Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nietzsche, Python & Geometric art

I recently came across this rather novel way of marrying mathematics and art. "Art can visually express words geometrically: lines as length, colour as dominance, circles as continuity, and triangles as stationery objects in space-time. Words finally have a real visual presence; a new way to be understood and appreciated," says artist-philosopher Apostolos Stefanopoulos. 

Quotes are used from various philosophers, poets and playwrights, musicians and scientists, as per the artist's fancy. Here is one for example, from Nietzsche.

Apostolos uses Python to code the words into art symbols. The results are compiled and printed on fine Hahnenuhle art paper.

It certainly is a new approach, and I am sure immensely satisfying for the artist, who is able to blend his interests in technology, philosophy, maths, art and design all in one exclusive offering.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Jugaad at ISRO

"Jugaad" has entered management textbooks as a word synonymous with out-of-the-box creative solutions. Jugaad solutions to complex problems often come from totally unrelated fields.

To my mind one of the most extreme and innovative examples was when the APPLE (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment) had to be taken out for antenna-range tests.

ISRO could have used padded trucks for transporting the satellite, but the fact is that the metallic bodies of trucks were interfering with the antennae.

Bullock carts, being made out of wood, presented an ingenious solution. So that is how the APPLE satellite was transported, resulting in this famous photograph, in 1981, of a satellite atop a bullock cart.

In 1963, a similar "Jugaad" had caught the world's attention. A technician carried the sounding rocket, from the assembly line to the launching pad at Thumba in Kerala. These rockets were small, weighing only a few kilos, so it was possible to do so in those days.

It is this frugal and innovative spirit, and never-say-die attitude that has enabled ISRO to reach out for seemingly impossible goals over the last fifty years. In the eighties, it launched SLV-3 which weighed 17 tons, and placed the satellite Rohini in orbit, which weighed 40 kgs.

And today we are proud of its Mars mission "Mangalayaan" which is supposed to have cost ISRO about seventy three million dollars, a little under the cost of most commercial airplanes!

Friday, February 5, 2016

What a wonderful world!

"I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom, for me and you,
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world"

I remembered the opening lines of this Louis Armstrong classic, while reading about an interview with Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman:

"I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. [...]
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts."

I can understand that very well. Why not see the picture at the normal level, and then at the micro or nano level?

I would only add, whether it is at the nano scale, or the cosmic scale, "what a wonderful world"!

The first time I saw this NASA picture of NGC 6302, or "The butterfly Nebula" with its wingspan of 3 light years, I was struck by the beauty of it.

Imagine this huge nebula winging its way through the vast universe just like a little butterfly on earth!

(Image from:

Well, as an artist as well as a scientist, and one familiar with         butterflies on earth, and pictures of   nebulae in the cosmos, 
here is my artist's impression of the "Butterfly Nebula" in oil on canvas!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

In the style of the Master

Computers can be made to do complex tasks, as long as we are able to break up the complex task into simple, direct, logical instructions. For machines that solve problems in medicine, astrophysics or geology, it was just a matter of time before somebody broke up the process of fine art into the constituent activities of composition, colouring, blending, accentuating and so on, and got the machine to create art.

The materials employed, the brush strokes applied, the process of building layer upon layer of paints, all are unique to a given artist. For the Masters of the art, these processes have been studied in detail. Also, there is a large enough body of work by each such artist to lend itself to research, and to draw conclusions about strokes and resultant patterns.

The inevitable has happened. A computer, after an input of a suitable algorithm, took about an hour to create this self portrait of Van Gogh.


Computers are not composing original pieces of art work yet. The research by Gatys, Ecker and Bethge (2015) into instructional algorithms for a computer, distinguishes between the content and composition of a given art work, and the style of execution. The computer was able to finish a given composition in the style of the artist specified.

