Monday, December 3, 2012

What does silk sound like?

Silk is an awesome feat of nature. We can use it for everything from Kevlar to fancy evening dresses, and now we can even listen to it!

Scientists at MIT are mapping spider silk proteins on to musical scores not only for fun, but as a way to understand the structure of any given silk "recipe" and to predict how it might pan out in real life. How cool is that? Skip to the middle of the video to "hear" the silk!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Woodblock Prints and Spacetime Beetle maps!

Many of us Mad Scientists of Etsy are making art about science, but apparently one can also use art to do science. A few of us make relief prints including molarchae's letterpress prints, sparrowpress's woodblock prints, jackbear's stamps, jvdarcy linocuts or embossed prints, plowerwing linocuts, and my minouette's linocut. Relief prints are made from the surface of a block. The printmaker carves away the excess material (or negative space in the print) and inks the block (in materials like wood, lino or stone) and prints it onto paper (usually) to make a print. It's a method which has a long history and now, it has a new, scientific purpose. I thought I'd share an interesting story about how art history and woodblock printing in particular has allowed one scientist, Blair Hedges, a professor of biology at Penn State University, to map wood-eating insects and their distribution in space and time, from 15th to 19th century Europe. The image is a Renaissance woodcut art print, 'The Rich Man' by Cornelis Anthonisz (1541), showing printed wormholes (owned by the Rjiksmuseum, Amsterdam) - an example of the very database he was able to mine. He showed that two species of woodboring beetles "met along a zone across central Europe like a battle line of two armies" by using the "wormhole record". These insects, which produce different sized holes in wood, left traces in the blocks used by artists to make their prints. Luckily for him, by producing the prints, the artists were also making a record of exactly which holes had already been made in a given piece of wood, at a given time (since prints are dated), since the exit holes made by these insects were inked and printed. It is also generally well-known where an artist was living and working. Thus by examining and measuring the size of more than 3,000 printed wormholes in works of art and books spanning five centuries, from 1462 to 1899, he produced a space-time map of beetle distributions.

Who knew that woodboring beetles were relief printmakers?

He points out that the research is not only a new tool in evolutionary biology and could be used to map wood-boring beetles in other regions, but that it could be a new method for art historians who need to identify the age or origin of woodblock prints and books which contain them.

You can read more here or listen to this fun interview with Dr. Blair (the last 7:45 of the third section) on the CBC Radio show As It Happens.

Monday, November 19, 2012

new design

We're working on some new ideas for our look. What do you think? My idea was to try and allude to all sciences simply. What do we all have in common? Well, we use our brains. The brain in a vat of course, also alludes to Descartes' demon, and the whole 'mad scientist' thing. Brains are good for symbolizing all theoretical science, and also represent biology. The beaker alludes to chemistry, and all measurement or experimental science. The tools, the pencil, the paintbrush and the needle and thread, are supposed to represent all the creative endeavours of our members. Even if they use something other than these three, say a computer or metalworking tools, for instance, they probably use a pencil too. The way the light is refracted at the boundary of the fluid is an allusion to physics. The layout alludes to Leonardo's Vesuvian man too... and we all know that Leonardo would have been the ultimate MSOEr, as both scientist and artist. The banner also incorporates the Logistic map, tying in mathematics, chaos theory, and biology or ecology (as it can be used to model population dynamics).

We've also been playing with the typefaces and moving towards a cleaner overall look.

The hope is to revitalize this blog and see more regular posts!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mad Scientists Showcase!

This nifty app will select a random collection of listings from Mad Scientists of Etsy shops. Every time you visit, they'll be a new treasury! We're going to add another page so you can get a random collection of handmade goodies from your favorite band of mad scientists anytime.

Friday, August 3, 2012

June - July Challenge Theme: Genetics

The theme for June / July was genetics. Only two team members tackled this challenge, but they were too good not to feature here.

First up is Helices, an original watercolor by Genevieve of SummerQuarters.
I love the addition of the accessory proteins controlling DNA transcription and gene activity. The cheery orange-red background makes this a piece I can really see hanging in a doctor's office.

