Last Diamonds: portraits of icebergs

Posted on behalf of Michael White

Diamond #4 (Greenland 2015)

Diamond #4 (Greenland 2015)

© Francesco Bosso

A frozen menagerie of yawning overhangs, rotting underbellies, humanistic curves, tumbled-over organ pipes confronts you.  Francesco Bosso’s Last Diamonds is a glorious, sombre collection of 25 monochrome ‘portraits’ of icebergs off the coast of Greenland, gingerly treading the boundary between art and science. Each plate, created using a traditional analog photographic process, offers haunting insight into the cryosphere, exploring a grey, often cloudy sky, a shimmering jet-black ocean, and an iceberg traversing the intersection.

An encounter with art inevitably sparks questions. Do I like it? What does it mean? And does an understanding of meaning change whether or not I like it? For some, context is all; for postmodernists, comparisons are odious and art should be understood solely on the interaction of viewer with work. Going by the latter school of thought, Bosso’s is an unqualified success.

Diamond #2 (Greenland 2015)

Diamond #2 (Greenland 2015)

© Francesco Bosso

His exploration of light, tone and texture evokes the work of Ansel Adams’ assistant and successor John Sexton. Where Adams was all sweeping vistas, Sexton framed more intimate shots. As with so much great landscape photography, the power of the images emerges in part from the sense of the patience and agility needed to capture a perfectly framed moment from a transient confluence of conditions.

In Diamond #2, the thin black line between iceberg and ocean echoes the sliver of distant land visible. The shared angle between cloud and ice in Diamond #5 suggests an intimate physical linkage. The formality of the images offers an elegant contrast to the turmoil of the active glacial calving fronts where they originated, somewhere out of shot.

What sets Last Diamonds apart from the bulk of landscape photography is the bewildering individuality of the ice. In contrast to the exploration of sculptural form and sheer beauty in photographic collections such as Camille Seaman’s Last Iceberg series (see review here), Bosso’s vision is more subtly varied in tone and light — and somehow, more interiorised.

Diamond #5 (Greenland 2015)

Diamond #5 (Greenland 2015)

© Francesco Bosso

Even more remarkable is the sense of disorientation spawned by a near-complete lack of scale. Humanity is absent, and what whispers of land there are cannot provide much footing. The icebergs could be 2 or 200 metres tall.

Yet this lack of context, so intriguing visually, creates a problem highlighted by the book’s title. The global loss of ice is indisputable. But in the absence of context and Bosso’s description of icebergs as “gems of nature in danger of extinction”, the viewer might conclude that we are bearing witness to the end of icebergs.

This is premature. Even in Greenland, marine-terminating glaciers — which flow to the sea, calving bergs — are unlikely to disappear within several human lifetimes. Iceberg production in Antarctica will continue into the foreseeable future. Jakobshavn Isbrae, where much of Last Diamonds was shot, has long been the poster child for a rapidly disintegrating cryosphere. But it has thickened and advanced in recent years.

Diamond #7 (Greenland 2015)

Diamond #7 (Greenland 2015)

© Francesco Bosso

Thus, Last Diamonds tends towards over-interpretation, and would have benefited from a more candid summary of cryospheric processes in a warming climate. There are two points to make. First, the calving of icebergs, even monsters such as Antarctica’s A-68, is a natural process that has occurred for millions of years. Tying any one calving or season to our activities is spectacularly difficult. Second, these activities will almost certainly produce radical changes in the extent of ice throughout the planet, if unchecked.

Art is not beholden to the subtle nuances and endless caveats of scientific discourse. Of course, Bosso’s minimalist aesthetic and stark message may be playing for dramatic effect to stimulate discussion around climate change and the cryosphere. More power to that; but the extinctions he hints at are still avoidable.

Michael White is senior editor in physical sciences at Nature. He tweets at @MWClimateSci.


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The deck stacked against women in science

Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones


The card deck featuring women in science and engineering.

Nicola Jones

The player on my left has the biochemist Maud Menten’s career well on track. Suddenly another player slaps a “stupid patriarchy” card on Menten’s head, and she has to earn her doctorate all over again. So goes a novel card game devoted to women in science and engineering, designed to highlight these unsung researchers and the barriers and boons that women in these fields experience.

Alice Ball, the chemistry student who

Alice Ball, the chemist who isolated an early effective treatment for leprosy.

University of Hawaii

Menten (1879-1960) was one of the first women in Canada to earn a medical degree atop her PhD. But at the time women weren’t allowed to do research at Canadian universities; she had to conduct her famous work on enzyme kinetics in the United States and Germany. Menten is one of 21 pioneering women scientists, mostly from North America, featured in the game — the latest in a series that began in 2000 with a biodiversity game called Phylo. The card deck was developed by an innovative science outreach programme at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC), in collaboration with Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) at Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University (SFU). Players complete researchers’ careers by collecting cards for achievements such as degrees, and try to avoid setbacks — such as the “tokenism” card, which wipes a scientist in play off the table.

“These are my favourites,” says computer engineer and WWEST chair Lesley Shannon, pointing to Alice Ball and Hedy Lamarr. Ball (1892-1916), the first woman and African-American Masters graduate from the University of Hawaii, developed a critical leprosy treatment. After her early death, university president Arthur Dean took credit for her work. Hollywood star Lamarr (1914-2000) co-invented frequency technologies used in WiFi and beyond.

Hollywood star and xxx Hedy Lamarr.

Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr co-invented key frequency technologies.


