While visiting the new spaces of Medialab Prado last month, i got to discover several projects which are developed in collaboration with the Madrid-based program. One of these projects is the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, a citizen science initiative where citizens and researchers alike are invited to participate in large scale scientific projects with either some time, power from their brain or from their computer.
Volunteers from around the world are welcome to participate to projects that will help the scientific community identify and mark deforested areas using high-resolution Earth imagery, research the elusive Higgs particle using a virtual atom smasher, understand the fundamental laws of the universe, or the secrets of magnetism at the molecular scale.
I met Daniel Lombraña González, a researcher and lead developer of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre (aka CCC, a partnership between CERN, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva), at the MLP and he was kind enough to answers my questions about some of the Citizen Cyber Science projects:
Hi Daniel! How did you get to collaborate with MediaLab Prado? What sort of infrastructure, network and support do they provide the project with?
The CCC contacted Medialab this year because we think that we have a lot in common. Medialab is an heterogenous space where science, engineering and art are mixed in a beautiful way and we thought that it could be really interesting to participate with them. Medialab will offer its connections with other collectives and we will try to provide our knowledge in citizen science events like the one that we are organizing the 17th and 18th of May.
One of the most impressive project of CCS is probably LHC@home, a platform that allows volunteers to help physicists develop and exploit particle accelerators like CERN's Large Hadron Collider, and to compare theory with experiment in the search for new fundamental particles. So how exactly can people contribute, do they have to be physicists too?
People contribute by creating an account in the project and downloading two pieces of software: BOINC and VirtualBox. BOINC is the software that allows to automatically configure the VirtualBox software, that will be used to create a Virtual Machine that will connect CERN and run the simulations. The CCC developed this aspect of the project contributing the integration of the virtualization VirtualBox software (created by Oracle) within the BOINC framework.
Once you have installed the software, all you have to do is to see how your computer and user account gets credits based on the simulations that your PC are contributing to the project and check if you are in the top 20 of the best volunteers or if you are part of the Billionaires club (users who have simulated more than 1 Billion of events!)
Therefore, as you can see, the project welcomes everyone to participate and you don't have to be a physicist at all :-)
How important is their contribution? Does their help have a big impact on the research of the CERN physicists?
Here I'm going to quote the main researcher of the project about this specific question :-)
The place where T4T contributes is in the validation of the theoretical models that underpin the interpretation of the data. Roughly speaking, if we only had really bad theoretical models, the analysis of the real data would suffer. Given only very crude models, we would be more uncertain about what a real Higgs state should look like in the experiment, and what is merely unrelated "background". That uncertainty would translate into having to run the LHC longer, collecting more statistics, before an announcement such as the one on July 4th could be made with any confidence. The fact that we do have quite sophisticated and thoroughly tested theoretical models for the physics taking place at the LHC "sharpens" our ability to extract conclusions from the data with confidence.
Day by day, T4T volunteers are testing our theory simulations. When new versions of the simulation codes are released, we incorporate them into the T4T queues and send them out to you for testing. When new test data is released, we incorporate that data into the T4T test suite and again send everything we got out to you for testing against this new added piece of information, each piece making up a small part of the full picture of what the "ideal" simulation should look like.
I was particularly intrigued by Forest Watchers which invites people located anywhere in the world to monitor patches of forest that need to be protected. Now a forest like the Amazonian is extended over a very large territory so how many volunteers would its monitoring typically involve?
The current project only has 164 registered users, but almost 1000 people have actually participated in the project since its creation contributing tasks :-) (you can see the stats here). We still are in the early stages of the project, and we are starting to analyze the first results, so I cannot give you that answer for the moment. We hope to have some published paper in the future, but there is no ETA yet.
And we all know about the Amazonian forrest but how about other forests that needs to be protected? Can you give other examples, in Europe in particular?
The platform was created with the idea of allowing other countries to use it in a simple way. If I'm not mistaken Europe is well covered, due to the available human power and resources that EU has for this type of natural parks. The main goal of starting in the Amazon was because INPE, one of the main partners behind the project, are the world lead experts in deforestation assessment and they contacted the Citizen Cyberscience Centre to start the project.
Usually the government. However, ForestWatchers.net has not contacted the government at all, as this is a research project from INPE and CCC analyzing the feasibility of getting non-experts, citizens, analyzing deforested areas. As I said before, ForestWatchers.net is a research project and we are trying to analyze if the volunteers will be able to produce good results in comparison with the experts.