Next up is this amazing collagen color spectrum by Kristin of ArtAtomic.
It doesn't look like much at first (especially at this size), but once you know what it is, you can't help but think "oooooh! COOL!" In Kristin's own words:
A color spectrum, based on the amino acid sequence of the protein Collagen. First, I wrote a program in Python, to analyze the amino acid frequencies in a sequence. Then I wrote a second program to visualize the results.
It'll be really interesting to see how the spectra change depending on the size, composition and function of the protein scanned. I'd like to see some GPCRs and other transmembrane proteins to see how they differ from globular and structural proteins.

Kristin ran the code for insulin in her program next:
These color maps are fantastic! I think a print of a scientist's favorite protein would make the perfect gift for that hard-to-buy-for nerd... and would look just as awesome in a baby's nursery as it would in a doctor's office!

Hop of over to Kristin's blog for more details. 

The challenge theme for August / September is Hypatia of Alexandria - what are you going to create?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is Philosophy Important For Scientists?

Great article from the Physics Buzz blog about science and philosophy.

This one hits home for me because I earned my undergraduate degree in philosophy, perhaps the poster child for "useless majors" (up there with dance and art history). xkcd even lists it first in the parody song "Every Major's Terrible." (Click the image to see the comic full-size.)

xkcd every major's terrible parody

 It's a shame, really, because I consider it incredibly useful. (Never mind that Randall's stereotyped depiction of philosophy is way far off the mark.) Here's a few reasons.

1. Critical Thinking Skills

Not everyone becomes scientists, or programmers, or engineers, but everyone engages in debates of some kind or another. Most everyone reads the news, posts on forums or blogs, votes in elections, or failing that, has conversations with their friends. We see advertisements and commercials constantly: we are bombarded with persuasive arguments and rhetoric to convince us to vote for a certain candidate or to buy a certain shampoo. How stupid it is to be ill-equipped to cope with them!

It would be impractical for everyone to go back to school and earn a B.A. in philosophy just to deal with this situation, however, so here's few good references:

2. Self-Expression

Philosophy is broad enough that it can be applied to almost anything. And I do mean anything.

The Beatles Philosophy
Arguably this might be taking it too far.

Within the broader field of philosophy, there's epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics* (the study of the nature of reality). There's something there for everybody! If you're at all a thoughtful individual, you've wondered about issues that fall under one or more of those headings. Even a basic Philosophy 101 class can provide a better set of concepts and vocabulary you can use to express yourself and explain your opinion: consequential, utilitarian, and deontological are just the beginning!

3. Enriching Experiences

References to philosophical problems, quandaries, and puzzles happen all the time in popular culture. Granted, if you waste spend your time consuming Jersey Shore or Flava of Love you probably won't encounter much Sartres or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The perennial favorite to cite at this point would be The Matrix and how it relates to Plato's allegory of the cave, or Descartes' evil genius, or whatever else people manage to read into that movie.

Even without straight-up references, a basic knowledge of Western philosophical concepts and treatises definitely adds a new layer to almost anything. Reading about John Locke's theory of identity right before watching Christopher Nolan's Memento made it much different than it would have been otherwise—I'd even venture to say better than it would have been otherwise. Spending an entire semester writing a senior philosophy thesis on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the moral and ethical quandaries of just one scene deepened my appreciation of the entire book.

Never mind this bit from Monty Python! (NSFW) (I once quoted this, in its entirety, in a final exam for a Survey of Modern Philosophy course because I thought my answer looked too short.)

4. Be A Better ________ (In This Case, Scientist)

I'm just going to quote from Albert Einstein on this one:
"I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth."

And if that isn't enough, here's the story of Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Among other things, he's responsible for the concepts of dissipative structures and self-organizing systems. I read his story in Creativity not a day after I wrote the first draft of this entry.

 As a child, Prigogine was interested in the humanities (philosophy, art, and music specifically) but at the behest of his parents studied law. Law led to an interest in criminal psychology, which led him to try to better understand the brain through neurochemistry, a topic which he continued to frame through philosophical issues such as choice, responsibility, and freedom.

