Posts Tagged ‘science’

Happy Public Autopsy Day!

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

On April 19, 1619, the Theatrum Anatomicum opened in Amsterdam inside the Waag, ensuring the weighing-house a place in the anals of Western Art.

The 17th century Dutch thought nothing of designating buildings for a myriad of uses – in this case, a weighing house, a guild hall, and a center dedicated to experimentation and study of human anatomy.

The Theatrum was the first place in Europe to feature dissections performed in public, which made a nice change from the illegal dissections – for instance, the one in 1550 at the St. Ursula convent.

But there was to be no sneaking around for the members of the surgeon’s guild who could now dissect the corpses of criminals, and anyone – not just surgeons or medical students, could watch, for a fee. There were cheap seats high up in the amphitheater to make the dissections affordable for everyone. What better incentive to remain a law-abiding citizen than the prospect of public dissections? (And if you missed the point, there was an inscription – still visible – that reads “Villains, obnoxious to the human race while alive, become useful when dispatched.”)

The Waag went on to have many more uses – as a fencing hall, a marketplace, streetlamp workshops and at least one furniture business – but it was the dissection theater where science met art. The subject of Rembrandt’s first major commission was a dissection, and his painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp hung in the surgeon’s guild hall of the Waag.

So today, lift a scalpel to the proud scientists, the public who learned from them, and the artists who commemorated them.


Happy Birthday, Sir John William Dawson!

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

Happy Birthday, Sir John William Dawson!


Canada’s first world-famous scientist was also its first trained exploration geologist, a plant fossil expert, and colleague of the eminent British geologist (and fellow Sir) Charles Lyell, with whom he discovered Canada’s then-oldest fossil.

Dawson was a professor, education superintendent, lecturer, and teetotaler. He authored hundreds of books and articles, including Air-Breathers of the Coal Period: a Descriptive Account of the Remains of Land Animals Found in the Coal Formation of Nova Scotia, with Remarks on their Bearing on Theories of the Formation of Coal and of the Origin of Species.

Like Charles Darwin, Dawson considered becoming a man of the cloth and could not go along with Darwinian theories, being unable to reconcile the science with his religious convictions.

Happy Birthday, Sir John William Dawson – Geologist, Paleobotanist, and Air-Breather!

Shared Birthdays: L. Frank Baum and Pierre Curie

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Frank Baum and Pierre Curie were both born on May 15th. Here are some interesting facts about them:

Curie was one of the founders of modern physics. Baum was the creator of the “Oz” book series.

They were born 3 years apart – Baum in 1856, Curie in 1859.

The “L” in L. Frank Baum stands for “Lyman.”

Both were home schooled.

Before reaching the height of his career, Curie worked as a laboratory instructor. Before becoming a successful author, Baum was unsuccessful as a fancy poultry breeder, fireworks salesman, shopkeeper, lubricant salesman and newspaper editor. After becoming a successful author, he became an unsuccessful film producer.

Curie and Baum both promoted equal rights for women. Pierre Curie developed much of his work with his wife, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, and the two shared a Nobel Prize together. L. Frank Baum’s wife was the daughter of women’s rights activist Matilda J. Gage. Baum was a staunch suffragist and filled his Oz books with material promoting feminism.

Pierre Curie died in a street accident at age 46.

Frank Baum was a theosophist. Curie thought that spiritual phenomena were related to physics and attended séances in order to scientifically understand what took place. (He didn’t think they were fake, but he didn’t necessarily think ghosts were ghosts.)

Baum was a sickly child. Curie was a child prodigy.

When he was young, Baum was an actor, and returned to the theater by adapting Oz for the stage (wildly successfully) and producing musicals (rather unsuccessfully). When he was young, Curie wrote a famous doctoral study on magnetism.

Baum’s Oz characters have continued to live on in books and movies through the present day. Curie has a law and a constant named after him and his grave is enshrined in the Panthéon in Paris.


Baum and Curie also shared similar poses in photographs.


UPG Guestpert: Dano Johnson

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Dano Johnson wrote and directed two animated films rooted in geometry.

Flatland, adapted from the 1884 novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, tells the story of creatures living in an oppressive two-dimensional world whose lives are changed through an encounter with the third dimension. The film explores (as does the novella) the ways in which people are often blind to potential scientific breakthroughs and our limited ability to see beyond what is right in front of us.

The novel Sphereland, a sequel to Flatland, which was written by Dutch scientist Dionys Burger in 1965, serves as the source material for Dano’s follow up film Sphereland, which explores the concept of dimensions beyond the third.

We sat down (OK emailed) with Dano to discuss these films, and about converting science and mathematical concepts into drama.

UPG: What gave you the idea to take the novel Flatland and adapt it into a film?

I think all three members of the Flatland team – Seth Caplan, Jeffrey Travis, and myself – read the book in high school geometry and it stuck with us as a unique experience.  How often do you read a fiction book in math class?  Never!  When Seth graduated from AFI’s producing track he was looking through all the public domain books he’d read in school to get an idea for a project and he picked out the thinnest book in his stack – Flatland.  He knew me from our days in the e-Learning business and he’d worked with Jeffrey on a TV pilot, so we all started talking about Flatland.  There was a previous animated adaptation in the 1960s (starring a young Dudley Moore) but nothing since then.  We knew there’d be big challenges to adapt such an ‘unfilmable’ novel but we thought the story was so unique it would connect with audiences and teachers.

In regards to Sphereland, when I first read Flatland in school our paperback copy included Sphereland too.  There were a bunch of fun ideas in there that I wanted to explore so during the long hours of animating Flatland I slowly formed my idea for the sequel movie.

UPG: Is there a Flatland fan base? Do many people know about the novella?

DJ: There is a Flatland fan base of sorts. When we were first starting work on the movie we made a little teaser trailer and Seth went to a math teacher conference to present it. We assumed that every teacher would know about Flatland, but when we asked them less than half said they’d heard of it. One of the fun parts of independently marketing our film is when we visit math teacher conferences and interact with people who’ve never heard of Flatland. The minute you start explaining this strange little book their eyes light up and they want to hear more. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the film What the Bleep Do We Know have also popularized the story of Flatland, plus it recently got a nod on The Big Bang Theory. Many popular science programs and books that delve into string theory or higher dimensional physics use Flatland or similar analogies to explain the concept of dimensions. The great thing is that there is always someone learning about Flatland for the first time and if they’re seeking information they’ll run across info about our movie too.

UPG: How did you go about shaping (no pun intended) the main characters so that they weren’t just serving their allegorical roles, but were (also, seriously, no pun intended) multi-dimensional?
DJ: I think that both main characters (Arthur Square in Flatland and Hex in Sphereland) experience something remarkable that changes them and ‘re-shapes’ their views (pun intended). For Hex especially I thought about the experience of Galileo. Just as he saw the inner-workings of our solar system and was punished for trying to spread controversial knowledge, Hex saw the third dimension but her words can’t do it justice and she can’t get other Flatlanders to believe her. That pain of being rejected really affects her and we see how she’s closed herself off from the rest of Flatland (even in the design of her home, it’s essentially a shell where she can avoid others). I thought that was an interesting point to start with a character who must eventually make the choice to go public with her new discoveries, but this time she doesn’t just have words – she has the math that proves (spoiler alert) that Flatland is curved in the third dimension (end somewhat obvious spoiler alert). It’s literally the scientific process in story form where the whole time you’re rooting for the character to prove her hypothesis by experimenting and analyzing (with some exciting chases and inter-dimensional encounters along the way).


UPG: You have a surprising number of “name” actors playing roles in these films: Martin Sheen, Kristen Bell, Michael York, and Kate Mulgrew to name a few. Was it difficult to attract them to this project? Did it take a while for them to “get” it?

DJ: We were extremely lucky to get the cast we did for both films. Once we were able to get through agents and managers, we usually got a quick yes or no response as to whether they wanted to do it. Martin Sheen was very enthusiastic to do it. He really appreciated the social satire part of the book and the script. He was the first actor we recorded and it was truly remarkable to hear him bring our scenes to life for the first time. We’d been working on the script for a year and had table reads and scratch tracks, but hearing his take on the lines made me realize the animation challenge I had to match the great voice acting. Many of the actors, especially Michael York and Danica McKellar, appreciated the educational aspect and wanted to be a part of the films.  I’d say they all got it quickly – we always came overly-prepared with storyboards and animatics in case they wanted references but instead it was, “Let’s go in the booth and give it a shot.”

UPG: Flatland and Sphereland have had a lot of play in the educational market. Was that an original aim of the project?  Did you have a mathematician or scientist consult on the script?

DJ: Yes, from the beginning we knew the films probably wouldn’t have a theatrical or broadcast release (although if anyone’s interested we’ll take your call!). Seth and I had some experience in the educational market and thought any school that read the book would want to show the movie. So when the first script came out to around 30-40 pages we realized that the movie could probably fit into one class period, something perfect for teachers. One problem we foresaw was that the concepts in Flatland don’t necessarily fit into a curriculum category (for teachers whose calendar is full of ‘teaching for the test’). So we partnered with a few education consultants and math teachers to develop worksheets and activities to go with the movie. We were very lucky to work with Professor Thomas Banchoff of Brown University, who probably knows more about the novel Flatland and 4 dimensional geometry than anyone in the world (Tom also got to know Sphereland author Dionys Burger while he was still alive).

UPG: The two films have moments that rely on explaining mathematical concepts in order to solve problems the characters are facing. It must have been a challenge for you to take this material and dramatize it in a way that makes it both clear and exciting in the moment. Can you talk a bit about how you went about this process?

DJ: I think we learned a lot from doing the first movie where the math concepts are a bit easier (arithmetic dimensions can translate to geometric dimensions). Fortunately for us, the original novel treated this premise through the use of characters – we meet beings of 0, 1, 2, and 3 dimensions. So although we do have one ‘math lesson’ scene explaining dimensions, we then go on to see how these dimensions affect the creatures who are live in those dimensions. It’s a very important thing to understand since the whole novel and movie is in analogy for us to think about the 4th dimension and beyond! The math lesson scene is nonetheless important and through the animatic stage we were able to balance how much to tell and how much to show.

For Flatland 2: Sphereland we treated the math problems as puzzles and the only way to solve them is for the characters to imagine higher dimensions. It’s a bit more theoretical but as the characters work on the puzzles they see that they are all solved by one solution, so the math scenes build on one another and come to a nice, neat conclusion.

UPG: What is your background in math? Is it a subject that has always interested you?

DJ: I was always more of a science kid growing up (I think until middle school my career goal was to be a paleontologist). I had good math teachers and often excelled at it, but I felt science had a ‘story’ aspect to it that appealed to me (I always watched ‘Square One TV’ but really I was waiting for ‘3-2-1-Contact.’ PBS kids, am I right?). I definitely got more interested in math when I had a great class in college from Mike Starbird. His emphasis was less on ‘here’s how to solve this math problem’ and more ‘let’s build some problem-solving skills you will use throughout life via math even though eventually you’ll forget the math.’ I highly recommend his book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking whether you’re interested in math or just creative thinking.

UPG: What are some of the surprising or unexpected responses you’ve received from the film?

DJ: We always get lots of positive feedback from teachers when we meet them at math conferences. I’ve had teachers just walk up and give me a hi-five, saying “I play it every year!” I think the best response has been watching the sequel with a crowd. It has a bigger emotional climax, followed by a joke (sorry, no spoilers) that just brings out big laughs and I love getting that response each time. Also, sometimes it’s fun to search on twitter for ‘flatland’ or ‘math movie’ to see if any math classes are watching the movie. The funniest tweet so far: “hahahaha wtf were watching a math movie about like talking crackers in geometry.” I think somebody also tweeted that Sphereland made them cry, so mission accomplished!

UPG: What’s next? Any plans for Flatland 3-D?

DJ: There are no plans for a third Flatland movie, but I’m sure if we get a great idea we’ll consider revisiting. We have actually had interest in converting Flatland: The Movie for the 3D Imax format (yes, really) but as of now it doesn’t have a green light (or funding). But Seth and I are looking into a few other popular math and science-related novels to option. We’d love to hear anyone’s suggestions for educational novels to adapt – please reach out to us via the Sphereland Facebook & Twitter pages. We really believe that telling stories about math and science inspires young minds and we aim to keep making quality films towards that purpose.

Thank you Dano!

You can find out more about these films at and And check out the trailers below:


Museums of Some Scientists: Glaring Omissions

Friday, September 21st, 2012

We recently posted a series of entries about museums dedicated to individual scientists.  But we haven’t been able to find a museum dedicated to Isaac Newton!  What’s up with that?  Where’s the museum to Archimedes or Euclid?  There’s a small museum as part of the Leibniz institute, but where’s the Enrico Fermi museum?  Darwin just gets a small museum at one of his homes?  That’s it?

Archimedes, Newton, Darwin, and Fermi. Four scientists in need of museums.

All of you science-lovers and museum-creators out there, please get on this.


Museums of Some Scientists: Freud

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Welcome to a blog mini series we’ve named “Museums of Some Scientists.”

Usually, when we think of museums, we think of the places where we store scientific discoveries like dinosaur footprintsvaccinationsmeteorites or other glittery to not-so-glittery rocks, and ourselves.

But there are some scientists who are so famous or so important or so well-loved that people build museums to house their discoveries and artifacts from their lives.

Like Benjamin Franklin and Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud has two museums dedicated to him: his house and office in London, where he fled from the Nazis, and his home and office in Vienna, which the Nazis forced him to flee.  Thanks to that fleeing, London gets the better deal, including most of his collectibles and his analysis couch.

In Vienna you can visit the famous Berggasse location, gaze out the window Freud used to gaze out of, and soak up a touch of the fin du ciecle Viennese atmosphere.  But there’s very little belonging to Freud there, and you’re left with a reminder that the man who was later featured on the 50 Austrian Schilling note was ungraciously and humiliatingly kicked out of his home country and forced to live his final years in exile, away from his language, home, and culture.  Of course given what the Nazis did to the the members of Freud’s family who stayed in Austria, Freud got off exceptionally easy.

Freud’s house in Vienna. No couch here…

Freud lived the last year of his life in a house in a quiet London suburb.  Freud was really happy in this house with its large windows and garden.  It was much more pleasant than his relatively cramped apartment in Vienna.  Freud’s daughter Anna continued to live there until her death in 1982.  In 1986, it opened as the Freud Museum London, and contains, among Freud’s library and many Freud artifacts, his study, set up exactly the way it was during his lifetime.

Here it is — in London! 

Museums of Some Scientists: Franklin

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Welcome to a blog mini series we’ve named “Museums of Some Scientists.”

Usually, when we think of museums, we think of the places where we store scientific discoveries like dinosaur footprintsvaccinationsmeteorites or other glittery to not-so-glittery rocks, and ourselves.

But there are some scientists who are so famous or so important or so well-loved that people build museums to house their discoveries and artifacts from their lives.

Benjamin Franklin was many things — a diplomat, a statesman, a newspaper man, a writer, and also a scientist.  The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is named after him, but like the Museo Galileo in its relationship to Galileo, this museum isn’t devoted to Franklin’s life and work, but is rather a general science museum named in his honor.  Unlike the Museo Galileo, however, the Franklin Institue doesn’t exhibit body parts of its namesake, but it does feature an oversized memorial statue.