Shannon and I put the game through its paces with three researchers from SFU: applied ecologist Anne Salomon, glaciologist Gwenn Flowers and physicist Sarah Johnson. We try to figure out the best strategies and which cards to play: scientists with more complex careers are worth more points. Completing the challenging career of a woman of colour nets a bonus point. Modifier cards can help as well as hinder progress: “mentors are awesome”, for example, gives a player a boost via an extra card.

The discussion provoked by the game is as interesting as the action. Sighs of recognition greet the setback card “ways of the Queen Bee”, which marks how women scientists sometimes undermine female colleagues. “I’ve been there,” says Shannon. Johnson counters: “I haven’t experienced this — perhaps because I haven’t had many female colleagues.”

Some have positive stories to tell: Salomon recalls one senior female mentor who offered to review her grant requests, in the name of building up a “good old girls’ club”. Since, she has tried to pay that idea forwards, helping more women to be invited onto panels or keynote lectures, get funding and publish. “We retain the rigour of peer review,” she says, “but that back door works to even the balance.”

Although women have, since the 1990s, earned about half of US science and engineering undergraduate degrees, as of a 2011 study they still held fewer than 25% of STEM jobs, were paid 86 cents on the dollar, and were seriously under-represented in degrees for fields like engineering. A recent study in Science showed that girls tend to think less of their intellectual abilities as early as age six. When 96 children were told a story about a “really, really smart” adult and asked to pick a face to match the story, for example, 5-year-old boys and girls both picked someone of their own gender about 70% of the time. But among 6- and 7-year-old girls, this percentage dropped to about half. More role models are among the many fixes proposed to shift the entrenched bias.


Nicola Jones

WWEST’s mission is to help reverse such trends, in part by funding outreach projects. So when David Ng — who handles educational outreach for UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories — approached them with the idea for the game in 2015, it was a good fit. Ng’s initiatives have included literary science magazine Science Creative Quarterly and other card sets (such as Phylo).

The games are crowd-sourced; anyone can invent one, or contribute to one, and the sets are available to download for free. If you play it, you start to get at least an inkling of the challenges around gender equity,” says Ng. “This is just a starter deck. Hopefully people will add to it.”

While aimed at pre-teens, when Shannon says many girls begin to turn away from science, the appeal of the women-in-science game is broader. Some of the harsher modifier cards (such as one that reads “mistaken for a janitor”) could, note Shannon and Ng, be removed from the game for more-impressionable age groups.

Mid-game, Johnson looks at the cards on the table and comments: “They’re all overachievers”. These women, she notes, had to be smarter and work harder to get the same recognition as male scientists — echoing her own undergraduate experience. “All of the female physics majors I knew were A students. This was not true of the men,” she says. That’s just one thing this worthy game aims to reverse.

Nicola Jones is a freelance science writer and editor living in Pemberton, British Columbia.

Download the game at

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Illustrated books of 2017: the magnificent eight

Yellow-eyed tree-frog eggs, from Endangered by Tim Flach, with text by Jonathan Baillie (Abrams).

Yellow-eyed tree-frog eggs, from Endangered by Tim Flach, with text by Jonathan Baillie (Abrams).

© 2017 Tim Flach

There’s something about a collection. We seem to harbour an urge to amass and sort as we build menageries, museums, taxonomies. And the illustrated book is a portable simulacrum, a paper cabinet of curiosities, curated for maximum aesthetic punch.

This year, my favourites include coffee-table tomes on the Solar System and early voyages from Europe to Latin America. The rest, as with those I prized most last year, focus on fauna — a reflection of the emphasis on animal intelligence, behaviour, extinction and resurrection in popular-science publishing. Our obsession with Animalia is unstoppable. In some important way, the thread has yet to snap between us and the humans who, 35,000 years ago, layered exquisite images of bison, lion and rhino on the walls of Chauvet cave.

Hippopotamus underwater, from Endangered by Tim Flach, with text by Jonathan Baillie (Abrams).

Hippopotamus underwater, from Endangered by Tim Flach, with text by Jonathan Baillie (Abrams).

© 2017 Tim Flach

Among the eight illustrated books that leapt out at me, Endangered (Abrams) won the long jump. On the cover, a crowned sifaka lemur tightly clutches its knees, citrine eyes staring with alien intensity. Inside is a virtuosic gallery of species at the edge: the bulbous topography of a hippo’s face; Mexican free-tailed bats slicing up the sky; a long-range shot of a polar bear curled in snow, white on white. Complementing Tim Flach’s hyper-stylised images are commentary by Jonathan Baillie, the National Geographic Society’s chief scientist, and writer Sam Wells.

Red squirrel by Ralph Steadman in Critical Critters (Bloomsbury).

Red squirrel by Ralph Steadman in Critical Critters, by Steadman and Ceri Levy (Bloomsbury).

Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy

Biodiversity loss has also gripped self-styled “gonzovationist” and illustrator Ralph Steadman for years, as his 2015 Nextinction showed. Now, in Critical Critters (Bloomsbury), Steadman (with Ceri Levy) pictures another bevy of beasts, exuberantly splatting his way from iconic megafauna such as tigers to dugongs, wombats and a red squirrel in burnt orange, ears aflame. The irrepressible Steadman includes the ‘grunting spiked turt’, a chameleon-like animal that should exist, but doesn’t.

Tortoise beetle, from Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects by Levon Biss (Abrams).

Short-nosed weevil, from Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects by Levon Biss (Abrams).

