Tag Archives: science

Tim’s Vermeer: The Science of Dutch Art

by Ann Millett-Gallant

tims-vermeer-optics

Tim Jenison with his “Vermeer” and the equipment used to make it.

I love a good documentary film, especially one about art, so I was happy to receive Bob Hansen’s recommendation of Tim’s Vermeer. It is an eighty-minute film about one man’s quest for art featuring Tim Jenison, an inventor, video equipment specialist, and entrepreneur who is fascinated with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Known as “the painter of light,” Vermeer was a Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, best known for his portraits, interior genre scenes, and inclusion of detail. For more information on the life and work of Vermeer, see the website Essential Vermeer.

tims_vermeerThe film is narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, of the famous team of magicians Penn and Teller. Penn and Teller were also a part of the team that produced the film, and themes of documentation and magic pervade it. Other major themes include the nexus of art and technology, photography and illusion in art history, digital technology and technological imaging in art, and seeing through photographic reproduction versus human seeing. These themes relate to two of my BLS courses, BLS 345, Photography: Contexts and Illusions and BLS 346, The Art of Life. Discussions of art history and the media and techniques of artmaking in the film are also relevant to my Art 100 course. Tim’s exposé of Vermeer may be interpreted as challenging the notions of artistic talent and exposing the myth of so-called “genius” painting. Yet, in the process, Tim discovers a newfound awe of Vermeer’s resources and artistic focus.

Tim is most interested in Vermeer’s possible use of early camera technology and reflective devices. Inspired by Vermeer’s Camera (2001), a book by Philip Stedman, professor at University College of London, Jenison crosses continents and narratives of art history in pursuit of the truth behind Vermeer’s oil painting The Music Lesson (1662-1664), and eventually attempts to recreate it. Tim says in the film that he feels a kinship with Vermeer as an inventor and musician. He also explains why he decided to focus on The Music Lesson, stating that it is “so complete and self-contained,” compared with all other Vermeer paintings, and he declares it “a scientific experiment waiting to happen.” Through his research and art project, Tim aims to offer an “alternative narrative of Vermeer.”

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

While experimenting with various reflective devices, Tim paints his first portrait from the reflection of a photograph of his father in law. He is modest about his painted product and says emphatically that painting it was a decidedly object experience, rather than a subjective, or personal one. Tim then zooms in on studying image-making and methods of illusion specific to the seventeenth century, which includes optical machines and—most prominently—the camera obscura, an ancestor of early 19th-century photography.

18th-century camera obscura.

18th-century camera obscura.

Tim then compares the painted details of The Music Lesson to optical effects of photography, concluding that Vermeer depicted photographic seeing, rather than human sight. He states that the appearance of “absolute brightness” in the painting is proof that Vermeer painted from photograph, because such light is not visible to the naked eye.

To prove his hypothesis, Tim first visits Delft, Holland, where he learns to speak Dutch, to grind pigments, and to mix oil paint. He also studies the light, furniture, and interior architecture. Finally, he hires artists to make exact replicas of the pottery found in the composition of The Music Lesson. Tim discusses a list of craftsmen and engineers he would need to serve as “experts” in building a life-size model of the scene, saying that he can attempt to complete all the work with a computer.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Tim proves that he is a quintessential “Renaissance Man” (although Vermeer was post-Renaissance historically); to be photographed by a self-built camera, Tim constructs a replica of the scene of The Music Lesson in a San Antonio warehouse from wood, concrete, metal, and glass. Tim’s set is complete with furniture, woodwork, stained-glass windows, and musical instruments. Experimentation leads Tim to discover a system of lenses and mirrors (including a shaving mirror) which, joined with visual color-matching tricks, allow him to build a surprisingly accurate, three-dimensional reproduction of The Music Lesson. Tim also shows his musical skills as he plays on the violin that will serve as his model in the composition.

Earlier in the film, as Tim and Philip Stedman each tried their hands at copying portraits, the music and tempo of the shots slowed down, but they build up again as Tim builds the room and begins to paint the image from it. More dynamic camera work and background music set the stage for many scenes of Tim painting, in which he used his daughter and her friends as live models. This pace is held up for 8 minutes. Time is marked by images of the calendar dates in the lower corner of the screen, as if torn from a desktop calendar. Everything slows down significantly after forty days. At about fifty days, Tim makes a discovery; he finds curves in the painting where there should be straight lines. He explains that Vermeer’s so-called mistake in angles of perspective was a result of viewing and painting a photographic image.

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Following this discovery, time further drags as Tim experiences the physical pain of his actions and seated position, while the viewer watches him paint details such as violin strings, minute decorations on the piano, and the individual threads on a draping, patterned tablecloth. Somewhere in this period, a threat of carbon monoxide poisoning arises in the studio. I must admit, I do not remember why. I may have zoned out. After eighty to ninety days, Tim becomes “repulsed” while painting a royal blue chair with bronze lion heads on the back and correcting his mistakes with a cotton swab. All in all in the film, there are approximately thirteen minutes of footage of Tim painstakingly painting. It feels longer.

