Tag Archives: classification schemes

Artists classified the animal kingdom?

Where taxonomy and biology are concerned, my knowledge begins and end with Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who ushered in modern taxonomy. It was with some surprise that I find out artists also helped develop the field. From a June 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries artists were fascinated by how the animal kingdom was classified. They were in some instances ahead of natural historians.

This is one of the findings of art historian Marrigje Rikken. She will defend her PhD on 23 June [2016] on animal images in visual art. In recent years she has studied how images of animals between 1550 and 1630 became an art genre in themselves. ‘The close relationship between science and art at that time was remarkable,’ Rikken comments. ‘Artists tried to bring some order to the animal kingdom, just as biologists did.’

A June 21, 2016 Universiteit Leiden (Leiden University, Netherlands) press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In some cases the artists were ahead of their times. They became interested in insects, for example, before they attracted the attention of natural historians. It was artist Joris Hoefnagel who in 1575 made the first miniatures featuring beetles, butterflies and dragonflies, indicating how they were related to one another. In his four albums Hoefnagel divided the animal species according to the elements of fire, water, air and earth, but within these classifications he grouped animals on the basis of shared characteristics.

Courtesy: Universiteit Leiden

Beetles, butterflies, and dragonflies by Joris Hoefnagel. Courtesy: Universiteit Leiden

The press release goes on,

Other illustrators, print-makers and painters tried to bring some cohesion to the animal kingdom.  Some of them used an alphabetical system but artist Marcus Gheeraerts  published a print as early as 1583 [visible below, Ed.] in which grouped even-toed ungulates together. The giraffe and sheep – both visible on Gheeraerts’ print – belong to this species of animals. This doesn’t apply to all Gheeraerts’ animals. The mythical unicorn, which was featured by Gheeraerts, no longer appears in contemporary biology books.

Wealthy courtiers

According to Rikken, the so-called menageries played an important role historically in how animals were represented. These forerunners of today’s zoos were popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries particularly among wealthy rulers and courtiers. Unfamiliar exotic animals regularly arrived that were immediately committed to paper by artists. Rikken: ‘The toucan, for example, was immortalised in 1615 by Jan Brueghel the Elder, court painter in Brussels.’  [See the main image, Ed.].’

In the flesh

Rikken also discovered that the number of animals featured in a work gradually increased. ‘Artists from the 1570s generally included one or just a few animals per work. With the arrival of print series a decade later, each illustration tended to include more and more animals. This trend reached its peak in the lavish paintings produced around 1600.’ These paintings are also much more varied than the drawings and prints. Illustrators and print-makers often blindly copied one another’s motifs, even showing the animals in an identical pose. Artists had no hesitation in including the same animal in different positions. Rikken: ‘This allowed them to show that they had observed the animal in the flesh.’

Even-toed ungulates by Marcus Gheeraerts. Courtesy: Leiden Universiteit

Even-toed ungulates by Marcus Gheeraerts. Courtesy: Leiden Universiteit

Yet more proof or, at least, a very strong suggestion that art and science are tightly linked.

Memristors and nuances in a classification tug-of-war; NRC of Canada insights; rapping scientists

Interestingly, there’s an item posted with today’s (April 8, 2010) date on the Nanowerk website from HP Labs reiterating the ‘memristor as a fourth circuit element’ concept that Forrest H Bennett has convincingly argued against first in his comments to my original posting (April 5, 2010) and, at greater length, in yesterday’s (April 7, 2010) interview.

Oddly, the item on Nanowerk, which I’m assuming is a news release from HP Labs as no author is listed, mostly regurgitates the HP Labs work on the memristor.

HP Labs researchers have discovered that the “memristor“ – a resistor with memory that represents the fourth basic circuit element in electrical engineering – has more capabilities than was previously thought. In addition to being useful in storage devices, the memristor can perform logic, enabling computation to one day be performed in chips where data is stored, rather than on a specialized central processing unit.

