makes an internal combustion engine work.

    Edit: Wait, does drawing cartoony drawings of dinosaurs count?

  11. I am a fly fisherman, and I make my own flies to catch fish with. I am totally immersed into the species of insects that live in and around the stream, and the morphology of their different life stages. I use hair and feathers to create imitations of the different bugs. It takes many years of studying what is fluttering onto and off of the water for you to arm yourself with the appropriate flies for each time of year. The act of creating a doppleganger good enough to fool a trout is very satisfying.

  12. Clicky my username.

    Okay you don’t have to. Almost everything I sculpt is inspired by science, the cephalopods, trilobites, horseshoe crabs, specimen jars, Cthulhu. Okay not Cthulhu but the rest is.

    I also use a lot of chemistry directly or indirectly. Polymer clay is a man mad material that hardens when exposed to heat. I use silicone mold compounds and resins that when the parts are mixed harden via chemical reaction.

  13. I am the Weird Bug Lady! Haha, my boyfriend gave me that nickname years ago, and it stuck – now it’s my business name.
    (just noticed Noadi posted before me – you really should check out her stuff, it’s awesome)

    I’ve always been into animals, especially insects, and always enjoyed drawing them. Did a few small art shows while in high school.

    When I was 18 I started playing around with a sewing machine my grandmother gave me, and after foraying into basic plushies… I started making bugs!

    I now make all sorts of things – insects, molluscs, reptiles, arachnids, fossil organisms, you name it. I LOVE custom orders. I don’t use any patterns, each thing I make is a work of art based on a lot of research.

    I sell on Etsy, my shop name is weirdbuglady.
    http://www.weirdbuglady.com
    I’ve also got stuff on my flickr page:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/weirdbuglady

    I’m in my last year of undergrad studying Zoology, and have applied to grad schools for Entomology and Evolutionary Biology.

    To me, science and art come as a package deal.

  14. I do a sci-fi webcomic titled Jet-Pack Jenny (cough – shameless plug – cough cough) that I try to make as scientifically literate as possible. I brought this up at a skeptics’ meeting once here in Orlando, but the discussion almost immediately diverted to trying out how to make a time travel plot that I had thrown away work scientifically in a fictional universe that already had enough for the reader to accept blindly.

    I kinda glad this topic came up, because I was an artist first, and I’ve found people expect artists to be flaky and accepting of just about any belief, especially new age woo. I think skeptic artists should be very vocal about their skepticism and if possible, incorporate it into their art. Sometimes that’s hard as once it’s in the hands of the viewer, they sometimes take away whats already there inside them, and sometimes that’s horse s**t.

  15. Knitted a seamless Moebius scarf/wrap thing – great fun because it casts on in the middle and works to all the outside at once. The ones where you knit an ordinary scarf and then twist and sew it are for wimps. I’m neither an artist nor a scientist, but I’ve taught my children to cook, and that’s both art and science, right?

  16. @Noadi: Funny story. Just yesterday I was searching Steampunk Art and came across this little steampunk squid necklace that I LOVED. When I wandered through the website I was entranced by all of the cuttlefish/octopi goodness (I have a bit of a tentacle fetish I suppose). When I finally saw who’s site it was I was like: “Holy crap! I’ve seen her on skepchick!”

    Lol.

  17. I’m a paleoartist. I draw dinosaurs and trilobites. It’s the best way I can mix my paleo-nerdiness with my doodling skills. A couple of my better recent drawings are here: http://twitpic.com/photos/ascientifica

    I’m also play far more instruments than ought to be humanly possible (6 types of clarinet, 4 types of saxophone, piano/keyboard, various percussion, handbells, etc., if you really must know), but as of yet have found no better way to connect that to science than to explain sounds waves work to produce different pitches.

  18. Well, at least the author of this essay believes math is a science, so this might work. I don’t create much, but I do folk dancing with this group that has some people who like to make up “mathematical carwash” dances that play a lot with geometry, symmetry, and spinning around.

  19. Hmmm – Like Kimberly, I bake. There’s chemistry and mathematics and engineering involved, especially when those cakes have to stack really high, keep their shape against gravity and not melt. And occasionally have moving parts. And have a low glycemic index. And be dairy free…

    I had a friend who worked out a plaid needlepoint pattern that she could make into a moebius strip. She would mount them on hats.

  20. Oh shit, now all you geeky turds know my name! lol
    by the way, if anyone wants to actually look at my stuff, let me know if you think it’s any good. If you think it’s all crap, lie to me, I have an unstable ego :)

  21. I always joke that I never met a craft I wouldn’t try, though I try to rein myself in these day or I’d spend the mortgage on craft supplies :) So I do all kinds of stuff. I think of myself primarily as a crocheter and a paper artist though.

    I can’t think of anything overtly science-y that I’ve made, but what amuses me is the amount of unconscious math that goes into my crochet. I rarely use a pattern, I usually make it up as I go along. If I do use someone else’s pattern, I usually change it up.

    But when I was a young girl in elementary school, I was abruptly informed by the most horrible teacher I ever had that I was Not Good at Math. In not so many words, I was made to feel as if I was told I needed Special Remedial Classes just to learn how to count on my toes and fingers. In front of the class. I bought into it back then, and from then on through high school, I was Bad at Math Girl.

