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Behind the scenes

3 Posts tagged with the science tag

The Museum knows better than many that there's more to the relationship between science and art than simple documentation. At a recent workshop held in the Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) we were able to share with like-minded participants just how many similarities there are between the practices and techniques of scientists and artists.


Earlier this month Gemma Anderson and William Latham - who both studied at the nearby Royal College of Art and took frequent inspiration from the Museum while there - teamed up with entomologist Gavin Broad to host the Big Draw workshop: Experimenting with observational drawing and algorithm in response to natural form.


Specimens from our collection including puffer fish, shells, corals, minerals and plants, specially chosen for their interesting form and structure (or morphology), were provided for inspiration.


Participants were then invited to participate in artistic techniques including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 'Delicate Empiricism’ (the effort to understand something's meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience), as well as Latham's 'FormSynth' and Anderson's 'Isomorphogenesis' (generative methods inspired by the natural world that evolve using an algorithm), and asked to apply those techniques to the specimens before them.


Anderson explained:

The workshop group -  an interesting mix of mathematicians, psychiatrists, RCA students, Museum scientists and the editor of New Scientist - observed, wrote, drew from observation and drew from memory. They were then asked to imagine expanding the specimen into component parts.


I asked them to randomly select a drawing 'rule' from a hat and then use that rule to draw form change. The 'rule' was intended to act like a genetic mutation would in nature. It was therefore important that the form change was approached in a connected series, like the incremental process of evolution. Throughout, they continually referred back to the specimen and included observational details intermittently.


After the group had evolved a number of primitives, they were asked to think about marrying the forms, to maintain the general characteristics of each adult and to make one or more progeny.


Working generatively like this is something that humans, especially through the act of drawing, can still do better than computers.


The workshop, and the techniques taught, sparked some interesting discussion amongst participants, Anderson said:

It was suggested that different types of drawing systems, like different species, vary in form and elements, and if artistic elements were seen as being like the building blocks of life, then the artistic processes of the workshop were actually quite similar to the nature of the processes that the scientists at the Museum investigate.



Some of the specimens: shells (left) and corals (right).



Some of the drawings.



And some of the Big Draw participants at work.


Seeing double Dippy

Posted by Amy Freeborn Oct 15, 2014

On a little trip to Paris recently I met Dippy's identical twin.


Our iconic Diplodocus in Hintze Hall, affectionately known as Dippy, is actually a cast taken from the type specimen of Diplodocus carnegii, which was unearthed in Wyoming, USA in 1898.


The original fossil stands in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. But there are said to be at least 10 replicas dotted around the world. One lives here with us. And another resides in Paris at the National Museum of Natural History in its Gallery of Palaeontology.



Our Diplodocus, left; and the Paris Diplodocus, right. The resemblance is uncanny.


However, on closer inspection at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris, I realised that Dippy's French sibling wasn't so identical after all.


You may recall from my previous blog that when the original and casts were (re)constructed, their tails rested on the ground. However, advances in scientific understanding led to a determination that Diplodocus did not drag their tails, but held them aloft and used them as whip-like weapons. So in 1993 we repositioned our Dippy's tail to curve over visitors' heads, as you know it today.



A 1905 illustration of the original Diplodocus carnegii, which was described by John Bell Hatcher in 1901, and reconstructed by Hatcher and William Holland.


The Paris Diplodocus in original tail-dragging pose.



Our Dippy's graceful tail, which extends nine feet above the ground.


Of course it's not surprising that the Paris Diplodocus retains its historic pose. Repositioning a dinosaur's tail is no simple task. Our repositioning operation took several months to complete and involved the old tail being dismantled and the plaster of Paris vertebrae moulded and re-cast in hollow fibreglass. This ensured the tail was light enough to be mounted in an elevated position, and could accommodate a supporting strut inside it.



While the re-casting was being performed, Dippy was given a temporary cardboard tail.


But what about the other Diplodocus casts around the world? And the original fossil in Pittsburgh, for that matter? Well, I checked in with proto-Dippy and can confirm that its tail is elevated. Plus, I know that the cast at the National Museum of Natural Science in Madrid has been repositioned, as it was two of our conservators who assisted in that operation. And our palaeontologists Angela Milner and Paul Barrett, who visited the cast on display at The La Plata Museum in La Plata, Argentina, report that its tail remains on the ground.


As for the rest, I would love to hear your accounts of Diplodocus cast spotting around the world. Please post your comments and pictures below.


For all those who missed out on tickets to our sold-out Night Safari with MasterCard last night, I managed to sneak in so I could get the low-down for you on the science fact behind some well-known tales of fear and fiction.


In our annual Halloween instalment of the popular after hours Museum tour and lecture series, scientists revealed the truth behind popular stories of body-snatchers, man-eaters and mythological monsters.


Upon arrival attendees were broken into three groups: cyclops, kraken and zombies, which corresponded to the topics of the lectures we were about to hear.


It was nice to see three of my fellow cyclops group members, Martin, Genevieve and Deboarh, embracing the Halloween spirit.


First up my group met Gavin Broad, curator of Hymenoptera, who told us about the flesh-eating, mind-controlling habits of parasitoid wasps.


These wasps lay their eggs on or in the bodies of other insects, which are then eaten alive by the baby wasps as they grow. In some cases, the incubating wasps are even able to exert a kind of mind control over their host. In a zombie-like state, the hapless creature will actually lash out at anything that comes too close, in an attempt to protect the parasitoid wasps that are clinging to its body and sucking it dry.


If your Halloween hangover can handle it, take a look at this video of a couple of wasps that, having used their host plant hopper for all it's worth, make a break for it.



Next up Karolyn Shindler gave us a whirlwind lesson in ancient mythology and the real-life beasts that inspired legends such as the cyclops, griffin and unicorn.


The one-eyed, sheep-rearing, man-eating giant of Homer's Odyssey-fame? He was imagined from the bones of miniature elephants found in caves on Cyprus. In a phenomenon known as island dwarfism, over time the large elephants (which probably swam from mainland Europe) shrank down to about the size of pigs.



Marble head of the cyclops Polyphemos, and a dwarf elephant skull.

In a time before science, it's not hard to understand how people thought the nasal passage from which the elephant's trunk protrudes was actually a massive single eye cavity.


The gold-guarding griffin of lore? That one is the result of Protoceratops bones found in the gold-rich Gobi desert. The sheep-sized herbivorous dinosaur, with its parrot-like beak and large head, is quite similar to depictions of the mythical creature that had the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.


And the benevolent horned horse? Well, in Europe it most likely derives from the narwhal horns collected by mariners and sold at port markets, and in Asia, it's attributed to an ancient rhinoceros from the Pleistocene era.


Finally, we heard from Jon Ablett, curator of Mollusca. He explained that the tales of kraken, the legendary sea monsters so large that they could bring down whole ships, are - and here's the scary bit - real!


Pierre Dénys de Montfort's Poulpe Colossal (1810) and Jon Ablett with a pice of colossal squid arm.

Kraken, or giant and colossal squid as they're known in the real world, can grow to around 14 and 18 metres respectively. Their arms and tentacles are covered in saw-tooth-ringed suckers and hooks that help them snare prey.


The evening proved that, like they say, sometimes the scientific truth really is as scary, fascinating and strange as storybook fiction!