In fact, much of what’s mentioned in the news release and in the accompanying video was discussed in 2008 when they first published their work. The new excitement has been generated by a team at the University of Michigan (see April 5, 2010 posting), led by Dr. Wei Lu, who’ve proved that synapses in biological organisms behave like memristors. This means that the speculations that the HP Lab folks made in 2008 about hardware that learns are more likely.

As for the ‘fourth circuit element’ mentioned in the item, this brings me to classification schemes. These sorts of discussions can seem picayune to people who are not directly involved but classification schemes have a huge impact on how we think about the world around us and the ways in which we interact with it. For example, we think of the tomato and treat it as if it’s a vegetable when in fact, it’s a fruit. When was the last time you had some tomatoes and ice cream?

Whether the memristor is thought of as a ‘fourth circuit element’ (as per HP Labs and Dr. Leon Chua [as of 2003]) or a member of an ‘infinite periodic table of circuit elements’ (as per Forrest H Bennett) will have an impact on how memristors and other as yet unknown elements are investigated and understood.

As someone who doesn’t understand the particulars especially well, I find Forrest’s approach the more flexible one and therefore preferable. Classification schemes or models that are rigid both buckle as new information is added and tend to constrain it. For example, the Dewey decimal classification scheme used in most public libraries has been buckling under the pressure of adding new categories since the 1950s, at least. It’s the reason most academic libraries use the more flexible Library of Congress classification scheme, although that scheme has its problems too.

One final note, it seems that HP Labs is supporting the notion of a ‘fourth circuit element’ being added to the previous three (capacitors, inductors, and resistors) and they have the resources to distribute their preferred notion far and wide and repeatedly. Or as Forrest put it in one of his comments, “This “4th circuit element” business is marketing spin from HP …”

National Research Council of Canada Insights

In the wake of John McDougall’s appointment as the new president of the Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), Rob Annan over at the Don’t Leave Canada Behind blog has written a very important (if Canadian science policy interests you) piece about NRC.  Rob traces the organization from its beginnings.  From the posting,

The NRC was founded more than 90 years ago to advise the government on matters related to science and technology. It evolved into a federal research laboratory with the construction of the Sussex Dr. labs in the 1930s, and was the focus of Canada’s research efforts during WWII. Post-war, the NRC expanded and was a major source of Canadian research success, with notable achievements like the invention of the pacemaker, development of Canola and the crash position indicator.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, NRC’s success, growth, and increasing complexity led to the creation of spin-off organizations. Atomic research went to the Atomic Energy of Canada, defense research went to the Defense Research Board. Medical research funding went to the Medical Research Council, later the CIHR. Lastly, support for academic research was passed to NSERC.

All of these organizations have grown and prospered. The NRC? Not so much.

He goes on to trace developments to the present day,

The NRC has research institutes in every province in the country, from the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in BC to the Institute for Ocean Technology in Newfoundland. A total of 26 institutes across the country, covering all aspects of science and technology, and employing more than 4,000 people. It’s a broad effort and employs a lot of great scientists.

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

I encourage you to read his posting as there’s more to his history and analysis and he goes on to make some suggestions. Please don’t forget to read the comments which offer additional insights.

Dave Bruggeman (at Pasco Phronesis) also mentions Rob’s NRC posting in the context of explaining that the current US National Research Council differs greatly from the Canadian one and warns against assuming that organizations with similar names are the same. You can go read Dave’s description of the US NRC here. This is a timely reminder as the ‘reinventing technology assessment’ webcast that the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is hosting later this month features a speaker from the US National Research Council.

Rapping biologists and physicists

While browsing on Dave’s (Pasco Phronesis) blog, I found an item that features two videos of scientists rapping. The first comes from some physicists and the second comes from biologists. I agree with Dave that the biologists have the edge since they rap in front of a live audience although both videos are quite entertaining.