24 January 2013 by Jason Goodyer
Taking this idea as its starting point, a new three-part series presented by Top Gear's Richard Hammond, (going by the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title of Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature) looks at examples of engineers and scientists who have turned to nature for inspiration. In order to illustrate his point Hammond travels to a number of exotic locations from Alaska to Africa to film the animals and carries out, with the aid of a series of experts, several ingenious experiments and demonstrations. The results are nothing short of revelatory. Who would have thought that a South American butterfly's wings could help mobile phones survive being dropped down the loo. Or that a cape vulture's unusually short wings could help with the design of submarines.
Hammond presents the show in his familiar cheeky chappy style and while the frequent pregnant pauses and breathless enthusiasm do get slightly tiresome, his interest in the technology and various inventions seems genuine enough. The technical details are kept light and easy to digest and the production values and camerawork are both excellent. The series is also full of moments of quirky, and often unexpected, humour. Take, for example, the test pilot who while being sped around in a centrifuge under forces of 9G cheerfully pulls a Rubik's cube from his pocket and promptly solves it.
Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature is available now on DVD.
Getting physical: Constellations, a review
19 December 2012 by Jason Goodyer
In the opening seconds we see Marianne (Sally Hawkins), a vivacious, gamine cosmologist, and Roland (Rafe Spall) a lumbering, ursine beekeeper, meeting for the first time at a friend's barbeque. A little worse for wear, Marianne tries out some pretty ropey chat-up lines and is quickly shot down. After a quick flash of light and an abrasive buzz of sound we are taken back to the beginning. Again Marianne turns on the charm, only this time things are a little different. Another flash, another different approach, another outcome. And so it goes, Groundhog Day-style, with each repeated scene differing slightly from the last. The idea, which Marianne later explains, comes from certain interpretations of string theory and quantum mechanics that point to the existence of a multiverse - a hypothetical series of differing universes that all exist simultaneously. Each variation in the narrative, of course, represents a different universe inhabited by different versions of Marianne and Roland.
In the following 70 minutes we are given a brisk tour through key points of the relationship that subsequently develops between the two. Each of these moments is similarly played out in a number of vignettes spread across a series of alternate universes. Often the dialogue is repeated near verbatim several times in a row, but thanks to the subtle, and occasionally not so subtle, variations in the actors' delivery, the effect is far from tedious. The words resonate with different meaning each time, with the minute changes in nuance opening up certain future possibilities while closing off others.
The result is poignant, thought provoking and frequently short-wettingly funny. Huge credit, of course, must go to the writer, Payne, for defibrillating something of an ailing, hackneyed premise, but the two leads are no less worthy of praise. Both Hawkins and Spall negotiate the demands that come from continually shifting mood and character, literally at the flick of switch, with astonishing dexterity. Their captivating, charismatic performances bring a humanity and familiarity to the characters that will have all but the most stoic laughing and crying along with them.
Constellations is playing at the Duke of York Theatre, London, until 5 January 2013.
Playing first chair
29 November 2012 by Jason Goodyer
The collection comprises more than 200 examples, some of which have not been on public display for three decades, showcasing world furniture design throughout the previous six centuries. Rather than group the exhibits in chronological order as per tradition the gallery's directors have opted to instead present them in a kind of taxonomy of manufacturing processes. It's a stroke of curatorial genius and colours the visitor experience in a quite unexpected way putting maker, or at least manufacturing process, on a par with designer. Indeed, a trip around the oblong, strip-lit gallery takes visitors through a veritable tour of fabrication techniques and finishes. There's as much information about joinery, moulding, upholstery and digital manufacturing, carving, gilding, marquetry and lacquer, as there is about Charles Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Chippendale or any of the other great design luminaries featured.
The space itself was designed by Glasgow's NORD Architecture along with structural and lighting sub consultants Buro Happold and is an exercise in understatement. The collection of chairs, tables and bureaux are presented simply in unadorned glass cases with clean, elegant touchscreen displays providing visitors with detailed information about the exhibits whilst remaining as unobtrusive as traditional labelling. Similarly several discrete listening posts are interspersed throughout for those looking for a more immersive experience.
