Sunday, 10 April 2016

Problem solving with slime mould

Yes it's slime time again at our house. There's been a bit of a community craze for everybody's favourite social amoeba round these parts lately. There's a small farm down at the ASCUS Lab if you want to go and play.

Slimey and me have been doing more of the "what are we doing and how are we doing it and haven't we been over this before and where do we want to go now?" activities.

Thing about Physarum polycephalum is, see, that everyone always thinks they ought to make it go round mazes. (Same with rats, kittens*, worms, etc.) The idea being that once an organism has taken a turn round a maze a human can then understand that the organism might have some sort of measurable computational or cognitive powers and/or agency, some sort of overarching self-awareness and all that, something that adds up to a form of memory or ability to do decision-making. Then because everyone always uses mazes for everything they become a sort of standardized activity so that you can measure one performance of maze-solving against another. Do we even like standardized animal tests?  Do they work?  Do we learn stuff? Well, I suppose we can say that they make it possible to measure one performance of maze-solving against another...

Anyway I don't know about you but I can't think of anything more dull than a maze. I'd rather have a normal real-world problem to solve of the kind that we share with other organisms such as will I be able to find my dinner on this riverbank? and how do I get this mud off my whiskers? and how will I complete my life-cycle in the absence of a suitable host? etc.  Furthermore the only times I've negotiated a maze have been under duress and with various family members and I am pretty sure that not one of them is convinced that I have any sort of computational or cognitive powers, agency, ability to do decision-making, overarching self-awareness or anything that could add up to a form of memory.

How about a crossword then? Something appropriately cryptic?

Pathways to Impact
Didn't do so well on the crossword.

But we had more fun with the sudoku:

You put your whole self in: that's what it's all about.

* But you have to hand it to anyone who manages to get funding to study seventy-eight kittens from 3 to 7 weeks of age in an open-field arena. I would very much like to do that too.  I hope it was all of them all at once, for four continuous weeks, bring a tent and a camping stove but it's ok, we have a composting toilet. But if you want to see what these guys actually did with their kittens Wiley have them all hidden behind a paywall and are charging $6 a look or $38 for the bareback ride. Which is how Public Engagement with Science becomes such a furtive and sordid and dimly-lit and sometimes illegal affair.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Loving the lichens

I'm putting on some great workshops with my lichenologist friends Kristine Bogomazova and Frances Stoakley.  We're sharing our favourite ways of getting to know these magnificent tiny crusty symbiotic life forms - a little learning, a lot of looking, some fun with watercolour paint and oil pastels.

If anyone is in Edinburgh this Sunday 3rd April we still have a few places available! We will be in the Patrick Geddes Room at the John Hope Gateway at the Royal Botanic Garden, from 2.00 -3.30pm.. It's suitable for total beginners, artists, scientists - any curious persons and older children.  The workshop is free but please send me a message to book a place if you want to come.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Small things

Here's one I made simply because I wanted to.  (You have to do things for the sheer joy of it every now and then or else you cut the nose off your practice.  We can talk much more about that later if you want.  Maybe in the pub.) Anyway the plant is a tiny Rhododendron lapponicum from Saana fjell.  A lovely thing, the leaves are aromatic when you stroke them,  I believe the leaves and flowers are sometimes used for tea, read a bit more about it on this nice site if you like.

The plant is protected here so no casual lopping off branches for dinner or specimens.  And as Saana is a sacred mountain you might want to be especially respectful of all its life forms anyway.  A person who wants to interview this plant here might to lie down on the fragrant mountain for an hour or two in the sunshine, patiently listening, making drawings and taking photos, trying not to trample.  You don't feel at all sorry for me for this, do you, and nor should you.

 It's about 3½ cm high as you can see ...

 or, if you like, here's a hare-shit for scale:

(Ok the bunnies are pretty big around here...

I think this is a Lepus timidus the arctic hare, with her big white feet.  I took the photo at midnight from my bedroom window.)

Here's where my rhododendron grows:

Still some snow:

I befriended this very nice mousey-type living nearby who consented to be photographed in exchange for sharing my cheese sandwich (don't worry, good black rye-bread, very healthy.)

Up here the moss grows taller than the trees

the plants huddle close to each other

the rocks appear greenish because they are covered in lichen.

It's a very nice journey to the top:

Sunday, 21 June 2015

an Arctic adventure

I've come to spend the midsummer at Kilpisjärven biologinen asema to do a residency with the wonderful Ars Bioarctica.

The idea is to do some work and see if there is collaborative fun to be had anywhere, at any rate I'll be spending some quality time with these guys:

Kilpisjärvi is in North-western Finland.  We're in Sápmi, where the Sámi people traditionally live, also known as Lapland, or the 'land of the midnight sun', if you wish, a very special part of the world.

My house is right underneath Saana fjell, a sacred mountain, here it is in the actual midnight sun at actual midnight:

It's midsummer today but it's only the beginning of springtime

Still a bit of snow lying about.

It's a bit of alright here.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Painting with eukaryotes

Right then, this time I'm making paint for muticellular organisms for a change, can you guess which?

Ha ha, that's right, humans, lovely, fantastic humans.  I've been teaching a wee course in 'Winter flowers in egg tempera' at the Botanics.

 It's a bit of a tall order as it's a very procedural business, you have to prime and gesso your own boards and then mix your pigments with your egg yolk and then get to grips with how to use the paint, which isn't quite like anything else.
If you want to know how to do it,  Koo Schadler is excessively good at it and generously shares her how-to expertise here.
We were doing this sort of thing:

I'm fond of doing this as it involves plenty of old-fashioned craftsmanship which is great for slowing down the thinking.  There's a lovely textility to the work, the paint is applied in lots of translucent layers of small brushstrokes so you get a very lively surface which is very appropriate for an animist-mechanist type like me, who likes to think of the joyful seething animation of everything as it cavorts about its business.
And there is something glorious about the organism-ishness of the thing you make, with its wooden support, and its rabbit-skin glue colloids, and its boney, chalky ground, and its fatty eggy skin.

Why flowers in particular? Simply because that's what we do at the Botanics, we look at flowers. 

What are we doing here?  These classes are marketed as opportunities to "develop your skills and abilities", the idea being that a person could choose to use them as a basis for all kinds of follow-up work later on, if they wished, or simply enjoy them as a sort of hardcore way of having quiet fun.  So they have to function as 'leisure' or 'hobby' activities and be transformative-educational at the same time.  I've been wondering, what is the difference between 'leisure' and 'culture'? *

Seems like a bit of a luxury, maybe. But I wish there were more of this sort of stuff in the world. A number of my students were very clear that they were doing it purely for the recreation, and yet each of their pieces emerged to have its own story, to be a small document of their being-in-the-world, their relationships with their plants and their materials, their thoughtfulness and their intelligence.

As for me, I don't have a scooby why the world might need an enlarged dissection of a cycalmen in egg tempera. But there you are, it's got one now, and it'll have to make of it the best it can.

One of the great things about this medium is that because you use food to make your paint, you are viscerally aware of the consuming nature of doing your doing. Especially as you only use the yolk.  I'd been  guiltily throwing out the whites for ages. (Sometimes after a long "gonna make you into meringues, honest," limbo at the back of the fridge, leading to the F.A.Q. in our house, "Um, is this some Art.... or Science....?") But look! The Universe provides me with a Marvellous Egg-white Dispenser, in the form of Blue, my wonderful studio neighbour's wonderful pal.

*The answer to that of course is; "If it's done by youngish men, then it's certainly Culture, and if it's done by older women, then it's certainly Leisure."