Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tattoos: The Science in Your Body Art

In Brooklyn, Obama fans partied in the streets and hugged random strangers until the weee hours of the morning on November 5. Not everyone spoke the same language: some sang out in Spanish, others in Chinese, English, Italian, etc.-- but it didn't matter, body language said it all. In fact, some fans were so enthusiastic that they sported permanent body language: Obama tattoos. And this tattoo artist even offered free Obama tattoos! Deciding whether or not to sport body art for the rest of your life is a tough decision, and then there's the question of what colors to use. Perhaps a bit of information on the science of how tattoos work will be helpful:

Science Saves Fiction in "The First Vampire"

Normally, filmmakers add a huge dose of fiction to a dash of science in order to make a movie that is palatable to a mainstream audience. Fiction has no limits; it takes us as far as the imagination can dream– so it’s not surprising that these types of stories often draw a larger audience than, say, practical texts that detail hard facts proved by scientific research and peer-reviewed by dozens of nerds whose vocabulary is chock full of 14 letter words that include so many x’s and y’s that not only does a population of non-scientists moan with mental agony at the mere thought of reading such articles (myself being included in this group), we also refuse to play against scientists in scrabble. All of that is to say that fiction often helps to make a scientific idea digestible– it doesn’t often work the other way around. However, I just came across an exception to this general rule of thumb at the Imagine Science Film Festival’s screening of The First Vampire.

The lighting is terrible, the costumes are cheap, and the acting is below average—but the thirty seconds devoted to a few paragraphs of scientific justification that flashed across the screen just before the credits rolled made 23.5 minutes of watching a painfully terrible story-line unravel worthwhile.

Yes, science is capable of saving more than lives: it can save fiction too! And if you choose to keep reading, I’ll save you from having to waste 23.5 minutes of your life to get to the interesting tid bit of science at the end of The First Vampire:

The legend of the vampire is likely based on porphyria, which are rare and incurable genetic diseases that strike about one in every 200,000 people. Symptoms of porphyria include a vampire-like aversion to sunlight and garlic and a craving for blood.

Something about the sun’s rays seems to irritate the skin of those who suffer from porphyria to a such a degree that the skin becomes disfigured, may sprout unbecoming patches of hair in unusual places, and sometimes a body part (a finger, for example) falls right off.

Porphyria victims also have an averse reaction to garlic, which contains a chemical that exacerbates the symptoms of the disease.

Today, those who suffer from porphyria are treated with injections of heme, a product of blood. This treatment was not available in the Middle Ages, so perhaps victims of the disease self-medicated by seeking out blood where-ever they could find it, whether from beasts or humans.

Note: I would caution anyone who may have a roommate without health insurance (or at least a friend in the medical field who could hook them up with some heme) and who is also pale, hairy, and missing a few fingers. It’s not just fiction after all…vampires are for real!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Imagine Science Film Festival Review: Fermat's Room

First, I should tell you that the film is in Spanish, and if you can read, it's worth watching. Oh, and it's a math movie. So those who don't like math or reading are better off renting Dumb and Dumber-- but for everyone else, Fermat's Room is a fantastic movie, full of suspense and deception.
Four of Spain's brightest mathematicians are invited to a prestigious dinner party to discuss great mathematical enigmas. They do eat dinner, and they do solve a few word problems, but more importantly they are trapped in a room with a killer. It's not just any room, either. The room is rigged to hydraulic presses that push the walls in with every second that passes the alloted time that the mathematicians are given to solve a riddle. I won't give away the ending, but suffice it to say that some live, and some die.

Here are a couple of Fermat's puzzles to ponder, just in case you are invited to a mysterious dinner party before you're able to see the film:

1. In “False Land” everyone always lies. In “Truth Land” everyone always tells the truth. A stranger is trapped between two doors, each one guarded by a jailer. One of the guards is from "False Land," and one is from “Truth Land,” but the stranger doesn't know which jailer is from where.
One door leads to freedom, and the other doesn't. The stranger can only ask one question to one jailer. What should he ask to be sure that he knows which is the door to freedom?

2. How can you time a period of nine minutes when you only have two sand clocks, one that measures four minutes and one that measures seven minutes?

Dr Atomic: Doomed to Bomb?

“Art-Science?” hissed an anonymous opera-loving artist and dean at the City University of New York, when I asked if she would be going to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dr. Atomic. “Science will only dilute true art. I expect it to bomb. I’ll read the review to confirm,” she snapped.
“But give it a shot– at least it’s not completely factually accurate, so you might like it…there could be some artistic merit, right?” I pleaded.


The anonymous dean is not the only one to protest the intermingling of science and art, but I believe these types will be missing out on a truly fantastic production. While the building of the first atomic bomb took about 27 months to complete, John Adams and Peter Sellers poured over the creation of Dr. Atomic for approximately six years. The result is a feast for all the senses. The set is appropriately stark and jagged and the sounds are heavy and intense (the Met installed a six zone surround sound for the very first time). Equally essential, the crashing and thundering causes not only the heart to beat, but also affects that other organ– the brain– in a way that only a work based on true experience can. There truth is…there is nothing more frightening than the truth, and for the most part Adams and Sellers stuck to the facts.

