Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Fractals in a Starry Night or Art + Math = Reality

 Starry Starry Night by Shadoweddancer on deviantArt
Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
One of the things I enjoy about post-impressionist art is the way it conveys such a feeling of reality, often without looking 'real' at all.  The colors can be bright, the paint heavy with thick brush strokes, and the angles strange and unexpected.  Yet the art conveys emotion that rings true to the subject matter - the feeling of what is depicted - and it is far more 'real' than a camera could ever catch.  

There are many questions about van Gogh and his paintings.  What was the source of the altered 'vision' that allowed for his striking art - was it genius, or a mix of that and something like an illness, affecting the way he painted?  For example, it has been suggested that the swirls and halos in 'Starry Night' may have been a result of mental illness, toxins, epilepsy, or other factors.  Was this curling, glowing world to some extent what he was really seeing?

When I think about fractals, I imagine that van Gogh was seeing far more accurately and 'realistically' than we might at first imagine.

As you know from my previous posts 'Art Imitates Life' and 'Fact, Fiction, and Fractals,' I am captivated by fractals and fractal art.  In spite of years of formal math education, I am still amazed at how we have developed this tool (language) called math, that can describe the world both so comprehensively and so creatively.  When we use math to describe nature we find systems and patterns repeating in strange ways, and yet they seem so recognizable to us, because they are all around and a part of our everyday experience.

Clouds and clusters of stars are both phenomena that share a certain fractal nature.  They possess self-similar (same on all scales), repeating, complex patterns.  Galactic gas and dust are distributed in a manner that is both self-similar and hierarchical.  It is from this material that new stars are born, already clustered in ways that match the original fractal nature of the gas cloud.  Investigating how the fractals change with time gives scientists insight into how stars are formed and how they evolve. [1]  Clouds possess a wide variety of shapes and forms - bumps, curves, swirls, blobs, and filigree - that together form complex, repeating patterns.  Some of these can be modeled very accurately with the right kind of mathematical fractal.  Such models are then used to help both weather prediction and climate modeling. [2]   

The fractal swirls in 'Shadoweddancer's' Starry Starry Night seem strangely familiar.  Of course they bring to mind the piece of art that they honor, but they also reflect the subject of the painting - the night sky itself.  After all, a mix of stars and clouds would have many intriguing fractal patterns laced within one another.  As I look at this fractal art, I imagine I see stars and galaxies glowing through a patchy gauze of clouds.  It is certainly a spectacular night, with clusters of stars and the band of our Milky Way galaxy flowing through the scene.

The similarity to 'Starry Night' is striking to me.  It makes me imagine that van Gogh's painter's eye saw into the patterns of the evening sky and represented them in a way that only a fractal could really imitate.  A stretch?  Probably, but there is no denying the fractals found all around us, and the amazing works they inspire.  I know it motivates me to look for more of the 'hidden fractals' that abound in our environment, both in nature and in art.  And I will continue to imagine that the genius of some artists (and mathematicians) is the ability to see into the patterns of reality in ways that the rest of us overlook.

Image Credits and References:

Starry Starry Night appears with the generous permission of the artist, Shadoweddancer on deviantArt.  "Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists.  This is a tribute to his Starry Starry Night, which I think is one of his most recognizable works and my favorite."

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh is from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

[1] Sanchez and Alfaro, 2010, Galaxy Astrophysics, arXiv:1011.1374 [astro-ph.GA], Cornell University Library,
[2] van den Heuvel et al. 2012, JGR Atmospheres,

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fun at TusCon in Tucson - Or Why Cons are Cool'm embarrassed to say I've been to very few Cons, even though I've been an avid fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror since I was a wee child.  Cons seemed kinda scary for some reason.  Even as someone to whom they are directly targeted, I always felt like I wouldn't really fit in.  This is of course nonsense, but I do sometimes think a lot of nonsense.

So off I went to TusCon 40, primarily to give one of the talks in the science track, and to sit on a writing panel about rewriting/editing.  Since they were on separate days I ended up being there for most of the Con.  It started Friday afternoon, which I missed, because I was having dinner at a friend's house.  But Saturday morning came, and with it my talk.  I hung out to hear about the outer planet satellites from David Williams, and to hear about the Chelyabinsk impact from Carl Hergenrother and Vishnu Reddy.  My talk was "Do Extraterrestrials Really Need Water."  I had a good audience, about 30 people, and some good questions and discussion afterwards.

Then I sat down with one of my colleagues and another person who was a writer and a filmmaker to have lunch and chat about asteroids and such.  That was a great deal of fun, and a good way to stretch one's brain.

But then I had the evening open, and sat around wondering what to do.  Well, I was exhausted, so figured I could go get a nap.  But then I noted that one of the 'art demos' in the art room was paper quilling.  I've been doing paper quilling since I was nine, and couldn't pass up the opportunity to sit for an hour twirling paper.  This was fun, and ended up being almost two hours long, sitting with ten other crafters who unlike me had never tried quilling before.

After that it was time for the masquerade, or the costume contest.  This was also enjoyable, both to see some really great costumes, and to laugh a bit at how completely over the top some of them were.  One favorite was a person dressed up as "2nd Level Fighter" who had an arrow through his neck.  But my 'most liked' was a version of Merida from Disney's Brave, who unfortunately didn't win, but them's the breaks.

