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Wisconsin House (Shadow on Pad)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Winter's Mirror

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Why Some People "Hear" Silent GIFs

Smithsonian Magazine

Short looping images called animated GIFs seem to be everywhere on the internet, flickering as ads or serving as social media reactions. Though all GIFs are silent, that doesn't stop some people from hearing them. As Niall Firth reports for New Scientist, the largest study to date of the phenomenon—called visually evoked auditory response or vEAR—shows that more than 20 percent of the 4000 people​ surveyed find GIFs quite noisy.

The illusion strikes some people when they see certain moving images, Firth explains. In the non-digital world, there is enough noise accompanying visual stimuli that it can be difficult to figure out when a sound that shouldn't be there is heard. But when GIFs make noise in the slightly more controlled realm of computer-mediated interactions, people started noticing.

That happened early in December 2017, when Lisa DeBruine, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow posted a GIF on Twitter of two electrical pylons playing jump rope with a third. As the central pylon leaps over the swinging power lines of the two outer pylons, the landscape judders — just as one would expect if a large, metal tower was capable of jumping and landing nearby.


The GIF (first created by animation and video creator Happy Toast) makes no noise. But DeBruine asked via Twitter: "Does anyone in visual perception know why you can hear this gif?" She also ran a Twitter poll where 67 percent of the more than 315,000 respondents said they experience a thudding sound when watching the GIF. In replies, other uses claimed to hear boinging sounds. Still others report that while they don't hear anything, they do feel a shaking.

Amidst the replies, Chris Fassnidge chimed in with: "That is basically the subject of my PhD."

Fassnidge and his colleague Elliot Freeman, both cognitive neuroscience researchers at the City University of London, have been researching vEAR because it is a form of synaesthesia, where simulation of one sense leads to responses in another sensory pathway. Colors evoke flavors, visuals trigger sounds.

Freeman tells New Scientist that he first noticed that he could hear visuals as a student, when a distant lighthouse's flashes seemed to buzz. None of his friends could hear the light, but the phenomenon was a bit of a quirky one to explain. On his website, he writes:

I ‘hear’ car indicator lights, flashing shop displays, animated adverts on web-browsers, lip-movements, and the footsteps of people as they walk. It is a clear auditory sensation, mostly in my mind’s ear, though sometimes I can confuse it with real sounds if the latter are very quiet. The sounds are like white noise (‘sshhh’), but often they have different harmonics, especially when there are sequences of flashes.

With the jumping pylon, vEAR went viral. "It raised everyone's awareness above a threshold where it was taken more seriously," Freeman tells New Scientist.

For their research, the two scientists asked people to take an online survey that includes 24 silent videos that respondents rate on a vEAR noise scale. Of the 4,000 people who took that survey (and you can as well), 22 percent rated more than half of the videos as ones that give them a clear sensation of sound. They reported the results this week in the journal Cortex.

The videos that people reported cave them the most sounds were of events that create predictable sounds, such as a hammer hitting a nail or metal balls colliding. But for some people, random patterns and abstract lights were enough to create the auditory illusion.

The phenomena may arise from different brain connectivity patterns, Freeman tells New Scientist. The auditory regions of one person's brain may be unusually well-connected to the visual regions.

That explanation seems to matches the experience of Lidell Simpson, who is technically deaf, but as he explained over email to Heather Murphy for The New York Times: "Everything I see, taste, touch and smell gets translated into sound." He added: "I can never shut it off."

Fassnidge tells Murphy of The Times that it's possible the parts of Simpson's brain that would typically process auditory information learned to process visual information instead. Simpson was fitted for a hearing aid as a toddler.

Freeman and Fassnidge's ongoing research involves electrically stimulating people's brains to see if they can provoke vEAR responses. “Using electrical brain stimulation, we have also found tentative signs that visual and auditory brain areas cooperate more in people with vEAR, while they tend to compete with each other, in non-vEAR people," Freeman said in an email to Murphy. The new experiments should help the scientists ask more pointed questions about the auditory illusions and the brain wiring that makes it possible.

For now, however, the biological basis of this synesthesia remains unknown. The study least lets people know they are not alone in hearing what is actually silent. For more comradery, those that "vEAR" can browse the Reddit forum dedicated to Noisy GIFs. Even the loudest images there won't damage your eardrum.

Why Orange Snow Fell Over Eastern Europe

Smithsonian Magazine

The orange snow was first seen falling from the sky throughout Eastern Europe in late March. Since then, the phenomenon has drawn comparisons to Martian-like landscapes across social media.

But, as Lydia Smith of The Independent reports, there’s a perfectly normal explanation for the orange-tinged snow: it's the result of sand storms in North Africa.

“There has been a lot of lifted sand or dust originating from North Africa and the Sahara, from sand storms which have formed in the desert,” Steven Keates of the Met Office, UK's national weather service, tells Smith. “As the sand gets lifted to the upper levels of the atmosphere, it gets distributed elsewhere.”