© Levon Biss

Insects that did exist, yet look impossible, feature in Levon Biss’s photographic feat Microsculpture (Abrams). Biss (whose work can also be seen in this film) imaged the world’s oldest insect collection at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, including specimens bagged by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Each bravura photograph incorporates some 8,000 separate shots, from the ornate tortoise beetle — a rococo delight — to the ghostly short-nosed weevil.

Tortoise beetle, from Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects by Levon Biss (Abrams).

Tortoise beetle, from Microsculpture: Portraits of Insects by Levon Biss (Abrams).

© Levon Biss

More entomological glory flutters in Mariposas Nocturnas (Princeton University Press), photographer Emmet Gowin’s hard-won homage to South American lepidoptera. From Brazil to Panama and over two decades, Gowin shot over 1,000 species of nocturnal moths alive. Arranged in typologies of 25, they form a morphologically varied, vividly hued patchwork. As Gowin writes, “By loving the minutiae, we find the whole.”


Index 31, taken in April 2010 in French Guiana, in Mariposas Nocturnas by Emmet Gowin (Princeton University Press)

Emmet Gowin

Long before photography, engravers and printers battened upon beasts as evocative subjects for artworks and books — not just bestiaries and early natural-history tomes, but also allegories, illustrated tales and even playing cards. Animal (Bloomsbury) tells that story through powerful, often deeply strange works from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, deftly curated by editors Rémi Mathis and Valérie Seuer-Hermel from the National Library of France collection.

Cards with bear and lion symbols by the Master of the Playing Cards, Upper Rhine Valley, 1435-1445. In Animal, edited by

Cards with Bear and Lion Suit Symbols, by the Master of the Playing Cards,1435-1445, in Animal, edited by Rémi Mathis and Valérie Seuer-Hermel (Bloomsbury). Printed on copper plates, these cards were the first examples of engraving on metal seen in Europe.

National Library of France

The cutting-edge imaging technologies of today feature in Dinosaur Art II (Titan Books), edited by artist Steve White. This follow-up to the 2012 Dinosaur Art features works of scientific precision and nuanced beauty by 10 top painters, modellers and digital artists. Among many standouts are Sergey Krasovskiy’s oil painting of the giant-jawed, tiny-limbed Pycnonemosaurus nevesi and a digital portrayal of the mysterious duck-billed Deinocheiris mirificus by Andrey Atuchin.


The duck-billed dinosaur Deinocheiris mirificus (digital, 2014) by Andrey Atuchin, in Dinosaur Art II, edited by Steve White (Titan Books).

Andrey Atuchin

Zooming out from deep time to deep space, The Planets (Chronicle Books) by writer Nirmala Nataraj mines the NASA archives for a thrill-a-minute tour of our cosmic neighbourhood. It’s a handsome array, from the flow of dunes in Mars’s Nili Patera caldera, caught by the HIRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, to an opulently hued backlit view of Saturn captured by Cassini’s wide-angle camera.

Dunes patterning Nili Patera caldera on Mars, caught by the HIRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter. From The Planets (Chronicle Books) by Nirmala Nataraj.

Dunes patterning Nili Patera caldera on Mars, caught by the HIRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter. From The Planets (Chronicle Books) by Nirmala Nataraj.

NASA, JHUAPL, Carnegie Institution of Washington


A back-lit view of Saturn, captured by Cassini’s camera. From The Planets (Chronicle Books) by Nirmala Nataraj.

NASA, JPL-Caltech, SSI

In mapping the Solar System, it’s easy to forget that swathes of Earth were uncharted five centuries ago, and indigenous Americans and Europeans had yet to meet. When they did, starting with Columbus’s 1492 voyage, a “vertiginous transformation” began, reminds historian Daniela Bleichmar in Visual Voyages (Yale University Press). It spelt immeasurable devastation for New World peoples even as their knowledge rewrote the Old World’s book of nature. As this fascinating, sensitively written book attests, this revolution, in turn, kickstarted a frenzy of printing and cartography to frame the barrage of botanical, zoological, anthropological and geographic data.

Fruits, Pineapple and Melon, 1640-50 (oil on canvas) by Albert Eckhout, in Visual Voyages by Daniela Bleichmar, Yale University Press.

Fruits, Pineapple and Melon, 1640-50 (oil on canvas) by Albert Eckhout, in Visual Voyages by Daniela Bleichmar, Yale University Press.

National Museum of Denmark

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Top 20 books: discovering worlds

Artist's conception of a hypothetical planet covered in water around the binary star system of Kepler-35A and B.

Artist’s conception of a hypothetical planet covered in water around the binary star system of Kepler-35A and B.


In terms of job satisfaction, discovering worlds must take the Sachertorte. Sibling astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, for instance, rejoiced in a haul that included Uranus, eight comets and several moons gleaned from what William called the “luxuriant garden” of the skies. Their final tally of deep-sky objects, with that of William’s gifted son John, numbered in the thousands. I’m sure their minds would be boggled by today’s exoplaneteering exploits — such as the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven Earth-like planets that fully emerged this year.

In my way, I’m in the business of discovering — and rediscovering — worlds. That they’re between two covers and on sale in your local bookshop is neither here nor there. And the 2017 harvest has been rich. We revisited Jonathan Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels, for instance — which, Greg Lynall noted in his eye-opening essay, is a journey across an unfamiliar Earth that even features Swift’s accurate prediction of the moons of Mars, 150 years before their detection. (The terra incognita flavour of this year’s events gave all that particular resonance.)