In the final scenes, Tim shows Stedman and David Hockney his painting. Hockney, with whom Tim has met previously in the film, is another artist interested in these reflected forms and technologies (see David Hockney’s website here).

Stedman and Hockney discuss Tim’s painting and determine that it is better than Vermeer’s. In the last shot, the humble Tim claims Vermeer was an inspiring inventor and artist.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

The film chronicles important discoveries and historical revisions, but I wasn’t sure if the information alone carried the film. I was just so fascinated by Tim Jenison. He stole the show. He was obviously very smart and skillful, yet also witty, eccentric, and obsessive. It takes one hundred and twenty days for him to paint a replica of a famous Vermeer painting, and the whole project, captured on film, took over five years (2008-2013). For this entire time, Tim’s life seems utterly driven by art and photography.

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Why All Babies Deserve to Die: Science and Theology in the Abortion Debate

by Matt McKinnon

The debate rages on…

The debate rages on…

Just a few of the headlines on the abortion debate from the last few weeks:

I would say that the Abortion issue has once again taken center stage in the culture wars, but it never really left. Unlike homosexual marriage, which seems to be making steady progress towards resolution by a majority of Americans that the freedom to marry of consenting adults is basic civil right, the abortion debate continues to divide a populace who is torn between adjudicating the priority of the basic rights of both mother and “potential” child.

I say “potential” child because herein is where the real debate lies: exactly when does a fertilized human egg, a zygote, become a “person,” endowed with certain human if not specifically civil rights?

Is it a person yet?

Is it a person yet?

Dougherty’s main point in his article on liberal denial focuses on the “fact” of the beginnings of human life. He claims that liberals tend to make one of two types of arguments where science and human life are concerned: either they take the unresolved legal issue regarding the idea of personhood and transfer it back to the “facts” of biology, concluding that we cannot really know what human life is or when it begins, or they acknowledge the biological fact of the beginning of human life but claim that this has no bearing on how we should think about the legality of abortion.

Both sorts of arguments, he claims, are obscurantist, and fail to actually take into account the full weight of science on the issue.

But the problem, I contend, isn’t one of science: it’s one of theology—or philosophy for those less religiously inclined.

The problem is not the question of “what” human life is or “when” it begins. Dougherty points out:

After the fusion of sperm and egg, the resulting zygote has unique human DNA from which we can deduce the identity of its biological parents. It begins the process of cell division, and it has a metabolic action that will not end until it dies, whether that is in a few days because it never implants on the uterine wall, or years later in a gruesome fishing accident, or a century later in a hospital room filled with beloved grandchildren.

Two-cell zygote.

Two-cell zygote. Is this a person?

So basically, human life begins at conception because at that point science can locate a grouping of cells from which it can deduce all sorts of things from its DNA, and this grouping of cells, if everything goes nicely, will result in the birth, life, and ultimate death of a human being.

He even gets close to the heart of the problem when, in arguing against an article by Ryan Cooper, he claims that many people are not fine with the idea that an abortion represents the end of a life, nor are they comfortable with having a category of human life that is not granted the status of “humanity”—and thus not afforded basic human rights.

The problem with all of these discussions is that they dance around the real issue here—the issue not of “human life” and its definition and beginning, but rather the philosophical and often theological question of the human “person.”

If we look closely at Dougherty’s remarks above, we note two distinct examples of why the generation of human life is a “fact”: (1) we can locate DNA that tells us all sorts of things about the parents (and other ancestors) of the fetus and (2) this fetus, if everything works properly, will develop into a human being, or rather, I would argue, a human “person.”

For there’s the distinction that makes the difference.

After all, analyze any one of my many bodily fluids and a capable technician would be able to locate the exact same information that Mr. Dougherty points out is right there from the first moments of a zygote’s existence. But no one claims that any of these bodily fluids or the cells my body regularly casts off are likewise deserving of being labeled “human life,” though the sperm in my semen and the cells in my saliva are just as much “alive” as any zygote (believe me, I’ve looked).

No, the distinction and the difference is in the second example: The development of this zygote into a human person. My sperm, without an egg and the right environment, will never develop into a human being. The cells in my saliva have no chance at all—even with an egg and the right conditions.

Nope, not people.

Nope, not people.

So the real force of Doughtery’s argument lies in the “potential” of the zygote to develop into what he and anti-abortion folks would claim is already there in the “reality” of a human person.

The debate thus centers on the question of human personhood, what we call theological or philosophical anthropology. For one side, this personhood is the result of a development and is achieved sometime during the embryonic stage (like “viability”) or even upon birth. For others, it is there at conception. For some in both camps it would include a “soul.” For others it would not.

So the reason that the abortion debate is sui generis or “of its own kind” is because here the issue is not the rights of a minority versus the rights of a majority, as it is in the debate about homosexual marriage, or even the rights of the mother versus the rights of the child. Rather the real debate is about when “human life” is also a human “person” (note this is also informs the debate of whether or not to end the life of someone in a vegetative state).

Is this a person?

Fetus at four weeks. Is this a person?