Where the particles of the sand are deposited depends on the direction of the wind, and when it rains or snows, it comes back down, leaving a hint of color behind.

The clouds of light brown dust were even picked up by NASA’s Terra satellite, according to Weather Channel meteorologist Brian Donegan.

Keates tells Smith that the phenomenon isn’t so strange. Last year, skies in the UK turned red, for instance, thanks to tropical air and dust traveling from the Sahara.

According to the BBC, this particular orange snow occurs once every five years, but this year's just appears to be a little more sandy than recent dustings; according to the outlet, people have even said they can taste and feel the sand in their mouths.

Saharan dust can travel far, Donegan writes. In the past, it’s traveled more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, making it all the way to the Texas Gulf Coast in 2016.

Why Does This Indonesian Volcano Burn Bright Blue?

Smithsonian Magazine

Over the past month, the web has come alive with French photographer Olivier Grunewald's spectacular photos of Indonesia's Kawah Ijen volcano. Snapped during shooting of a new documentary he's releasing with the president of Geneva's Society for Volcanology, Régis Etienne, the photos—taken without the aid of any filter or digital enhancement—showcase the volcano's amazing electric blue glow.

Little of the web coverage, though, has enlightened readers on the scientific principles at work. "This blue glow, unusual for a volcano, isn't the lava itself, as unfortunately can be read on many websites," Grunewald says. "It is due to the combustion of sulfuric gases in contact with air at temperatures above 360°C."

In other words, the lava—molten rock that emerges from the Earth at ultra-high temperatures—isn't colored significantly differently than the lava at other volcanoes, which all differ slightly based on their mineral composition but appear a bright red or orange color in their molten state. But at Kawah Ijen, extremely high quantities of sulfuric gases emerge at high pressures and temperatures (sometimes in excess of 600°C) along with the lava. 

Exposed to the oxygen present in air and sparked by lava, the sulfur burns readily, and its flames are bright blue. There's so much sulfur, Grunewald says, that at times it flows down the rock face as it burns, making it seem as though blue lava is spilling down the mountainside. But because only the flames are blue, rather than the lava itself, the effect is only visible at night—during daytime, the volcano looks like roughly any other.

"The vision of these flames at night is strange and extraordinary," Grunewald says. "After several nights in the crater, we felt really living on another planet."

Grunewald first heard about the phenomenon from Etienne, who visited the volcano in 2008 with an Indonesian guide. After being shown Etienne's photo featuring a child miner's silhouette surrounded by the blue glow, he was struck by the idea of photographing the mountain's sulfur miners working at night.

These miners extract sulfuric rock—formed after the blue flames have gone out and the sulfur gas has cooled and combined with the lava to form solidified rock—for use in the food and chemical industries. "To double their meager income, the hardiest of these men work nights, by the electric blue light of the sulfuric acid exhaled by the volcano," Grunewald says. Some of the workers are children, seeking to support their families by any means possible.

They carry rock-filled baskets by hand down the mountain, selling it for about 680 Indonesian rupiahs per kilogram, the equivalent of about six cents. In a country where the median daily income is about $13, many work overnight to supplement their income. Grunewald estimates that these nighttime miners can mine and carry between 80 to 100 kilos over the course of twelve hours of work—about $5 to $6.

Grunewald and Etienne produced the documentary partly to bring attention to these harsh working conditions. Most of the miners do not have gas masks (which the photographers wore throughout shooting and distributed to miners afterward), and suffer from health problems due to prolonged exposure to sulfur dioxide and other toxic gases.

Shooting these striking photos—some taken just a few feet away from the flames—was far more physically demanding than most of Grunewald's previous projects of landscapes and wildlife. "The main problem was the acidic gases that whirled constantly in the crater," he says. "The night seriously increased the difficulty as well, because it became almost impossible to see when dense gases arrived—at times, we were stuck in gas plumes for over an hour without being able to see our hands."

Just 30 nights in the crater, distributed over six trips, were enough to show Grunewald how destructive the environment of these mines can be. "During my first trip, I lost a camera and two lenses that had been corroded by acid," he says. "After we got back home, it took up to three weeks for our skin to lose the smell of sulfur."

His photos make the blue flames appear dramatically beautiful, even surreal. But for the miners that spend months or years at the volcano, the sulfur dioxide is quite real, and the health effects of chronic exposure—throat and lung irritation, difficulty breathing and a propensity for lung disease—can be devastating.

Why Are Georgia O’Keeffe’s Paintings Breaking Out in Pimples?

Smithsonian Magazine

Sweeping desert vistas and vibrant cattle skulls, yonic flower petals and lush, leafy branches—Georgia O’Keeffe’s distinctive visual lexicon and abstractions of the natural world made her one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. Some of her most stunning and recognizable work was created after she settled in New Mexico and channeled the Southwest’s colors and landscapes into her work. But after the paint had dried, O’Keeffe noticed something odd about some of her masterworks created in the 1940s and '50s: The surfaces of the paintings were marred by tiny bumps.

