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Category Archives: Pictures

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When I last used Hotmail (and I’ll admit it’s been a while), the service had recently added a feature that allowed you to categorize your email into separate folders. I wasn’t terribly impressed by this, because by that time I had already started using Gmail, and it was pretty obvious that Gmail’s system of “Labels” was way better than Hotmail’s folders. You can attach several labels to the same email in Gmail, but you could only put an email into a single folder in Hotmail. Well, it should be easy enough to see that some things don’t fit well into separate, non-overlapping categories.

I was recently reminded of this fact by a friend’s reaction – or perhaps more accurately, her reaction to my reaction to – the picture above, which I liked so much that I set it as my Facebook cover photo, along with a short description:

“Micrograph of stained hippocampal tissue. The hippocampus is the component of the brain that’s primarily responsible for the formation of new memories (Leonard Shelby, the guy in “Memento” developed severe anterograde amnesia after sustaining damage to his hippocampus – and yes, that can really happen). The pink parts are the neuron cell bodies, the blue fibers are axons, and the green fibers are supporting glial cells (which outnumber neurons 9 to 1).”

My friend pretty much told me that it was a pretty picture, and that was cool, but that it was pretentious and unnecessary to see it as anything more. Well, I disagree, but not entirely – because I do think it’s a pretty picture, but it’s also fascinating because of what it represents.

When you look at that picture, you are looking at the hardware that lay behind what was once a human mind. It’s easy to forget this, but everything that matters to you only really exists within the confines of a tiny region of the universe that you perceive as your skull. We forget this because we forget that there is hardware behind human minds. The universe is made up of various types of waves and particles – there are no sights, sounds, or smells, let alone emotions or experiences. Those things are “virtual” constructs; created by the hardware of the brain and handed on a silver platter to your consciousness – which is also, of course, created by the brain.

Every beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard, every exhilarating game of football you’ve played, every romantic experience you’ve had, is an outcome of the (currently) mysterious interactions between billions of neurons like those in the picture above. Somehow, somewhere in that mess of molecules are things like a picture of a human being that you recognize as yourself; records, or “memories”, of the activities of entirely different groups of molecules that belonged to you a few years ago; and a whole lot more. It’s an amazing, awe-inspiring thought. And the picture up there is so much the prettier for the fact that it evokes these thoughts.

As a little bit of a contrast, take a look at the picture below, a diagram showing the structure of an animal cell.

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Beyond all doubt, the ways in which cells go about their jobs is absolutely fascinating, but this picture just isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the one above, is it? So, by thinking about the two pictures, we can conclude that things that are intellectually stimulating are a separate category from things that are are aesthetically pleasing, but that the two sets are not mutually exclusive.

In short, we should’t be forced to put awesome things into non-overlapping folders like “Aesthetically Pleasing Pictures” and “Sciency Stuff”; instead, we should be able to attach both those labels to an experience, and see it as even more awesome!

There’s a quiet thrill to be had from being able to spot less-than-obvious references in popular media. Does anyone remember this crossover ad on Cartoon Network that featured Johnny Bravo talking about his whirlwind romance with Velma Dinkley (from Scooby-Doo)?

It’s set late at night in a lonely cafe , perched at the intersection of two dark, empty streets. Somehow, it wasn’t the sort of thing you usually found in cartoons, and there’s unquestionably something that was very memorable about the scene, because I still do remember it, after all these years. In fact, it immediately came to mind when I chanced upon the painting that inspired it: “Nighthawks”, by Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Nighthawks (1942), by Edward Hopper

The Cartoon Network version

“Nighthawks” is one of the most recognizable American paintings ever (here’s another one; you’ve almost certainly seen references to it, too, even if you never knew it) and it’s easy to see why. There’s a haunting sense of loneliness about it, but unlike the human figures in many paintings that sought to express the isolation that’s inevitably a part of modern urban life (see Mark Rothko’s “Subway Scene”, for example), the people here are real people, not just faceless creatures. You can actually imagine meeting the woman in the red dress, or ordering a drink from the waiter in a sailor’s uniform. And you can’t help asking yourself what the individual circumstances were that brought each of these people to this place.

“Nighthawks” was painted in 1942, almost immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour (which was on December 7th, 1941). It was a dark time for the United States, and this is reflected in the mood of the painting – it’s hard to tell whether any of the people there are interacting with one another at all. That’s probably how it often is after a tragedy – there doesn’t seem to be anything worth saying to anyone.

I think it’s to J.K. Rowling’s credit that she managed to include so many classical monsters in her Harry Potter series- in a sense reviving them from obscurity and allowing them to be passed onto later generations of modern readers. Obvious examples include centaurs, the basilisk and the sphinx, all of which come from Ancient Greek myths. I’m sure there are a few others as well.

Until now, though, I didn’t realize that the Hippogriff wasn’t Rowling’s creation either. Somehow, the name “Hippogriff”” seems to convey the same sort of whimsy as “Dumbledore” (which I’m pretty sure is something that Rowling created by combining two other words – although, of course, I could be wrong about that, too), and I just assumed that she’d come up with it.

