The impossibility of being known

Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney

Scene from Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle

A model relationship: Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham

Like Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s 1990s blockbuster, Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle is a play that takes as its muse a notion at the heart of quantum physics: that it is impossible to know both the exact position and momentum of a particle at once.  Where Frayn imagined physicists’ rarefied debates, playwright Simon Stephens uses the idea to probe the messy world of relationships.

The one-act work revolves around 42-year-old Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff), a fabulist, and Alex (Kenneth Cranham), a 75-year-old butcher, who meet in a station. The pair forges an unlikely affair that sees them baring their souls over a period of six weeks.

Stephens exploits the uncertainty principle to explore what he sees as a quirk of human interaction. To predict someone’s movements is to not pay attention to them properly, and knowing someone really well makes it more likely that they will surprise you, he said in interviews ahead of the opening. When Stephens learned of the principle though his son’s love of science, it struck him, he says, “that all life is contained within it”.

Georgie name checks Werner Heisenberg as she lays out the principle to Alex to help explain why she is estranged from her son (the only time the theory, or indeed science, is actually mentioned). The urge to find him drives the story forward. There are further parallels: one interpretation of the principle, for example, is that uncertainty in a particle’s momentum comes from the physical process of measuring its position. Similarly, only by learning about each other do Georgie and Alex change the course of their lives. What in other hands could be somewhat contrived is made enjoyable by stellar performances, thoughtful direction by Marianne Elliot and clever staging and music.

Both characters prove surprising in different ways. Georgie is blunt and quixotic. Duff plays the effervescent role masterfully. Alex’s change of tack is much more subtle. He is at first a grumpy man of a certain age – inured to life and happy to be alone. Cranham movingly shows how breaking through the façade can reveal a complex and raw person, with an boyish zest for life.

Though the script is witty and at times insightful, it doesn’t always ring true. For me, the age gap was perpetually jarring. But it’s almost as if the combination is not supposed to be real. Indeed the play has the feel of a textbook problem: a stripped-back model that asks the audience to imagine an unlikely paring of two people, like particles in a box. The feeling is enhanced by the stark set. Designer Bunny Christie has events take place in a minimalist white space that morphs before our eyes as scenes change.

The uncertainty principle is one of only a few ideas in quantum mechanics that is both intuitive and easy to describe, and the play’s reference to it is thankfully not overcooked. The analogies Stephens draws between life and physics aren’t perfect, but as device for exploring interaction – and a way to remind theatre-goers that science can resonate with human experience and creativity – it works.

Elizabeth Gibney is a senior reporter for Nature based in London. She tweets at @lizziegibney.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is on at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 6 January 2018.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit

Blade Runner 2049: a dystopian masterwork

Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney

Ryan Gosling as K and Ana d x as Joi in Blade Runner 2049.

Ryan Gosling as K and Ana de Armas as Joi in Blade Runner 2049.

Sony Pictures

If director Denis Villeneuve was daunted by creating a sequel to the 1982 cult noir Blade Runner, it doesn’t show. The themes running through his Blade Runner 2049 feel more poignant than ever, the Los Angeles rain falls even harder, and it packs as much of a cinematic punch.

Villeneuve – fresh from his sci-fi success with Arrival in 2016 – has reimagined a world first brought to life by Ridley Scott. Thirty years on, the LA of Blade Runner 2049 is still grimy, bleak and sodden. Neon lights continue to flash and splutter, but now building-high advertisement holograms also shimmer alluringly. Replicants, as the bioengineered humanoids are known, remain enslaved.

The story centres on Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner — a cop tasked with ‘retiring’ replicants. In the original, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a jaded predecessor of K, whose mission is to hunt down replicants escaped from off-world colonies. His interaction with them eventually prompts questions about the very premise of his job and his very identity. In 2049, replicants are now the bread and butter of the Earth-bound workforce, a new breed engineered by a new corporation. Under orders from his superior Lieutenant Joshi (a condescending but not entirely unsympathetic character, played by the excellent Robin Wright), K must find and terminate the older rogue models still hiding out.

K and xxx (xxx)

K and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) at the headquarters of the film’s hyper-ambitious bioengineering corporation.

Sony Pictures

Where Deckard was burnt-out and moody, K is a stoic and obedient, if lonely, worker – until an investigation brings about a discovery that leads him off course. Gosling does understated very well, shimmering with emotion that only begrudgingly breaks the surface. Ana de Armas is heart-breaking as his unconventional live-in companion; and Sylvia Hoeks makes for a terrifying foe. The dystopian world in which the film is based is rich with remarkable attention to detail. Fans will be thrilled to see Ford pop up for the finale as a grizzled, ageing Deckard.

The original Blade Runner brought to life Dick’s Voight-Kampf test, a form of Turing test designed to catch out androids by probing their biological response to questions that should trigger empathy, an idea that went on to inspire the wider sci-fi genre. In the wake of recent sci-fi successes such as Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina (2014; reviewed here), HBO’s Westworld and the British series Humans, today’s viewers could be forgiven for becoming inured to shows that ask where artificial intelligence ends and humans begin. But Blade Runner 2049 manages to tread fresh ground. K’s modus operandi is a simple iris scan of replicants, but the film finds new ways to probe the question, through themes of morality and identity, and the roles of memory and soul.

Environmental dystopia figures large in the film.

Environmental dystopia figures large in the film.