In fact, the libretto (written by Peter Sellers) is largely a compilation of quotes. Though this does not make for a hummable tune, there’s really no need of such a gimmick– the lines are too haunting to forget.

“The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing that at this loss I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card,” says Oppenheimer, who was, ironically, a graduate of the Ethical Culture School. Whether or not the creation of the bomb was ethical is debatable, but the production of the opera is certainly ethereal. Perhaps it takes art to find make something divine from a rubble of destruction.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I’m Not Kidding: Rufus Seder’s Scanimation Books are Not Just for Kids

He may be old, but Rufus Butler Seder sure does have some cool moves. I purchased a copy of his first motion-picture book, Gallop, because it’s fantastically fun, of course. But when I met my best girlfriend for lunch and showed her my nifty new book, she was HORRIFIED, and promptly diagnosed me as a mamma-wanna-be: “Your biological clock is ticking. You’ve been shopping in the kids book section….ohmygod…” So, let me be clear: Seder’s moving images are works or art/science that just happen to be in the kiddie section of bookstores, but I assure you that they are fun for all ages…and buying a copy should not be a reflection of the tic toc of the biological clock. Please. Without further ado, here’s a little background on Seder:
It took him a very long time to come up with the technology for Gallop– decades, in fact. Rufus was in to art and magic as a kid, and now that he’s an adult….he’s still into it. About 20 years ago he started experimenting with LIFETILES, which are motion pictures that don’t require electricity or moving parts (A LIFETILE is an optical glass-tiled mural that appears to move as the viewer walks along side of it, so the only thing that has to move is the viewer). You can see LIFETILES at the Miami Zoo and various aquariums around the world, but these installations are way too large and expensive for normal people to put in their houses. Luckily, Rufus figured out how to make images move in a smaller format: books. The technology he uses to make this work is called “scanimation.” Here’s Rufus’ explanation of how it works:

Printed on the page is a series of distorted stripes representing a multiphase sequence of motion that means little to the naked eye. Printed on a clear plastic overlay is a series of black stripes. When the black stripes are moved over the distorted imagery at just the right angle and speed…you have motion. Fluid, sequential, multiphase animated motion. The beauty of this method is in its simplicity” It’s a centuries-old principle reinvented using the exactitude of modern science.

Seder recently came out with another moving image book, Swing. For the record, it’s a fabulous book-- and no baby required.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Does Science Make God Obselete?

The luncheon crowd at The Pierre roared with laughter as Christopher Hitchens, atheist and author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” debated whether science makes belief in God obsolete with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, former physicist and author of “God at the Ritz; Attraction to Infinity”. Surprisingly, the two were in agreement so often that Hitchens ultimately stated that he would “…not accuse Monsignor of being a Catholic,” and further grumbled, “I protest! I was told I was going to argue with a person of faith.” Whether Monsignor could be classified as a “true Catholic” or not, they disagreed enough to keep the debate interesting.
Monsignor talked of unexplainable love, while Hitchens compared Jesus to Kim Jong Il, whose deceased father is actually still the official ruler of North Korea, making it a necrocracy. “They’re one short of a Trinity,” declared Hitchens, who went on to explain the similarities of how North Koreans are in a similar predicament as Christians, who are required to love God, even when He appears not to take good care of his people. Hitchens even went so far as to point out one important point of difference in his example, which is that one can escape North Korea by dying, but a Christian is condemned, conditioned, and forced to love and thank God for all Eternity.
Over the course of an hour and a delicious three course lunch, the Monsignor and Hitchens also covered superstition, condoms, homosexuality, and thousands of years of history– it was a mouthful for everyone, to say the least. In sum: the purpose of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete’s faith is to make sense out of life, just as science fills that role for Christopher Hitchens.
The panel moderator, Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, kept an even keel by opening the panel with a reading of both panelist’s horoscope and ending it by quoting a bumper sticker: “I don’t know, and neither do you.”

Friday, July 11, 2008

From Dead Dude To Diamonds

Let's say you're dating a guy, and you've discovered that he's just not that bright, lacks an element of bling, isn't a gem to hang out with, and-- in sum-- he's just not working out to be "forever" material. No sense in trying to change his habits, ladies-- that never works. Science, however, can help you add brilliance and bling to your man-- forever. All you have to do is kill him, cremate him, and use the carbon to turn his body into a diamond. Now, there's a gem that will stay with you forever. Here's why it works:

You may not think your boyfriend has much in common with diamonds, but, in fact, there is one thing: they are both made of carbon, and that's all that matters at the end of the day (or rather, at the end of his life). It takes about six months to convert the carbon from cremated remains into a "sunburst" diamond, and about nine months to turn it into a "blue" diamond. That's right, it's the same amount of time it takes to have a baby....Regardless of whether you believe in rebirth or some sort of life-after-death, one thing is for certain: a boyfriend that becomes a born-again Christian is high maintenance, but a born-again diamond is much easier to live with than any other type of born-again currently offered by various religious faiths or other organizations. Here's more good news: the carbon left over from his cremation is enough to produce between 50-100 diamonds, so you could make necklaces, earrings, nose studs, bracelets, ankle, bracelets...

Boys: beware babes who wear a lot of bling.