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Suprematism: Geometric Shapes in Space on Red Background

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Do Our Brains Find Certain Shapes More Attractive Than Others?

Smithsonian Magazine

Jean (Hans) Arp, Consiente de sa Beauté (Conscious of Her Beauty), 1957, polished bronze. Image courtesy of Chrystal Smith, Art Associate, Science.

A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.

In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.

Image courtesy of Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University

To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.

Image courtesy of Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University

“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.

Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.

As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”

Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.

“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user wecand

Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.

“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.

“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.

Study for a Motif with Geometric Shapes and Leaf

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Study of a motif with geometric shapes and a leaf. From left to right, a vertically oriented red rectangle, a black triangle with a brown leaf (positioned horizontally) above, and a blue circle at top right corner of the composition.

Drought sensitivity shapes species distribution patterns in tropical forests

Smithsonian Libraries
Although patterns of tree species distributions along environmental gradients have been amply documented in tropical forests1-7, mechanisms causing these patterns are seldom known. Efforts to evaluate proposed mechanisms have been hampered by a lack of comparative data on species' reactions to relevant axes of environmental variation1. Here we show that differential drought sensitivity shapes plant distributions in tropical forests at both regional and local scales. Our analyses are based on experimental field assessments of drought sensitivity of 48 species of trees and shrubs, and on their local and regional distributions within a network of 122 inventory sites spanning a rainfall gradient across the Isthmus of Panama. Our results suggest that niche differentiation with respect to soil water availability is a direct determinant of both local- and regional-scale distributions of tropical trees. Changes in soil moisture availability caused by global climate change and forest fragmentation are therefore likely to alter tropical species distributions, community composition and diversity.

Abstract Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Photographed for: New Gallery.

Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Abstract with Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Abstract with Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Abstract with Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Abstract with Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Abstract with Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Abstract with Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Abstract with Geometric Shapes [art work] / (photographed by Walter Rosenblum)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 x 10 in.

1 negative ; 4 x 5 in.

Shaping Plane

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Shaping Block

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Snowflakes All Fall In One of 35 Different Shapes

Smithsonian Magazine

The stunning diversity of snowflakes gives rise to the idea that every single one is unique. While "no two flakes alike" might be an attractive metaphor, it isn’t entirely true. Yet that doesn’t stop us from peering at the intricate crystal structures caught on our mittens. It also doesn’t stop researchers from painstakingly cataloguing each and every type of crystal that might form.

Thanks to their work, chemistry teacher Andy Brunning, who keeps the graphics and chemistry blog Compound Interest, has created a fascinating graphic that shows 39 kinds of solid precipitation, including 35 that are snow crystals or flakes. The other forms of precipitation pictured include sleet, ice, a hailstone and a frozen hydrometeor particle.

(original image)

Brunning writes:

You might wonder what the shapes of snowflakes have to do with chemistry. Actually, the study of crystal structures of solids has its own discipline, crystallography, which allows us to determine the arrangement of atoms in these solids. Crystallography works by passing X-rays through the sample, which are then diffracted as they pass through by the atoms contained therein. Analysis of the diffraction pattern allows the structure of the solid to be discerned; this technique was used by Rosalind Franklin to photograph the double helix arrangement of DNA prior to Watson & Crick’s confirmation of its structure.

Previous efforts have come up with a few different numbers for the total categories of solid precipitation. The new graphic is based on work from researchers based in Japan. The 39 categories can be further broken down into 121 subtypes, Susannah Locke reports for Vox. And they all can be lumped into eight broader groups:

  • Column crystals
  • Plane crystals
  • Combination of column & plane crystals
  • Aggregation of snow crystals
  • Rimed snow crystals
  • Germs of ice crystals
  • Irregular snow particles
  • Other solid precipitation.

Kenneth Libbrecht a physicist at Caltech writes about snow crystal formation on his website:

The story begins up in a cloud, when a minute cloud droplet first freezes into a tiny particle of ice.  As water vapor starts condensing on its surface, the ice particle quickly develops facets, thus becoming a small hexagonal prism.  For a while it keeps this simple faceted shape as it grows.

 As the crystal becomes larger, however, branches begin to sprout from the six corners of the hexagon (this is the third stage in the diagram at right).  Since the atmospheric conditions (e. g. temperature and humidity) are nearly constant across the small crystal, the six budding arms all grow out at roughly the same rate.

While it grows, the crystal is blown to and fro inside the clouds, so the temperature it sees changes randomly with time.

Those temperature changes morph the arms into different shapes and give us the diverse snowflakes and crystals we see. Since all the arms endure the same fluctuations, they can grow symmetrically. In reality, most snow crystals are irregular, he writes.

Why spend all this time classifying snowflakes? As Libbrecht explains, this is really the study of how crystals form. And that knowledge can be applied to making crystals for a host of other applications—silicon and other semiconductors in computers and electronics are built of crystals, for example.

Plus, they are stunning.

Design for a Woven Textile with Dome or Planet Shapes

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Two partial spheres; black at top, blue at bottom, suggestions of brown, orange and yellow mountains in between spheres.

Designs for "Cleaner Shapes" for Eureka Company Vacuum Cleaners

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Various views of four vacuum cleaner designs, three resembling luggage style vacuum units, and a fourth resembling a broom-like unit with remote motor unit.

Watch Acoustic Holograms Create Complex Shapes and Levitate Droplets

Smithsonian Magazine

Optical holograms have come a long way—even bringing Tupac and Michael Jackson back from the dead. But a new type of hologram developed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, takes a different approach to holography, using sound waves to produce 3-D images in water and levitate small objects, Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post. Their research appears in the journal Nature.

“It's just like” the holograms you've seen in "Star Trek," co-author of the study Peer Fischer tells Kaplan. “Only we don't generate an image using light—we do it with sound.”

To produce the holograms, the researchers compute how strong and what phase acoustic waves need to be in order to push around small microparticles of silicon floating in a tank of water. They then use a 3-D printer to create a plastic plate that they place over a speaker. The plate transmits the sound waves at various strengths and phases, creating what is essentially a 3-D acoustic picture in the water. The sound waves then push the silicon beads together to form an image that lasts as long as the tone plays.

In one of their first tests they created a plate that produces Picasso’s peace dove. They also created an acoustic hologram that counts from one to three.

The researchers also used the 3-D printed plates to push small polymer dots and boats around the surface of the water and even suspend drops of water in midair using the acoustic waves. That is something other researchers accomplished last year using a large array of speakers. But Fischer’s team was able to levitate the objects using just one speaker and a 3-D printed plate, which they say is the equivalent of 20,000 small sound transducers.

“Instead of using a rather complex and cumbersome set of transducers, we use a piece of plastic that cost a few dollars from a 3-D printer,” Fischer tells Charles Q. Choi at LiveScience. “With an incredibly simple approach, we can create extremely complex, sophisticated acoustic fields that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.”

Kaplan reports that the technique has many more serious applications than bringing pop stars back from the dead. It could be used to move samples around a petri dish without touching (and potentially contaminating) them. Choi writes that it could help improve the resolution of ultrasonic images, improve treatment of kidney stones or be shaped to attack unhealthy tissues while preserving healthy cells. The next step is to try and produce animated holograms instead of the static images created by the current plastic plates.

Wedge-shaped Beetle

NMNH - Education & Outreach
This object is part of the Education and Outreach collection, some of which are in the Q?rius science education center and available to see.

Wooden Shaping Block

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Shape study

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
White plaster form appearing as stacked triangle, circle, square; circular hole in center.

Shape study

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Wooden form appearing as stacked triangle, circle, square.
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