The next day dawned, and I needed to entertain myself before my own writing panel at noon.  So I headed over to the movie room to see a screening of "Heavy Metal."  You may recall in my post about "Top Ten Cult Movie Favorites: Horror" I have "Heavy Metal" listed as number five.  Yes, I have it in horror.  I watched it again at the Con and did not change my mind.  That is some gory, scary stuff.  There is of course the humor, sci-fi, and fantasy in there, too.  But overall, the feeling watching the film is one of unease.  And a few of the animated shorts that make up the film are so horrific they skew the whole movie.  Anyway, I was one of only three people watching "Heavy Metal" at 9:30am, but I suppose that's the nature of a Con.

I then took myself on over to the room with the writing panels and sat in on one about writing as both a profession and a hobby, and the overlap of doing things for fun and for profit, both.  That was an interesting panel, since many of the writers had conflicting feelings about how their writing ran into all the other areas of their lives.  Some quotes from that panel were, "Any creative person is always working," "We are the heroes and villains, we are our own best source material," and "When we write science fiction, we are no longer innocent to the nature of stories; as a professional we lose a certain innocence."  People drew the line between hobby and profession not only by if money was being earned, but also by how much time the endeavor took up in any week.

Then was the panel I was on with rewriting and editing.  I've mentioned it before and so won't go into details, but there was definitely a sense overall that rewriting is where the story is truly made.  That that is the point at which the crafting takes place.  I think I'll write up a blog post about my own ideas and experiences from rewriting; there was plenty to talk about.

I spent the next block of time hanging out in the dealers room, buying a book or two, leafing through old paperbacks, checking out some of the art, and basically relaxing.  There was a lot of creative stuff on display, even for such a small con.

By then things were beginning to wrap up, but not before I got to head back to the video room to see number nine on my cult movie horror list, "The Trilogy of Terror" with Karen Black.  I had not seen that movie for at least twenty years.  The first two were no longer scary at all, but that Zuni doll still has some of it's old horror.  Even when it looks like she is being attacked by a plastic doll (which she is) there is enough blood and screaming to get your hackles up.  Then of course the great ending, with all the teeth and all that.  Yeah.  Good times.

So all in all, I'd say success.  I particularly enjoyed giving the science presentation, and am looking forward to offering the talk at other Cons.  Have to start sniffing around and see who is interested ...

Image Credits:  Top, logo for TusCon 40; middle and bottom, my own photos from the Con.

Monday, November 11, 2013

November is Nuts - From Cons to Composition to Comets

Comet ISON
November is nuts.  This one moreso than any previous November because both NaNoWriMo and the Tucson Science Fiction Convention overlapped.  This was the first time I'd been to a TusCon, and even though I had to spend a lot of time working on my science presentation for that venue, I still refused to give up on my yearly encounter with NaNo.  Which means I am way, way behind 'composing' my latest novel.  (In this case, the third in the 'Voidspace' trilogy).  I am writing this at the airport, taking a break from NaNo noveling.

This recent adventure started in October, since I had to spend time getting my science talk pulled together.  And worrying about it on the side, which is a pursuit unto itself.  This meant no prep for NaNo this year.  I was also giving two different versions of the same talk - one for the science institute I call home, and the other for the Con.  And THEN I was also invited to be on a writing panel at the Con.  Wow.  Fun, but a lot of work to get it all done. 

So November started, I traveled to Tucson, gave the firs talk, and then the second.  I am very, very happy to say both went well.  I received a lot of positive feedback from both talks, and generated a lot of questions and good discussion at the Con.  I have to admit I was a little surprised, since I had intentionally taken myself out of my comfort zone and talked about a topic upon which I have done very little study - astrobiology.  I'll be posting a review of the material in another blog post.  Can't really get the whole feel of the talk down unless I post a youtube performance, and I am definitely not going there.  :)

The panel was sort of 'eh'.  I enjoyed the panels I attended but the one I was on was too 'combative.'  It's the first time I've been a member of a writing panel instead of a science panel, and I was disconcerted by how there was no structure.  The panel chair said he would poll the panel with questions, but by the time things would have gotten to me, we were on whole 'nother subject or question.  Once or twice I sort of wedged myself into the conversation so I could make a quick comment or two, but for the most part felt unneeded and superfluous.  Still, it was a very good experience for me.  There always has to be a first writing panel, and it was good to have something of a learning experience.  Hopefully next time it will be a smaller panel with a more definite structure.  They are probably all very different from one Con to the next, and even one subject to the next.

Certainly giving the science talk was my cup runneth over, so I maybe I should focus my efforts on that area when offering my services at a Con.

And of course, one cannot forget that we have Comet ISON in our skies right now, screaming it's way towards the sun.  For the moment, it appears that ISON will survive its close approach with our star.  But it is always possible for a comet, especially one like this, to disintegrate completely as it endures both the heat and the flux of particles.  It might get quite bright, might stay mostly the same, might disintegrate - it's definitely worth watching to see how things evolve.

More posts to come with details about TusCon, my astrobiology talk, and naturally, NaNoWriMo.

Image Credit:  Photographer Michael Jäger via Sky and Telescope Magazine