All artists have their favourite themes, and Van Gogh painted several compositions with cypresses.
They were painted at different times of the day, with different hues in the skies, and with different "focal points". There are two women in the first painting shown here, and two men in the second painting.

While the authors, Gatys et al, have chosen a few well loved and recognised paintings for their research, and development of their algorithm, it will be interesting to see how the computer deals with such paintings on the same theme and by the same artist. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Kinetic Art

A number of interesting sculptures and installations are made with "found objects" and I got to see a number of them at the Bay Area Maker Faire, at San Mateo, on 16th and 17th May. The focus in a Maker Faire is on do-it-yourself, on innovation, and on technology. This one was no exception, and had a whole lot of fresh ideas, products, and people.

I specially went to visit the Kinetic Art section. There was a lot of use of electronics to create movement, lights, sound or animation. And often the creations were quite dramatic!

This composition shown above looked metallic, yet fragile, and certainly seemed mobile, and with a mind of its own. It was like a giant insect! The coloured one with two coloured blades, seen behind was another piece, and looked like it may take off any moment!   

This sculpture, again composed of found pieces, looked like an animated dancer, and you could imagine it dancing to some rhythmic music. The artist obviously has a huge collection of these spare pieces of wood, metal, glass and plastic, and uses them as per his imagination. All the pieces shared here were by Nemo Gould, an American artist, known for his kinetic "found-object" sculptures.

There were several pieces of Gould's, which used a fair amount of electronics as well. For example, there was a complex electronic "cuckoo clock" shown here.

In making these objects, artists have to brush up or learn on several skills like those of welding, glass blowing, soldering, sawing and on various materials.

That is where the appeal of events like the Maker Faire lie: in exposing a generation used to pushing and clicking buttons, to a whole lot of mechanical work with their hands.

Processes on cloth like stitching, knitting, quilting, crochet and embroidery all found their place at the Faire, and seemed to attract many young new learners. The events will no doubt keep growing each year!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What is Cymatics?

Cymatics is the science of visualizing audio frequencies. Thanks to some very interesting experiments and their filming by this duo, Nigel Stanford and Shahir Daud, you can enjoy this truly audio-visual experience.

For example in one of the experiments called Ruben's Tube, a metal tube is filled with an inflammable gas. Different audio frequencies form pressure waves in this gas, so if you play different tones, you will get different numbers and heights of flames.

The tube is attached to a speaker, so the synchronized visual looks like a "Performance by the Flames".

You could watch this performance at :

Friday, September 26, 2014

Dan Shechtman's crystals

Dan Shechtman, the Philip Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011, for his work on quasi-crystals. What is interesting is that for a long time, the scientific community could not accept the possibility of non-periodic or quasi-periodic crystals. Linus Pauling is even noted as saying, "There is no such thing as quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists."

The atoms in Shechtman's crystals, an alloy made up chiefly of aluminium and manganese, exhibited a ten-fold symmetry, hitherto deemed impossible in nature. Shechtman could rotate the diffraction pattern he was seeing, by a tenth of a full circle, i.e. 36 degrees, and still obtain the same pattern. The answers came from from the world of art, and mathematics.

Aperiodic patterns have been used in medieval Islamic patterns, with a set of repeating tiles. Known as "Girih" patterns, using two to five unique tiles, they have been used to decorate portals and vaults of shrines for long:

Pattern from the archway in the Darb-i Iman shrine in Iran

The mathematical explanations came later.     Roger Penrose created aperiodic mosaics, with just two unique tiles: a fat and a thin rhombus. Substituting circles representing atoms, in Penrose's mosaic, and using this pattern as a diffraction grating, produced the same ten fold symmetry that Shechtman was seeing: ten bright dots in a circle.

The repeating structures in Shechtman's quasi-crystals

The Islamic artisans were obviously using advanced concepts of quasi-crystal geometry. In an interesting case of science-following-art, the patterns obtained by Shechtman look no different!

Quasi-crystals have since also been found to exist naturally.