Sony Pictures

Blade Runner 2049 also burns with an environmental message far more glaring than in the 1982 film. The sequel takes the audience beyond LA to sneak a glimpse at a hellish wreck of a planet. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, the symptoms of a species sliding into oblivion are everywhere, with a haywire climate, city-sized rubbish dumps and a sea wall of epic proportions. As noted by Gosling in an interview with Wired: The power of science fiction, and what’s positive about it, is that you’re able to experience the worst-case scenario without actually having to live it.” Villeneuve has brought us a terrifyingly realistic version of civilisation’s possible future.

The film has garnered wide-spread acclaim, and deservedly so. Almost every scene is a visual masterpiece, teasing the viewers with shadows and tricks of the light, as well as breath-taking landscapes. Its haunting score pounds like an irregular heartbeat, reminiscent of the equally powerful soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. These go a long way to making the film as nail-biting as it is contemplative and spare. But Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a work of art, and at a whopping 2 hours 43 minute run time, made for people who love cinema, not those after a cheap thrill.

Elizabeth Gibney is a senior reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @lizziegibney.

Blade Runner 2049 is on general release.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit

Women in Medicine: opening the clinic door

Posted on behalf of Heidi Ledford

Flic Gabbay, xxx, next to a bust of xxx.

Flic Gabbay, co-founder of the Society for Pharmaceutical Medicine, next to a bust of Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement.

John Chase (c) Royal College of Physicians

Visitors stepping into the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London are normally greeted by the sombre stares of imposing men, in portraits lining the walls. From today, women outshine them, in 26 photographic portraits of modern female clinicians ranged along the central stairwell. Each holds an image of a historical figure who inspired them.

The exhibition, Women in Medicine: A Celebration, comes as the RCP — which accredits UK physicians and represents over 30,000 doctors globally — readies for its 500th birthday in 2018. Over that time, it has had just three female presidents: unsurprising, given that women could not join until 1909.

The contemporary clinicians in the portraits are esteemed in their own right, and there is still plenty of trail left for them to blaze. But it is the historical photos that drew my eye.

Fiona Caldicott, xxx, holding a photograph of xxx.

Fiona Caldicott, a past president of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists, holding a photograph of pioneering psychiatrist Helen Boyle.

(c) Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Recent years have brought a welcome spate of books, movies and exhibitions dedicated to honouring pioneering women in science. The best of these, like the book and film Hidden Figures, draw attention to forgotten achievements and struggles, and reveal a history that had, shockingly, gone untold. More often, such collections tend to sample from the same pantheon. And although Marie Curie and Rosalyn Franklin deserve their fame, I’m often left with the feeling that we are overlooking important contributions from others.

The RCP show steps outside this elite circle. Here is Helen Boyle, one of the first women psychiatrists in Britain, who led the charge for early diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders near the end of the nineteenth century. Holding her photo is Fiona Caldicott, a past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and perhaps best known for her work on the 1997 Caldicott Report, a guidance document about protecting confidential patient information.

Jane Dacre, xxx

Jane Dacre, Royal College of Physicians president, with a photograph of pioneering hepatologist Sheila Sherlock.

John Chase (c) Royal College of Physicians

Jane Dacre, the current president of the RCP, selected physician Sheila Sherlock, who founded hepatology, the study of the liver. According to an online biography connected to the exhibition, Sherlock said that she opted to study that organ because “no one else was doing it”.

All these women racked up notable achievements — and overcame tremendous obstacles to do so. But too many of the write-ups on the accompanying website read like CVs: it is sometimes difficult to glimpse the person behind the achievements, no doubt due to limited space and historical records. Still, there is plenty to whet the appetite. For example, I’m eager to learn more about the friendship with a dying man that led Cicely Saunders to found the modern hospice movement.

Asha Kasliwal, xxx, holds portrait of xxx in the Women in Medicine exhibition at the xxx.

Asha Kasliwal, president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, with a photograph of Anandibai Gopal Joshi, one of the first women in India to study Western medicine.

(c) FSRH

Happily, the exhibition’s brief biography is enough to reveal why Anandibai Gopal Joshi — among the first Indian women to practice Western medicine — chose to enter medicine. Married at age 9 and a mother at 14, Joshi’s child died ten days after he was born due to inadequate medical care. “My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves,” Joshi wrote in her application to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. (Her photograph is held by Asha Kasliwal, who trained in Mumbai and is now president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare.)

For perspective, a trip downstairs to the Treasures Room, featuring medical tools from past centuries, is fascinating. Among them is a ‘modesty doll’. In a time when clinicians were all men, women would point to areas on the doll corresponding to the body part in question to describe their symptoms.

In a nearby display case hangs the ornate formal robe, heavy with real gold thread, of the RCP’s president, next to a photo of Dacre wearing it. The robe cannot be shortened, and positioning it on Dacre’s petite frame took some doing. Yet you’d never know it: it fits her perfectly.

Heidi Ledford is a reporter for Nature in London. She tweets at @heidiledford.

Women in Medicine runs at the Royal College of Physicians until 19 January 2018.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit

Graphic window on a refugee scientist

3Q: Erik Nelson Rodriguez

Mueck 1

Erik Nelson Rodriguez/NPR

Graphic artist Erik Nelson Rodriguez is an innovative comics journalist. With reporter Darryl Holliday, he began creating nonfiction stories in graphic-novel form at university, covering issues such as gun violence. In 2016, US National Public Radio (NPR) invited Rodriguez to collaborate on an account of Syrian refugee Nedal Said: a trained microbiologist and teacher, Said fled the war in 2013 and is now a researcher in Leipzig. The result, The Scientist Who Escaped Aleppois part of NPR’s special series on refugee scientists: a testament to the ordeals endured, and the extraordinary potential offered, by the refugee community.