How do you verify that information provided by volunteers? How can you check that it is correct and valuable?
For every task at least 30 different persons will contribute an answer. Then, we will analyze all the reported answers statistically to be sure that there are no outliers, and that the majority of the volunteers agree on the reported results. We are in the process of analyzing the data with INPE experts to quantify the quality of these results.
Most of the projects of Citizen Cyber Science are developed in partnership with prestigious institutions such as CERN, universities in France, Switzerland and England. How open are institutions in general to direct participation of citizens? Because i always thought that science was a domain reserved to an elite of intellectuals...
It depends :-) I think there is a no clear answer here. In general the first time that we approach a research institution with a citizen science proposal, the usual answer is to be afraid of going into the open. However, after showing some of the projects that we are currently running and supporting some of these scientists see the benefits of using these approaches and they jump in. It is important also to mention that even citizens feel like you, so even though there are several citizen science projects, we are not sending the right message to you, as you think this type of science is only for an elite :-)
Thus, in summary, let's say that in general institutions are not so open due to citizen science is "grass roots movement" but it is taking pace and getting more adepts every day.
Why do you think that people contribute? What do they gain from that?
From time to time we interview the volunteers to answer that specific questions. In general, people do it because they like to contribute to the project, because they feel that science is important and this type of projects give them an opportunity to see science closer.
What do they gain? This is a really good question! Actually, we are now in an EU project called Citizen Cyberlab where we are studying actually what do they gain. In general, what the volunteers gain is a non-formal knowledge about the project where they usually learn science "by accident" :-) For example, by participating in the LHC@Home Test4Theory project, some volunteers have become "experts" in the Virtualization technology that the project uses. This has been proven, because new contributers usually get help from this other volunteers with very detailed answers :-)
The works on show visualise diverse physical occurrences. From the ground floor to the top floor, the installations, videos and photographic pieces investigate phenomena that get further and further away from our daily experience.
The installation on the ground floor, Thermic, screens the usually invisible heat waves floating through space. Hot air produced from a streaming heat source made visible by a spotlight rendering shadows of it onto the wall. Like a mirage, we can see fluctuations of air thus realizing that we are not surrounded by empty space but by physical, flexible matter.
One floor up, the video future past perfect pt. 04 (wolken) shows clouds that appear almost as an optical illusion - the camera zooms in while different shots of clouds are interspersed together. Accompanying prints from the wolken series show clouds that reveal resemblances to both micro and macro structures.
In particle noise on the top floor of the gallery, radioactive particles and magnetic noise are captured in sound, with Geiger counters being the source for a sound installation. The
Carsten Nicolai - Observatory is at Ibid Projects until 20 April 2013.
Last Friday, i spent the evening at the Arts Catalyst for the Kosmica sound night, a social event for artists, scientists and the cosmically curious exploring sound and sonification of space. That means drinks, crisps, pop corn, space music and presentations by curator and artist Honor Harger, sound artist and composer Kaffe Matthews and designer slash sound artist Yuri Suzuki. With Nahum Mantra as master of ceremony.
I frantically took notes during the presentation, thinking i'd blog the talks until i realized that the Arts Catalyst was going to upload the video of the whole evening. So i'm going to merely point you to the videos: This way please!
Now all i'm going to write down is a summary of the presentations, along with a few links to the projects, historical facts and scientific discoveries mentioned during the presentations.
The first presentation was by Honor Harger. She is the director of Lighthouse, an arts agency in Brighton, UK. But she is also part of the artistic duo r a d i o q u a l i a together with collaborator Adam Hyde. One of their main projects is Radio Astronomy, a radio station broadcasting sounds from space. And i don't know how she does it but she also finds time to write a brilliant blog called Particle Decelerator.
Honor's presentation was an investigation into how we have used sound to gather information about space. We all have an idea of what space looks like. We've all seen images of it but what does space sound like?
Karl Jansky reads an instrument that detects radio waves from the Milky Way. © Bettmann/Corbis (via)
The story of the discovery of the sounds of space is intimately linked to the history of the telephone. From 1876 when Thomas Watson, the assistant of Alex Graham Bell, was listening through the wires to some strange sounds which corresponded in fact to activity taking place on the surface of the sun. To 1932 when Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Karl Jansky was called to identify the cause of a "steady hissing" interfering with transoceanic telephone service. He correctly guessed that the noise wasn't coming from Earth but that they were cosmic radio noise from the Milky Way. The final stop Honor Harger made in the history of Bell Laboratories is 1964 when two researchers detected a source of low, persistent noise in Bell's antenna, the Holmdel Horn. It turns out that the noise was cosmic radiation that had survived since the birth of the universe. That was the first evidence of the Big Bang.
