Archive by category | Arts

When physics and family collide

Olivia Williams (seated) and Olivia Colman as Alice and Jenny.

Lucy Kirkwood’s new play Mosquitoes is such a sparkling showcase for physics that it might as well have been commissioned by CERN, Europe’s particle physics laboratory. But this tragicomedy is most successful in its portrayal of heartbreak, trust and the tug of family ties.  Read more

The Colorado: elegy for an overused river

The Colorado River in xxx

The Colorado River in the US West proves the adage that you never step into the same river twice. Lined by a vast array of landscapes, communities and industries it has shaped, its waters run variously aqua, navy blue, muddy brown — or not at all. Over its 2,334 kilometres, it sustains some 40 million people, 2 million hectares of farmland and the Hoover Dam. It is also polluted, depleted, diverted.  Read more

An immortal life: Henrietta Lacks on film

An immortal life: Henrietta Lacks on film

The idea that people should have a say over how their cells are used in research isn’t revolutionary, but it flies in the face of research practices over the past century. That it nearly became law is due in no small part to Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story of the African-American woman living in Baltimore, Maryland, whose fatal tumour – taken by scientists at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 without the knowledge or permission of Lacks or her family — gave rise to the first immortal human cell line, HeLa.  Read more

Imaging exodus: a thermographic lens on refugees


Like war photography, images of the refugee crisis can elicit a disorienting mix of empathy and disbelief. Photographer Nilüfer Demir’s 2015 image of lifeless toddler Alan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach, is a case in point. Now film installation Incoming at London’s Barbican, by Irish photographer Richard Mosse, offers an original, unsettling perspective on the crisis.  Read more

Change Agent: CRISPR-flavoured fiction

Change Agent: CRISPR-flavoured fiction

It’s 2045, and the genetic editing system CRISPR has become a mainstay of society, producing everything from housecat-sized tigers to geopolitical intrigues. The United Nations has approved a sensible list of gene edits that can be legally used to eliminate specific genetic diseases from human embryos. This international concord works as well as one could expect from a sluggish bureaucracy trying to rein in a lucrative new enterprise. Before the treaty’s ink is dry, underground labs in Asia are offering “vanity edits” to parents willing to pay for smarter, healthier children. A single CRISPR snip to a gene that reduces the risk of heart disease might be routine and relatively cheap; altering the many genes that contribute to a complex feature like intelligence will cost much more.  Read more

Imaging and imagining black holes

The first accurate image of the appearance of a black hole (India ink on Canson negative paper).

Until several years ago, most cinematic and artistic depictions of black holes — including many in the pages of Nature — failed to match the known facts. A black hole (the remnant of a runaway gravitational collapse) often looked like a space whirlpool, or perhaps a simple black sphere representing the event horizon — the surface that constitutes a point of no return for anything that falls inside. This would be pictured either against a background of stars, or surrounded by an ‘accretion disk’. (Think Saturn’s rings, but made of superheated plasma and spiralling in at close to the speed of light.)  … Read more

Snapping Earth for more than seven decades

In 1960, cameras aboard NASA's first weather satellite TIROS-1 captured Earth.

For centuries, the only way to ‘see’ Earth whole was through globes and maps; its grandeur was merely glimpsed in mountain vistas or across a stretch of ocean. That changed in the 1940s, when the first images of the planet were snapped from rockets probing the border of space, 100 kilometres up. The imaginable became the visible.  Read more

Artist of the animatronic

The Last Supper, Giles Walker's art installation at the London Science Museum's Robots show (multimedia).

Not all roboticists are scientists or engineers. Giles Walker, an artist in Brixton, south London, specialises in turning scrap metal into animatronic sculptures — ‘art robots’ that do not involve AI. Walker uses low-tech, unashamedly cheap technologies to animate artbots: car windscreen wiper motors for big clumsy movements, radio-control servos for delicate ones, coordinated via a communications protocol used in theatre lighting. His replica of the 1928 talking tin man Eric is a star of the London Science Museum’s Robots exhibition (reviewed here). Another of Walker’s works on display there, The Last Supper, enters darker territory. This animatronic ‘ensemble piece’ involves 12 mechanical figures sitting around a table.  Read more

Raising Horizons: women in science reframed

Raising Horizons: women in science reframed

Women in geoscience today can be struck by the paucity of their predecessors in the scientific record. This month, an exhibition helps to redress the balance: portraits celebrating 200 years of pioneering work by women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists, on display at London’s Geological Society library.  Read more