Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer. This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson. Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons. “I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston. Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost. This information is essential for answering all sorts of interesting research questions, such as why so many whales died and were buried together two million years ago. For example, the whales could have swum into a bloom of toxic algae and died or they might have fallen victim to a landslide. Pyenson went home to DC and immediately recruited the Smithsonian’s in-house 3D imaging and printing team (aka the Laser Cowboys), who came back with him to Chile and spent a week imaging the whale fossils with a high resolution laser scanner. The team then went home and began analyzing the fossil images. They also also began printing out awesome replicas like the one you see above, which is many times smaller that the original. (The whale fossils span between 20-30 feet in real life.) Pyenson says the Smithsonian has industrial partners who will soon print out a full sized version pro bono, which would have otherwise cost the museum $1 million. It seems Pyenson’s team has already figured out why all these whales died but he’s staying mum about it, while the scientific paper winds its way through the peer-review process—so stay tuned. Once the discovery is published, Pyenson says they’ll put the data online so others around the globe can access and analyze it. Although this laser scanning and 3D printing could give researchers around the world the ability to study skeletons without physically handling them, old-school...

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When a Rembrandt copy is not a forgery

So you’d think that making a replica of a Rembrandt might be frowned upon by the art world, but this copy of “An old man in military costume” has full approval of its owners. In fact, the folks at the Paul Getty Museum in LA, asked their own intern to replicate the masterpiece as well as the hidden painting beneath it. It seems that there’s a pretty good reason for making the copy, or “mock-up” as the researchers call it. For years, museum researchers have known that there’s another painting beneath the military portrait. But they’ve had a tough time getting more than just a faint whiff of the image hidden below using standard analytical methods. Over the past few years, a new technique called scanning macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) has proven itself useful for uncovering hidden paintings on canvases by Van Gogh, Goya and others. The question is whether MA-XRF would work for Rembrandt’s military portrait. And specifically, whether a portable X-ray device was powerful enough to do the trick or whether the painting should travel to a more a powerful synchrotron X-ray source, such as in Hamburg (DESY) or at Brookhaven National Labs in New York. It comes down to the fact that museums don’t like shipping valuable and fragile art around the world unless it’s absolutely necessary. Enter intern Andrea Sartorius (who I momentarily hoped was a descendent of the 17th century Croatian weight-loss fanatic & innovator, Sanctorius Sanctorius. Sadly the names are not quite the same.) Anyway, Sartorius painted a copy of the original Rembrandt using the same kind of pigments and binder that he would have used, and she included another portrait below the military one. Then the copy was shipped around the world to be analyzed using X-rays from the various synchrotron sources and from the portable device. Turns out it’s worth the trip to more snazzy X-ray sources if you want to see the hidden painting below. The team argues in this paper that transporting the Rembrandt to a synchrotron facility is actually “useful and relevant.” The paper’s lead researcher, Matthias Alfred, praised the mock-up: “It is the first time that a painting was reproduced in such an elaborate way for these tests.” It seems that experiments on mock-ups help museum staff decide whether sending expensive art to outside labs for analysis is worth the risk and effort. And that, my friends, is how a fake Rembrandt can sometimes be a good...

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The military borrows from cultural heritage science.

Civilian society constantly makes use of aerospace and military inventions: Can anyone say the Internet? Or transparent braces? (These nearly invisible dental devices are made from a material called polycrystalline alumina, which was initially developed by NASA “to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers,” notes Discovery.com) Cultural heritage also borrows from NASA: Portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) was developed for MARS missions, so that roaming rovers could assess the chemical make-up of rocks on that planet. Now XRF is a must-have tool for conservation scientists, who want to analyze the chemical composition of art that cannot be transported into a lab, such as a cave painting or Renaissance fresco. But what about reversing the direction of technology export, so that cultural heritage scientists return the favor by developing new analytical tools for art research that then get delivered to the greater world of science? This has not happened—until now*. (*Or so I think, after asking folks in the know… If I’ve missed an example, I trust the Internet’s dilligent fact-checkers to clarify.) Anyway: As far as I know, the first case of analytical technology export from a museum lab to the outside world of science comes courtesy of John Delaney, who works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Delaney has long been working in the field of near infrared imaging spectroscopy (NIRS), sometimes with the army’s Night Vision Lab. NIRS is versatile analytical tool that can be installed on satellites for remote sensing of ground soil chemistry. Or it can be put in a medical device to measure a patient’s blood oxygen and hemoglobin levels through their skin, non-invasively. One of the coolest applications of NIRS in cultural heritage science is to visualize paintings made below other paintings, such as the hidden portrait of a beautiful woman below Picasso’s Le Gourmet, which is a still-life of a child eating. Delaney’s project to uncover another hidden Picasso painting was very recently profiled in the New York Times. Earlier this year, Delaney published an article in Angewandte Chemie wherein he used NIRS imaging equipment from the US military’s Night Vision lab to study binders and pigments in a 15th century illuminated manuscript by Lorenzo Monaco, called Praying Prophet. Too much incident light can hurt the ancient, fragile document, so Delaney had to use the lowest possible light power settings, filter that light, and effectively work at the sensitivity limits of the NIRS instruments. As part of the project his team improved the sensitivity of two cameras used to analyze the manuscript. Delaney says that the new cameras which operate at low light levels have now also been used on paintings and tapestries to map wool and...