What did you learn from working on this project?

I did not know much about the refugee crisis other than data I had researched for news graphics — statistics on people moving through the Mediterranean into Europe. Just seeing the astounding numbers trying to get away from war zones and how many did not make it past the sea affected me. But it wasn’t until I worked with NPR on Nedal Said’s story that I felt the full weight. To look, under a microscope, at the ordeal an individual has to go through to obtain a better life was a heavy lesson. I was shocked by the number of hurdles Nedal faced, whether escaping from detention or sleeping in parks in the frozen rain — and by how long he was away from his family as he travelled to find a new life for them. I also learned that there are programmes to help refugees trained in science. One is the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, a collective effort by Germany’s foreign office and other institutions named in honour of a Jewish scientist who fled Germany in 1933. I was pleased to find countries creating these opportunities for refugees to integrate after their harrowing journeys — especially when refugees are so happy to give back to that society.

Syrian microbiologist and teacher Nedal Said pictured before he fled the war in 2013.

Syrian microbiologist and teacher Nedal Said pictured before he fled the war in 2013.

Erik Nelson Rodriguez/NPR

How did you convey Said’s story visually?

NPR provided a timeline of Said’s travels from Turkey to the Balkans to Germany. It gave details about each location, along with interviews describing first-hand experiences. This formed the basis for the storyboard. It was important to me to show Nedal in his work and family life. He was described as always helping others through his scientific knowledge and skills as an educator, so we wanted to display him in those situations. We made sure that his family was highlighted: he was potentially sacrificing his life for them. I researched Aleppo during different periods to see what kind of destruction took place, and created panels featuring tanks, rifles, bullet-ravaged buildings. We re-edited the piece later to help things flow in a vertical comic strip. Aesthetically, I aimed to translate the grittiness and bleakness of the written material. I tried to convey the fear and dread of Said through his facial expressions. I used dark, somewhat sketchy lines to match the story’s tone, but kept a cartoonish quality as a subtle undertone. Working with the editors and researchers was really rewarding.

Said's ordeals as a refugee were legion.

Said’s ordeals as a refugee were legion.

Erik Nelson Rodriguez/NPR

How can this kind of storytelling help refugees?

Seeing one individual’s journey to escape war and possible death will, I believe, help the public understand that these are just other people in very different circumstances. Having these stories told in detail with audio and visual representations will hopefully shed more light on how refugees struggle to escape the dark reality of their cities’ destruction. In particular, I hope that the public will understand better that without resources, people escaping war-torn countries do not have the opportunity to develop research, knowledge or a decent life, even if they are well educated. Yet the scientific community could gain from the experience and education of people such as Said, as they can provide original ideas developed thousands of miles away, adding fresh perspectives or processes. I hope visual storytelling can highlight these and other invisible parts of the world to show the public on the other side what they cannot see.

Interview by Leonie Mueck, a former senior physics editor at Nature and now division editor at PLOS ONE. She volunteers for the Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign. She tweets at @LeonieMueck. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Scientist Who Escaped Aleppo — on which Rodriguez worked with editors and researchers Meredith Rizzo, Rebecca Davis, Joe Palca, Madeline Sofia and Andrea Kissack — can be seen here in full. You can find information on future projects by Rodriguez and Holliday on their website.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit



Paleoart: painting the deep past

Posted on behalf of Ewen Callaway

cov_paleoart_v11_1703011302_id_1115770The term ‘paleoart’ might make many people think of fading ochre sketches of aurochs and other fearsome Ice Age animals in caves such as Lascaux, in southwestern France. That, however, is Palaeolithic art. Paleoart – graphic depictions of long-gone creatures and environments – is an oft-overlooked genre with roots in the early eighteenth century, when the study of extinct animal fossils took off, and both scientists and the public began to imagine a deep past.

In her striking new coffee-table book, Paleoart, writer and art critic Zoë Lescaze surveys images dating back to the nineteenth century. She ponders why mention of the genre still draws blank looks, concluding that it exists in a netherworld between fine art and natural history illustration, drawing inspiration from both but never fully belonging to either. This outsider status — and the fact that most of the details of its subject matter must be imagined (fossils have only recently begun to reveal the putative colouration of extinct animals) — freed paleoartists. They embraced the aesthetic of their eras, from Impressionism to Art Nouveau, and indulged their own idiosyncrasies, as the following illustrations reveal.



Duria Antiquior by Henry Thomas De la Beche (watercolour).

Wikimedia Commons

Ca. 1830
English geologist Henry Thomas De la Beche is credited with creating the first known depiction of the prehistoric world, Duria Antiquior. The original watercolour was inspired by fossils discovered on the Dorset coast near Lyme Regis, bolstered by a healthy dose of imagination. De la Beche sold lithographs of the work to help his friend, leading fossil hunter Mary Anning, support her family. (Anning was rarely credited by geologists and struggled financially.)



The Primitive World by Adolphe François Pannemaker (coloured engraving). The image served as the frontispiece for W. F. A. Zimmerman’s Le monde avant la création de l’homme (1857).

