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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.


You may think that not much can survive in the challenging conditions of the Antarctic, but here I would like to share with you some pictures from my recent diving experiences on the West Antarctic Peninsula and introduce you to some of the creatures that live there so join me in a virtual dive in Antarctic chilly waters...


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Above: Just like in the UK anenomes and sea-squirts often battle for space ©A.Cordingley



Above is my personal favourite, and the subject of my Antarctic studies: Bryozoans.
Here the underside of a rock is covered with the bryozoans Beania erecta (the peachy, lumpy stuff)
and Fenestrulina rugula (white encrusting patches) interspersed with hydroids


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Above: BAS Diver David Smyth admires a wall of soft corals, sponges and sea-squirts ©A.Cordingley



Above: The well disguised, slow-moving and friendly small fish, Harpagifer antarcticus, is common on the sea-bed



Above: An antarctic jellyfish ©A.Cordingley



Above: Despite the chilly temperatures the colours underwater can rival tropical reefs
as can be seen in this collection of starfish, filter-feeding sea cucumbers and red seaweed


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Above: Sometimes the main limiting factor is space as corals, sponges, sea cucumbers and sea-squirts compete ©A.Cordingley


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Above: Odontaster, the most common starfish around Ryder Bay ©A.Cordingley


Sterechinus neumayeri 2.JPG

Above: Sterechinus neumayeri, the common sea urchin in Ryder Bay uses pieces of sea-weed
and shell to try and disguise itself from predators ©A.Cordingley


Many of these pictures are taken by Ashley Cordingley, marine biologist at the British Antarctic Survey and talented underwater photographer.


Jen's research is being undertaken as a collaboration between:
Heriot Watt University, Natural History Museum, UMBS, Millport, and the British Antarctic Survey.




Jen is funded by the NERC Collaborative Gearing Scheme and Heriot Watt Alumni Fund and sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, Apeks Marine and O'Three.



By Frank Wesselingh, Naturalis Museum, Leiden

What a torture: the whole group moving up north there where the fossils are and me staying in Samarinda for another few days where the fossils, at least our fossil mollusks, definitely are not. You have met me before: I am Frank Wesselingh, a mollusk palaeontologist from the Naturalis museum in Leiden, the Netherlands.

And a few days later, we are off to Bontang! Excitement rose in our car when the GPS’s marked the approach of the equator, but before we knew we had passed it. No line, no nothing! We arrived completely astonished into the northern hemisphere. Not even daylightsavingtime! (Luckily no icy weather and dark days either).

We saw the first group on the side of the road. The young researchers were carrying heavy bags full of fossils. We jumped out the car to have a very brief look in the small quarry. Between the zillions of corals, there were the …… shells and snails! Beautiful, this was what we were hoping for! Great reef faunas very well preserved. Delicate forms just waiting to be found and admired.


The first shells lying there waiting to be picked

The hotel itself turned out to be brand and brand new. For example there were not yet any knifes to come with the otherwise excellent beef ordered by several of us. It ended with a joint swiss army knife exercise, geologist can do anything! After the first afternoon in the field together with Sonja, my PhD researcher, and Aries, a geologist from Bandung, it was time to search for food. At six it gets rapidly dark so you find your way with a car through the dark city to spot a nice place. Once out of the car, the place turned out not to be that nice. Our Indonesian colleague asked a waiting police officer who stood next to us. Before we knew our three cars were chasing the police car with lights and sirens through the city to a beautiful restaurant. That was an unexpected hilarious start for me in Bontang.

The forthcoming days I hope to see with Sonja and Aries and Sonia from Bandung a lot of more fossil shells. As you can imagine I am very happy now!


And there are monkeys too!



Hello, the researchers on our trip have been writing about their experiences measuring, describing and sampling the rocks around us here in Samarinda, East Kalimantan. I thought I'd show you where we're staying and what day-to-day life is like at the 'base camp' (see photos!).


We are staying in Hotel Putri Ayu, up in the hills above Samarinda. The hotel is lovely - a ring of wooden cottages overlooking the Mahakam River that flows out through a delta to the east of here. We get up for 7am, earlier than some of us are used to but I'm sure it's healthy, and breakfast is served in the eating area in the middle of our cottages. We eat fried rice or noodles with eggs, toast, fresh watermelon juice, tea and coffee, which is what a group of hard-working scientists need to set them up for the day.


Hotel Putri Ayu.JPG

Hotel Putri Ayu


We then gather all the equipment we'll need and assemble around the cars. We have hired five cars so that small groups can go to different sections and do their specific work. Where everyone will go is decided the night before and is logistically complicated, but we have phones in each car so that we can stay in touch and move between the groups if we need to, or meet up for lunch.



Lunch in a restaurant near the Stadion section


The sections we're working on range from 40mins to several hours away, so our drivers have to work out where to go based on our sometimes vague descriptions, GPS co-ordinates and shouts of "Ooh look at that reef up there in the jungle, can we go that way?". They are very patient. At lunchtime we find a restaurant nearby and sample the menu - we're still learning what all the foods are and it's often a surprise to see what we've ordered. The food is really good here, not as spicy as in Java but there's always some killer red sauce around to dip bits of chicken and fish into. I think we're all big fans of the fresh fruit juice. I can't quite move on from the mango, it's perfect on hot days...


By the way, I hear that Europe is experiencing something of a cold snap. We all feel for you.


So, then it's back to work for the afternoon until five or six, when the light begins to fade. We put all our sample bags into the car and go back to the hotel for much-required showers. In the evening we convene for dinner (beef, chicken, prawns, tofu, rice, fruit, it's not easy you know) and then have a meeting about what we found during the day and where we'd like to go tomorrow. This is important as it gives people a chance to find out what each section contains - is it good for corals? Are there any bryozoans? What is the preservation like? Were there any deep-water facies?


