Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Physics of Light

by Drew Martin
Over the past week I watched a six-part, South Korean-made series about physics, called The Physics of Light. It is a well-done and engaging introduction to the scientific conceptual leaps made by Galileo, Newton, Einstein and other famous scientists.

Some of the concepts are quite complicated, especially when it ventures into Quantum Mechanics, and five variations of String Theory rolled up into M-Theory. Don't feel bad if you find these ideas difficult to understand, Einstein himself could not wrap his head around Quantum Mechanics and everything that came after that. Fortunately this series is witty and clear.

At times I could not tell if it was being dumbed down a bit for a younger audience or if it was simply a cultural difference; that a South Korean approach to education might purposefully be repetitive with explanations.

I always tell people that I went to college to study medical illustration (ended up getting a degree in fine arts after studying "pre-med" for two years) but more accurately I was going to focus on scientific illustration. At school I contributed to the college daily newspaper as an editorial illustrator, which, like scientific illustration, brings clarity to a subject. This is still a big interest of mine, which means I have a keen eye on what is being shown to explain a system, whatever the field.

All the images here are from the series. The top diagram is used to explain how Newton applied his first law of motion to explain how the inertia of the moon keeps it constantly "falling" around the Earth, while the apple on Earth will fall directly to the ground. Newton is hands down the most brilliant scientist to ever live and the series does a good job of showing his range of interest, and profound, independent thoughts. 

I do not have a problem with the way the series explains his thinking. My eight-year-old was watching this section last night and was able to comprehend his laws of gravity through the graphic explanations and analogies. I do have a problem with how Einstein's special theory of relativity and Hermann Minkowski's space-time is often visually explained. The middle picture here is clear, though exaggerated, if you are discussing how light would bend around objects in space but it fails as a substitute in explaining how it has replaced Newtonian gravity.

While many complicated theories in physics must be explained mathematically, they are often conceived of visually, but they are more visual concepts that do not translate well as visual analogies. This is not so much a fault of the documentary as it is about the scientific community and its inability to properly edit graphics.

The most humorous example of the disconnect between visualizing and visuals is the when leading physicists are asks to draw the strings of String Theory, and they end up drawing simple lines, as pictured in the bottom image.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Slowest, Dumbest Genius You'll Ever Meet

by Drew Martin
I watched a documentary today about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway (no, he did not die by driving one off a cliff). He is also the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which brings out the engineers in students through arena-style robotic competitions) and the SEE Science Center, a hands-on learning museum in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The documentary is called SlingShot, which is the name of a water distillation machine he hopes to distribute and install around the world in order to bring clean water to communities who are in need of potable water. He chose the name SlingShot because of the story of David and Goliath, which fascinated him as a kid. While most people focus on the small, less-powerful David overcoming Goliath, his giant adversary, the take-away of the story for Kamen was that technology (the slingshot) is cool, and empowering. It also complements one of the many adages he expresses in the documentary: that a really big person helps everybody else be big and to not keep them small.

Kamen has devoted his life to technology; specifically to technology that saves lives, including SlingShot as well as a home dialysis machine, which actually led to the development of SlingShot in order to provide medical-grade water for dialysis. Like most of us, I probably looked at the Segway as more of a recreational scooter, but Kamen approached it as a real people-mover in order to solve the problem of car-congested/polluted cities and as a segway between walking and driving.

While technology is king for Kamen, and he has filled his dream house in New Hampshire with beautiful machines such as a 150+-year-old steam engine from an old tugboat, and a real helicopter in a glass-walled garage, which he flies around, he does see shortcomings to its promises, such as the social contradictions of how it is used as well as unattainable dreams including his desire for a time machine. Another adage he says is that truth is transient, especially with technology.

To this point Kamen suggests that we do not have an education problem in America, but rather a cultural problem in that we do not pay much attention to the great minds that contribute to the betterment of society but are amazed that someone can perform slightly better in a sport, and get a basketball in a net. He says that unless you are doing something that inspires you and wake up ready to embrace each day, you are cheating yourself of a happy and meaningful life.

Kamen's intelligent humor shows through in many moments of the documentary, such as when he takes off the housing of a SlingShot model to explain its inner workings and points to the location of its expensium, unobtainium, unreliabilium, and icantmaketwoathem.

While he has had many successes, he also explains the difficulty of implementing innovation and warns his staff at his company DEKA of resting on their laurels, which he expresses as taking a nap on the bear-skin rug before you are sure you shot the bear.

Kamen is concerned by an attitude towards aid work that something of no cost has no value but his drive to solve world problems through technological solutions is unyielding, and with his wit promises that he will be an overnight success in twenty years.

On a hallway wall in his house he has hung drawings of great scientists and thinkers, which his father drew: Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein, who he refers to as Big Al. While responding to a comment about his own genius, he is flattered but explains he is a very slow learner with dyslexia. He says..If I am a genius then I am the slowest, dumbest genius that you'll even meet.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

33 Artists in 3 Acts

by Drew Martin
I recently finished reading Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in 3 Acts. I was immediately hooked on Thornton’s writing when I first read her Seven Days in the Art World; a clear-headed, and clearly-written look at the art world. 33 Artists in 3 Acts continues her inquiry into what makes the art world tick, through her anthropological approach, which spares the reader from art-speak and breaks from what she calls the binary way of thinking typically expressed by reviewers.

