Month: September 2011

Providence forum explores the intersection of art and science

RISD Stem to Steam
By Linda Borg

Art and design matter. They are essential to innovation, jobs creation and helping scientists visualize their research.

“To remain competitive, we need to include art and design in our conversation on innovation,” said John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School for Design. “Our economy will come back through innovation.”

Scientists, educators, business leaders and artists gathered at The Rhode Island Foundation Monday to discuss how to incorporate art and design into the study of the sciences, dubbed STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The forum, STEM to STEAM, brought together panelists from RISD, industry and the state Department of Education to ponder how design can be used to illustrate and expand upon scientific research.

Saul Kaplan, the founder of the Business Innovation Factory, said Rhode Island’s size can be used to its advantage –– to further collaboration between the world of design and the world of technology.

“Where we can succeed is in the gray areas between sectors,” he said. “We spend far too little time colliding outside our individual silos.”

No one, he said, is passionate about creating an innovative economy, yet art and design are instrumental to releasing that passion.

The hard truth is that the public schools, particularly the urban districts, have no time in their instructional day to add art to the curriculum, according to Andrea Castaneda, chief of the Department of Accelerating School Performance.

School leaders must figure out how to include art in the core curriculum if they want students to be able to be able to think imaginatively.

“What we have been doing is simply not getting the job done,” Castaneda told a crowd of about 100 people.

RISD is already breaking ground in the area of using design to produce better science, according to Charlie Cannon, an associate professor of industrial design. RISD, for example, is working with Brown University and the University of Rhode Island to study the impact of climate change on marine life.

“Our role,” Cannon said, “is to make the science visible.”

Art can also be used to help scientists communicate across disciplines, and it can be a great way to explain scientific research to the public.

The final panelist, Stephen Lane, CEO of Ximedica, an engineering and technology company, said art should be at the top of the business food chain.

In education, he said, art is where schools capture students’ interests. Nurturing an interest in design –– filmmaking or music–– gives students a pathway to science and technology.

The forum was sponsored by U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin, RISD, The Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island College, the Rhode Island Science and Technology Council and the state Department of Education.


Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music

By Regine
on September 24, 2011 1:22 PM

A few weeks ago, the Science Museum in London opened a small but fascinating exhibition about a revolutionary music synthesiser and the extraordinary woman who created it in the 1960s. It’s on the second floor, right behind the Energy Wing.

Daphne Oram using her Oramics Machine (image

Daphne Oram was the first woman to direct an electronic music studio, the first woman to set up a personal studio and the first woman to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.

Daphne Oram in 1962

The British composer and electronic musician started her career in the BBC’s music department, founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, got tired of the broadcaster’s lack of vision for electronic sound and musique concrète (the ancestor of today’s electronic music) and set up her Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition in Kent. She provided background music and sounds for radio, television, theatre, short commercial films but also for installations and exhibitions.

In February 1962, she was awarded a grant to work on her “Oramics” drawn sound technique. This method of music composition and performance allowed the composer to draw an “alphabet of symbols” on paper and feed it through a machine that would, in turn, produce the relevant sounds on magnetic tape. The first drawn sound composition using the machine, entitled “Contrasts Essonic”, was recorded in 1968.

Sound generator unit of Oramics Machine, 1960s (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Oramics synthesizer, 1960s, awaiting conservation (Credit: Tim Boon)


Two waveform slides hand-painted by Daphne Oram, from her Oramics Machine (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Guardian described how it worked: Electric motors pulled eight parallel tracks of clear 35mm film stock across scanners that operated like TV sets in reverse. On the film she drew curving black lines, squiggles and dots, all converted into sound. It looked and sounded strikingly modern.

Long thought lost, the revolutionary music synthesiser was recently recovered and added to the Science Museum’s collections in co-operation with Goldsmiths, University of London.

The Oramics Machine will never work again. To make it operational nowadays would mean replacing so many of its working parts that it would only be a replica. The Science Museum is showing the original machine along with an ’emulator’ that reproduces the elements of the Oramics Machine’s operation on a touch screen. Visitors can draw waveforms, input a tune, modify the sound according to various parameters.


View of the exhibition space

The museum also presents rare archive footage and will add more exhibits in the coming days. The new pieces will be co-created by people who are working with electronic music today as well as a group of Daphne’s contemporaries.

More images on The Oramics Machine fb page and Sound on Sound has a more detailed article about the Oramics machine.

Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music remains open at the Science Museum in London through 01 Dec 2012.

OpenLab Astronomer Jonathan Forntey contributes to confirm first planet orbiting two stars

By Tim Stephens


Kepler-16b orbits two suns, as shown in this artist’s conception. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A world with multiple suns is a common trope in science fiction, as in the iconic double sunset in Star Wars. Scientific reality has now caught up, with a report from NASA’s Kepler mission of the first unambiguous detection of a planet orbiting two stars.

Unlike the fictional planet Tatooine in Star Wars, the newly discovered planet is cold and gaseous and not thought to harbor life. But its discovery demonstrates the diversity of planets in our galaxy. The findings are described in a new study published in the September 16 issue of Science.