The emphasis on craft and making continues with a number of videos detailing several manufacturing processes from traditional hand-cut dovetail joints to cutting edge 3D printing techniques. Elsewhere, materials are literally given centre stage thanks to a pair of large interactive displays resembling elongated air hockey tables placed bang in the middle of the gallery. Developed by interactive design specialists AllofUs, these centrepieces feature large LED displays flanked by samples of various timbers, metals and plastics. Infrared sensors embedded into each of these blocks of material trigger a series of pop-up information boxes in the display bringing a welcome element of tactility to the proceedings.
It may have come more than 150 years after the museum's opening but this new permanent exhibition is, somewhat ironically, likely to very quickly become part of the furniture.
Furniture in the V&A's Dr Susan Weber Gallery opens on 1 December 2012. Admission is free.
14 September 2012 by Jason Goodyer
The exhibition looks at the world of human enhancement and the far-reaching field of transhumanism, a cultural movement advocating the advancement of human capabilities through the use of technology. Rapid developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology and cognitive science are forcing us to reassess what it means to be human, its proponents say, and the line between man and machine is becoming ever more blurred. But will the day come when implanted microchips and computer/brain interfaces are as commonplace as hearing aids and contact lenses are now? And where, if at all, should we draw the line? We are after all, the curators argue, already living in an age of human enhancement.
Transhumanism currently exists in a curious overlapping interdisciplinary space where aspects of art, science and philosophy collide, intermingle and coalesce into strange new concepts and ideas. For those who want to get further into the nuts and bolts of transhumanism a video discussion bringing together some of the foremost thinkers in the field screened near the exhibition's entrance is as good a place to start as any.
Moving on to the exhibition proper leads to displays of the usual suspects from science fiction and fantasy - Blade Runner's replicants, super hero comics, etc, and sports-based items (energy drinks, running shoes, news clipping of doping stories and the prosthetic running blades made famous by Oscar Pistorius). Scattered throughout these, however, are a series of fascinating films investigating various aspects of transhumanism and enhancement. Amongst them are Floris Kaayk's Metalosis Meligna and Dorothy Cross' Eyemaker, as well as work by big names such as Mohsen Makhmalbaaf and Matthew Barney, whose Cremaster 3 is the undoubted visual highpoint of the exhibition.
Cremaster 3 stars Aimee Mullins, a Paralympian, model and double amputee born with fibula hemimelia, a condition affecting the development of the calf bones. Mullins appears throughout the film in a series of different identities each demarked by the use of a different set of prosthetic legs. The film's rich imagery and slow pace give it an almost mesmeric effect though it can be difficult to figure out exactly what Barney is getting at thanks to the frequently arcane symbolism.
Similarly ghoulish is the story of Kevin Warwick. Professor of robotics at Reading University, Warwick has declared himself the first cyborg after implanting electronic devices linking his nervous system to a computer. And if the growing movement of 'grinders', DIY biohackers who self-implant magnets, sensors and other items into their bodies in garages, kitchens and basements, is anything to go by he's not short of kindred spirits.
Interspersed throughout is a grab bag of sundry items including eyeglasses, contraceptive implants, an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe from 600 BC, and the wonderfully captioned 'ivory dildo in the form of an erect penis, complete with contrivance for simulating ejaculation' which itself dates back to the 16th century.
Despite all of the weird and wonderful objects on display perhaps the most intimidating installation is found at the end of the exhibition - a floor length mirror inviting attendees to, literally and figuratively, reflect on what they have just seen and how it affects or may yet affect them.
Edited: 14 September 2012 at 11:18 AM by Jason Goodyer
14 August 2012 by Jason Goodyer
There is, however, another thing to be added to this list: it was none other than Sir Michael Philip Jagger who supplied the original Enigma code machine currently on display in the Science Museum's exhibition celebrating the life of pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing.
As anyone even remotely interested in computers or military history will no doubt know, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Turing, a man who helped break the German Enigma code machine in WW2 and is frequently referred to as the father of computer science for his work at the National Physical Laboratory and Manchester University.
Perhaps the star of the exhibition is the Pilot ACE computer - a mass of thermionic valves and snaking wires which ran its first program on 10 May 1950 clocking in at a speed of 1MHz. Other items on display include a section of Comet Jet fuselage wreckage which was analysed with the aid of Pilot ACE, a model of the structure of vitamin B12, which was determined by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin with the help of Pilot ACE, and of course the aforementioned Enigma machine.