Then it's early to bed. No really it is. Everyone is usually very tired and by the time we've sorted our samples, recharged our cameras, scrubbed the mud off our boots, downloaded our GPS tracks and said goodnight to the geckos, we're all ready to sleep. And peace reigns over the tiny encampment of intrepid explorers.


By Elena Lo Giudice, University of Kiel


This is Elena, a PhD student at the University of Kiel, in Germany. I’m an oceanographer so this is my first time on land and I never thought that the life of a geologist could be so exciting.


Our adventure started early in the morning trying to communicate with our driver, a very nice, patient and always-smiling guy. After a couple of misunderstandings we arrived at the outcrop and we started the initial investigation of the area. Our curiosity about a missing part of the rock succession drove us at first to the playground of a school, which was built in the middle of the section. Here we were accepted as rockstars - everybody wanted a picture of us - and then we reached the base of the outcrop, a very important point for our work. We were working on the edge of a mining area - there are lots of coal mines here. We will work on mined outcrops higher up in the section later this week but first we need to have health and safety training so we can be safe around the mining roads.


Nathan and Elena school.JPG

Nathan and me with students at the local school


Our work today consisted of logging the outcrop, for instance defining the different rocks and geological structures present in the strata – from the base to the top - and measuring them. We make this information into a diagram (a log) so that other people on our trip can use them when they want to collect from the section. This way they will know where their fossil or rock samples came from and when we work out the ages and palaeoenvironments of the sections, they can relate that information back to the fossil faunas and floras they have identified and have more information on how they lived.


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Layers of clay, silt and sandstone at the Stadion Section near Samarinda


So, after this amazing day, I came back to the hotel with our driver’s smile impressed in my mind, a lot of pictures with the school guys and, of course, 80m of logged section, what can I ask more for just a single day?


By Simone Arragoni, University of Granada, Spain


Indonesia… Just the sound of this word is enough to excite every geologist’s fantasy!! And that’s the place where we are right now!


Here the geology is something living, not just strange and boring words on a book: Indonesia is the hot and restless daughter of the convergence between the Indo-Pacific and Australian plates, animated by earthquakes, tsunamis, giant slides and….volcanoes, of course!!



We are now in Bandung, 140 km east of Jakarta, close to the Tangkuban Perahu Volcano (the “overturned boat-shaped” volcano), so we have enjoyed a “wet” tour in the lush rainforest which covers the flanks of the mountain, reaching a small crater with steam and boiling water springs. There you can even cook an egg and eat it in the foggy atmosphere created by the hot steams and the showery rains.



But the best is yet to come… through a slippery and narrow “natural staircase” we eventually reach the top of the volcano and have a look inside the main crater. And there you do feel that the mountain is alive, blowing its white fumes and quietly sleeping before the next eruption…Towards the east endless and mysterious mountains form the backbone of Java, while thousands meters below your feet the Australian plate is being pushed northwards and downwards in the mantle. The emotion is too strong (and the humidity too!), so we have to go away and eat something.


8 Simone volcano.JPG

The Tangkuban Perahu Volcano


We go down to Lembang, stopping at a typical Indonesian restaurant, where you can eat the famous ayam goreng (fried chicken). This is the real “Indonesian experience”, eating strange and spicy things and drinking hot tea and mango juice while the rain is hitting the roof.


9 Simone chickens.JPG

Javanese ayam goreng


The best conclusion for such a nice day would be a crazy ride on a rollercoaster-like road, packed up in a small van that will carry us to the hotel and the desired hot shower.


Hello, over the next couple of months me and other scientists from the Natural History Museum are going to tell you about our field trip to Indonesia. We're going there to look at fossil tropical marine creatures from 20 million years ago and we will try to work out how they lived and how environmental change might have effected them.


At the moment we are getting our equipment together, having our injections, applying for visas and buying trousers-for-explorers (the ones that turn into shorts - yikes!). It's all quite exciting and we hope we'll be ready in time to fly out ion the 18th September.


We'll fly via Singapore to Jakarta in Java and then spend a week learning about stratigraphy in Bandung, just south of Jakarta. This is a teaching trip for Marie Curie Early Stage Researchers, so I'm looking forward to learning with them. Stratigraphy, for example, is the study of when and how rocks were laid down and what you can say about past environments by studying them.


After Java we'll fly to Balikpapan, which is a city in Kalimantan, western Borneo. From there we will travel north to Samarinda and start our field work. As far as I know, this will involve travelling to wherever rocks of the right age are exposed and looking to see what they contain, like corals or molluscs.


We will be posting pictures, video and text to this page throughout our trip, so log in to Nature Plus to hear the news of our adventures!


Meet the Natural History Museum explorers:


            Dr Ken Johnson                                      Dr Jeremy Young                     Dr Jon Todd

           Corals researcher                                Microfossils researcher          Molluscs researcher

Nadia.bmp Emanuela.bmpLil.jpg

Miss Nadia Santodomingo      Miss Emanuela Di Martino         Dr Lil Stevens

      Corals researcher                    Bryozoans researcher       Curator and palaeobotanist


The Mission:

We will work with people from other European and Indonesian institutions looking at how changes in the environment have affected coral reefs and shallow tropical marine ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrasses. This area has been a marine diversity hotspot for the last 20 million years and we want to look at the corals, molluscs, bryozoans, algae, and microfossils to understand how these organisms have interacted, evolved and adapted over that time. We will also study the dynamic geology of the area and the effects of ocean currents that flow from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Our discoveries will help us to understand why tropical marine ecosystems host a high biodiversity,and will be used to address issues associated with human disturbance and global climate change.


If you would like to read more about the project, go to the Indo-Pacific Ancient Ecosystems Group