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Are Crop Circles Made By Microwaves?

Made by microwaves? Credit: Newscom.

If you believe that crop circles are a form of art made by rogue (human) sculptors, then you’ll probably want to read Richard Taylor‘s fascinating piece in Physics World about the science of making these curious farmland imprints.

If you can’t get past the PW paywall, check out my column in this week’s Newscripts about his quirky work on crop circle science.

In particular, Taylor thinks artists are using hand-held microwave magnetrons (I kid you not!) to make modern-day crop circles and he comes up with a pretty convincing argument to back up his sci-fi-sounding theory.

Conspiracy theorists may not buy Taylor’s logic since it doesn’t involve aliens (they’ve already accused Taylor of being in cahoots with US, UK and German spy agencies). But I like the microwave theory as much as the one proposed by Australian’s attorney general: that stoned wallabies are making crop circles in poppy fields down under.

A Short Summer Sabbatical

A painting by Daphne Mennell called Spirit Lake, sort of. Courtesy of the artist.

This post comes from Whitehorse, in the Yukon (that’s in Canada, folks), where I’m about to embark on a two-week, 400-km canoe trip along an old gold rush route to Dawson City.

This means Artful Science will have a two week hiatus while I avoid getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and bears.

I thought I’d say au revoir with an image from Yukon-based artist, Daphne Mennell.

See y’all in August!

DNA in ancient Maori cloaks

A Maori cloak. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a cool story by Ewen Callaway up at the Nature news site about researchers who went searching for DNA among the plumes of Maori feather cloaks.

These cloaks were apparently the height of Maori fashion in the 19th century. And, as Callaway writes, “when New Zealand’s Maori tribes went into battle, combatants enveloped in kiwi feather cloaks were spared from harm by their foes. The laboriously crafted cloaks, known as Kahu kiwi, were so revered that some were given names…”

By connecting the feather DNA to fowl (such as kiwi birds) on New Zealand’s islands, David Lambert at Griffith University in Australia and his colleagues uncovered what appears to be previously unknown ancient feather trade routes.  

I wonder how the new information will fit into what the British Museum and Museum of New Zealand have to say about the history of these cloaks.

One Mystery Solved About Pigments That Get The Blues

Microscopic image of blue glass pigments called smalt that fade with time. © Analytical Chem.

Fading colors in masterpieces are a universal headache for museums and galleries, but one particularly problematic blue pigment is smalt, which was commonly used during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries across Europe. The pretty blue pigment originates from ground-up glass which artists would then mix into their paint. Smalt was a poor man’s option compared to relatively pricy ultramarine. Now scientists know exactly why the cheaper blue pigment fades away, turning artwork a miserable brown with time. Continue reading →

Welcome To Artful Science

Normally if you mention art or cultural conservation science, people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or when a new pigment is found on a Rembrandt painting.

But museum scientists are doing much more than that: They’re helping to preserve and restore everything from spacesuits to ancient musical instruments. They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them. They’re looking through paintings to see initial drawings on the canvas below. They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense. And they’re struggling to find ways of conserving more modern forms of art, made from quirky materials or posted only on the Internet.

This blog will cover all of these topics and more. Thanks for reading!