Franklin does have two homes that have been turned into museums however.  Franklin Court in Philadelphia, the former site of one of his homes, is shared with the U.S. Postal Museum, and displays many of Franklin’s inventions.

Benjamin Franklin spent many years in Europe, and his house in London is his only still-existing home. This house is now a museum of the life and times of Franklin.  Part of the building is dedicated specifically to Franklin’s scientific work.

Franklin still has women waiting around for him at his house in London. Note the 18th century track lighting.


Museums of Some Scientists: Galileo

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Welcome to a blog mini series we’ve named “Museums of Some Scientists.”

Usually, when we think of museums, we think of the places where we store scientific discoveries like dinosaur footprintsvaccinationsmeteorites or other glittery to not-so-glittery rocks, and ourselves.

But there are some scientists who are so famous or so important or so well-loved that people build museums to house their discoveries and artifacts from their lives.

The Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy is a rare exception to museums dedicated to a scientist, because it’s not really a Galileo museum, but a science museum named after him.

But it rates a mention here, because rather than exhibiting items and artifacts from Galileo’s life, or showcasing is work and discoveries, it has taken on the odd mission of assembling as many of the great scientist’s body parts as possible.

Requilaries of Galileo include fingers and a molar.

Rather than documenting his life and work, this gives the Galileo Museum a rare position of serving as a kind of shrine to a scientist.  A bit more religious in tone than scientific.  But, this is Italy after all.

Museums of Some Scientists: Curie

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Welcome to a blog mini series we’ve named “Museums of Some Scientists.”

Usually, when we think of museums, we think of the places where we store scientific discoveries like dinosaur footprintsvaccinationsmeteorites or other glittery to not-so-glittery rocks, and ourselves.

But there are some scientists who are so famous or so important or so well-loved that people build museums to house their discoveries and artifacts from their lives.

Marie Curie rates museums in two countries.

There’s one in Paris, where, in true Napoleonic-code fashion, she has to share it with her husband.

And there’s one in Warsaw, located in the house where she was born.  Curie is probably Poland’s most famous scientist and although she lived most of her life in Paris, she never lost her cultural ties to her homeland.  She named one of the elements she discovered — polonium — after her home country.

Marie Curie remains a popular subject of exhibitions around the world on a regular basis. (Your humble PhLog writer once saw a very large Marie Curie exhibit in a Polish Museum housed in all places, Rapperswil, Switzerland.)  A a groundbreaking woman in science during a time when it was almost entirely a male-dominated field, she is often held up as an inspirational figure to women and science-lovers everywhere.  So she’s great museum material.

Museums of Some Scientists: Einstein

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Welcome to a blog mini series we’ve named “Museums of Some Scientists.”

Usually, when we think of museums, we think of the places where we store scientific discoveries like dinosaur footprintsvaccinationsmeteorites or other glittery to not-so-glittery rocks, and ourselves.

But there are some scientists who are so famous or so important or so well-loved that people build museums to house their discoveries and artifacts from their lives.

Albert Einstein’s home in Bern, Switzerland is a museum (although at this writing it is closed due to water damage).  Among many items, you can see the desk – or at least the type of desk – that Einstein used to write on during his time at the Swiss patent office.

Einsteinhaus, Bern

Bern is very proud of its famous inhabitant.  In addition to the museum at Einstein’s house, the Bern Historical Museum has a permanent exhibition dedicated to him.

You can see Einstein’s brain at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.  But there’s surprisingly not a major Einstein museum in the US.  Einstein requested that his home in Princeton not be turned into a museum.  It was granted National Landmark status, but to this date Einstein’s and his family’s wishes have been honored, and his house is not any kind of museum.

Einstein house, Princeton

Since the house is not an option, you’d think someone in Princeton would want to lure some tourists in with a museum, yet in fact the only Einstein Museum in Princeton (and the only one in the US for that matter) is tucked into the back of a coat store.  Not quite as impressive a location as the house in Bern, but the rules of science dictate how the universe works everywhere, even in clothing stores.