Courtesy of Taschen

Although early paleoart was inspired by fossils, graphically it had much in common with illustrations of dragons that marked unknown territories in maps (as in, “Here be dragons”). Belgian engraver Adolphe François Pannemaker’s coloured engraving The Primitive World imagines a cataclysmic ancient realm of murky volcanism and nature at war.



Model-Room at the Crystal Palace by Philip Henry Delamotte.

Courtesy of Taschen

Crystal Palace, a park and neighbourhood in southeast London, is famous for its ersatz concrete figures of dinosaurs and other extinct animals, such as the giant ground sloth Megatherium. On the day the attraction opened in June 1854, some 40,000 people arrived, and it was still drawing 2 million a year throughout the nineteenth century. What’s less known is the sculptures’ role in a major cultural and scientific battle. Their creation was overseen by Richard Owen, founder of London’s Natural History Museum and an opponent of evolutionary theory. Specifically, Owen sought to discredit the idea that animals became more complex over time, and instructed the sculptor Benjamin Hawkins to make the concrete beasts more closely resemble modern creatures such as lizards. This illustration, by artist and photographer Philip Henry Delamotte, depicts the ramshackle model room at Crystal Palace where Hawkins prepared his soon-to-be world-famous propaganda.



Laelaps by Charles R. Knight.

Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History, New York

American palaeontology of the late nineteenth century was dominated by Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose 25-year feud over access to palaeontology sites and the glory accompanying new finds came to be known as the Bone Wars. Artist Charles R. Knight’s Laelaps, which portrays a death duel between two dinosaurs of a genus now known as Dryptosaurus, is widely believed to be a not-so-subtle reference to Cope and Marsh’s mutual enmity.



Study for the Age of Reptiles by Rudolph Zallinger (tempera).

Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven

The Age of Reptiles, a fresco in the Great Hall of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, is paleoart’s poor-man’s version of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings. Rudolph F. Zallinger spent four years painting the mural, which was completed in 1947, after the Second World War. Lescaze speculates that the dark mood of those times may have seeped into that final work, in comparison with the vivid 3-metre-long study Zallinger had completed in 1943, shown here. The depiction of a Tyrannosaurus rex in the finished piece, she writes, “is like a case of plastic surgery gone wrong: the dinosaur’s skin is pulled taut to the point of losing its expressiveness and realism”. Zallinger was back on form in 1953, when he completed the 18-metre Age of Mammals mural for the museum.



Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus by Ely Kish (oil).

Eleanor Kish, © Canadian Museum of Nature

Ely Kish, an American-born artist who died in 2014, worked at a time when scientists were documenting human-caused destruction such as climate change, biodiversity loss and marine pollution. Mass extinctions, death and violence were a regular theme in her dynamic, dramatic oil paintings, such as Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus.

Ewen Callaway is a senior reporter for Nature based in London. He tweets at @ewencallaway. Paleoart is published by Taschen (2017).


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit




When physics and family collide

Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney

NTGDS_Mosquitoes_Twitter_1024x512TT_Photography (Olivia Williams and Olivia Colman) by David Stewart. Design by National TheatLucy 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.

The science begins with the play’s name, a reference to a phenomenon at the heart of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC): that incredible things emerge when particles collide with the force of just two mosquitoes. The action takes place during the LHC’s startup in 2008. Women scientists from two generations feature — condensed-matter physicist Karen (Amanda Boxer) and her daughter, particle physicist Alice (Olivia Williams). There is even a humanised boson called, naturally, The Boson. Played by Paul Hilton, the personified particle segues into grand monologues about the creation and demise of the Universe, set to spectacles of light and sound in Rufus Norris’s slick, minimalist production. (The ghostly character doubles up as Alice’s missing husband, who is as elusive as the long-searched-for Higgs.) But it is the very human story enacted by Williams and Olivia Colman, as Alice’s disgruntled, underachieving sister Jenny, that completely steals the show.

Olivia Williams (on bench) and Olivia Colman as Alice and Jenny.


A tragedy prompts Jenny and their mother Karen, who is coping with the early stages of dementia, to visit Alice just as she is about to embark on the most exciting years of her career at the LHC. During their stay, Alice’s orderly life is jolted by events unfolding around her guests and her socially awkward teenage son Luke (Joseph Quinn). Each faces a personal issue — guilt, loss of control, work or teenage angst — that can stop them from seeing the bigger picture.

Colman is electric as Jenny. Witheringly witty, she’s also boozy and reckless, a fan of horoscopes and holidays “somewhere hot that serves English food”. Williams has less to work with but is excellent as even-tempered Alice, who struggles to understand her son and gently patronises her frequently deluded sister. Their relationship is very believable, not least in drawing on each other’s diverse qualities at times of need; it steadies the whirlwind of ideas Kirkwood plays with, from mental health to cosmology. The pacy dialogue meanwhile zings with humour.


Paul Hilton (centre) as The Boson.

Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Science here is most successful as a backdrop. The play perfectly captures the fervid atmosphere of the LHC’s switch-on day, with physicists jumping for joy at screens that seem, to an outsider, to show nothing. Boxer is effervescent as Karen, describing the highs and lows of her scientific work – for which, she often reminds her daughters, she should have won a Nobel. (Kirkwood also neatly skewers journalists who sought to ham up the possibility of the LHC causing Earth to be sucked into a black hole.) Jenny meanwhile becomes an anti-science mouthpiece, at one point masterfully comparing the quest for the Higgs boson to complete the Standard Model to the claim “my marriage isn’t working because we don’t have a cappuccino machine”. Her views are generally so ludicrous that such comments come off as praise.