To this end, Mr. Dougherty is correct: We can and do know what human life is and when it begins. And he is correct that many are uncomfortable with the idea that abortion means the death of a human life. But he fails to recognize that the reason this is the case is that while those on one side regard this “life” as a human person, others do not. Potentially, perhaps, but not a “person” yet. And certainly not one whose “right to life” (if there even is such a thing: nature says otherwise—but that’s another blog post) trumps the rights of the mother.

So what does all of this have to do with all babies deserving to die? It’s simple: this is what the (necessary?) intrusion of theology into public policy debates entails. Once theological ideas are inserted (and note that I am not arguing that they should or shouldn’t be), how do we adjudicate between their competing claims or limit the extent that they go?

For the two great Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, representing the two dominant trajectories of traditional Protestant Christianity, humans are, by nature, sinful. We are conceived in sin and born into sin, and this “Original Sin” is only removed in Baptism (here the Roman Catholic Church would agree). Furthermore, we are prone to keep sinning due to the concupiscence of our sinful nature (here is where the Roman Church would disagree). The point is that, for Protestants, all people are not only sinful, but are also deserving of the one chief effect of sin: Death.

romans_6-23

“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23

 

Calvin was most explicit in Book 2, Chapter 1 of his famous Institutes:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s wombs: they suffer for their own imperfections and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

Since babies, like all of us, are sinful in their very nature, and since they will necessarily continually bear the fruits of those sins (anyone who’s ever tried to calm a screaming infant can attest to this), and since the wages of those sins is death, then it’s not a far-fetched theological conclusion that all babies deserve to die. And remember: “they suffer for their own imperfections.”

But they don’t just deserve to die—they deserve to go to hell as well (but that’s also another blog post). And this, not from the fringes of some degenerate religious thinker, but from the theology of one of Protestant Christianity’s most influential thinkers.

A sinner in the eyes of God (or at least Calvin).

A sinner in the eyes of God (according to John Calvin, anyway).

Of course, it should be noted that Calvin does not imply that we should kill babies, or even that their death at human hands would be morally justifiable: thought he does argue (and here all Christian theology would agree) that their death at the hand of God is not just morally justifiable, it is also deserved. It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic theology behind the idea that children cannot sin until they reach the age of reason is predicated on the notion that this is only the case once their Original Sin has been removed in Baptism (So Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu kids would be sinful, unlike their Christian counterparts).

Again, this is not to argue that philosophical and theological principles should not be employed in the abortion debate, or in any debate over public policy. Only that (1) this is what is occurring when pro-choice and anti-abortion folks debate abortion and (2) it is fraught with complexities and difficulties that few on either side seem to recognize.

And contrary to  Mr.Dougherty, this is beyond the realm of science, which at best tells us only about states of nature.

But the only way we have a “prayer” of real sustained dialogue—as opposed to debates that ignore our competing fundamental positions—is to take seriously the philosophical and theological issues that frame the question (even if my own example is less than serious).

But I’m not holding my breath. I would most certainly die if I did.

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.

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Enjoy the rest of your day.

The Good, the Bad, and the Caffeinated

By Marc Williams

This morning, as I sat with my oversized mug, finishing off the last of what had been nearly a full pot of coffee, I came across yet another article on the effects of coffee on one’s health.  My coffee mug is an extension of my arm: when I’m emailing students, preparing a new lesson, or grading papers, my coffee is always within reach.  As a major coffee drinker (and serious snob) I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to discover if my daily dose of caffeine, size extra grande, was actually doing harm.

Happily, I’ve found much research that suggests my habit is quite healthful: coffee is linked to reduced risk of certain cancers, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, not to mention its ability to increase alertness.  However, sometimes my consumption borders on excess, and the ill effects of high coffee intake have been well-documented: increased risk of certain cancers and acid reflux, plus caffeine addiction can lead to chronic headaches, etc. etc. etc.

So is coffee good for me or bad for me?  I’m confused.

According to Christie Aschwanden of Slate.com, the confusion is widespread–and the uncertainty about coffee’s effect(s) on health is nothing new.  She mentions Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Changed the World.

According to Pendergrast’s book, coffee has stimulated intellectual and often irreverent pursuits among users throughout the ages, often sparking backlash. One governor of Mecca banned the drink after discovering satirical musings about him coming from local coffeehouses. In 1674, a group of London women grew angry with their husbands for spending so much time at coffeehouses (often in an attempt to sober up after the pub), and published a pamphlet warning that the beverage would make them impotent. The men fought back with a competing pamphlet claiming that coffee actually added a “spiritualescency to the Sperme.” In 1679, French doctors blasted coffee, because it “disaccustom[ed] people from the enjoyment of wine.”

While the debate’s historical component is fascinating, I want answers. According to Aschwanden’s article, University of Alabama physician Melissa Wellons  compiled the various medical studies and concluded that most of the physical effects of caffeinated beverages are “observational,” meaning that causality has not been adequately demonstrated.  In comparing these observational effects side-by-side, Aschwanden concludes that the positive effects outweigh the negative.

So it appears, at least for now, I can slurp away.