As for the new books sifted from the non-stop stream, as always I entered their portals with the open mind of an explorer. Thus, through Caspar Henderson’s A New Map of Wonders we scope the known cosmos with new eyes. In Hetty Saunders’s My House of Sky we sift the psyche of reclusive nature writer J.A. Baker. And in Jonathan Silvertown’s Dinner with Darwin, we see a plateful of food transformed into a repository of dazzling evolutionary stories.

It has, in short, been an astounding year for those of us engaged in tracking literary planets across the publishing firmament. Here’s my sky survey.

Improbable Destinies, Jonathan Losos. Riverhead. In a “deep, broad, brilliant” study, the biologist explores how evolutionary solutions, morphological to molecular, repeatedly emerge. (Reviewed here.)

A Crack in Creation, Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg. Houghton Mifflin. A pivotal player in the CRISPR saga delivers her dispatch from the genome-editing frontline. (Reviewed here.)

Collecting the World, James Delbourgo. Allen Lane. A life of Hans Sloane — medic, Royal Society president, ‘wondermonger’ and collector extraordinaire — is limned by an accomplished historian. (Reviewed here.)

The Death Gap, David Ansell. University of Chicago Press. The social epidemiologist lays bare how ‘structural violence’ in US healthcare fosters disparities in life expectancy. (Reviewed here.)

The Great Leveller, Walter Scheidel. Princeton University Press.  In a magisterial socio-political chronicle, the historian untangles the deeper roots of inequality. (Reviewed here.)

The Imagineers of War, Sharon Weinberger. Knopf.  The defence writer delves into the shadowy history of DARPA, the US agency that forecasts “imagined weapons of the future”. (Reviewed here.)

Miracle Cure, William Rosen. Viking. The accomplished writer’s swansong superbly captures the rise of antibiotics, from the discovery of penicillin on a mouldy cantaloupe to the war on resistance. (Reviewed here.)

The Vaccine Race, Meredith Wadman. Viking. A former Nature journalist tells the convoluted story of human fetal cell line WI-38, still deployed in vaccine research. (Reviewed here.)

Deep Thinking, Garry Kasparov. PublicAffairs. The chess titan revisits his 1997 match against computer Deep Blue in an “impressively researched” history of AI. (Reviewed here.)

The Songs of Trees, David George Haskell. Viking. In a sensory tour de force, a biologist documents the exquisite interconnections of arboreal life. (Reviewed here.)

Rigor Mortis, Richard F. Harris. Basic Books. The science journalist jumps into the deep end of biomedicine’s reproducibility crisis. (Reviewed here.)

Dawn of the New Everything, Jaron Lanier. Bodley Head. The virtual-reality pioneer traces the unconventional trajectory of an extraordinary career. (Reviewed here.)

The Origins of Creativity, E.O. Wilson. Liveright. In exploring the wellsprings of creativity, the ecologist calls for a “third enlightenment” meshing science with the humanities. (Reviewed here.)

Outside the Asylum, Lynn Jones. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. A psychiatrist working in war and disaster zones elucidates both policy implications and the uncommon courage of survivors. (Reviewed here.)

The Quantum Labyrinth, Paul Halpern. Basic Books. A physicist unpicks the intertwined lives of consummate theoreticians and chums Richard Feynman and John Wheeler. (Reviewed here.)

Life 3.0, Max Tegmark. Knopf. The cosmologist peered into possible risks and benefits of evolving AI, from an autonomous-weapons arms race to quark-powered ‘sphalerizers’. (Reviewed here.)

A Mind at Play, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster. A journalist and a political theorist vividly portray information theorist — and rocket-powered-Frisbee inventor — Claude Shannon. (Reviewed here.)

Stalin’s Meteorologist, Olivier Rolin. Harvill & Secker. A harrowing account of a Soviet researcher exiled to the Gulag testifies to the endurance of science in the midst of political chaos. (Reviewed here.)

The Darkening Web, Alexander Klimburg. Penguin. The policy expert reports on the new cold war between ‘free Internet’ and ‘cybersovereignty’ forces. (Reviewed here.)

The Seabird’s Cry, Adam Nicolson. William Collins. The environmental writer’s inspired survey of 10 seabird species — albatross to shearwater — is a paean to life at the edge. (Reviewed here.)


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Bricks + Mortals: mapping the racist roots of science

Posted on behalf of Buddhini Samarasinghe

Subhadra Das,xxx

Subhadra Das, curator of the UCL Galton and Pathology Collections, at the opening show for Bricks + Mortals.

Buddhini Samarasinghe

If walls could speak: the saying might have been tailor-made for University College London’s new exhibition. Bricks + Mortals uses the campus buildings to tell the story of how eugenics gained a foothold at the university over a century ago. The epicentre, a lab for “national eugenics”, was set up in the early 1900s by Francis Galton, the Victorian mathematician and ‘father of eugenics’ whose crude bolting of statistics to human variety marks a nadir of modern science. Several UCL buildings and lecture theatres still bear the names of eugenicists.

The story uncovered by Bricks + Mortals — brainchild of the inspiring Subhadra Das, who curates the UCL Galton and Pathology Collections — is one I was only vaguely aware of. Uncomfortable topics make people uncomfortable: it’s easier to look the other way and pretend that the past belongs in the past. It’s convenient to believe that we gain nothing from considering its sepia-toned mistakes too closely.

