Tag Archives: science

Imagining the year 2000 (in 1900)

19 Aug

The other day, I stumbled across these brilliant French illustrations imagining what life would be like in the year 2000. Issued between 1899 and 1910, they were enclosed inside cigarette/cigar boxes or sent as postcards, and the first series was produced for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

It’s pretty funny now to look back at some of the artists’ predictions – one can’t help but think they might be a little bit disappointed with today’s lack of flying firemen and ever-present robots. But I wonder how many of our predictions for the year 3000 will come true (according to Busted, we’ll all be living underwater with lots of naked, triple-breasted women).

Anyway, here’s a few of the retro-futuristic illustrations by Villemard and Jean-Marc Côté (view the full set here):

Gravity-defying firemen

A conductor operates his mechanical orchestra

Madame at her toilette

Croquet in diving helmets!

A lazy teacher feeds textbooks into his pupils’ heads

Not all of them are so far-fetched though. This one is essentially Skype, albeit with vintage equipment…

Skype, retro-future style. Check out that hat…

And I’d be very grateful if anyone could explain this one to me. Some kind of equine theatre maybe? A fully-clothed version of Equus?

A horse on a stage. No idea what this one’s about…

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A wee update

1 Aug

Things have been a bit quiet here lately, so I thought I’d post a quick update with some of the stuff I’ve been up to.

First off, I’ve contributed an article about gunshot forensics (the idea of using the sound of a gunshot to help solve a crime) to the new issue of Guru magazine, out today. This issue also features articles about GM foods, social media, and the Fukushima disaster, and you can download it for free here.

I’m probably slightly biased, but I reckon Guru does a great job of making science accessible and easy to digest. The magazine is now in its 7th issue, and it’s really exciting to watch the number of writers and followers  growing by the month.  Good work, Dr Stu and co.

Elsewhere, I’ve written a piece for the current issue of BBC Focus magazine about the history and future of television (cool fact: the first TV viewers in the 1930s were called ‘lookers-in’), and I’ve also been writing regular blogs for the magazine’s website. Finally, I recently covered a news story for physicsworld.com about one of the most controversial debates in geology – how hotspot volcanoes such as the Hawaiian Islands are formed.

Anyway, that’s all for now folks. There’ll be another (more interesting) blog post before too long. Toodle pip.

Superhero Science: Tomorrow’s caped crusaders

6 Jun

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Everyone loves a good Hollywood ending. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a masked hero finally dispatch an evil villain. But aren’t flying men with super-strength a bit passé? Maybe it’s time for some new, cutting-edge superheroes…

Introducing… Corner Woman, Neutrino-man and Camo-Kid (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Science and superheroes have a surprisingly intimate history. Pick any of the well-known protagonists from the Marvel or DC comic books and the chances are you’ll be able to trace their history back to science.

Spider-Man, for instance, came into existence when geeky high school student Peter Parker was bitten by a (radioactive) spider during a science demonstration. Some superheroes were even fully-fledged scientists before freak accidents gave them their powers – Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk) and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) are two examples.

The X-Men, whose superpowers developed from mutations, were undoubtedly inspired by the theory of evolution. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the real world is going to start growing claws out of their hands, but mutations are known to play an important role in natural selection, in which a random mutation, if beneficial, can eventually become a new characteristic of a species.

Even Superman – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” – is not quite as unscientific as you might think. In 2007, Dr Chris Stanley at London’s Natural History Museum discovered a mineral with the chemical formula ‘sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide’. He soon realised that this composition was remarkably similar to the description of a rock containing Kryptonite in the 2006 film Superman Returns. The real mineral, however, is white, powdery and harmless – quite unlike the green, radioactive material that blights Superman throughout his adventures.

Superman plays with himself (credit: JC Hancock)

Clearly, then, there’s a fair amount of science in the world of superheroes. But what type of superhero, I wondered, could be born from today’s cutting-edge scientific research? I decided to browse through some of the recent science news stories and create three science-inspired superheroes of my own. This trio probably won’t be gracing a Marvel comic or Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, but I hope you’ll take them into your heart anyway.

Continue reading

An Exceedingly Curious Bestiary

13 Feb

Somewhere in deepest, darkest Australia lurks a most terrifying assortment of animals. Shark-helicopter hybrids patrol the skies. Mechanically-enhanced rats wage war against robotic beetles. The bones of long-dead animals are reanimated into hideous configurations. And that faint sound of trickling water? That’s the sound of David Attenborough wetting his pants.

A Pilot Fish, guided by its fishy co-pilots (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

For the past five years, Kaitlin Beckett has been bringing this nightmarish ecosystem to life. Based in Melbourne, Kaitlin makes artwork that is inspired by anatomy and the natural world, but with a distinctly dark and surreal twist. I couldn’t resist posting up some of her work, so scroll down for a selection of these weird and wonderful beasties, as well as an interview with Kaitlin herself.

Say hello to the Beetle Walker (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Kaitlin, when did you begin your magnificent bestiary?