Apparently not. Seems that Hippogriffs have been around for quite some time. An early reference occurs in the epic poem Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto, which was first published in its complete form in 1532. Orlando Furioso is, by the way, probably no less of a swashbuckling fantasy story than the Harry Potter series: the plot wanders from Scotland to Japan, and even to the moon; and of course, there is an admirable array of mythical monsters as well. Haven’t read it yet, but I probably should at some point.

I found out about the Hippogriff’s impressive ancestry when I came across two illustrations for Orlando Furioso by Gustave Doré (for more on him: Gustave Doré: Gloom and Glory). Here they are:

"Hippogriff", illustration by Gustave Doré for Orlando Furioso.

"Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica" by Gustave Doré; illustration for Orlando Furioso

By the way, my apologies to readers with delicate sensibilities, but nude women are pretty common in a lot of art.

UPDATE: Who knew Harry Potter could be analyzed this deeply (or weirdly)?

UPDATE 2: For an accessible overview of Orlando Furioso, and its prequel Orlando Innamorato, this is a great link.

Probably one of the best optical illusions I've ever seen. The squares A and B are the exact same shade of grey. Seriously. Try using MS Paint to check

Einstein (bored by Bohr's talk of quantum mechanics): "God does not play dice with the universe..." ; Bohr: "Don't tell God what to do with his dice!"

Today I feel like sharing some more Edvard Munch (cf.Existential Anguish” from the archives of this blog; it was posted in May 2010). The painting below is called “Vampire”. Cool, innit?

Vampire, by Edvard Munch

Death Depicted as the Grim Reaper on top of the World

Back into the Tempest

I was recently reminded of the macabre brilliance of Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) when I came across a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. On the front cover of the book was Death Depicted as the Grim Reaper on top of the World, one of his illustrations for Poe’s renowned poem The Raven. I’m sure I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of his oeuvre, but of the works I’ve seen, the Grim Reaper on top of the World, and Back into the Tempest are probably my favourites. They’re both from The Raven, and I’ve included them above.

Just from these two pictures, I think Doré’s talent for creating lasting images of dark, surreal beauty is obvious. His best works were probably those that were furthest away from prosaic reality, works which explored calamity, tragedy, loss, loneliness, triumph and bliss, in worlds foreign but familiar to our own. The influential American critic Edmund C. Stedman, a contemporary of Doré’s, described him in these words: “He was born a master of the grotesque, and by a special insight could portray the spectres of a haunted brain… Beauty pure and simple, and the perfect excellence thereof, he rarely seemed to comprehend.”

Even when he was depicting the real world, such as in his book London: A Pilgrimage, he couldn’t keep himself from focussing largely on the poverty of the vast majority of its inhabitants. I particularly like the image below- Over London by Rail, which is from that book. It seems to me to convey the fact that despite the technological advances of a booming metropolis, for many people, living in Victorian London was like living in a row of cages at a pet store. Even if they had most of the things they needed to survive, they would never escape their socioeconomic cages.

 

Over London by Rail (1870)

Most of Doré’s illustrations (and all of the ones included here) were either steel or wood engravings, which are both forms of printmaking. What that means is the artist didn’t create these works by drawing on paper with a pen or pencil- contrary to what I first thought when I came across works like this.

Instead, printmaking is achieved by first creating a matrix– for example, by engraving a desired pattern or picture on a block of wood. The matrix is then used to transfer ink onto paper, creating a single copy of the artist’s desired image, which is known as an impression. It’s a lot like using a stamp; and just like with stamps, one major advantage of printmaking is that a single matrix can be used to create a large number of identical impressions. This is, of course, particularly useful when one’s works are to be used in widely published books- as Doré’s were.

The monochrome palette of printmaking (in Western art- as opposed mainly to Japanese art- printmaking almost never used colour) makes Doré’s works even more dreamlike, and suited many of the books he illustrated extremely well- books of fantastic adventure stories, such as Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and of course, the Bible.

Critics have said that the quality of Doré’s pictures depended greatly upon the nature, and the quality of the literature he illustrated. As I consider the classic literary masterpieces I just mentioned, I can’t shake the feeling that Doré could have created something unforgettable if he had had the opportunity to illustrate one of my personal favourite works of fiction: The Lord of the Rings…

Anyway, here’s a few more Dorés:

Illustration for The Divine Comedy

Illustration for Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'

Final illustration for The Raven

 

If you have any doubts as to the awesomeness of what is to follow, go back and reread the title of this post- Dinosaur Comics! Created by Canadian Ryan North in 2003, these comics deal with everything from love to linguistics, history and science fiction, the nature of Good and Evil… and lots more.

And what makes them even more interesting is their format- Dinosaur Comics is what’s known as a constrained comic. You’ll notice that nearly every comic has the same six panels, and that it’s only the dialog that changes from one to the next. This constraint makes it challenging to continue writing such a comic in a way that retains originality and interestingness (by the way, I just found out that that is a real word- interestingness).

