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Portrait of a Creative

Today is the last day of the week-long blog celebration of the site's launch! Thanks for reading with me along the way. If you want to keep following, the best way is to keep your eye on my Twitter feed, I'll be posting new content every 2-3 weeks and sharing it there. But, without further ado, the final post:

Perhaps you're familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist and author of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience"? If so, you know that Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who has spent his career studying happiness and creativity. One of my favorite quotes of his describes the nature of the creative personality:

"If I had to express in one word what makes [creative] personalities different from others, it's complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an 'individual,' each of them is a 'multitude.'" -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

That quote is not from his book. I haven't read it yet (grad school). Its from his 1996 Psychology Today article titled "The Creative Personality". The idea of contradictory extremes within each creative not only resounded with my own exprience, but also stoked my desire to express it visually. So below is my portrait of a creative, inspired by Csikszentmihalyi.

Portrait of a Creative

Science v. Edgar Allan Poe

Inspired by a rainy, melancholy day over the weekend, I pulled out my Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. After an obligatory reading of "The Raven" (it was a rainy, melancholy day, after all), I found a poem I hadn't read before: "Sonnet - To Science." Written in 1829, Poe is making some pretty hefty accusations against Science.

Sonnet - To Science
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

These are no light accusations. Poe accuses science of being a vulture which preys upon poets, taking a world full of beauty, imagination, and fantasies and replacing it with one of "dull realities." It is true that science has "dragged Diana from her car." The Greek goddess Diana doesn't pull the moon around the earth. Gravity does that. But to say that gravity has ruined the mysteries of the world is a superficial claim.

We no longer personify the things we don't understand as deities, but that does not mean we understand them. Gravity is an excellent example. Gravity remains one of the greatest mysteries of physics. We can describe what gravity does; any two objects with mass - such as the Earth and the Moon - are attracted to each other. But we don't know why. Furthermore, Newton's laws do not describe what happens when things get very, very big or very, very small. This, of course, does not stop gravity from continuing to work.

The more knowledge we acquire, the more mystery we find.

Not to mention, the world is a beautiful place full of fantastic things we have learned about through the collective endeavor called "Science." For example, caterpillars go through an incredible process of transformation to become a butterfly. There are no faeries involved, but we do know that after becoming the crysallis, the caterpillars' internal organs basically dissolve into what appears to be uniform goo. Yet as a butterfly they still possess memories from being a caterpillar. Their memories survive the goo stage.

Going back to gravity and the planets, scientists over the years have tracked the movements of the heavenly spheres. Clip from DJ Sadhu showing planetary vortex motionDiana may have been beautiful, but I think this clip from an animation by DjSadhu is a fair competitor. It shows not only the planets revolving around the sun, but also the sun hurtling through nearby space at a rate of 43,000 miles/hr. And though it is a more complete, beautiful image than what I remember from elementary school, it still is not the whole picture. It doesn't show how the entire section of space I referred to as "nearby space" rotates around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at 483,000 miles/hr. Or that the entire galaxy is itself moving... Diana and Apollo would have had their work cut out for them.

Therefore, Edgar Allan Poe, I may be a few years late, but I offer here my counter-argument on behalf of science:

P1: Science is a systematic search for knowledge.
P2: Knowledge generates ignorance.
P3: Ignorance is just mystery by another name.

Conclusion: Instead of destroying the mysteries of the world, Science begets them.

Cellular Chaos Animation Sneak Peak: Storyboard

Today is day 3 of the week-long blog post celebration of the site's launch! In addition to the site, I've got some other big things coming up soon. Most notably, my animation on cellular chaos is in the final stages of completion and will be ready to show you in a few weeks.

I'm really excited about this piece. It's intended to teach about how cells are a very crowded, chaotic space. Perhaps you're familiar with Drew Berry's molecular visualizations of DNA? The first time I saw those, it was a gif somewhere on the interwebs that was probably a violation of his copyright. But the full complexity of the molecules involved in DNA replication stuck in my imagination. Now I'm getting to act on that inspiration and include hyper-realistic DNA replication as the concluding scene to this animation.

Storyboard for animation on Cellular Chaos, page 1 Storyboard for animation on Cellular Chaos, page 2

Learning from the Masters: Tom Jones

Master's copies are a time-honored tradition in artistic training. Copying another's work is useful because replicating a piece forces you to study the minutiae of its execution: how the artist created a sense of texture or subtly shifted value to communicate volume.

Below is my copy of a Tom Jones illustration showing the blood supply of the thyroid, followed by his original. In addition to being a master of medical illustration, Tom Jones also founded the Biomedical Visualization program at UIC in 1921 with the vision to train "artist scientists" -- like me, almost a century later. Tom Jones copy, illustration of thyroid Tom Jones original, illustration of thyroid

Life Lessons from Dissecting Cadavers

And, we've launched the new site! To celebrate, I'll be posting a new blog post every day for the first week. To kick things off, some reflections on the unique experience of cadaver dissection:

We named him Henry, our cadaver.

I’ve been trying to think about how to put the experience of dissecting cadavers into words. It is challenging to capture such a multifaceted experience.

Honestly, it is fun. I enjoy a challenge that requires both intellect and dexterity. I enjoy joking about how the “special skills” section of my resume could resemble a serial killer. I enjoy learning about Henry’s life from the ways it visibly affected his body. I enjoy cutting and sawing and probing.

It is also smelly. The chemicals stink, our scrubs stink, bone dust stinks, and poop only gets grosser after sitting preserved for months.

It is violent. I have sawed a man’s head in half, skinned his face, created a trapdoor into his chest, and cut perfectly up the middle between his legs, through his pelvis, and then across his lower back and abdomen so one leg is no longer attached.

And it is human, the experience. It is an actual man we are cutting up, which is why we don’t take pictures of the cadavers, don’t bring guests in to show them off, and don’t go in to lab the night of Halloween. It is why we throw trash in the biohazard bin, but all the tissue goes in bags that stay with the body so it can all be cremated and returned to the family.

I learned a lot of anatomy. In addition, though, to all the names, locations, origins, insertions, and innervations, I picked up a few other lessons along the way.

Lesson 1: Laughter Makes Everything Better
Maurice riding Yorick's sella turcicaIn my experience, most poop jokes aren’t actually jokes. It’s mostly just saying the word “poop” and giggling. But it’s the best thing when spending hours in the anal triangle. And what better way to remember which part of the skull is the sella turcica (Latin for turkish saddle) than making a pipe cleaner man to ride on it? His name is Maurice, and by the end of lab he had evolved to be a space cowboy in reference to the 1973 Steve Miller Band hit The Joker. (The skull is named Yorick, and pictures are ok since it is just a skull, not a cadaver.)

Lesson 2: Interpretive Dance is a Great Memory Tool
It’s kinetic, funny, and communal - learning could hardly get more fun than the moments our lab group realized we had created another interpretive dance to add to our repertoire. Because of that, I’m sure I will never forget about perforating veins, popliteus, latissimus dorsi, or the cremaster muscle.

Lesson 3: Knowledge is Tangible.
Most of the time we talk about knowledge as something to be grasped by the mind. Working with cadavers reminded me to never forget that sometimes it can be grasped by the hand as well, that my conception of reality must include both the corporeal and the immaterial.

We named our cadaver Henry, but that name refers only to his body. When the ashes are returned to the family, they will mourn him by his real name, a name that refers to both body and soul.