The premise of the book is to tease out of artists what it means to be an artist. While Thornton likes one response she got, that the artist is a myth, she is still fascinated by the individuals who adopt and perpetuate the myth. I liked reading this book very much but while Thornton gathers interviews and anecdotes of creative personalities, she never quite cracks the nut. You never get into the mind of an artist as you do with writings such as Keith Haring’s Journals, Anne Truitt’s Day Book, or particularly Robert Irwin’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees

I think there is a myth of the stereotypical artist, but I would never deny that there are individuals who are propelled to create, and or interpret the world around them in a new and meaningful way. A proof of this is the very essence of the book. If you are an artist, you have a particular way of thinking, and your conversation with another artist has a very different feeling than Thornton’s writing. For example, a conversation with my friends with whom I went to school, or with whom I have exhibited is typically, and creatively about source and process. In most cases, the most creative conversations have nothing to do with “art” but are about the nature of things. 33 Artists in 3 Acts reads more like conversations heard at art openings about a lifestyle, status, and a product (even if it is a performance). There is a desire to be artistically creative by association, which is what I feel has fueled Thornton’s writing career with the arts. In my mind she is a welcome guest and I totally appreciate what she adds to this booming art world. The problem here, however, is in the selection of her character studies. I think there is a fantastic range to show what kind of artists exist, but it’s not the right gathering of individuals to dig deeper and really answer her question. 

Jeff Koons, for instance, is not an artist. He is a businessman who manages a portfolio of art products. Sure it’s a creative role but part of his elusiveness is an inability to think as an artist, which is why you only get sound bytes from him, and art-book-entry references. I think he wanted badly to be an artist as a kid because he liked what he saw of that lifestyle and the attention it earned so he found a way to call himself an artist through a very formulated process. Ai Weiwei is also not an artist. He is first and foremost a political activist who uses art as his form of communication. Of course, there are artists in the book; I am not going to go through them all. The most peculiar entry is of Lena Dunham. Thornton includes her parents Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons, and even her sister, Grace. The whole section of this family clan seems like a personal favor, and that of Lena, in particular, as if she is trying to be a cool mom, or to appease and pull in the audience of Lena’s godparents Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith, two of the most-read art reviewers in the world. There are other instances of nepotism, such as Gabriel Orozco, who I really like, and am happy she included him in two of the acts, but Orozco has the soul of artist.

I have a gut reaction to many of the people she interviews. Thornton does too. For example, there is mistrust of Koons, and tension with Damien Hirst that is felt in the temper of her writing. My personal reaction to and judgment of Thornton’s roster is actually the best part of the book, although I do not think it is by her design. By this I mean that as I read her book, my own ideas of what and who is an artist were stirred up and challenged. One of my favorite results of reading this book came from a passing comment about Tracey Emin. I was familiar with a few of her pieces, but with a closer look, especially in one presentation she gave at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia, I quickly grew to appreciate both her work and her way of thinking about art:

In conclusion, there is no grand theory, or formula, but rather a diverse splattering of answers about artists and art such as…

A conceptual artist is a leader, a painter is a peasant.

Art is not a job for an artist, just as religion is not a job for a priest.

Art is not supposed to repeat what you already know. It is supposed to ask questions.

You can take photographs or you can make photographs.

Artists have varying degrees of repetition compulsion or a drive to repeat a singular impulse over and over again, trying to get it right, or “righter.”

The most fun time to be an artist is when you are young, and when you are old.

There are good real artists (i.e. Bruce Bauman), bad real artists (i.e. Jasper Johns), good fake artists (i.e. Francis Alys) and bad fake artists (i.e Ai Weiwei)

If the critics don’t like something, just make more. [Warhol]

The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic.
Artists should be the oxygen of society.

The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.

An artist is a myth. Most artists internalize the myth in the process of their development and then strive to embody and perform it.

They say that there are three kinds of artist: the perverse, the neurotic, and the psychotic.

One of the core fantasies of artists is unconditional love and the associate unconditional value attributed to anything that we produce. It’s about love, attention, recognition, regard…and freedom from shame.

I can teach someone to make my last artwork but not my next one.

Craft can be taught but whereas art is about self-realization.

A lot of artists are really bad craftsmen and most craftsmen are really bad artists.

The big burden for artists working in the art world is self-consciousness. We’ve lost our innocence. We’re constantly looking at ourselves making art. It’s one of the many appeals of outsider artists; they don’t give a damn about what people think.

There are moments when artists are artists and then they are not anymore. When they are not thinking, they become craftsmen of their own art.

Humans want something beautiful to live with. That is not a shallow desire. It affects our well-being. With decorative art, this is a need to aestheticize and exteriorize their thoughts and feelings.

While a desire to communicate is a key artistic motivator, a fear of being too direct or didactic also prevails.

A category of an artwork is a “ghetto” or prison.

I’m not unique. I’m just a particular instance of the possible.

And, one of my favorite, not in the book, which an older artist friend of mine in Poland once told me, “Anyone who is not an artist is crazy.”