The science setpieces are eerie and gripping — notably The Boson’s description of the Universe’s first 300,000 years as a real “pea-souper” while twinkling visuals appear on a screen above. But the relevance of these moments to the rest isn’t entirely clear. Are they meant to highlight the importance of Alice’s work? Are they a counterweight to the minutiae of human stories?

A more successful theme is the link between power and trust. Though the play celebrates the triumph of reason over pseudoscience, it also subtly makes the point that scientific pronouncements are taken on trust by everyone except those who directly work on them. Mosquitoes equates science with power, and shows that working in the two sisters. Jenny feels left behind by her scientific family, and that relates to her reactionary attitude and mistrust of doctors who tell her that vaccines and ultrasounds are safe. Meanwhile, the harder Alice’s life gets, the more she leans on superstition, faith and the blind acceptance of family.

Colman, Paul Quinn and Williams.

Colman, Paul Quinn (as Luke) and Williams.

Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Kirkwood’s decision to intertwine this intense relationship and each character’s personal struggles with a barrage of science makes for a slightly disjointed but profoundly emotional, immersive and compelling experience. I was irked only by the fact that the play does little to dispel the myth that science is only for the select few. (In a great comic line, Luke’s would-be girlfriend earnestly proclaims that, as she’s not clever enough to become a scientist, she’ll probably just be a doctor or lawyer. It’s a joke that’s close to the bone.) The audience is unlikely to leave Mosquitoes with a radically better understanding of cosmic mysteries, but they will be stung by its insights into the power of family relationships long after the curtains close.

Elizabeth Gibney is a senior reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @LizzieGibney. 

Mosquitoes is on at the National Theatre, London, until 28 September.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit

The artist as astronaut

Probes is an inventory of space probes, which examines how the aesthetic of such craft has changed over time, as well as how functionality of design intersects with its cultural underpinnings. Mir views space probes as substitutes for human explorers, romantically searching for connection in the Solar System.

Artist Aleksandra Mir views space probes as substitutes for human explorers, romantically searching for connection in the Solar System. Her piece Probes (on floor) — part of her major work Space Tapestry — is an inventory of these craft, examining how their aesthetic has changed over time, as well as how the functionality of design intersects with its cultural underpinnings.

Tate Liverpool


3Q: Aleksandra Mir

 In 2014, Aleksandra Mir began a journey into the unknown. The London-based artist started talking with scientists and engineers about space — a realm in which she was a complete novice. The result of Mir’s dive into the cosmos is Space Tapestry, a vast wall hanging 3 by 200 metres, hand-drawn — in collaboration with 25 young artists — with fibre-tipped pens on synthetic canvas. Inspired in part by the eleventh-century depiction of Halley’s Comet on the Bayeux Tapestry, the work unfolds like a giant graphic novel to explore the unfathomable distances of space, the quest for extra-terrestrial life, and the impact of space technology on humans – from observing Earth to the politics of space. As the piece goes on show at Tate Liverpool, UK, Mir talks about her quest to get under the skin of science.

Why did you choose this format for Space Tapestry?


Mir’s work Ring Nebula emerged from conversations with Jayanne English, an astronomer involved in creating Hubble telescope images. To move beyond the “ice-cream” coloured swirls that Mir views as “trashy”, they experimented with capturing the same information in a black-and-white sketch in which the angle of cross-hatching represents different phenomena.

Aleksandra Mir

I wanted to create an immersive environment, almost like a stage set. And I wanted to introduce a new aesthetic. Whenever you see a science illustration you get what I call the “sleazy aesthetic”: supposed to convey fact but made to seduce with their slickness, intense colours and airbrushed surfaces. There are other ways of picturing phenomena that can be as realistic. And some phenomena beyond our technologies or perception can also be portrayed poetically. This is where art becomes relevant to science. My original inspiration for the project was the 1066 Bayeux Tapestry. It features a very early portrayal of Halley’s Comet: you have this little group of characters staring out in horror and fascination, and there’s this simple line drawing of the comet. What was interesting to me is that it doesn’t look anything like an actual comet, but conveys a tremendous amount of scientific information – it has a direction, a velocity and luminosity – which makes it valuable for contemporary scientists. So this became the key to my ‘tapestry’: images with validity for the science community, but also treated in a very poetic, freestyle, emotive and personal way.

You’ve explored many issues over your 25-year career. Why space, and why now?

Space has been a strand of my work for a very long time. My family watched the Moon landing in 1969 in Poland (which was then behind the Iron Curtain), and this left a powerful mark on me. My best-known work is First Woman on the Moon, the transformation of a beach in the Netherlands into a lunar surface in 1999, in response to the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11’s feat. The video of this event has been touring for 17 years now. And I recently realised that while the gist of the work is still valid – no woman has yet set foot on the Moon – I needed to catch up on the achievements of today’s space industry. I attended my first space conference in 2014 and was sold on a world that for me was like an alien planet. I had to learn a new language. I spoke to a lot of scientists about their daily lives. And once you start looking at that from my perspective as an artist and anthropologist, a natural philosophy and sort of magic embedded in these practices reveals itself. I was never interested in science fiction. Science has everything of interest to me. I think that the whole scientific project is a romantic project, the chasing for a connection, the yearning for depth, taking on a challenge, risking everything for a passion, the struggle.


Get on Da Spaze Buz – a detail in Mir’s Space Tapestry: Earth Observation & Human Spaceflight.