This show proves otherwise — and is, moreover, a valuable puzzle piece in a historical jigsaw covering much of the globe. While geneticists today wielding the CRISPR scissors focus on ending disease, Galton had very different ideas for ‘bettering’ society. His theories (as he put it in the 1883 Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development) aimed to allow “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable”. Galton’s racism and conflations of class and intelligence accelerated an early twentieth-century movement in Britain, Canada, the United States and much of Europe that targeted minority groups and people with disabilities as ‘unfit’ to reproduce (such as the infamous US case of Buck v Bell).

Given the depth of that stain on science history, it’s remarkable that Bricks + Mortals was launched at a comedy show in November, hosted by iconoclastic comic Sophie Duker. As it turned out, comedy was a great way to confront and tackle the topic.

The evening began with short acts performed by UCL students and staff. Biologist Oz Ismail, social scientist Amanda Moorghen, health scientist Asma Ashraf and biochemist Michael Sulu shared their experiences of working in academia with affecting honesty. Their humour worked because we the audience could relate to them — it was a case of if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. For example Ismail, cofounder of Minorities in STEM, shared how during his research he learned about Emil Kraepelin, co-discoverer of  Alzheimer’s disease, and his racism and anti-Semitism. Moorghen, a researcher with the English Speaking Union, talked about the influence of Nazi ideology on education and intelligence testing.

Digging for the backstory

Das then spoke about the Galton collection — the instruments, papers and personal memorabilia endowed by the mathematician to UCL, along with a bequest funding the first chair of eugenics in Britain. The university still has a Galton Professor, although today it is of Human Genetics – yet you’d have to dig to discover that backstory. Das approaches her work with nuance and depth. She is frank about Galton’s racism; she also notes his contributions to ideas and inventions, for example in meteorology and criminology.

Das reminded us that any narrative on eugenics must include its racist and colonialist roots — as well as how its ideas have to some degree seeded research today. As she notes, “When Empire happened, science happened at the same time.”

Bricks + Mortals — a tour marking out UCL buildings with historical links to the university’s involvement in eugenics — is a palpable testament to that. The show’s podcast, downloadable here, can be used as a walking guide for understanding the legacy. For example, the tour describes the Galton Lecture Theatre. The Pearson Building, once home to the department of eugenics and now housing the geography department, was named in honour of the statistician and ardent eugenicist Karl Pearson, a close friend and collaborator of Galton’s.

For me, the comedy night and the exhibition were a reminder that we need to extend the scrutiny Das suggests to all branches of science. For example, it is chilling to appreciate that American physician J. Marion Sims, hailed by some as the ‘father of gynaecology’, experimented on enslaved women without their consent or anaesthesia, because it was widely believed at the time that women of colour were incapable of feeling pain. Indeed, this racist belief exists even today: a recent study demonstrated racial bias in how medical providers assess black patients’ complaints of pain, leading those providers to consistently undertreat black patients and ignore their symptoms. It is sobering, too, to recall that in the seventeenth century, a number of Royal Society members also belonged to the Royal African Company, a key player in the slave trade.

Projects such as Bricks + Mortals provide necessary historical context for understanding today’s scientific concepts. Too often we forget that although science and the scientific method have ideals unencumbered by biases or emotions, scientists are people and are subject to the same cultural norms and beliefs as the rest of society. And as this exhibition and show remind us, we carry the weight of centuries of biases.

Buddhini Samarasinghe is a science writer with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Her writing can be found at Jargonwall. She is also the founder of STEM Women, an initiative dedicated to promoting and celebrating women in STEM. She tweets at @DrHalfPintBuddy.

Bricks + Mortals runs through 22 December.


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The 30-year-old snowman

Snowman, 1987/2016 (multimedia), by Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Snowman, 1987/2016 (multimedia), by Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss © the artists, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery; photo: Mary Ellen Hawkins, courtesy SFMOMA


Posted on behalf of Michael White

It stands there trapped in a frosty cage: a 30-year-old snowman in a state of bliss, its currant-shaped eyes peering out over a lopsided grin in a face dotted with frozen florets.

The glass-fronted aluminum cooler currently sits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Above the sculpture, entitled simply Snowman, the understorey citizens of a redwood forest sway in the United States’ largest living wall. The tensions are inescapable: snow, a natural process, in a totemic form, in a machined box, surviving on electricity, juxtaposed against an artificial ecosystem. The installation is a brilliant encapsulation of our mixed-up global environment now — from polar melt to green cities.

Snowman was constructed in 1987 by Swiss artistic duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss for the Römerbrücke power plant in Saarbrücken, Germany. Toying with the idea that human enterprise could prolong an inherently transient existence, they crafted a technically fascinating sculpture. Its scaffolding is, as Fischli puts it, a “skinny snowman” constructed from copper. Under controlled humidity and temperature, the snowman grows and shrinks and alters itself – one day the eyes narrower, the next a different twist to the smile. The snow also alters the chamber’s microclimate; technicians adjust the dials to prevent a runaway snowman.

It’s not all fun and games and engineering. The snowman’s remarkable longevity and technical underpinnings provoke reflections on our climate, and the possibility that we too may be forced to control our own environment.

What of the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 ⁰C? Doing so, without geoengineering, looks almost impossibly optimistic. With geoengineering, we will become the snowman, our climatic stability reliant on fiddling with dials. Only this time the outcome is uncertain and fraught with ethical dilemmas, ranging from disrupted monsoons to a rain of metallic nanoparticles.

Snowman would perish without electricity, as its intentionally obvious, preposterously long power cord reminds. Yet its built-in grin fizzes with joy. There is, after all, always the next installation. What of our own shrinking cryosphere, much of which is in rapid retreat? Technically, we can probably prevent the loss of the biggest chunks of ice, such as the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets. But I doubt that we’ll be feeling blissed-out about it.

Michael White is senior editor in physical sciences at Nature. He tweets at @MWClimateSci.

Snowman by Peter Fischli and David Weiss is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through March 2018.


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Rocket woman


The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle of the Indian Space Research Organisation, which carried the Mars Orbiter Mission satellite Mangalyaan. The payload included instruments developed by Dutta and her team.


3Q: Moumita Dutta

A physicist at the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Space Applications Centre, Moumita Dutta was part of the team that put a probe into Mars orbit in 2014. The instruments they designed for the Mangalyaan are still beaming back data. Now India is gearing up for its third planetary mission in 2018 — Chandrayaan-2, a return to the Moon. As Dutta prepares to take part in the London Science Museum’s Illuminating India events, she talks about the lure of optics, the challenge of crafting super-light sensors, and the rise in Indian women entering space science.  

Tell me about your work with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Moumitta Dutta.

Moumitta Dutta.

In my childhood I had dreamed about space, aliens, the Universe, the stars – particularly the aliens! But I didn’t think I would be involved in space science. I became interested in physics when I saw the magnificent colours coming out of a prism in an experiment at school. I ended up doing a master’s in applied physics, specialising in optics. Then one morning in 2004 I read in the local newspaper that India was preparing for its first lunar mission, and I thought ‘What a phenomenal thing’. From that moment on I wanted to join the ISRO. A year and a half later, I did, ending up working on two sensors that would fly on the Chandrayaan-1 project [India’s first lunar mission, which launched in 2008 and found evidence of water before losing contact with Earth.] My base is the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, mainly working on optical sensors for studying Earth and for planetary missions. For India’s 2018 lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, we will use advanced versions of the sensors flown in the last mission, carrying out a very detailed study of the lunar surface and mineralogical mapping. There will be an orbiter, a lander and a rover, with mounted instruments to carry out experiments on the surface.

Mangalyaan launched just 18 months from its conception, costing a relatively low US$75 million.  What challenges did you face in building its sensors? 

All the sensors were designed in India: a colour camera, an infrared spectrometer generating a thermal map of the Martian surface and a methane sensor. We had 15 months or so to develop them. The main challenge was to make them very compact, lightweight and low-power, because the mission was to be launched with minimum fuel. We fought for every gram. The sensors were all first of a kind, and to develop them quickly we had to use off-the-shelf — rather than space-qualified — components, then test each under extreme conditions. The team of almost 500 engineers working  across the centres on the mission worked day and night. I feel like people worked from their heart and no one cared about the clock. The mindset was that they were working for our country, and the mission had to be successful. When we received the first signal after the spacecraft was captured into Mars orbit, a wave of joy spread across the country. The project team members became the superstars of India, with people even holding their pictures on placards, like film stars. Eagerness about Indian space research has rocketed. Three years on, the orbiter still transmits data from all the sensors, which we are analysing today.

Methane sensor for Mars.

Methane sensor for Mangalyaan.

Space Application Centre, ISRO

Mars colour camera.

Colour camera for Mangalyaan.

Space Application Centre, ISRO

Is space science in India welcoming women?

In the past few years we have seen a significant increase in the number of women joining Indian space science: right now, they constitute 20% or 25% of ISRO. The organisation is always ready to welcome women. As a government body, we get a minimum of six months’ maternity leave, for example, and women are given equal responsibilities. I feel like it’s not about whether someone is a man or woman, it is all about how they can handle the challenges. Now, whenever I give a talk and a small girl comes up to me and says, “I want to work for ISRO, I want to be an astronaut,” I feel wonderful. Women scientists of ISRO have also featured in the media, including Vogue India; and when our work is recognised, we represent the contributions of all the women involved.  That is the best part of it.

Interview by Elizabeth Gibney, a senior reporter for Nature based in London. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Dutta will be appear in conversation with space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock at the London Science Museum’s Lates: Illuminating India on 29 November.


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Maths and murals: Leiden’s wall formulae

Posted on behalf of Quirin Schiermeier

One of Einstein's field equations - part of the Leiden wall formulae project.

One of Einstein’s field equations – part of the Leiden wall formulae project.

Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen. Photograph by Hielco Kuipers.

Albert Einstein’s field equations from his theory of general relativity combine wonderful scientific intuition with the honed concision of poetry. Yet relatively few of the culturally inclined marvel at the shape of a mathematical equation in the way they might at a line from Shakespeare. Now, however, the Dutch university town of Leiden is giving its citizens a chance to try, through iconic formulae by physicists and astronomers painted on walls throughout the city.

The formulae join 100-plus murals of poems, painted by artists over more than two decades as a way of highlighting Leiden’s long connection with the arts, not least as Rembrandt’s birthplace. These celebratory artworks, some in delicate Japanese calligraphy, have become part of an urban aesthetic. But the city is also a crucible for discoveries such as superconductivity, by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, in 1911.


The Lorentz force formula.

Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen. Photograph by Hielco Kuipers.

The idea of ‘wall formulae’ arose a few years ago, when physicists Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen convinced municipal authorities (and house-owners) to embrace the scheme as a way of celebrating science in the city. Dutch artists Jan Willem Bruins and Ben Walenkamp were first in, painting Willebrord Snellius’s law of refraction (Snell’s law), Hendrik Lorentz’s force formula, and Einstein’s field equations. These were unveiled in 2016. Three more – the Oort constants, the Lorentz contraction and electron spin (discovered by Lorentz’s students Samuel Goudsmit and George Uhlenbeck) – are officially unveiled today.

Oort constants.

Oort constants.

Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen. Photograph by Hielco Kuipers.

Van der Molen notes that the equations, like poems, distil realities and are “beautiful to behold and inspiring”. To help convey their meaning to non-mathematicians, the artists add a simple graphical representation of the physical phenomenon described. Thus the Lorentz contraction, which expresses how objects shrink to an observer travelling near speed of light, is illustrated by a circle and a series of ‘squeezed’ ellipses. The Oort constants, which refer to the angular velocity of the Sun around the centre of the Milky Way, are symbolized by a spiral galaxy (with a dot showing the Sun’s position). And to picture Einstein’s field equations – which describe how space is deformed by big objects – we see a ray of starlight’s curved path around a heavy mass, known as gravitational lensing.

By inviting comparison between these and more familiar lines of beauty, Leiden is leading the way in inspiring its citizens about physics and maths on the hoof.

Quirin Schiermeier is a senior reporter for Nature based in Munich.

 The Leiden wall formulae feature on city-centre buildings including the Boerhaave science history museum. Tourists can visit the sites on a leisurely 90-minute walk. Guided tours and an app for smartphones, developed by Leiden physics students involved in a science communication project, will be available by the start of 2018.


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Superbugs: fighting the flood of antimicrobial resistance

Posted on behalf of Andrew Jermy

Enterobacter cloacae, Enterococcus faecalis, Staphylococcus epidermidis and the Superbugs exhibition.

Petri dishes with cultured Enterobacter cloacae, Enterococcus faecalis, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Escherichia coli at the London Science Museum’s Superbugs exhibition.

® The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Antimicrobial resistance has spread to London this month. The source of the outbreak? The Science Museum: its new exhibition, Superbugsexplores this monumental issue and our responses to it.

As Superbugs graphically shows, the inflammatory tone of the many headlines predicting an impending antibiotic apocalypse is not baseless. The evolution and spread of resistance among serious (and increasingly commonplace) bacterial infections continues to blunt much of our antibiotic arsenal, and make routine operations significantly more risky. Such infections now claim almost 700,000 lives annually, a figure that could rise to more than 10 million by 2050.

Superbugs isn’t out simply to scare, however. Much like Nature Microbiology, the journal I edit, the Science Museum aims to join the ‘resistance against resistance’ by shining a light on the problem’s scale, and the range of potential solutions.

The monumental 'wall' and towers at the exhibition.

The monumental ‘wall’ and towers at the exhibition.

{credit}® The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The physical design of the installation aptly reflects aspects of the crisis. A vast illuminated wall dominates; set into it is a series of displays. This monolith, emblazoned with the show’s title, speaks of antibiotics’ barrier function — how they act as a great dam holding back a flood of infections. Standing in front of this cracked levee are 12 small towers into which have been set Petri dishes. Each contains a different type of (inactive) microbe, including MRSA and Neisseria gonorrhoeae — like outposts of resistance that have breached the barricade and now mingle among the crowds. It’s a powerful scene.

I was drawn irresistibly to the inset display cases. Combining text with striking visuals and interactive content, these take the visitor through medical history, from the discovery and introduction of antibiotics in the first half of the twentieth century, to the rise of resistance in the years following the introduction of each new drug, to ongoing efforts to revitalize our dwindling drug cabinet. Peppered through are personal testimonies. We meet doctors explaining why antibiotics are overprescribed; a nurse reminding of the fundamental importance of their work on infection control; designers who create products that enable no-touch use, or incorporate anti-bacterial materials, to reduce the risk of transmission.

Interviews with nurses, medics and others waging war on antibiotic resistance feature in the exhibition.

A display on the people at the frontline of ‘resistance against resistance’.

® The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

We hear a recording of bacteriologist and discoverer of penicillin Alexander Fleming, describing how microbes can become ‘educated’ to resist a drug. A culture of Penicillium mold grown from a stock of his original sample is shown nearby. A video describes the harrowing experience of Geoffrey Pattie, a cancer patient who during surgery contracted a strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae resistant to all current antibiotics. He spent five months in an isolation ward, and today lives with the life-altering effects of the infection, such as reduced mobility.

Nearly half of antibiotic use occurs in agriculture, to treat and prevent infection in livestock, but often also to promote growth. The drugs and bacterial resistance genes that they select for become widespread in terrestrial and marine environments, giving a large potential reservoir from which resistance can leap into clinically relevant pathogens. Inevitably, that is a serious problem for human health. The show reveals some of the technological fixes that are being investigated, including automated systems for monitoring livestock welfare to allow targeted interventions rather than treating an entire herd prophylactically. Also presented are possible alternative approaches to tackling infections, such as phages (viruses that kill bacteria) sourcing new antibiotic leads from oceans, soils and host-associated microbiomes in humans, komodo dragons and leafcutter ants.

The promise of such efforts is stirring. But finding a new antibiotic class that will make it to the clinic is “like searching for a needle in a field of haystacks”, cautions one researcher interviewed.

The bacteria leafcutter ants use to defend their nests against fungi and microbes excrete chemicals that are effective antibiotics.

The bacteria leafcutter ants use to defend their nests against fungi and microbes excrete chemicals that are effectively antibiotics.

® The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

What isn’t covered in much depth is the parlous state of the antibiotic R&D pipeline. Many large pharmaceutical companies have closed their antibiotic development programmes in recent years. That includes Pfizer, the main sponsor of the exhibit — although the company did announce in 2016 that it planned to acquire AstraZeneca’s antibiotics division, and reinforced a strategic focus on tackling infectious diseases. The economics of antibiotic discovery and development is complicated: to bring a drug to market takes a massive investment in time and finances. Yet we will need these new drugs to be used ever more sparingly in future. So, under the current system, there is actually a disincentive for industry to put in the necessary investment – they would never break even, let alone see a return.

Superbugs is doubly timely. This week (13-19 November) is the World Health Organization’s World Antibiotics Awareness Week 2017, an opportunity to take stock of progress. Antibiotic resistance, until recent years a concern only of clinicians and microbiologists, is now globally recognised as a crisis through the work of key individuals, such as Britain’s chief medical officer Sally Davies, and reports from national and international bodies. In 2016 this culminated in the UN High-Level Meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance (see this Nature Microbiology editorial).The rise in academic research and conferences focused on antimicrobial resistance is a positive sign that new approaches can and will be found, despite the issues with the pharma marketplace and the ongoing hunger for antibiotics in agriculture and medicine.

But we remain a long way from winning what the Science Museum describes succinctly as the “fight for our lives”. Hopefully this polished, fact-packed exhibition will call many more to arms — from the lay visitor to the family doctor, local farmer and political representative.

Andrew Jermy is chief editor at Nature Microbiology. He tweets at @jermynation.

Superbugs: The Fight for Our Lives is free, and at the Science Museum until spring 2019.


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Machines moved by mind

3Q: José Millán

A 'mental worker' (behind screen at right) with Machine 1 at the exhibition Mental Work.

A visitor (behind screen at right) driving Machine 1 using the force of their own thoughts, at the exhibition Mental Work.

© Photography Adrien Baraka / Mental Work

At Mental Work, an exhibition at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne ArtLab (EPFL), visitors can drive simple machines using the force of their own thoughts. Probing the rapidly changing relationship between humans and technology, these artworks will also generate vast amounts of data that will be shared with researchers around the world. The show is a collaboration between experimental philosopher Jonathan Keats and EPFL neuroengineer José Millán, who develops brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) to help people with paralysis. Here, Millán talks pistons, probability and the debate over who or what is in control.

What will visitors experience at the show?

Some will be active participants in three experiments; others will watch them work. The participants, or ‘mental workers’, wear an EEG helmet studded with 19 dry electrodes — which continuously pick up electrical activity in their brains. In the first experiment they sit in front of a 2-metre-long construction (Machine 1) comprising a piston, fly-wheel and horizontal shaft. Using mental imagery, they try to move the piston onto the fly wheel; this starts the wheel turning, driving the shaft through a bolt. The brain-machine interface or BMI that makes this possible is an algorithm that has to be trained to ‘read’ the mind of each driver. The driver instigates the training by making a binary movement of the hand or foot, such as clenching and opening a fist, while simultaneously imagining the piston moving or stopping. The algorithm learns the stop-go instructions from patterns of the data from the electrodes, and converts them into commands for the piston. Because the data are always noisy and variable, the command is based on probability; but we program the piston motor to generate movement only when the probability is high — usually in the 70-90% range.


Another view of a ‘mental worker’ with Machine 1.

© Photography Adrien Baraka / Mental Work

What happens in the other two experiments?

They are more complex, and so are the machines. Participants take the role of either ‘driver’ or ‘supervisor’. Supervisors may change the level of probability through their own mental imagery, so the driver has a harder or easier (but messier) job of getting the machine to work. Or the supervisors may use their mental imagery to instruct the BMI to stop using mental imagery altogether, and switch to a different algorithm that use patterns of alpha waves — the brain-wide oscillations generated when the brain is at rest — to drive movement. In this case, the supervisor also uses mental imagery to instruct the driver to relax and ‘empty’ his or her brain. This is the part I am terrified about! We can get this to work in the lab, but it gets so complicated we don’t know what will happen when it is tested in more open conditions. We’ll also distribute a questionnaire asking participants whether they felt they were controlling the machines or if the machines were controlling them.



Machine 2, where ‘drivers’ have their threshold adjusted using a brain-machine interface or BMI.

© Photography Adrien Baraka / Mental Work

What do you want to emerge from the exhibition?

We are entering a cognitive revolution in which we will increasingly use many different new technologies to tap into or extend the capabilities of our brains. I hope that Mental Work will help generate a societal debate about this. Could brain power be used to carry out real work in the real world? What would that mean for employment? Will machines take control of our minds, or will our minds always have the control of machines? Personally, I am optimistic – I think the future is up to us. But the debate needs to start now. I hope visitors to this show will also enjoy the aesthetics of these artistic machines. Meanwhile, the data will be very valuable scientifically. We will capture and share it with the BMI research community, which is constantly trying to improve interfaces, for example by increasing the probability that brain signals are correctly read. Our experience suggests that many participants improve their performance as they move from one machine to another, and I expect that the research community will also be able to develop better machine-learning techniques for BMI users. At the end of the day what I really want is help BMI users, particularly  people with paralysis, to generate brain signals that are more stable and easier to decode.

Interview by Alison Abbott, senior European correspondent for Nature. She tweets at @alison_c_abbott

 This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mental Work runs from 27 October – 31 January 2018. The first two weeks are open for registered participants only, so any visitors wishing to participate as ‘mental workers’ must first sign up on the website The show opens to the general public on 13 November. It will subsequently move on to swissnex San Francisco in California. 


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