I started painting seriously about 5 years ago, though I’ve been drawing and sketching all my life. I’ve always loved watching nature documentaries and sci-fi films so my bestiary started to develop from these. I’ve also been collecting gas masks and goggles for a while now so these pop up on my creatures all the time.

What’s your usual process for creating the artworks?

I normally turn an idea around in my head for a while before I sketch it out. Sometimes once it’s sketched I’ll work on it straight away. I create larger sketches, test colours and composition, and once I’m happy I’ll transfer it to canvas and ink in the outline. I add the colour next with my airbrush and some hand painting, then there are several layers of ink splats, pastel and ink linework before it’s finished.

A wise old Samurai Tubfish (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

Do you have any favourite artists? Terry Gilliam sprang to mind when I first saw your work…

I am a fan of Terry Gilliam! A few of my all time favourite artists are HR Giger, Beksinski, Escher, Mucha, Lempicka, Kahlo, Bacon and of course Dali…too many to name!

Although the creatures are quite fantastical, their anatomy is often very detailed and intricate. What is it that appeals to you about mixing the real and the imaginary?

I think it’s an artist’s job to share a bit of their imagination and to look deeper into things, to reimagine and reinterpret. While I appreciate the technical skill behind photorealistic art, I can’t get excited about paintings that look like photographs, unless there’s a twist or a surprise, or some element of fantasy or surrealism. My creatures have an almost cartoon-like look, though I adore fine detail and texture so I’m trying to combine these elements in my work.

The Longhorn Octopus…possibly quite friendly (credit: Kaitlin Beckett)

If you were a mad scientist for the day, which of your creatures would you bring to life?

Perhaps not the fell beasts – they would eat me! I’d perhaps like to hitch a ride in my Pilot Fish shark helicopter, and my Longhorn Octopus could possibly be friendly.

Finally, what are your plans for 2012?

I had a crazy year last year with a solo show plus a few big group shows so in 2012 I’m taking it easy and focusing on getting better at airbrushing and sculpture. I’m taking part in a joint show in September with a very talented artist (my beasts meet vigilantes!), so I’m looking forward to that.

Frigate Bird – one of Kaitlin’s first sculptures

Now that Kaitlin’s beginning to work on sculptures, maybe it won’t be too long before the Curious Bestiary gets its own zoo. Let’s just hope the cages are securely locked…

Visit Kaitlin Beckett’s Curious Bestiary here!

Songs of Science #4: British Sea Power

20 Jan

In 2002, a huge chunk of the Larsen Ice Shelf – “Larsen B” – collapsed into the sea. In just over a month, an area the size of the US state Rhode Island vanished from the Antarctic Peninsula – the most dramatic ice shelf disintegration ever recorded.

Scientists attributed this collapse to a series of warm summers, which led to increased air temperatures and the formation of meltwater ponds on the shelf’s surface. This water flowed down through cracks in the ice, helping to lever it apart and bring about its downfall.

The Larsen B ice shelf, before (left) and after (right) its collapse in early 2002 (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

The lovably eccentric band British Sea Power paid tribute to this defunct ice shelf on their 2005 album Open Season. “Oh Larsen B” features the glorious lyrics: “You’re fractured and cold but your heart is unbroken / My favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf / Oh Larsen B, oh you can fall on me / Oh Larsen B, desalinate the barren sea”.

And the music is equally glorious – one of British Sea Power’s trademark anthems, all buzzsaw guitars and breathy vocals. In fact, it’s probably the best love song to a collapsed ice shelf ever written…

Click here to read all of the previous “Songs of Science” posts.

When Google Doodles Scientists

13 Jan

Ever since 1998, Google has been brightening up its homepage with “Google doodles”, playfully customised logos which celebrate a current event or the birthday of a famous person. The first ever doodle was created when the Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, attended the Burning Man festival and wanted to let Google users know that they were “out of office”.

Since then, the Google doodle has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. There have now been over 1,000 doodles, celebrating events ranging from the anniversary of the ice cream sundae to Freddie Mercury’s 65th Birthday (this one needs to be seen!).

A couple days ago, being the geek that I am, I got quite excited by a science-themed doodle – a strati-tastic version of the Google logo in celebration of Nicolas Steno, an important figure in modern geology.

So, noticing that Google keeps an archive of all of its doodles, I thought I’d find out which other scientists had been honoured by Google’s creative bods. Turns out there’s quite a lot… Continue reading

The Myth of the 27 Club

30 Dec

A few months ago, I turned 27. Had I been a famous musician, I may well have dreaded this moment and gone into hibernation for a year, because 27 is the age of the rock star death.

The membership list of the ’27 Club’ – those musicians who met an untimely end at the age of 27 – reads like a Who’s Who of influential rock stars: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones…and so the list goes on. A rather morbid website dedicated to the phenomenon names many more, and this year saw the addition of another high-profile member: Amy Winehouse, who tragically died last July from alcohol poisoning.

Three members of the '27 Club' (l-r): Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse

So why do so many musicians seem to crash and burn at the age of 27? Is it all just a spooky coincidence, or do rock star deaths really group around this fabled age? A team of statisticians in Germany and Australia recently set out to solve the mystery of the 27 Club once and for all. Continue reading

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