Honor's story was accompanied by a series of references to art and amateur science. I'm going to list them rapidly:
Joyce Hinterding's electromagnetic installation Aeriology (1995) "aeriology", a huge antenna that resonates to the VLF (very low frequency) section of the radio spectrum, and makes audible the crackle of spherics from the solar winds as they interact with the ionosphere and the background noise of the Milky Way, the energy emitted from stars.
Honor also showed one of my favourite videos of 2011: 20 Hz. The work observes a geo-magnetic storm occurring in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Working with data collected by CARISMA (Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity), an array of magnetometers which study the Earth's magnetosphere and interprets the data as audio, allowing us to hear the "tweets" and "rumbles" caused by the interaction of solar wind with the Earth's magnetosphere.
Caroline Devine's 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun, explores naturally occurring radio signal and solar activity and alternates every five minutes between acoustic and electromagnetic "listening modes" that provide new ways to "listen" to the sun.
Kaffe Matthews presented the work she created with Mandy McIntosh when they worked with NASA scientists and got to meet ex-astronauts to whom they asked "What is the sound like in space?" More about the project over here. The last part of her talk focused on the Star Gazer chairs, music and suits made to watch the star in the Galloway Forest, Scotland. The project was again developed with Mandy McIntosh and is called 'Yird, Muin, Starn,' which means earth, moon, star in old Scott.
Yuri Suzuki brought us firmly back to Earth with The Sound of the Earth, a spherical record with the sound engraved on the surface of the globe. Each country on the disc is engraved with a different sound, collected by Yuri Suzuki during his travels or with national anthems for the countries he had never visited.
During the last edition of Design Week, Yuri Suzuki drove a Sound Taxi around London. The vehicle was equipped with a microphone that recorded the noise of the city: traffic, screeching brakes, sirens, construction work, etc. A specially designed software analysed the frequencies of these noises and used them to generate music in real time.
His White Noise Machine calculates the quantity of street noise and then generates the same amount of white noise. The boxy design of the White Noise Machine was inspired that by the noise-generating devices that Italian Futurist Liugi Russolo built at the beginning of the 20th century. The videos showing children shouting at Suzuki's White Noise Machine is hilarious.
And with this i close my notes about Kosmica sound night.
Publisher Chronicle Books writes: A science book like no other, The Where, the Why, and the How turns loose 75 of today's hottest artists onto life's vast questions, from how we got here to where we are going. Inside these pages some of the biggest (and smallest) mysteries of the natural world are explained in essays by real working scientists, which are then illustrated by artists given free rein to be as literal or as imaginative as they like. The result is a celebration of the wonder that inspires every new discovery. Featuring work by such contemporary luminaries as Lisa Congdon, Jen Corace, Neil Farber, Susie Ghahremani, Jeremyville, Jon Klassen, Jacob Magraw, and many more, this is a work of scientific and artistic exploration to pique the interest of both the intellectually and imaginatively curious.
Teaming up science mysteries with illustration, comics or even fine art is obviously a nice idea. But a great idea is not enough. It needs to comes with a fresh direction, clever match-making, genuine curiosity and impeccable taste. This book, fortunately, has all these ingredients.
The scientific enigmas explored in the book depart far far away from us with "What existed before the Big Bang?" then moves gradually, in a very Powers of Ten fashion, to issues pertaining to the universe ("Are there more than 3 dimensions?"), our planet ("Can evolution outpace climate change?), the mundane peculiarities of human beings ("why do we hiccup?"), the idiosyncrasy of the animal world ("Why don't animal muscles atrophy during hibernation?") then the questions start investigating what goes on inside our bodies and they end on the nanoscale ("Are nanomaterials dangerous?")
The result is often gripping and sometimes even baffling. Some issues remain a mystery: i'm afraid that scientists are still unsure about the reason why whales sing (in case the question is keeping you awake) and more annoyingly, they don't know either what happens to time as you approach the speed of light. But whether they have a clear-cut answer to a mystery or only tentative theories, the scientists manage to explain the phenomenon and its raison d'être with a limpid, intelligible and fairly short text.
This book is delightful and if i have one negative commentary to say about the book it's that I'm not a huge fan of the retro-feel of the illustrations. It gives a uniformity to the book which imho is both a blessing and a curse. But, hey! Now i know why pigeons bob their head when they walk and that knowledge, my friend, is going to make me the star of all the Christmas parties this year.