Almost as well-known as Turing's many achievements is the despicable way in which he was treated by the British government. In 1952, despite having been openly homosexual for a large part of his adult life, he was convicted of gross indecency and given a grave ultimatum - imprisonment or chemical castration via the daily administration of female hormones. He chose the latter but two years later he was found dead in his bed, a half-eaten apple on his bedside table and a brain so steeped in cyanide the coroner remarked that it smelled strongly of almonds.
In a tiny, quiet room ensconced in the corner of the exhibition is a copy of the coroner's report along with a bottle of hormones similar to that which Turing was forced to take as part of his 'treatment'. The whole debacle was of course desperately sad and it's difficult to look upon these two charged items without feeling a tinge of sorrow, rage or, most likely, both. As for the remainder of the exhibition, it may be slightly modest in size and somewhat lacking in detail but, to paraphrase Sir Mick, I know it's only cryptography n' computer science but I liked it.
Codebreaker - Alan Turing's Life and Legacy runs at the Science Museum until 31 July 2013. Admission is free.
Visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk for further information.
Edited: 15 August 2012 at 12:17 PM by Jason Goodyer
Behind the internet scenes at the museum
30 July 2012 by Jason Goodyer
Blatchford was referring to the fact that the - a series of interactive experiments designed to demonstrate the power of the internet - is operating initially in a beta mode. Once the holiday season's over and it's been subjected to swarms of kids and their parents, Web Lab's designers will tweak things depending on how well it's worked.
Another feature is that you don't even have to trek to London to try the demonstrations. For example, while museum visitors operate some of the instruments in the Heath Robinson-like Universal Orchestra, others are at the disposal of web users who log onto the Web Lab site and can add their own tunes to the mix.
Similarly, you don't have to be there in person for the Sketchbot camera to take your photo and draw it in sand. A webcam will do the job just as well.
What you do get if you make the effort to visit (and the Science Museum is still near the top of the list of great things you can do for free in London) is a unique coded 'Lab Tag'. Scanning it at each stop lets you record what you've done to an account that you can retrieve at home and carry on where you left off. Other things to try include the Data Tracer that tracks the physical journey of an online search query, and Teleporter, a series of periscopes through which you can instantly access cameras all over the world.
To find out more go to www.chromeweblab.com. Be warned though, as the URL suggests the whole thing is optimised to work with Google's own browser. Developers at the launch event were confident that most features would work with other browsers, but admit the experience may be less scintillating than advertised and that you may be prompted to install Chrome.
Web Lab is open now in the basement of the Science Museum's Wellcome Wing. It's free of charge, and a bit out of the way so may be less busy than other hands-on exhibits. Full details and opening times at www.sciencemuseum.org.uk.
25 June 2012 by Jason Goodyer
Well, help may be on the way in the form of the Universe of Sound installation at Kensington's Science Museum, where Philharmonia, one of the UK's top orchestras, are inviting members of the public to join them in an interactive HD performance of Holst's Planets Suite.
The concept was devised by the orchestra's principal conductor and artistic advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen and follows on from the hugely successful RE-RITE, a similar project which opened in London in 2009 and has since toured Leicester, Lisbon, Dortmund, Tianjin and Izmire.
Universe of Sound is constructed from a performance of the Philharmonia Orchestra shot on an array of 37 cameras over the course of a single day on 24 January 2012. The resulting footage has been spread out amongst a series of ten different rooms allowing visitors to wander through the differing sections of the orchestra, from the brass to the woodwind to the percussion and so on. Throughout are giant screens showing close ups of the various musicians, and a planetarium-style dome projection giving a complete panoramic view of the full 132-piece orchestra at the end.
Wandering through the installation is a surprisingly intimate experience that at times feels vaguely voyeuristic. The visitor is brought face-to-face with the musicians and invited to watch them as their minds wonder when not playing before bursting into life at the appropriate moments. Splitting the orchestra down into its component elements in such a way leads visitors to the exhibition to become more aware of the constituent components of the symphony orchestra and also of how finely balanced it all is.
Stationed throughout are live instruments, including marimbas, drums and a gong with a deeply satisfying clang, which museumgoers are able to pick up and play alongside the orchestra. Those who do actually know their minim from their mixolydian, or those who just fancy dusting off their old violin and having a screech, are invited to take along their own instruments, station themselves in front of the provided sheet music and get involved.