"If you can say that the universe is deterministic, a kind of automaton, then how can we hold to the idea of responsibility? All of Western philosophy was dominated by this problem. It seemed to me that we had to choose between a scientific view which was negating humanistic tradition, or a humanistic tradition which was trying to destroy  what we learned from science...I was very sensitive to this conflict because I came to science, to hard science, from the human sciences...But what I learned from thermodynamics confirmed my philosophical point of view. And gave me the energy to continue to look on a deeper interpretation of time and of the laws of nature. So, I would say, it is a kind of feedback between the humanistic and the scientific point of view."

5. Fending Off Hubris

Most importantly (especially for scientists), philosophy reminds us that there is and always will be a realm of questions for which there are no clear, objective answers. Not merely trivial things like, "Which is the best flavor of ice cream?" or "Who was the worst Bond?" but big things, too: "What is a good life?" "Do you save the train car full of old people or the train car full of babies?" "What is free will? Do we have it?"

Science has done a lot for us this past century, and the work of scientists has improved life immeasurably. While there is a radical, minority fringe that insists on demonizing science and remaining staunchly ignorant of how it works, within mainstream society the field of science enjoys a fair amount of privilege. Scientists can point to a long list of tangible modern accomplishments and improvements that spring directly from their field, no matter what that field may be. There's definitely a lot to be proud of.

Because of this history, there is the tendency for science to get full of itself. A belief that if science can solve so many problems, it can surely solve all of the problems; that somehow scientists have a super-privileged insight into the human condition that the rest of us lack.Unchecked, that mindset can become one of the most obnoxious, intolerable characteristics in a person. (I'm looking at you, Richard Dawkins.) Regularly engaging with something one doesn't understand is probably one of the best ways to avoid becoming a boorish jackass. (Again: I'm looking at you, Richard Dawkins.)

If nothing else, you never know when philosophy will come in handy on Jeopardy! or at bar trivia.

*"Metaphysics" has been co-opted by a lot of  "woo" writers and, as a result, has developed some unfortunate "woo" connotations. Most volumes billing themselves as somehow metaphysical in nature, or tackling metaphysics, are often lacking in the intellectual and academic rigor that is the trademark of "actual" philosophy. Be careful!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

National Physics Day!

In case you didn't know, this past Tuesday was National Physics Day. Of course, for us here at the Mad Scientists of Etsy, every day is Physics Day (and Chemistry Day, and Astronomy Day, and Biology Day...). Here are some great items, from the Mad Scientists and laypeople alike, that celebrate the beauty that is physics.

'Physics Day!' by Kokoba

















Thursday, April 19, 2012

Etsy Shop of the Day: Fender Minerals

According to my mom, I was fascinated by rocks and minerals even at an early age. I don't remember much from those years of my life, and during my middle and high school years I didn't give a second thought to rocks. It wasn't until I started working at a rock and mineral shop in college that my fascination reasserted itself. Since then, my appreciation for the gorgeousness lurking in the crust beneath our feet has only deepened. Nothing makes my day like pretty rocks and mineral samples.

Fender Minerals has so many beautiful items I don't even know where to begin. While not a Mad Scientist of Etsy (yet?), Ms. Fender has some gorgeous samples that are of interest to any of our mad scientist rockhounds (yours truly, for example). Check out, for instance, this gorgeous piece of malachite (already one of my favorite stones):

Polished Bullseye Malachite Nugget from Fender Minerals

The little crystals in there are awesome! I've never seen that in malachite before. Alas the piece looks a little dinged up, but malachite is so soft it's really inevitable that it gets scratched.

If green's not to your taste, there's always iridescent chalcopyrite—the aptly named "Peacock Ore."

Peacock Ore Chalcopyrite Ray Mine Specimen from Fender Minerals

Something like this would be great in a little knick-knacks display shelf. This is what you'll find in my curios cabinet when I'm an old lady—not creepy ceramic children.

Fender Minerals also carries polished fossils that are drilled and ready for beading or wire-wrapping. Here's one of my favorites, an orthocera.

Orthocera Fossil from Fender Minerals

If you want more pictures and information, check out Fender Minerals' blog. There's a lot more to be had over there.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

April Challenge Theme: World's Tiniest Vertebrate Found!

Scientists in New Guinea recently discovered the world's tiniest vertebrate: a frog that reaches a whopping 7.7 mm in length.

Look at him! I can't deal with adorable he is! Neither can we, apparently, so for the rest of April the Mad Scientists will be crafting up a huge (tiny) storm. 

What do you think would be a cool crafty idea to celebrate this miniature amphibian?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Documentary Review: Playing God

I put off watching this one for a while because the title was just so dumb, honestly. Phrases like "playing God" and so forth perpetuate this image of science as a reckless, thoughtless endeavor; a field of study full of people who don't consider the consequences or repercussions of what they do. It paints this image of science as something that will ultimately doom us all and glosses over all of the good that science has brought us.

It's doubly unfortunate that Playing God has such a stupid title, then, because it's seriously the most amazing thing I've seen in a while. All of the documentaries I've watched so far have been good, of course, but this is the first that made me go, "Holy shit!"

It's another BBC production, this time hosted by Adam Rutherford. This one is all about genetics and what amazing things scientists are doing with gene splicing: goats that produce tougher-than-Kevlar spider silk in their milk, radiation treatment in tiny carbon capsules injected under astronauts' skin, purely synthetic materials created with squid camouflaging genes that will change color from the carbon dioxide in your breath, brewer's yeast that make petroleum instead of alcohol. Everything in here sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and yet scientists are creating this today.

The good: Everything. Just...everything. It also raises legitimate ethical concerns, not fluffy fear-mongering.

The bad: The documentary gives a little too much credence to the "are we meddling with what we should not?" view in some places, but for the most part avoids that trap entirely.

One interesting fact: It was all interesting, but I think my favorite part was the "citizen science" lab that was set up in the community center of some town in California. For a small membership fee, John Q. Public can now perform science experiments that, just a few years ago, were only possible to do in university laboratories. I wish something like that had been available when I was a kid!

Would recommend? A must-see. Put your NetFlix queue on hold and watch this one tonight. Seriously.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Happy Pi (π) Day!

Who doesn't love pi, or π (or pie for that matter)? On March 14 (which can be written 3/14) we celebrate the world's most famous irrational number, so central to geometry, trigonometry, calculus, Fourier Analysis... you name it. If it's mathematical, it needs more π. This number's popularity, and the mysteriousness of being irrational, transcends mathematics. Check out some of these great items from the Mad Scientists of Etsy, which celebrate pi!

Let's make some pi apron by buffalonerdproject

2piR - Circumference of a Circle Formula Necklace in Copper and Brass by nikhajewelry

Tiny Handstamped Round Copper I Love Pi Geeky Charm, Pendant, Keychain, Zipper Pull or Bag Tag by anandi

Math Jewelry - Pi Seafoam and Tan Impression Jasper Cuff by Kokoba

And for your Pi Day viewing and listening pleasure:

The video was produced by Austin-based musician Michael John Blake via the New Scientist magazine.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Documentary Review: The Core

It's been quiet 'round these parts, hasn't it? Let's jump start things with a movie recommendation!

A few years ago, I set a goal for myself to watch one documentary and read one non-fiction book a month. I've slacked off once in a while, but the net result has been that I've seen a lot of neat documentaries I wouldn't have seen otherwise! All of the ones I'm going to mention here are available—for free!—on So you, too, can watch at your leisure!

First up: The Core

the core bbcJust what is inside our planet? Not to be confused with the schlocky Hollywood movie, this is a slick BBC documentary that slices off the crust and takes us as close as we can get to the Earth's molten center.

The good: Always very interesting and engaging. I mean, I think the molten core of the Earth is already super interesting, but I think they did a good job of making it accessible and entertaining for people who don't think so. Plus sometimes there are explosions!

The bad: There's a bit too much in terms of attempting to create "dramatic tension" or whatever: an over-acted sense of urgency in the narrator's voice, melodramatic music, and so forth. It got kind of cheesy.

One interesting fact: At the molten core of the Earth is an inner nickel-iron solid core. Due to the intense heat and pressure at the center of the planet, this nickel-iron solid is most likely in the shape of HUGE crystals multiple kilometers in size!

Would recommend? Yes!


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