Modern Art Oxford

What did you learn about scientists and science?

Working on the Space Tapestry project has given me access to some extraordinary scientists, locations and visuals. Among those I interviewed was Jan Woerner, director-general of the European Space Agency. Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory Greenwich has been one of my main advisors, and molecular astrophysicist Clara-Sousa Silva has been a huge inspiration. I visited high-security sites such as Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK; and saw the network control centres at Inmarsat and the Satellite Applications Catapult, both depicted in my drawings. I was allowed to ask tons of naïve questions, be critical, playful and absurd at times, which has connected and educated me in a big way. I can now hold a conversation in this realm, and in 2015 I was invited as a speaker at the UK Space Conference myself.

Solar system

The Solar System series, part of Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions, aims to help viewers find more poetic and metaphorical ways to think about distances that are impossible for the human brain to grasp.

Tate Liverpool

There is a newfound dialogue with scientists who are reaching the understanding that they also have been working in isolation.  I have also realised that the sophistication of their projects, the enormous budgets and the long timespans can in no way ever be comparable to what I, as one artist, can do. So, if anything, I have gained a greater respect for science. One conversation I’ve had with scientists, though, is that you don’t always have to be heroic and successful to garner respect. To struggle, fail, be tired and dirty is part of our nature and a fundamental part of all human exploration. Artists know how to draw power from it and I think my project both humanizes and makes science more credible.

Mr's piece First Woman on the Moon (video, 1999).

Mir’s piece First Woman on the Moon (video, 1999).

Aleksandra Mir

Interview by Elizabeth Gibney, a reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @lizziegibney.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Space Tapestry is on display in two parts: Faraway Missions will be at Tate Liverpool until 15 October; Earth Observation & Human Spaceflight will be on display at Modern Art Oxford until 12 November. An accompanying book forming part of the Space Tapestry project, We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future, is also available, and includes 16 interviews with space professionals.


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Chasing Coral: beauty and destruction

Posted on behalf of Jeff Tollefson

Images shot by the Chasing Coral crew graphically show the progress of the coral bleaching event in xx over xx days.

Images shot by the Chasing Coral crew graphically show the progress of the coral bleaching event that began in 2014.

Chasing Coral, courtesy of Netflix

First we take the plunge, off the boat and into the blue. Once the bubbles clear, wonders emerge. Guided by the camera, the eye is initially drawn to the obvious: turtles, rays, eels, jellies, fish. But the star of this show is a different kind of animal. The focus shifts, and we see a variety of fabulously intricate and colourful structures, some branched like trees, others spiny and globular. Each edifice in this marine metropolis was erected by corals — master builders now under unprecedented threat.

Director Jeff Orlowski begins his latest documentary, Chasing Coral, with this view of living abundance. Soon enough, we see death. Images of reefs left white and mostly lifeless give way to apocalyptic footage of dead corals, covered in algae and disintegrating in murky waters. Orlowski’s film, which launched on Netflix on 14 July, reveals the shocking reality of the global bleaching event that began in 2014, spurred by human-driven climate change and only now coming to an end.

Jeff Orlowski filming corals on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Jeff Orlowski filming corals on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Richard Vevers/Chasing Coral, courtesy of Netflix

There are similarities between Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, Orlowski’s 2012 documentary about melting glaciers, right down to the focus on time-lapse imagery to capture environmental degradation. But where Chasing Ice centres on James Balog, a National Geographic photographer who set up the Extreme Ice Survey to document ice shrinkage, Chasing Coral features, along with leading coral researchers, a curious collection of characters who embark on a technically daunting effort to document the transition from life to illness and death on a coral reef. The result is a fast-paced narrative arc that manages to carry a full-length film about global warming, the ultimate slow-boil.

Orlowski doesn’t hide anything. In fact, he becomes part of his own narrative through that of Richard Vevers, the man driving the project. A former advertising executive turned ocean activist and underwater photographer, Vevers relates how in 2010,  he decided to put his talents to better use: saving corals. After seeing Chasing Ice in 2013, he decided to contact Orlowski, who – in an intriguing meta-moment – makes an appearance in the film to talk about the genesis of the project.

A panoramic view of fluorescing and bleaching corals in New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific, in March 2016.

A panoramic view of fluorescing and bleaching corals in New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific, in March 2016.

The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey

To its credit, Chasing Coral goes beyond personalities and crises and gets into the science – as well as the challenge of communicating that science and raising public awareness. “One of the biggest issues with the ocean is that it is completely ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” Vevers says. “And that is an advertising issue.”

The first step the crew faced was acquiring a high-quality camera capable of operating underwater remotely for weeks at a time. Enter View into the Blue, a company based in Boulder, Colorado, that adapted a high-resolution underwater camera – with its own wiper system to keep the domed-glass housing case clean –  for the project. Step two: figure out where to deploy the camera. Glaciers are easy to identify and visit, and nearly all of them are melting now. But setting up a time-lapse camera to capture the death of a coral reef due to warm ocean currents requires considerable planning and a measure of serendipity.

Mark Eakin, who heads the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, provided forecasts and guidance on where to deploy. Vevers and the team figured out how to power the camera and retrieve data, but an initial deployment in Hawaii failed: the cameras lost their focus after the first shot. A second try on the southern Great Barrier Reef off Queensland, Australia, saw the warm waters (fortunately) failing to arrive.

A reef decimated by warm-water currents.