One might say that constrained comics aren’t exactly a new idea, but are descended from some very illustrious forms of constrained art. In poetry, for instance, sonnets, and Japanese haiku impose rigid constraints upon writers. And then there are those weirdos who attempt to write novels in palindromic form, or without the letter “e”. A heads up for the regular readers of this site (i.e. no one): that last constrained form sounds like so much fun to me that my next post is going to be an attempt at such a story!

Anyways, enjoy the three comics below, and for more, go to http://www.qwantz.com. I recommend going to the archives and reading them from the very beginning- 1st February, 2003. Note that Ryan North gives full permission to share his comics in any way you like, but if you do publish them publicly, just let him know by email.

The Scream (1893)- by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch

I can’t imagine a work of art more poignantly capturing an ill-defined but all-consuming sense of existential anguish than The Scream.

The lack of recognizable facial features on the principal subject somehow only serves to convey its emotions more acutely. It’s as if everything that once made this creature human has been stripped away, leaving behind only a raw core of fear and pain. These emotions are of such crushing magnitude that they distort material reality around the subject, causing the skies to boil and meld with the land and the sea. There’s no detail in the surroundings because it all pales into insignificance- even nonexistence- in the face of the subject’s pain.

Crucially, though, the two figures in the background are not distorted in the same way as the faceless subject. This fact, along with their physical distance from the subject, seems to drive home the idea that it is alone in its pain. There is no hope here of misery being assuaged by finding itself in like company. It suffers alone.

One of the most famous paintings of all time, The Scream is an example of Expressionist art, which sought to express emotional experience and the meaning of being alive rather than physical reality. It’s been the victim of several high-profile art thefts, and was recovered more than once in sting operations by police forces from several countries.

Upon examination of his life, one might find that it’s not too inappropriate that Edvard Munch would have created such a powerful depiction of human misery. Munch’s father was religious to the point of fanaticism, and forcibly imposed his values upon all of his five children. Of his father, Munch once said: “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”

Munch himself was chronically ill, but had to contend with the poor family’s constant moving from one sordid flat to another. One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Another quote attributed to Munch: “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption [tuberculosis] and insanity.”

It is interesting that Munch took an open-minded view of the world- and of art, in particular- in contrast to his father’s unwavering adherence to parochial religious dogma.


The mission badge for the Spirit rover, featuring Marvin the Martian

This image was named "Self-portrait with rock'

Sunrise on Mars. This panoramic image was one of the first to be beamed back to Earth

The Red Planet really is pretty red

Spirit is dying. And, one might say, it’s about time, too. The intrepid little rover’s been exploring the Martian surface since January the 3rd, 2004. It shares the Red Planet’s surface with its twin, Opportunity; but since their landing sites were almost diametrically opposite one another, they probably don’t get into too many fights about who’s on whose side of the planet.

Spirit, which is about the size of a dune buggy, got stuck in a sand trap in May 2009, and since only four of its six wheels remained fully operational by then, it hasn’t been able to extricate itself yet. This leaves the rover in an extremely vulnerable situation, as it’s unable to orient its solar panels to take full advantage of the sun’s energy, or to allow the wind to brush dust off the panels’ surfaces. And now, with the onset of the harsh Martian winter, when even less of the sun’s energy reaches the planet’s surface, Spirit may run out of power completely.

It would be a sad end to what’s been a long and fruitful life of adventuring. Far longer than nearly anyone expected, as a matter of fact. When Spirit and Opportunity were launched, their expected lifetimes were only three months. They’ve both already outlived that estimate by a factor of around 24. They’ve survived paralyzing cold, blinding dust and long periods without sun, all of which occasionally left them silent and still, but only until conditions improved and they shook off the dust, stirred to life and puttered off to do more work.

Don’t you just wish all electronic appliances were that resilient?

An interesting take on wave-particle duality 😛

The Hubble Space Telescope- like the more recently built Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – is one of those icons of scientific endeavour that captures the imagination of thousands all over the world. Soon after it was launched in 1990, it was discovered that the main mirror, despite having been constructed to within 10 nanometres of all specifications, was incapable of producing sharply defined images. It took an extraordinarily difficult servicing mission to correct the Hubble’s optical flaws; but in the end, it was a complete success.

After that first servicing mission in 1993, The Hubble went on to produce some of the finest and most captivating images of space ever seen. (“Pillars of Creation”, one of the most famous Hubble images, is included here.) The astonishing detail and the nuanced coloration of these images lend them an evocative beauty that often transcends a lack of understanding of their actual subject matter in a way that few other scientific images do.

However, it may come as a surprise to learn that much of the appeal of these images comes not from the telescope itself, but from the astronomers and image processing specialists who- in a sense- “photoshop” the images before releasing them to the public. That’s because the Hubble only sends images in black and white!

Astronomers have to make choices about composition, colour and contrast in order to bring out specific aspects of the data that the Hubble beams down to Earth. And while these decisions often have scientific meaning (just for e.g., hotter stars are usually blue-ish white, whereas cooler ones are redder), they are also occasionally made purely in order to enhance the visual appeal of the images.

For people who’ve never had access to the Hubble’s raw data, it might be hard to rein in a vague sense of disappointment over the fact that the universe may not be quite that pretty, after all; but, looked at another way, it’s a whole lot more mysterious…