At first, O’Keeffe assumed these little bumps might be grains of sand—some leftover residue from her desert muse. But as time went on, more and more bumps began to appear, and paint started to flake off. O'Keeffe notified a conservator friend, Caroline Keck, and art conservationists began to worry that something more destructive might be boiling beneath the surface. Why was O’Keeffe’s work breaking out in pimples?

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Head of Conservation Dale Kronkright examined and sampled the bumps—roughly 200 microns across—and identified them as metal carboxylate soaps. These compounds form when fatty acids from the binding agents in the paint react with the lead and zinc in the pigment.

This is an up-close look at a detailed section of 'Pedernal' shows micron-sized protrusions from metal soaps. Georgia O'Keeffe. Pedernal, 1941. Oil on canvas, 19 x 30 1/4 inches. (Dale Kronkright / Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

Turns out, this “art acne” is part of a wider problem in art conservation. The work of many artists shows signs of breakouts, from Vincent van Gogh to Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall. “These are happening on works of art throughout the generations—since oil paint was created,” says Amber Kerr, Chief of Conservation at the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Environmental factors like temperature and relative humidity contribute to their formation, but mostly, Kerr says, “it’s a phenomenon that happens because of the medium … it’s sort of an inherent aging process.”

Metal soaps were first spotted on Rembrandt paintings in 1996. Since then, researchers have estimated that as many as 70 percent of all paintings in museum collections around the world are affected by this kind of damage. In the same way sweat and sunscreen can combine to cause a breakout, this chemical reaction results in tiny bumps that lift up the surface of a painting.

“These surface protrusions can erupt. They can spall off the paint. They can cause deterioration of the painted material,” says Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. Conservators are racing to figure out how the soaps form and spread, and until now, they’ve relied on bulky, expensive and time-consuming equipment.

But Walton’s team might have found a silver bullet—and you might have one in your pocket right now.

At a press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2019 meeting, the researchers gave the first demonstration of an app that can run on a regular tablet or smartphone using the light source of the device—the LED flash or the LCD screen itself—reflected off the surface of the painting to measure the protrusions. The image data is processed to remove color and extract three-dimensional surface information to spot any deviations, creating a kind of topographic map of the paintings.

“Color camouflages the underlying shape,” Walton says, so “just by doing that one act we can start to get a better sense of where the problems are and how they’re changing over time.”

Northwestern University professor Oliver Cossairt gathers the surface metrology of Georgia O'Keeffe's 'Ritz Tower' painting with his hand-held device. (Northwestern University)

With this new tool, a process that took days to complete can now be done in a matter of minutes. To study metal soaps in art, the Lunder Conservation Center uses a Hirox 3D microscope that can take nanometer-scale measurements. But smaller museums like the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum don’t have access to such expensive equipment—and many institutions might not even have a conservator on staff at all. The new app technology could be most helpful in these situations, Kerr says. The easier, more accessible and less expensive the measuring process, the more data researchers will have to work with to figure out the best ways to prevent deterioration.

The app is in its beta version now, being tested on other collections, and the researchers plan to release it for free to the public in a year. Their goal is to put this technology into the pockets of art conservators around the world. Fellow Northwestern researcher Oliver Cossairt compares the paint-scanning technology to the Star Trek tricorder, a hand-held device used for everything from diagnosing crewmember health to detecting the geochemistry of a new planet. “That’s the tool we’re trying to make,” Cossairt says. “The Swiss Army Knife of measurement tools.”

Ultimately, better measurements mean a better baseline for conservators to design proper care and environmental conditions, from storage to travel containers, that will help artwork beat the breakouts. According to Kronkright, the new technology isn’t a replacement for high-powered equipment like the Hirox microscope, but rather a way to help conservators manage their time. In the same way a general practitioner might spot a mole and send a patient to a specialist, this easy tool can help conservators know when to look closer.

“We’re art doctors, if you will—or in this case, art dermatologists,” Kerr says. “We see what’s going on, and it’s cuing us that we need to look at the surface a little deeper to understand how these materials are changing, what’s causing them to change, and what we need to do to mitigate that change.”

Studying artwork this closely can solve chemical mysteries, but it also emphasizes human connections. “You start to see the artist more intimately,” Walton says. “You get into the act of creation, why she made certain decisions—and how that work of art came to be.”

Sometimes, looking closely can help us see the big picture.

Western Vertical

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Western Horizontal

Smithsonian American Art Museum

West Forty-Second Street, Night

Smithsonian American Art Museum


Smithsonian American Art Museum

Victorian Mansion--The Clear, Clear Light

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Up the Hudson

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Untitled--New York Skyscrapers

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Untitled, from the series Connecticut Avenue

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Untitled (pigeons on rainy street)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Untitled (landscape with meadow and trees)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Untitled (Tanks, Telephone Pole Shadow)

Smithsonian American Art Museum
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