A bleached reef.

Chasing Coral, courtesy of Netflix

So the team ditched the automation altogether and moved north to Lizard Island, and on to New Caledonia. Here, they manually photographed dozens of sites each day for 40 days. It worked. At one location after another, we see a rapid decline from vibrant colour and biodiversity to whitening and death. At this point the film switches to the emotional journey of ‘coral nerd’ Zachary Rago. “I’m not even sad that we are leaving, because it’s so miserable here,” Rago says when the job is complete.

Basic science is interwoven throughout. Through coral researchers such as Ruth Gates and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, we learn about the fascinating lives of corals, which operate as a collective to build and maintain an ecosystem that supports thousands of animals, from clown fish to sharks. We hear about the symbiotic relationship corals have developed with the algae living inside them, which provide their hosts with colour and energy through photosynthesis. And we see what happens when temperatures rise: the algae shut down and corals kick them out.

Chasing Coral also brings home the implications of decades of research. This latest global bleaching event, bolstered by a powerful El Niño in 2015-2016, is the third in recorded history; the first was in 1998. Research suggests that most of the world’s corals could perish within a few decades from rising temperature and ocean acidification without immediate action to halt greenhouse gas emissions.

The film mostly glosses over the scientific endeavour itself, however. After all, Vevers is the executive director of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, a bonafide research initiative that launched in 2012 to catalogue the world’s corals (as Nature has reported here and here). But it’s a minor point. In the end, the film accomplishes its goals. Nobody knows precisely what an ecological collapse would mean for the oceans, but Chasing Coral makes it abundantly clear that it won’t be pretty. And perhaps that’s enough to inspire action.

Jeff Tollefson is a reporter for Nature based in New York. He tweets at @jefftollef. 


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Double Shift: schooling Syria’s child refugees


Jordanian and Syrian pupils in Al-Arqam school’s double-shift programme declare their ambitions, from doctor and ship’s engineer to teacher, swimmer and professor.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Imagine this. You’re 12 years old. Half your family has been killed in conflict, and you find yourself in a country where every other word is a mystery. You’re desperate for stability — not least, school enrolment.

This is reality for many of the 8 million children who make up half the world’s refugees. Education is one of the biggest hurdles they face: only half have access to primary schooling. Potentially, they are a lost generation, at risk from abuse, trafficking and criminalisation, disenfranchised in ways and magnitudes unimaginable to many. A country’s loss of intellectual capital is tragic: how much more so, losing the intellectual future its children represent.

Now, a rich multimedia web documentary is revealing how Jordan — a nation hosting 657,000 registered Syrian refugees — is lighting a candle in the murk. Called Double Shift, the video, audio and text showcase the findings of an innovative social-science research project looking at how the “double shift” educational system, in which different groups are taught morning and evening, is working in the country. Already deployed for decades in Jordan and in other nations from Uganda to the United States, the system is being rolled out anew to accommodate children fleeing the war: Lebanon has adopted it, and Jordan, as Double Shift documents, is following suit to serve 160,000 school-aged Syrian refugees.


The noon switchover from the Jordanian to the Syrian cohort allows few close encounters. A football club and Saturday centre bridge the gap.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Double Shift is a joint effort by the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Its team of social scientists and visual designers used a variety of methods to capture data from Syrian refugee children in a Jordanian school, from “cultural probe” — giving students digital cameras to document their daily lives — to participatory workshops.

The findings reflect the day-to-day complexities child refugees cope with, notes Steffen Huck, director of WZB research unit Economics of Change. “Some showed the traumatic effects of the war in Syria,” he says. A questionnaire given to 88 Jordanian and Syrian students at Al-Arqam school in Sahab, southeast of Amman, is a case in point. It suggests overwhelming positivity about the school, with 90% reporting approval and more than half finding the classroom clean and safe. A subjective assessment hints at different insights.

Each student was supplied with five colours and a pen and asked to draw their classroom. “The Jordanian children used significantly more colours than the Syrian,” Huck said. “They also painted in a larger portion of the sheet of paper.” Huck speculates that these differences could indicate relatively withdrawn psychological states among the Syrian children.


At Al-Arqam school, the differences in coverage and colour use between the Jordanian children’s drawings (left) and those of the Syrian child refugees were marked.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Jordan’s public schools are already under strain, with teachers, classrooms, water, cooling and heating all in short supply. Class sizes can number 45. The pressures on both teachers and pupils are clear, and the separate shifts (Jordanian children in the morning, Syrian in the afternoon) risk entrenching difference. Yet as Double Shift documents, Al-Arqam is building bridges through a mixed soccer club and Saturday centre for study and play.

Meanwhile, Huck and colleagues have done the maths on another gain: US$167,552,165.00. That is their figure for the total net benefit to the country’s economy of enrolling 50,000 Syrian child refugees in Jordanian schools. As it happens, a new cohort of that size is poised to enter the educational system, thanks  to international funding and support from agencies such as UNICEF.

“As the Syrian civil war drags on with no end in sight,” Huck says, “Jordan’s efforts do not only set a humanitarian example but become more and more an investment in its own future.”


A rare meeting during the midday double-shift switchover.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Double Shift offers a balanced examination of one school and the headteachers, parents and children who make up its community. It pans out, too, to the wider picture, where other factors come into focus.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, who researches the nexus of education and social stability, has reported on serious issues with Lebanon’s double-shift programme on the non-profit Brookings Institute website. She reveals that Syrian children may be bullied, and that teachers may be exhausted and poorly trained to cope with their pupils’ psychological trauma. But solutions to fast-moving, critical situations often are partial or quasi-experimental.