    It wasn’t till college that I realized I wasn’t that bad, though I was still too nervous to ever take anything beyond Algebra. But watch me go, figuring out in my head how many stitches around I need, how much I need to increase, how far apart to increase for it to work evenly, what to do to make the 3D shape I need.

    It’s math. And durnit, I’m good at it.

    Oh yeah, and Mr. Teddy Jones, wherever you are now – fuck you for trying to make a little girl think she was stupid when you were responsible for her education.

  22. I’m not very crafty, but I am a cartoonist. My comic GO YE DOGS! at funnyanimalbooks.com is my attempt at a skeptical, humanist fantasy comic.
    There are fun critters and monsters and fantastical stylistic embellishments, but the core of the comic is about the grandeur of the natural world, friendship and sexuality. Every “magical” element can be explained in a naturalistic fashion and there will be lots of gentle tweaking of religion as well as furious harangues against snake-oil-selling frauds.

  23. Whilst my family is full of artists, including my father being a sculptor, the artistic gene completely by-passed me. My one attempt at combining art with science was doing facial reconstructions during my forensic anthropology course. Instead of a human face, I ended up making something that would be best suited to the Star trek universe. It was at this point that I decided that whilst I admired science-y art I should be in no way involved in the making of it.

  24. I’m a math geek, still do mathematics for pure entertainment, put a few images on my page & Wikipedia.

    A few images: http://deanlm.com/python/

    I strangely like this one, animated Butterfly Curve: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Animated_construction_of_butterfly_curve.gif

    Graphic moving illustration of the 1st derivative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Graph_of_sliding_derivative_line.gif

    Graphic moving illustration of 2st derivative inflection points: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Animated_illustration_of_inflection_point.gif

    Animated hypotrochoid: http://deanlm.com/python/index_files/hypotrochoid.gif

    Thale’s Theorem, important geometric concept: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Animated_illustration_of_thales_theorem.gif

    Animated ellipse: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ellipse_as_hypotrochoid.gif

    **** And my *fave*, an animated construction of a Sierpinski Triangle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Animated_construction_of_Sierpinski_Triangle.gif

  25. Wow, there is some seriously good stuff being made by the folks here and I haven’t had a chance to go through even a quarter of the links posted yet, partly because I spent far too much time going through Surlyramics. Awesome! Will have to check out the rest over the next few days.

    Sorry about the length…I looked at some other AIs and some were long, some short, so I wasn’t sure and figured you’d chop it if it was a problem. And I hope being “god damned entertaining” is a good thing, apologies if it isn’t!

  26. I don’t create a lot of art, but I do have a couple of mathematic things on my office wall, created purely for their esthetics. One of them is a simple thing based on this: Envelope
    The other is a 3D graph-rendering of z(x,y) = 1/(x^2+y^2)

  27. I’m a chef, which in my opinion is the perfect combination of science and art. Every time I make a new dish, it’s like performing an experiment. I form a hypothesis as to what ingredients would go well together, combine them, take notes, then test the results and adjust the recipe as needed until it’s right. Not to mention the chemistry and physics involved in cooking.

  28. My band is half science majors (and one who changed her major from environmental science to something else), so our lyrics often have bits of science in them. We don’t have a lot of standard love songs or sad songs, we tend to write more about science fiction, the power of nature, extinction (usually human), friends, etc. Not a lot of songs specifically about science (we’re not They Might Be Giants), but the vocabulary and concepts definitely make their way in.

  29. Well, there’s Mr. Bananapants, the cuddly stuffed sea slug I knitted for my boyfriend after reading an article on parabolic geometry. I have also knitted an african lungfish, a jellyfish, and a dumbo octopus. I am also known to do painstaking pointillist illustrations of cephalopods, one of which is currently, I’m told, hanging in the home of SF author China Mieville. And I share our inquisitor’s love of dorky cakes.

    P.S. Surlyramics FTW!

  30. I make anatomical pillows. Like plant cells, animal cells, hearts, brains, digestive systems….along with insects (I love entomology).
    I also, in contrast, make voodoo dolls because I think they’re funny. Most of all, people’s reactions crack me up! (Especially in the extremely CRC city I live in)
    Check it out:
    heatherweathers.etsy.com

  31. I fuse glass using recycled windows. Melting unknown glass can be very sciencey if I want consistent results. I also do a lot of repair/remodel where I have to use my problem solving skills that I have developed. Trouble shooting in a systematic way has critical thinking at its core. I will join the other marketing whores by saying you can see some picts at crackerdog.com

  32. Not exactly art but….I’m a university professor who was interested in model rocketry as a kid. Kept that interest on and off over the years. When I started at my current position I realized that I (theoretically) had the background to do the stuff I wasn’t supposed to do as a kid, namely, make rocket engines (you were supposed to buy them; making them led to disaster).

    So I learned about the formulation of propellants and ended up doing research on it, even wrote a book and a few articles about it. It’s the only research I do these days, and I still get a tremendous kick out of designing a rocket motor, predicting what it will do, and having my prediction come true under test.

    Usually.

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