But those with less musical ability or experience need not feel left out as they can still try their hand at conducting, or at least virtual conducting. Though this, as anyone who tries it will soon find, is still something of a challenge. The installation's conductor simulator features a three-screen display showing the full orchestra as well as visual instructions, and uses Microsoft's Kinect technology to track the movements of the virtual conductor's hands. Standing in front of a 132-piece orchestra is an intimidating experience even in the virtual world and the act of conducting, even virtually, is far more difficult than it looks. Adding to the pressure are the raucous coughs that start emanating from the virtual audience should your baton skills not prove up to scratch.
Universe of Sound is running at the Science Museum until 8 July 2012, admission is free. Visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk for more information.
28 May 2012 by Jason Goodyer
eager punters the world over have lined up around the block to see this beguiling collection of skinless beings locked in dynamic poses somewhere between life and death through a process known as plastination. While perhaps initially drawn to the exhibition by morbid fascination, many left moved by its eerie beauty - it was as if Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical studies had been suddenly brought to life, or near-life.
Well, Von Hagens has been at it again, though for his latest anatomical odyssey, Animal Inside Out (which is currently running at London's Natural History Museum), he has ventured into the animal kingdom.
Visitors to the museum's central atrium are greeted by a plastinated Bactrian camel blithely pointing the way to the motionless menagerie housed further within. This creature's head and neck have been sliced into three and splayed out at differing angles giving it the appearance of a humpbacked zombie hydra.
Upon reaching the entrance to the exhibition the spectacle continues with the appearance of a crimson porbeagle shark. Closer inspection reveals that the creature's skin has been completely removed to expose the network of feathery capillaries lying beneath - a tangle of scarlet punctuated by row upon row of spear-sharp teeth and a pair of cold, dead eyes. Opposite, a bifurcated squid stares blankly across the hall. When viewed removed from their natural context like this it's easy to forget that these were once living, breathing creatures.
Von Hagens invented the plastination process at Heidelberg University back in 1977 and has since refined it several times to improve its effectiveness. The first step is to pump formalin, a solution of water and formaldehyde, through the animal to halt the process of decay and kill any bacteria that may be present. Next any unwanted skin and fatty or connective tissue is removed from the animal before it is submerged in a bath of acetone which flows into any remaining skin and tissue. The animal is then immersed in a liquid polymer and placed in a vacuum chamber which sucks the acetone out of the tissues and forces the polymer solution to enter in its place. While the animal is still malleable it is manipulated into the desired position and secured by wire, clamps and needles. Finally, the whole thing is hardened using gas, light or heat.
The collection of almost 100 specimens on display ranges from the tiny - a delicate frog skeleton, a hare's brain the size of a jelly bean, to the gargantuan - a vaguely threatening adult gorilla, an Indian elephant the size of a play area climbing frame. Oddest amongst them though is surely the giraffe that has been cut into wafer-thin cross sections and reconstructed slice-by-slice like a real-life CT scan. Camelopard Carpaccio if you will.
Many of the plastinated animals on display are superficially reminiscent of Damien Hirst's formaldehyde and glass creations. But with the philosophical baggage of contemporary art absent, the exhibition leads the mind less to ruminations on the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living and more to marvel at the intricate designs woven by nature and expertly exposed by von Hagens' team of master craftsman. Far from being ghoulish or macabre, many of the animals appear welcoming and friendly. Some of them even slightly comical - the pair of coquettish ostriches cancaning like Las Vegas showgirls being a case in point.
Perhaps the most striking thing about it all, however, is the seemingly limitless versatility of the mammalian body plan. Beneath the skin, a bull's impressive musculature shares many similarities with our own, for example. And despite the length of its distinctive neck, the giraffe has the same number of cervical vertebrae as a human.
But more than being an educational experience, the exhibition is also an aesthetic one. Confronted with the ingenuity and elegance of nature's handiwork there's often little to do but stare in awe and wonder. Proof, if ever it were needed, that beauty is not only skin deep.
Animal Inside Out is running at the Natural History Museum until 16 September 2012.
Visit www.nhm.ac.uk for more information.
Edited: 06 November 2012 at 02:38 PM by Cabinet of curiosities Moderator
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