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

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils.

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils found in Chile.

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. Continue reading →

When a Rembrandt copy is not a forgery

Top: The original. Middle: The mock-up. Bottom: Mock-up & portrait below.  © J. Paul Getty Trust

Top: The original. Middle: The mock-up. Bottom: Mock-up & portrait below. © J. Paul Getty Trust

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 thing.

The military borrows from cultural heritage science.

This illuminated manuscript has helped out the US army’s remote sensing. ©Lorenzo Monaco, Praying Prophet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection

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*. Continue reading →

Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Measuring Barbie headspace: Namely, the smells coming off their PVC plastic bodies. ©M. Strlic

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.” Continue reading →

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

Flinck’s final portrait of Dirck (left) compared to the more fashionable original (right). Courtesy of van Eikema Hommes

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. Continue reading →

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

The 2012 ESOF conference in Dublin takes place on the other side of the wonderful Samuel Beckett bridge. Credit: Sarah Everts

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: Continue reading →

Finding The Culprit For Van Gogh’s Darkening Yellows

Van Gogh's Vase with Sunflowers is getting a pigment check-up this week. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunflower still-life series is possibly Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work. Unfortunately the warm yellow hues that make the paintings memorable come from pigments that don’t have a long life-expectancy.

During the 19th century, chrome yellow pigments came in to fashion among painters and then quickly went out again, as artists realized that the vibrant yellow color was unstable and would lose its vibrancy when exposed to light.

For example, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir both steered clear of the chrome yellow pigments. But van Gogh threw caution to the wind and continued to use chrome yellow until his suicide in 1890—a tragic hint, perhaps, of his own instability and imminent breakdown.

This week, conservation scientists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been taking a closer look at chrome yellow pigments in Vase with Sunflower, and a few other paintings, to learn more about the degradation problem.
Continue reading →

Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It

Moldy Movies. Credit: Analytical Methods

Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it.

Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks.

In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.)

For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi.

Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick.

That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors.

Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device.

With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.)

Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye.

It’s worth pointing out that even if mold is kept at bay, old degrading film produces its own special brand of harmful flatulence. Continue reading →