If a ‘war child’ is to become an engineer, a surgeon, a pilot — as so many of the children interviewed by Double Shift passionately wish — it’s bedrock we need, not sand. As Dryden-Peterson has noted:

The average length of exile for refugees is 17 years. That’s the equivalent of a child’s whole shot at education, from birth to high school graduation… Syrian refugees do not need temporary education programs. They need access to a complete education.

Currently, debates over STEM teaching and anxieties over science in a politically chaotic world proliferate. Yet the fate of this traumatised, uprooted generation seems an afterthought to governments, who increasingly de-prioritize education in aid portfolios. Policymakers and pundits forget, perhaps, that it was refugees in flight from another appalling war who built American science and technology.


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The Colorado: elegy for an overused river

Posted on behalf of Monya Baker

The Colorado River

Tidal waters in the delta region of the Colorado River.

Murat Eyuboglu

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.

Now this mighty waterway is celebrated in The Colorado — a music-based documentary that delivers a powerful environmental and social message. Produced by VisionIntoArt, the project brings together several composers including Paola Prestini and live performance ensemble Roomful of Teeth, among others. (See below for the trailer.)

Glenn Kotche and Jeffrey Zeigler performing at the New York premiere of The Colorado.

Glenn Kotche and Jeffrey Zeigler performing at the New York premiere of The Colorado.

Jill Steinberg

At a pre-show talk on 22 April at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, the project’s director Murat Eyuboglu noted that his inspiration was the story of the Salton Sea in California’s Colorado Desert. This huge inland lake was created by accident in 1905, when engineers’ plans for irrigation canals succumbed to the river’s might. Now saltier than the Pacific Ocean, the lake is filled with toxic sludge and hosts acres of deserted lakeshore development, yet is essential habitat for migrating seabirds. “I’ve never seen so much beauty and devastation cohabiting in one place,” said Eyuboglu. That sentiment holds for the film as well.

Eyuboglu’s interest in the Salton Sea led him to contact writer William deBuys, who has chronicled the natural histories of water in the region in books such as Salt Dreams (coauthored with Joan Myers). DeBuys signed on to advise Eyugoblu on the project, then became his co-scriptwriter and lyricist. Filmed over four years (and 20 trips into the river’s drainage basin), their documentary meanders from the artificially fertile fields of Imperial Valley to the artificially parched expanses in the Sonoran Desert as well as the Salton Sea.

Geologist John Wesley Powell, the first to explore the Colorado River for scientific purposes.

Geologist John Wesley Powell, the first to explore the Colorado River for scientific purposes.

The work is divided into nine sections. Each begins with a narrative introduction by actor Mark Rylance, grounded in stories of people who explored, exploited or were exploited by water-fueled power. After the narration stops, we are steeped in stunning cinematography and archival footage.

The first to explore the Colorado for scientific purposes was noted geologist and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell. (During that conflict Powell, who lost an arm in combat, would instruct his soldiers to watch out for fossils while digging trenches.) On his first, grueling three-month 1869 expedition, Powell recognized that the river had cut through millennia, pronouncing the region “a Book of Revelations in the rock-leaved Bible of geology” that he was determined to read. Mapping the basin, Powell made a coherent case that political units should follow the same boundaries, to balance the needs of those dwelling upstream and downstream at a time when land speculators carved property for their own benefit. That lost opportunity is repeatedly apparent in the film.

Another story is that of David Brower (1912-2000). Founder of environmental organisations including Friends of the Earth and first head of the Sierra Club, Brower successfully fought to stop a dam slated to flood the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah. He proposed Glen Canyon as an alternative, despite never having seen it. After mapping Glen Canyon, he realised that burying its magnificent rock “cathedrals in the desert” and thousands of ancient indigenous sites under what is now Powell Lake would go down as the biggest US environmental mistake in history — and admitted his part in it. We see footage of the canyon being dynamited pre-dam, run backwards. Witnessing the canyon walls reform, we feel what has been lost.

In other sections, we see the tons of produce grown in Imperial Valley, irrigated by the river and harvested mainly by farm labourers from Latin America. Finally, we glimpse the nearly bone-dry delta of the Colorado in Mexico. With farms and industries each due a cut of “liquid property”, the water generally fails to reach the sea despite governmental efforts. The delta’s former fecundity is now relegated to the memories of octogenarians.

The Colorado is, for the most part, emotionally and intellectually rich — sometimes too much so. At one point, I missed a series of explanatory texts on screen because I was pondering the source of the sound accompanying them — it was, I eventually realized, the cellist striking his bow alternately on the instrument’s base and a plastic water bottle. Birdsong at the start of one segment is the call of the canyon wren, whose characteristic trill inspires a vocal piece later on. But I would not have recognized either fact without the pre-show talk.

The river is disappearing under the constant demands of civilization, yet is beautiful even in decline. The film closes with a Yuman poem, once description, now wish. “This is my water, my water… It shall flow forever.”

Monya Baker writes and edits for Nature from San Francisco, California. She tweets at Monya_science. The Colorado will travel to Washington DC in March 2018, as part of the Kennedy Center’s inaugural season of Direct Current, a celebration of contemporary culture. View a trailer for The Colorado here. A Nature Q&A with Paola Prestini can be found here.


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