Silk Pavilion

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What would it be like to have 6,500 silkworms spin a house for you?

Mediated Matter Group used a combination of art and mathematics to create a unique structure made by computers and silkworms.

MMG studied silkworms spinning their cocoons and silk on different hexagonal platforms.  You can watch some of the videos of those tests;  time lapse photography of caterpillars spinning silk at high speed is kind of hypnotic.   Inspired by silkworms’ ability to generate a 3-dimensional cocoon out of a single silken thread, the researchers created an algorithm to make a computer think like a silkworm.  They then used that model to instruct a robot to weave a structure.

The language they use to describe this really cool project is…well, pretty dry academic speak, actually.   Here’s an example:

 The primary structure was created of 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a CNC (Computer-Numerically Controlled) machine.  Overall density variation was informed by the silkworm itself deployed as a biological “printer” in the creation of a secondary structure…. Specifically, we explored the formation of non-woven fiber structures generated by the silkworms as a computational schema for determining shape and material optimization of fiber-based surface structures..”

Skip that. Just watch. I love the idea of caterpillars as 3D printers.  Make sure you watch all the way to the credits, because it’s way cool.

Random Factoid:

dorsal heart

In this video and the one I linked earlier, you might notice that the caterpillars themselves appear to be sort of strobing.  What you are seeing is their heart beating!

All insects have one long “heart” that runs along their back.  These caterpillars are more transparent than the adult insect shown in this diagram, so we can actually see inside.  When the video is sped up, the rhythmic contractions of the heart turn into a rapid flicker.  You can even see how the contractions pulse up the back of the insect in a wave!

Insect Carl Sagan and science communication

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The latest buzz going round the online science community is an article that suggests that scientists might not be doing enough to communicate with the public.  Scicurious wrote an excellent reply. I struggled to find an excerpt that I could quote here, because the whole thing had me jumping up and down and shouting “AMEN, SISTER.”  Here’s one bit:

“…all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I’m not winning any big prizes soon, but I’d like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can’t we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)?

If no one knows who these big name scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters…before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.”

I’ve said this before, but it’s especially relevant to me now, as I’m in what seems to be the twilight of my career:

ehrmahgerd bertles!I will write this shit even if no one but me reads it.

I love insects, I love to write, and I love to find ways to get people to share my OMGBUGZ moments.  I’m busting my ass here and on social media every day, not because I am getting famous, and certainly not because it makes me any money. I do it for love.

We know, from decades of research, that what makes a good teacher is passion.  Why were Sagan, or DeGrasse Tyson, Nye, or Attenborough successful? Because they love what they do, they love their science, and it shows. (Also, they started in a completely different media environment. And are dudes. But let’s not go there right now.)

There are people out here online with me, passionately writing, podcasting, or videocasting their hearts out. A few lucky ones make a living at it. But just because I don’t have name recognition, that doesn’t mean that I’m not successful. I measure success one comment and one retweet at a time.  I don’t have a klout score as high as John Cusack anymore, but that’s not the point.

One person says they changed their mind about hating spiders.
I said something kind to a graduate student and encouraged her.
A local newspaper corrects a mangled insect factoid.

That?
That is what online science communication success looks like now.

With the advent of the internet, ideas or passions bring people together, rather than physical locations or media channels. Scientists that do outreach online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance.  It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.

We are creating a model for a new kind of science communication.  And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us. We are modeling different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.” (You know who you are.)

It’s personal relationships that really change the world. I was inspired by Sagan and Attenborough…but it was my not-famous teachers and mentors that helped me get through school and believe that I could be a scientist too.  Small individual creative acts (tweets, blog posts, or just chatting on Facebook) can become a thing of lasting value.  Shared and random effort can produce useful and meaningful results.

The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal.  We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there. The beauty of the web is that scientists can get online and screw around together, playing with ideas.

Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.

Which is exactly how Insect Carl Sagan Happened. Enjoy.

And then things started to get really awesome:

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