Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SciArt meet-up

Austin Monthly for October 2014 included my linocut of
Florence Nightingale in their write-up of the 'X Marks the Spot' show
at Art.Science.Gallery
Today I got to meet-up with a group of scientists/artists: Hayley Gillespie (ecologist, artist and founder of Art.Science.Gallery), Peggy Muddles (aka the Vexed Muddler, who works on the genetics of bacteria in lungs of CF patients by day, and amazing SciArt ceramics by night) and Rovena Tey (cancer researcher on mat leave and science-inspired cardmaking genius behind Handmade By Rovena)* and have a tour behind the scenes at the Royal Ontario Museum! The ROM is a rightfully famous museum, which boasts not only a world class archeological (especially Egyptian) collection, but a proper natural history museum, which has always meant that it was a research institution as well as a public museum. One of Hayley's friends from grad school is the curator of freshwater fish, and he was kind enough to give us a tour of the freshwater fish, and mammals and enlist his colleague to show us the invertebrate collection. Sadly, photographs were not allowed for security reasons (as it's best not to publicize the inner workings of a museum which houses some very valuable artifacts).

As token physical scientist, when the conversation turned to finer details of genetics and mapping family trees (if you will) of huge datasets of species, I felt like saying, "Oh! Bayesian regression! I know what that means!" with a little wink. The physical specimen themselves and the tour was fascinating. I could certainly relate to the problems of data archiving and preserving physical specimen, as these are serious problems for earth scientists too (especially the marine ones, as some ocean bottom cores need to be frozen and pressurized to avoid essentially melting or exploding, or both). I wouldn't have guessed that most of the ROM's collection of fishes is housed outside of the city, because that many tens of thousands of alcohol filled jars is deemed too great a fire risk downtown! It really is an incredible feat for these scientists to have even gathered all these species, let alone all the work of detailing and studying them, tracing their evolution, afterwards - and an invaluable resource.

We saw a few thousand sample jars of fishes, as well as some mammals (like bats) which are stored in alcohol. We saw their large collection of mammal pelts, which sort of takes your breathe away. The ROM is a museum of a certain age; at some time in the past they were gifted a large collection of mounted mammal heads (presumably from the estate of a hunter). I saw the head of a black rhino, now on the brink of extinction. It was staggering in size, even compared to the other rhino head. There were more heads of assorted quadrupeds than I knew how to identify.

I was pleased to happen to see a giraffe weevil along with a fabulous, large bronze sculpture of a giraffe weevil, on a plinth in the hallway between offices for scientists. I had only seen photos when I made my linocut. The invertebrates curator was an expert on leeches (which yes, are gathered the hard way... as any Canadian who has portaged a canoe through swampy water will be familiar). There were marvellous and/or scary arthropods including a mantis shrimp the size of my forearm, a roughly metre long South American earthworm, delicate and beautiful shell of a paper nautilus (or argonaut), adorable slipper lobster, and all sorts of other crustaceans... as well and swapped tales of fieldwork and labwork (mis)adventure.

Afterwards we were joined by Hayley's husband Cole (a psychiatrist) for a lovely lunch and discussion about that inspiring intersection of art and science. It was a real treat!

Hayley also brought me a copy of the Austin Monthly from October 2014. They included (part of) my portrait of Florence Nightingale in their write-up of the 'X Marks the Spot' exhibit at Art.Science.Gallery. It's always great to see my artwork in print, but I especially like that they've selected the perhaps unexpected. People will know her name, but as a nursing pioneer, rather than a statistician and data visualization pioneer, but she was both. She also brought me Ada Lovelace bookmarks from the 'Go Ahead and Do It' women in STEM show. Gabriel promptly ate one when I got home.

*We missed Glendon Mellow (aka the Flying Trilobite), scientific illustrator, SciArtist and Scientific American blogger, who couldn't make it.

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