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Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Dear eBay, I love you. Yours Sincerely, Conservation Science I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll. It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter: “Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?” What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.” Plastics: So that awesome photo of the Barbies in the sample holder? Several of the PVC dolls were purchased by Matija Strlic on eBay for the Heritage Smells! project. He’s part of a team of researchers trying to find a way to diagnose the health of plastic and paper artifacts in museums and archives by sniffing the gases that percolate off the objects. When a plastic (or paper) artifact begins to degrade it produces breakdown gases. But before Strlic can build a hand-held electronic nose that museum staff can then use to assess the health of their collections, his team needs to develop the analytical tool on old, non-valuable plastic objects. And that’s how he started buying Barbies on eBay. Picasso and friends: Between 1900-1950 many contemporary artists (Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky) began experimenting with using the newly invented industrial wall paint called Ripolin for their artwork instead of hoity-toity artist paint. According to Francesca Casadio, this was for a couple of reasons: First: It dried faster than the professional artist paint—a useful feature for procrastinating painters working on deadline. Second: Using industrial paint was a snub to the stodgy art world who wouldn’t dream of using anything but traditional oil paints. Third: Some artists liked the glossy finish of industrial paint. In trying to find a way to identify a painting produced with industrial paint, Casadio needed examples of Ripolin paint from the early 20th century to practice on. And so she turned to eBay… Digital art: Since the advent of computers and other forms of electrical recording technology (such as audio cassettes or video), artists have been using this media to produce artworks. But how do you watch art stored on an old floppy disk, or on a Commodore 64’s hard-drive, or on a now obsolete form of Bulgarian video? You need the hard-ware and you need cables to connect that hard-ware to a compatible screen. Leo Konstantelos told me it’s the esoteric cables that are sometimes the hardest to find. But he’s been successful on—you guessed...

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Fashion Fights In The 1600s: Parents Just Don’t Understand Their Kids’ Clothing Styles

Fashion trends come and go but one thing stays the same: Kids and parents often don’t see eye-to-eye on style. Even in 17th-century Amsterdam. A great example of this was recently unearthed by University of Delft researcher, Margriet van Eikema Hommes, when she took a closer look at paintings by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck. Flinck was a pupil of Rembrandt, but he had more commercial success than his teacher. Case in point: When Amsterdam’s new town hall was built in the mid 1600s, it featured several Flinck works but only one by Rembrandt, and this lone Rembrandt painting was removed after a year, van Eikema Hommes says. Flinck’s success was probably due to his strong familial connections to Amsterdam’s wealthy Mennonite community, who became his regular patrons. And therein lies the interesting historical fashion-friction. It turns out that Amsterdam’s Mennonite community favored solemn, dark outfits. Meanwhile 17th-century cool kids wore colorful tights. (Much as modern-day hipsters opt for brightly colored stockings…) In fact, some members of the Mennonite congregation would strike out against members who wore less conservative, fashionable clothing—clothing that the Mennonites considered indecent, van Eikema Hommes explains. Against this cultural backdrop, Flinck was asked to paint a portrait of his young Mennonite nephew Dirck. If you look at the final version of the portrait from 1636, the nephew looks pretty much like a conservative young Mennonite. But looks can be deceiving. When van Eikema Hommes started to analyze the portrait with X-rays, she discovered that beneath the painting was another portrait of Dirck (see the black and white image). The original portrait has Dirck in a left-foot-forward, aristocratic posture (compared to Dirck’s more somber pose in the final version), and the original has Dirck wearing substantially less conservative clothing. In particular, Flinck initially painted his nephew in a wider brimmed, fashionable hat, wearing a shirt with a wider, stylish collar and red tights instead of black ones. You can tell the tights were red in two ways, van Eikema Hommes says. First, you can actually see the red paint shimmering through the top layer of the artwork. But more conclusively, using X-ray fluorescence, she detected mercury on the artwork right where the legs were initially painted… and a common red paint of that era was vermillion, a mercury-based paint. So why did Flick paint over the original, fashionable portrait of Dirck? Probably because Flinck, Dirck or both men got cold feet about offending their Mennonite family members—and Flinck’s patrons. In the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Parents just don’t understand.” “There was nothing I could do, I tried to relax I got...

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Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF

I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum  (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room. If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF): When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. But cultural heritage scientists are doing this and much much more: They’re helping to conserve and restore everything from spacesuits to plastic sculptures. They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint. They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense. And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms. Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Matija Strlič is a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage. He’s involved in all sorts of fascinating projects, from the AHRC/EPSRC-funded Heritage Smells!, which is about detecting the chemical makeup of gases emanating off artifacts to figure out degradation taking place inside, to the EU Joint Programming Initiative called ‘Cultural Heritage and Global Change.’ He’s developing technology to visualize damage in art and artifacts before it is visible to the naked eye. Costanza Miliani is a staff researcher at Italy’s CNR Institute for Molecular Science and Technologies. She’s also responsible  for MOLAB Transnational Access, an EU-funded, roving crew of conservation scientists that travel around Europe providing scientific support to museums and galleries around the continent. In the last couple of years, MOLAB has worked on everything from frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, to Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam and rare Aztec documents in Liverpool. In her own research, Miliani develops new non-invasive analytical technologies to study dyes, pigments, binders and their breakdown products. Philippe Walter has been a long-time scientist at the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, a research facility located underneath the Louvre in Paris. He’s now taken an academic post at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. Walter has been involved in a potpourri of interesting projects: From researching the Mona Lisa’s complexion using non-invasive, portable technology, to recreating ancient recipes for ancient Egyptian and Grecian cosmetics. Leo...

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