Ant vision and other animal superpowers

Mar 01 2011 Published by under Art & Science, Biology & Environment

Imagine you were an ant, crawling through the grass.  You would have a view of your surroundings invisible to the people towering above you.

Or imagine you are a bird, using your ability to sense Earth's magnetic field to migrate halfway around the world.

Interactive media designers and artists Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada collaborated to provide people with the experience of experiencing the world the way non-human animals do.   They call these animal superpowers.

For example they have developed an ant apparatus that uses microscope "antennas" on your hands to transmit a 50-fold magnified view of wherever your hand is resting. Watch their promo video:

As you can see, they've also developed a head-mounted solenoid compass that's supposed to provide a bird's sense of a direction. There's also a cool child to adult converter, which lets a kid see the world from an adult's height and speak in a deeper voice. I would have loved that when I was 10.

Watching regular people try out the ant apparatus makes it look like it's an interesting experience.

The project is ongoing, and Woebken has considered a number of other "superpowers" he could mimic through technology - for example insect communication through pheromones.

More info: Chris Woebken | Animal Superpowers

(via the TED blog)

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Do-it-yourself 3-D Bioscience Modelling

Feb 17 2011 Published by under Art & Science

A picture's worth a thousand words.  Sometimes even more.  I think that's especially true when trying to imagine microscopic organisms and molecules, that simply can't be seen with the naked eye. And even better than a flat picture is a three-dimensional model that you can move and manipulate.

I have on good authority that it used to be that if you wanted to create a 3D image on your home computer you would have to invest in expensive software and wait seemingly forever for models to be processed or rendered.  But almost a decade ago, Blender - a free open source 3D modeling application - was released to the public. And over the years personal computers have gotten fast enough that it doesn't take days to render your images.

Blender has been used to make some pretty amazing animated shorts. But it's uses aren't limited to entertainment and commercials.

Blender Image Rendering

Blender rendering a microbe image.

Issue #31 (December 2010) of BlenderArt Magazine takes a look at how Blender can be used "Under the Microscope" to demonstrate scientific principles and visualize microrganisms and microscopic cellular components.

Biomolecular visualization specialists Raluca Mihaela Andrei, Mike Pan and Monica Zoppè, write about how to use BioBlender.  BioBlender is a Windows application used to view and manipulate 3D protein models using data from the  RCSB Protein Data Bank (pdb files).

An example of their work is  the video Protein Expressions (there is a stereo version on their web site):

In the same issue, physicist Enrique Sahagún describes how he animated a kinesin protein motor transporting a vesicle down a microtubule.  The result:

The magazine includes some full-page images that demonstrate  nicely that  biological visualizations on the microscopic level can be both powerful science and beautiful art.

You can download Issue 31 of BlenderArt Magazine- along with sample .blend files. - for free at The issue are also includes a couple of articles about creating physics visualizations, if bioscience isn't your thing.

If you are in the Boston area, you might want to consider attending the BioBlender workshop at the VizBi (Visualizing Biological Data) conference  on March 19th at the Broad Institute in Cambridge.

3D Models created with Blender:

Virtual worm @ WormBase

• IFC-CNR Scientific Visualization Unit videos and blender files

Firing Neurons, the Cell Dance 2010 Public Outreach Video Winner

•  XVIVO's Powering the Cell (I don't know that they used Blender, but it's fantastic animation)

Molecular Shots Portfolio

Online tutorials :

Jonathan Williams demonstrates how to use Blender to model a Microscopic Virus

Frederik Steinmetz shows how to construct a "Microcosm" using Blender 2.5


The image at the top is one of the Blender Magazine sample images in the process of rendering. I actually don't have any experience making 3D animations myself.  Thanks to Brian (who does use Blender) for pointing the magazine out to me!

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Beauty in Miniature

Oct 19 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Mosquito heart by Jonas King

Nikon announced the winners of their "Small World" photomicrograph competition, and the results are stunning. Many showcase the beauty of biology.

The first prize photo, taken by Vanderbilt University graduate student Jonas King,  shows a close up of a mosquito's heart with different structures labeled with fluorescent dye:

The green dye binds with muscle cells and shows the underlying musculature. The blue dye binds with cellular DNA and shows the presence of all the mosquito’s cells. The point of view of the image is top down. The mosquito’s body lies horizontally with its head to the left. The heart is the narrow tube that runs horizontally across the middle of the picture. The muscles that wind around the heart show up clearly in green. The triangular-shaped bundles perpendicular to the heart are called alary muscles and they hold the heart up against the mosquito’s back. Each of these bundles is centered on one of the heart valves, which do not show up clearly. The mosquito’s body consists of a series of segments and the broad strips of muscle that run parallel to the heart are intersegmental muscles that hold the segments together. The vertical muscles at the top and bottom of the image wrap around the mosquito’s body and are called intrasegmental muscles.

The resulting photo turns that complicated bit of anatomy into a lovely piece of abstract art.   Click on the thumbnail to see the full size photo.

5-day-old Zebrafish Head by Hideo Otsuna

Second prize went to University of Utah scientist Hideo Otsuna, for his photo of a 5-day-old zebrafish head. It uses fluorescent dyes to label different parts of the fish's nervous system. The image appears to look down on the top of the head, with the front of the head at the top of the photo. The prominent blue bulges on each side are the eyes.  Zebrafish are often used to study how the development of the brain and nervous system because they grow rapidly and are mostly transparent, which means internal structures can be relatively easily observed in intact animals.   You can see in this photo what a 60-hour-old zebrafish looks like under normal light.

Living Red Seaweed by John Huisman

I also quite like the 6th place photo, which shows a 40x magnified view of living red seaweed, taken by John Huisman of Murdoch University. It reminds me of the sort crackling pattern you might see on the floor of a dry lake bed in the desert. Just beautiful.

Be sure to check out all top 20 photos, as well as the images that won the popular vote.

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Colorful Cell Division

Sep 27 2010 Published by under Art & Science

Michele Banks is a self-taught artist whose latest collection of watercolor paintings take their inspiration from mitosis (cell division) as seen through a microscope.

New Scientist has a video profile of the artist and her work:



For comparison, the images on the right show dividing cells labeled with fluorescent dyes, as seen under a microscope :

Even if her watercolors aren't scientifically perfect, I think Banks does capture the essence of cell division in a lovely way.

Banks sells her "Artologica" collection through Etsy and Makers Market .

Photos of cell division by Roy van Heesbeen on Wikimedia Commons: Prometaphase, Anaphase, Telophase

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Glass Microbes and Colorless Viruses

Aug 19 2010 Published by under Art & Science

Electron micrograph of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus

3D representation of the influenza virus

Look at the two images of the H1N1 influenza virus - the strain that causes swine flu - on the right.

The first is a three-dimensional illustration that shows different parts of the virus in different colors  - the hemagglutinin protein on the surface is blue, for example, while the RNA and associated proteins inside the virus are green.

The second is an electron micrograph image of the same virus. It's a more "realistic" depiction of the influenza virus than the 3D illustration, but it has been artificially colored.

UK artist Luke Jerram was intrigued by the fact that both types of images false in their own way. To explore how artificial coloring can affect our understanding, he worked with University of Bristol virologist Andrew Davidson to create  a series of clear glass sculptures that accurately depict different viruses including the influenza virus, HIV, SARS and smallpox.

Here is Jerram's sculpture of the H1N1 influenza virus:

As he explained in an interview with the Wellcome Trust:

The series is a reflection of my interest in how images of phenomena are represented and presented to the public. I’m colour blind and this has given me a natural interest in exploring the edges of perception.

Often images of viruses are taken in black and white on an electron microscope and then they are coloured artificially using Photoshop. Sometimes that will be for scientific purposes but other times it will be just to add emotional content or to make the image more attractive.

The problem is that you end up with the public believing that viruses are these brightly coloured objects. These are often portrayed in newspapers as having an air of scientific authenticity and objective truth, whereas actually that isn’t the case. You can end up with some images that potentially promote fear.

Smallpox, HIV and Untitled glass virus sculptures

Swine Flu Sculpture

Glass swine flu sculpture by Luke Jerra

I think Jerram's virus sculptures are quite beautiful. However, they don't make the viruses any more or less frightening - or real - to me.

What do you think?

The first two images are from the CDC Newsroom Image Library. The illustration is by Dan Higgins, CDC. The electron micrograph is by C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC.

Glass virus photographs by Luke Jerram.

Thanks to Chris for sharing the link to Jerram's web site!

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Contribute to Imogen Heap’s "Love the Earth" film.

Aug 16 2010 Published by under Art & Science

Mellow British singer songwriter Imogen Heap wants your nature video footage to show at her debut performance at Royal Albert Hall in November. She writes:

Perhaps you have clips already sitting on your hard drive that are beautiful but are just gathering digital dust, or maybe film gathering a layer of the real stuff in the attic. They need a home too!
It could be a sunrise from your bedroom window, underwater deep sea diving, a flower in a pavement crack, mist over mountains, reeds in rivers, a rare wild cat, rolling desert dunes, the northern lights, a sycamore seed helicoptering down or a cotton wool cloud.
We want everyone to explore the colours, lights, shades, rhythms and patterns of nature. Moments that fill us with wonder.

No people and no pets, but otherwise any sort of nature goes.

Check out the promo video to get a sense of Heap's style, musically and otherwise.

See the official site for "Love the Earth" for details and instructions for submitting your video

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