UC Santa Cruz astronomers Jonathan Fortney and Daniel Fabrycky both contributed to the study. “Kepler is finding all kinds of new planets that we could only imagine before,” said Fortney, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC. “While we know of many planets that orbit one star in a binary system of two widely separated stars, this is a system where the planet formed around and orbits both stars.”

Previous studies have found hints of planets orbiting binary stars, but clear confirmation has been elusive. The Kepler space telescope detects planets through what is known as a planetary transit, in which the brightness of a star dims as a result of a planet crossing in front of it. Scientists detected the new planet in the Kepler-16 system: a pair of orbiting stars that eclipse each other from our point of view on Earth. A primary eclipse occurs when the larger star is partially blocked by the smaller star, and a secondary eclipse occurs when the smaller star is occulted, or completely blocked, by the larger star.

Astronomers further observed that the brightness of the system dipped even when the stars were not eclipsing one another, hinting at a third body. The additional dimming events reappeared at irregular intervals of time, indicating that the stars were in different positions in their orbit each time the third body passed.

Fabrycky, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Cruz, performed the initial interpretation of the precise timings of the planetary transits and the eclipses of the stars, showing that only a planet in a wide orbit around both stars was consistent with the data. The gravitational tug on the stars, measured by changes in their eclipse times, was a good indicator of the mass of the third body. Only a very small gravitational pull was detected, one that could only be caused by a mass as small as a planet.

“This discovery provides confirmation of a new class of planetary systems that could harbor life. Given that most stars in our galaxy are part of a binary system, this means that the opportunities for life are much broader than if planets form only around single stars,” said Kepler principal investigator William Borucki. “This milestone discovery confirms a theory that scientists have had for decades but could not definitively prove until now.”

The discovery confirms the newest member of the Kepler planet family, Kepler-16b, which is an inhospitable, cold world about the size of Saturn, and thought to be made up of about half rock and half gas. “The planet seems to be a denser version of Saturn,” said Fortney, who used the mass and radius of the planet to calculate models of its interior structure.

The parent stars are both smaller than our sun–one is 69 percent and the other only 20 percent the mass of the sun. Kepler-16b orbits around both stars every 229 days, but lies outside the system’s habitable zone, the region where liquid water could exist on the surface, because the stars are cooler than our sun. The smaller star of the Kepler-16 system is a type of star called a red dwarf. The Kepler team was able to directly measure its size because it eclipses its companion star every 41 days, causing the starlight to dim and brighten regularly every time the pair orbit around each other.

“Most of what we know about the sizes of stars comes from such eclipsing binary systems, and most of what we know about the size of planets comes from transits,” said lead author and Kepler participating scientist Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute in Mountain View. “Kepler-16 combines the best of both worlds, with stellar eclipses and planetary transits in one system.”

Kepler-16b may not have a habitable surface, but there are hints that rocky planets with double sunsets might be common in our galaxy. In 2007, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found planetary disks of debris around twin stars, indicating rocky planets may have formed in those systems.

The Kepler space telescope searches for transiting planets by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars. Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the surface of the orbiting planet. More information about the Kepler mission is available online at

Think Art Act Science

22. September 2011 -12. November 2011 | San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)

Opening: Wednesday, 21th September 2011 | 5 pm
with electro-acoustic performance by Alexandre Joly at 6pm

artists: Monika Codourey, Christian Gonzenbach, Alexandre Joly, Roman Keller, Pe Lang, Wenfeng Liao, Alina Mnatsakanian, Nicole Ottiger

In San Francisco a selection of eight works will be shown from a total of twenty-four artists who have participated in the Swiss artists-in-labs program since 2007. Two of these works were realised during the Sino-Swiss residency exchange between artists and scientists in Switzerland and China in 2009/10.

The exhibition not only tries to build a bridge between different cultures of knowledge, but moreover points towards promising exchanges between art and science on a global scale.

For the duration of the exhibition additional events include a variety of participative formats such as workshops (student and public), conferences, performances and lectures. Additionally, both SFAI and swissnex San Francisco sites will host the Bay Area Science Festival, which runs from 26 October – 6 November 2011.

Curated by:
Irène Hediger, in collaboration with Hou Hanru and Mary Ellyn Johnson
Catalogue: Think Art – Act Science ed. ACTAR Barcelona New York

A New Culture of Learning: Rethinking Education

by Maria Popova

The evolution of education, particularly as filtered through the prism of emerging technology and new media, is something we’re keenly interested in and something of increasing importance to society at large. Now, from authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown comes a powerful and refreshing effort to approach the subject with equal parts insight, imagination and optimism, rather than the techno-dystopian views today’s cultural pundits tend to throw our way.

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change makes a compelling case for a new kind of learning, one growing synchronously and fluidly with technology rather than resisting it with restless anxiety — a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson’s call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky’s notion of “cognitive surplus.”

We’re stuck in a mode where we’re using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we’re missing some really important and valuable data.” ~ Douglas Thomas

The book touches on a number of critical issues in digital learning, from the role of remix culture to the importance of tinkering and experimentation in creating, not merely acquiring, knowledge. Central to its premise is the idea that play is critical to understanding learning, something we can get behind.

Sample the content with some excellent talks by the authors on the book’s site and grab a copy of A New Culture of Learning —.