Helen Friel - “Here’s Looking at Euclid” (paper sculptures of mathematician Oliver Byrne’s illustrations of Euclid’s Elements, 2012)
Byrne’s illustrated Euclid is one of my favorite vintage science reads (you can leaf through it online for free!) and the fact that the Mondrain-esque artwork has been made into paper sculptures makes me happier than I can verbalize.
If you delight in all nature’s forms most beautiful, you’d be well served to follow artist Michelle Anderst.
This is from her series symbolizing decomposition, and the inter-species, cross-domain symbioses that recycle all of life’s sculpture and ornament back to the palette of organic materials, ready to paint life anew.
The rest of her collection is just as fantastic, from floral anatomy to astronomical terrariums. I love.
Circling the Earth in 20 Golden Steps
Via Futility Closet, Jo Niemeyer’s land-art project 20 Steps takes us around the world in just that: 20 steps. It is a lesson in nature’s (seemingly) natural proportions and the extremes of logarithmic progression. More on ratios down below, but let’s first take a trip to Finland.
Picture a line, originating in the frigid Finnish lapland, that stretches 40,023 kilometers (one circumference) of the Earth, returning again to where it began. Niemeyer traced this path using only twenty metal poles to mark the way, erected in various countries stretching from northern Europe to Russia to China to Australia … and back to Finland. Why only twenty? There was a very particular method to this madness.
The poles were spaced out along this circumference line according to the golden ratio, or φ (1.61803398875). The first two were only 0.458 meters apart. The distance to the third was φ beyond the first two, or just under 3/4 of a meter. So on and so on … over the logarithmic horizon. Walking along this path, we will pass twelve of them before we leave Finland. By the fifteenth, we have left Europe and find ourselves in Russia. Number eighteen finds us in China, and to find nineteen we must travel to Australia. By twenty, we have arrived at our starting point.
The golden ratio, employed in sculpture and painting, seems at first glance inherent in nature’s forms, from quantum physics to flower petals. But is it really natural? It has fascinated artists, builders and scientists for ages, so much so that many in ages past declared it “divine”. But science tells us that no gods and spirits are at play in this math, that no design revealed via its ubiquitous appearance.
It begs the question nonetheless: Is this merely a numerical coincidence or the fingerprint of a deeper natural property at play? Are we just seeing phi where we want to see it and ignoring the rest?
The answer appears to revolve around efficiency. For things that grow in turns, spirals, or ordered stacks, like so much of nature does, phi isn’t magic, it’s just the best way to fit things in. Take the sunflower, for instance: turning 0.618 times before adding a new seed is just the best way to add seeds so that you don’t leave gaps between them. Visit Math is Fun for an interactive tool that lets you “build” flowers with different “natural ratios”.
It may seem that deducing the mathematics behind nature’s patterns diminishes their beauty. For me, art is made a little bit richer by it. We have taken a nod from the natural world to create pleasing creations by our own hands, and if you ask me, that’s universally beautiful.
What do you think?
"To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white arena — all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it."
- Vladimir Nabokov
Such a beautiful description of the pleasure of investigation, capturing the intensely personal joy that accompanies a moment of discovery.
Nabokov was a man of few passions, but to writing and butterflies, his two most beloved arenas, he devoted himself completely. Both of these, though, seem to pale in comparison to his love for Vera, Nabokov’s wife, translator and muse.
Nabokov was no mere hobbyist when it came to the study of Lepidoptera. He dedicated much of his life to observing, collecting and drawing butterflies. So serious was his study that a major theory of butterfly evolution was proven correct by molecular biologists decades after he proposed it.
Thanks to Open Culture, I learned that Nabokov would often draw butterflies for Vera, sketched in the first few pages of books he would give her (above). Many, if not all of them, were imagined species, based on specimens from his study, but created and named solely for her. Vanessa verae, for one, is a midnight and blue variant of the Vanessa genus. These belonged to her alone, an unmatchable gift of pure fantasy. Who among you ladies wouldn’t swoon if you were given your own butterfly? Looks like I’ve got some work to do for Christmas or Valentine’s Day.
Vanessa appears again in Nabokov’s work, in both human and insect form, as the “crimson-barred” and “Admirable butterfly” wife of John Shade in Pale Fire. Brian Boyd wrote that no other author “…has been a more passionate student of the natural world or a more accomplished scientist.”
Although perhaps not as deeply as Nabokov, many (most?) artists have taken notes from science and nature, and their work has been made all the richer for it. I wonder what we would discover if we did the same for science, accepting that our act of observation, interpretation and creation is not that different from drawing butterflies, an act we undertake simply for the love of seeing something new, and giving it to another?
If you enjoyed this intersection of lepidoptery with love, don’t miss Nabokov’s hand-written margin notes on the entomology of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Were the First Artists Mostly Women?
That’s the conclusion behind new analysis of cave painting handprints by Penn State’s Dean Snow. Several years ago, a British biologist found that men and women’s hands differed in the relative lengths of their fingers. Men tended to have a ring finger that was longer than their index finger (although I do not).
When Snow applied that pattern to the measurements of handprints found in prehistoric cave art (similar to the example above from France’s legendary Chauvet Cave), he found that the pattern more closely resembled female hand ratios. Were our first artists women?
It’s an intriguing hypothesis, but there are alternative explanations. Perhaps these handprints belonged to adolescent boys, sneaking into dangerous caves and doing a little “five-finger graffiti”? As more cave handprints are analyzed, perhaps the dusty picture will become a little bit clearer.
The ultimate question, of course, is why did they draw such things? No handprint can tell that story, buried in history, hidden in the dark shadows of ancient caves.
Oh, and I command you to watch Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It’s a dream journey back in time, through the lens of cave art.
(more on the handprints at National Geographic)
Source: National Geographic
Physics and the Pearl Earring
Enjoy this video from Amor Sciendi, in which we take a cross-disciplinary journey to answer a burning question buried in Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring: Is she turning towards us, or away? I love the combination of physics and art history, painting new layers of meaning not with paint, but with science.
In other words:
Previously: See the world, and some art, through Claude Monet’s ultraviolet eye.
Expand your capacity for uncertainty!
Everyone who has ever made something or fancies that they might ever make something should watch this no less than 6 times. So many aspects of the creative process, from psychology to perseverance to inspiration, are explored here.
Follow that with a whole mess of posts on creativity from Brain Pickings, and this advice from Charles Bukowski, illustrated by Zen Pencils: