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Denmark: one week, two conferences

The first was on acid-base regulation and proton transport, 49th in a series that was first organized by legendary Danish scientists Hans Ussing and Nobelist Jens Skou. The Ussing chamber is a classical apparatus used to measure electrical current across a layer of cells known as epithelium, as a proxy for the ions that are transported in and out of the cells. Skou discovered one of the most important of these transporter proteins, known as the sodium pump. The meeting was held at the historic Sandbjerg estate, near Sonderburg, which dates back to the 16th century and eventually ended up with the family of author Isak Dinesan (real name, Karen Blixen) of Out of Africa fame (http://www.sandbjerg.dk/en/). It is now owned by Aarhus University, to the enjoyment of lucky researchers! The second conference was to celebrate the achievements of a colleague, Poul Nissen, structural biologist extraordinaire, of Aarhus University. Poul received the Novo Nordisk prize for his beautiful atomic structures of ion pumps, including the sodium pump that was discovered by Jens Skou. We stayed at Norsminde Kro (Kro=inn) and the science talks were at Mosegaard museum. Back to Aarhus, where the sun barely sets, before heading back home.
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6/3/17
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The Art of Seurat: Science and Pointillism

After winding through the bucolic Dutch countryside, two bus loads of scientists were disgorged at the Kröller-Müller Art Museum in Otterlo, hoping for a dose of culture to leaven our week-long immersion in research (on ATP-driven pumps; http://p-atpases.org/). To our delight, the museum was hosting the work of Georges Seurat, the master of pointillism. Fittingly, Seurat once said, Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science

What's the Point?: In contrast to traditional methods that mix pigments, pointillism is a technique where dots of pure color are applied, allowing the eye and the mind to blend the colors to give a richer and brighter effect. Although the term was first used to ridicule the technique, pointillism (also called divisionalism) gained credibility by the end of the 19th century, giving rise to neo-impressionism, cubism and modern art, and influencing other artists like van Gogh and Matisse.  Seurat's most famous work showcasing pointillism is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884 (http://goo.gl/WXcS48). Estimated to be made up of ~3.5 million dots, it took nearly 2 years to complete!

 A closer look reveals individual dots of blue, green, yellow and even red in the water, which give the impression of changing, shimmering color as the viewer moves towards the canvas. Our brains blend the dots into a color that is not actually there.  When pigments are mixed, they absorb light. By avoiding mixing, there is no subtractive effect and colors appear brighter. The white canvas between dots enhances this effect. 

The inner rings in the animated circles a and b appear to be different colors: pink or orange. But it's just an illusion - revealed when the surrounding circles are stripped away. Notice also that the color surrounding the inner circles in a and c, or b and d, is the same, but the frequency of concentric rings is different, altering our color perception.

Points to Pixels: Never could Seurat have guessed that the principles behind pointillism would be so widely used in modern technology- computer and television screens light up individual pixels colored in RGB (red, green, blue) and printers deposit CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and Key or black) dyes. We are all pointillists now!

Slide show pdf on Seurat: http://goo.gl/jSTsBA
  
Watch: Seurat. Master of pointillism, Kröller-Müller Museum. A must see!

For a related post, see, Was Matisse a Neuroscientist? http://goo.gl/0QHeeI

#ScienceSunday    
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2014-09-07
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Pottering Around Vermont

I spent the past week amidst the bucolic charms of Vermont debating the merits of mountains, molecules and membrane transport proteins (scientific program here: http://goo.gl/S6zHpC). The keynote talk was given by Ed Boyden (MIT; http://goo.gl/Lrgz9m) on the topic of optogenetics: light activated ion channels are cloned from corals, bacteria and fungi, delivered into neurons in a living animal, to precisely control and study behavior. We watched how activation of dopamine neurons by a blue light led pleasure seeking mice to return to the light spot again and again! 

Each summer, for the past 80 years, scientists having been making the pilgrimage to the Gordon Research Conferences that cover hundreds of topics in physics, chemistry and biology. Discussions are intense, "off the record" and feature unpublished work. Isolated from the metropolitan hubbub, sites are typically in rural New England, Tuscany or the Swiss Alps (see my pix from Les Diablerets here: http://goo.gl/8qKpil). Afternoons are free, and we ventured into a charming old town where we explored a long-forgotten graveyard and discovered hand thrown pottery with colorful, crystalline glazes. They inspired me to make a pesto pasta with summer vegetables as soon as I returned home! I hope you enjoy these pictures in place of my usual #ScienceSunday  post.   

York Hill Pottery: http://yorkhillpottery.com/index.php?page=home
Flambeaux Art Pottery: http://www.campbellpottery.com/
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2014-07-20
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Spring

Pictures from my spring garden (and bunny!), although we have leap-frogged into summer. The iris and azalea I shared last spring are not out yet ▶ http://goo.gl/sMmFU

"Now that the winter's gone, the earth hath lost
Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful spring.
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long'd-for May".

                                             - George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
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Columnar Basalt on Jeju Island, Korea

• My recent junket to South Korea, purportedly on the invitation of the International Plant Biology conference, took me to Jeju Island.  Dominated by the central Halla-san volcano, this temperate island has waterfalls plunging into the glittering ocean, skates drying in the wind, and tangerine groves galore.  I spotted these geological formations of columnar basalt along the southern coast of Jeju island at Jusangjeolli (주상절리), and at the three-tiered Cheonjeyeon Waterfall.

• Basalt is volcanic rock formed from cooling lava. As thick lava flow cools, it fractures- more easily in the horizontal direction than vertical. This results in columnar basalt, with amazingly regular hexagonal shapes. The slower the cooling, the larger the columns. The ones on Jeju-do were formed between 250,000 and 140,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene period. Another famous example is the Giant’s Causeway of Ireland, where the geometric perfection seems artificial or photoshopped! 

Thanks to +Thomas Kang for exhorting me to check these out. HIRL account with Thomas coming up; sorry, no pictures of the Korean spa ;)
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Mountains of Malnad

We set off to the monsoon drenched mountains of the Malnad district of Karnataka, in southern India. Our hired car careened wildly past hairpin bends, narrowly missing the nonchalant cows strolling along at a leisurely pace, while we were chased by enthusiastic village dogs.  Out of place and out of time, every village hut boasted a satellite dish on the roof. Wizened monkeys peered curiously through the leaves, and patient elephants allowed their mahouts to bathe them by the river. Masses of white cranes nested in sanctuaries tucked into the Western Ghat mountains of the Deccan plateau.

We arrived at the Bananki plantation where our spirits were restored with old world charm. Our hostess took us on a tour of  the rubber plantations: sap dripping diagonally into plastic bags.  Cash crops of areca nut palms, cardamom and ginger plants, peppercorn vines, and banana trees. The emerald green of terraced paddy fields glinted jewel-bright in the sunlight. The next day, we pushed onwards to the mist covered Jog Falls, where we descended ~1400 steps to the bottom, into oppressive heat and humidity. We paid the price for our foolishness with the climb back up :)
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Hoysala Temples: Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the Hoysala kings in southern India  built distinctive temples characterized by a star shaped base built up with a complex profusion of images intricately carved from soapstone (chloritic schist) running in parallel lines along zig-zag walls.

We first visited Halebid, in the Hassan district of Karnataka. After this ancient city was sacked twice by the Delhi sultanate, the capital was moved to Belur where the carvings appeared even finer in detail. One dancing figure has a bangle that moves up her arm. My favorite is the figure of Arjuna, the Pandava prince, aiming an arrow accurately into the eye of a spinning fish overhead, by looking into its reflection in a pool of water -my son's name is Arjun :) The big Nandi, or bull, is carved out of a single stone. The temples have been proposed to be UNESCO heritage sites..I'm surprised that they are not already.
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Flowers from India

By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower Rabindranath Tagore

#floralfriday
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Śravaṇa Beḷagoḷa (Kannada: ಶ್ರವಣಬೆಳಗೊಳ): First stop on our three-day trip out of Bangalore, India, this ancient Indian town wedged between two rocky hills, gets its name from a tranquil reservoir (literally, "white tank of the monk"). A barefoot climb up ~650 steps hewn into the granite took us to a 57 foot monolithic statue, carved from a single stone, said to be the tallest of its kind.

• Nearly 1,800 years old, the statue of the naked Gomateshwara (a Jain monk) is symbolic of renunciation of worldly pleasures. According to legend, the prince Bahubali threw down his weapons after a hollow victory over his brother Bharatha for the throne. Meditating in penance, anthills grew at his feet and vines coiled around his limbs, as seen in the statue. Inscriptions dating back prior to 10th century AD include texts in Kannada, Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Marwari and Mahajani languages. They describe the rise of dynasties of Gangas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas and other empires. More on the beautiful carvings of the Hoysala dynasty in my next post.
 
• From the hilltop, where a cool breeze rewarded our exertions, we watched school children march in a straggly Independence Day parade with their youthful voices singing the national anthem. A few naked monks strolled nonchalantly past us while my 13 year old remarked that a _namaskara_  (lying prostate at the feet of elders or holy people) might be a "bit dicey" given the view.
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Gordon Research Conference, Les Diablerets: In the late 1920's, the Chemistry department at Johns Hopkins, pioneered by Neil Gordon, held a series of summer conferences. Located off site on Gibson island, Maryland, these unique conferences tackled "frontier topics" with animated discussions in an intimate environment.

• Wildly successful, the Gordon conferences now encompass hundreds of topics in pure and applied sciences. Talks are "off the record" to encourage communication of unpublished data. Nobel laureates rub shoulders with graduate students. Locations are remote and typically quite spartan (New England prep schools are a favorite!). Wifi is usually spotty. Afternoons are free for hiking and exploration, but the science schedule is intense and grueling: see http://www.grc.org/programs.aspx?year=2012&program=membtransp . The conference covered  membrane transport proteins from plants to neuroscience, structure to mechanism and disease. I was elected Chair of the 2016 conference, so wish me luck with fund raising!

• I hope you enjoy my photos of the Swiss Alps in lieu of my usual #sciencesunday post.  I wish I had my camera when a cat walked in on the talks, jumped on to the podium and watched the laser pointer intently for the next half hour! That would have been great for Caturday :)
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