British Science Festival: Notes from the Edge of space and solar art

Posted on September 16, 2013

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Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian renaissance artist who gave the world the ‘Mona Lisa’ and the ‘Last Supper’, did not distinguish between art and science. Over the course of a career that included painting some of the world’s most memorable artworks, he also drew up designs for inventions including rolling mills, a machine for testing tensile strength in wire and one to grind convex lenses for telescopes. Da Vinci believed that the proper study of every man was the art of science and the science of art.

Vitruvian man

His contribution to human knowledge and culture is so distinguished that it is no accident his drawing the ‘Vitruvian Man’ (right) was engraved on a plaque attached to NASA’s deep space probe Voyager. In the past few days Voyager has achieved its own distinguished place in human history by passing the boundaries of our solar system and moving into uncharted territory. Voyager has flown the nest, but it will continue to communicate with Earth until 2025. It is a landmark moment. It is a funny moment too. On board are several artifacts of 1970s culture including an eight-track tape recorder and a computer that has 240,000 times less power than a modern smartphone.

In a weird piece of synchronicity I’ve picked out three aspects of scientific art that look at our solar system and human fascination with the cosmos. All appeared at last week’s British Science Festival in Newcastle. Science and art will always be controversially linked in some people’s minds, but one cannot live without the other. Every invention must be drawn out and designed – however functionally – using wit and creativity.

Enceladus spectrum

From the Edge
Several audiovisual elements at the festival attracted my attention instantly and I’ve put together three short videos recorded on my creaky smartphone (the LG Optimus 2X P990) and edited in Windows Movie Maker. I’ve broken my own rules and dived into Movie Maker’s animations to jazz them up. Actually the results are not too bad.

The first is a recording I made at the Centre For Life, an interactive science museum in the city centre. ‘Edge’ was recorded at the centre’s planetarium, a music and spoken word performance put together by electronic composer Peter Zinovieff and poet Katrina Porteous. Zinovieff is a true electronic music pioneer who created the world’s first portable synthesizer in the VCS3 – used by Pink Floyd and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. His music for the project included sounds picked up by the Cassini-Huygens probe and Voyager.

Porteous is a renowned poet and has produced distinguished work for BBC Radio 3 and 4. Her language in this piece is full of fire and ice, despair, the great distances of space and the tumult of creation and destruction. Taken together the experience was jarring and alien, almost avant garde, but interesting and ‘out there’.

Helioscillator 7

Helioscillator at The Globe Gallery
Hypnotic and strange, the Helioscillator was created by Jamie Salmon – aka The Curious Machine – and Noel Murphy (VDU) out of data from seven sunspots collected by the Dutch Open Telescope in the Canary Islands. It looks like an alien computer sent to soften us up for an invasion, or perhaps a futuristic meditation device via the 1970s. It is something like a musical mood ring, changing colour and pitch in response to the data generated by sunspot activity and you could easily spend a long time look at its subtle pitch shifts and changes in colour. The ghostly voices you hear are people talking in the gallery.

Solar cosmos
Solar Cosmos is an audiovisual installation that appeared as part of the British Science Festival. Organisers had stationed it in the central library where it merrily pinged and rumbled its way through the opening hours, no doubt annoying almost everybody in there. It was a bit like the universe in clockwork and I liked the way it clicked and whirred along to its spacey soundtrack.

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