The book trailer!
Estación experimental [Experimental Station], an exhibition that just opened at Laboral Centre of Art and Industrial Creation, presents the work of artists who are inspired by scientific research. Whether the relationship they have developed with science is akin to formal research, pataphysics, science-fiction or investigates paranormal events, these artists play with our expectations and question our current knowledge without necessarily looking for a clear answer. What matters in their work is not the end result, but the process, the experiment, the long journey of trial and error.
The exhibition is at time playful and amusing and at time leading to more contemplative moments. I was particularly glad that Estación experimental gave me the opportunity to discover so many young Spanish artists. I hope i'll get to see more of their work in the coming years.
The first chapter of the exhibition gives a general overview of the concept behind the show. In the Laboratory brings together the artists who use their studio or an exhibition space as a place for experimentation. I've already mentioned Caleb Charland and the homemade experiments he photographs in his garage.
Another artist who makes jaw-dropping experiments with physical phenomena is Alistair McClymont who recreated a tornado inside one of the exhibition rooms. The mechanics that activate the rotating column of air are not hidden from visitor's view: fans, scaffolding, black tubes and a humidifier.
The sculpture uses mundane materials to recreate a rare meteorological phenomenon that can have devastating effects. In the gallery however, visitors are free to step into the whirlwind of air and vapor and experience its physical presence without any danger.
Danger, or rather the perception of it, is at the core of Ben Woodeson's work. The sculpture he's showing in Laboral bears the tongue-in-cheek name Health & Safety Violation #15 - Spiral twist hazard. I'm all for poking fun at the over-regulations that dominate cultural spaces (especially in England, a country never afraid of reaching new heights of ridicule in that matter.) Spiral Twist Hazard is a black cable that hangs from the ceiling and twists, untwists, whips and moves as if it had a life of its own.
Because the title warns you of the cable 'purpose', the threat becomes appealing, it puts visitor to the test: will you dare go nearer or will you retreat safely?
Spiral Twist Hazard is one of the exercises in a long series of "Health and Safety Violations" that the artist began in 2009. I'm quite fond of the aggressive shoe brush (video might take a few moments to load but well worth the wait), the pump that suffocates you by vacuuming air away from the gallery space, the beads thrown on the floor, etc. I like them all. I should interview him one day. Right?
Artist Rubén Ramos Balsa worked at the service of engineer Oumar Haidara Fall to help him communicate his physics theory. The video and mock-up on show illustrate in a tangible way the Senegalese scientist's work on the mechanical disruption of symmetry.
I'm not sure i understood the theory quite clearly but from what i managed to gather, the research questions the laws of gravity inherited from Newton and tests the possibility of increasing mass in the same trajectory.
The project page explains that The work carried out jointly by the engineer and the artist explores and tests the validity of the Autonomous Mechanical Multiplier as a principle that can prove the theory of the evolutionary conservation of the unity of multiple dimensions.
I'll come back later on this week with more posts about the exhibition but don't wait for me to check out the catalogue of the show, it's available as a PDF on Laboral's website. And here's a few pitiful photos i made while visiting the show.
You might remember that over 8 months ago i spent 7 days in Pittsburgh for a A/S/T Book Sprint. Together with curator Andrea Grover, art and science writer and pop star Claire L. Evans and architect and designer Pablo Garcia, i spent a whole week locked inside the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University discussing and writing about the intersection of art/science/technology with explorations into maker culture, hacking, artist research, distributed creativity, and technological and speculative design.
Andrea also had the bright idea to involve graphic designers Jessica Young, and Luke Bulman from Thumb in the whole production process. Each evening we would gather around their computer screens and watch how these two talented designers had given shape to our ideas and texts.
The book is finally out! It's called New Art/Science Affinities and you can either buy it on Lulu or download the PDF for free.
Don't expect to read the ultimate compendium of all things art and science (it was written in only 7 days by 4 people after all), it would be more appropriate to see it as a subjective snapshot of what the art&science community is up to right now (or rather 8 months ago). What i can say with certainty is that the book is the result of one of the most exciting moments of my blogger life. So thank you Andrea for inviting us to book sprint, to Golan Levin for hosting us at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, to Astria Suparak from the Miller Gallery for her continuous support. And a huge thank you to all the artists we've contacted at the very last moment with an urgent request to send us photos or to talk with us on skype.
Views inside the book: