By Kyle Frischkorn
Is it an album cover for a 1980s hair band, or a thin section micrograph of precious minerals? A model of ice streams in glacial lakes, or a 3D laser light show from a dance club? This past week at the third annual Research as Art exhibit at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, scientists traded in lab coats and goggles for artist smocks and easels as they demonstrated that when the line between science and art is allowed to get tenuous, the results are anything but.
The artwork displayed the breadth of research conducted at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, spanning from ecology to geology. The works showcased the biological research underway at the observatory by Kali McKee of the Goes Lab: images of the balloon-like microscopic phytoplankton Noctiluca, an organism that belies its innocent, squishy appearance by forming harmful algal blooms around the Indian Ocean.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from biology was an image of seismic traces recorded during earthquakes in Malawi and Tanzania, part of the dissertation research of graduate student Natalie Accardo. The wavy, technicolor lines conjure up imagery of seismologists taking an echocardiogram of the earth, monitoring the blips to diagnose earthquakes.
There were also works created by Lamont’s undergraduate researchers, like Emily Cooperdock, a Columbia College earth science major. Her piece, called Flux Fusion, depicted graphite crucibles glowing an otherworldly orange after being heated to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
This year’s submissions also featured five video installations. One showed a drone’s bumbling in-flight recording of lava flows juxtaposed against crystalline blue lakes, part of the research of Lamont volcanologist Einat Lev. Another looked like a simple series of blue rotating lines, until viewed through the 3-D goggles that accompanied the installation. Through the red and blue lenses, the video came alive into a swirling vortex. Though it looked like something that would be at home on the walls of a discotheque, instead Lamont’s Jonny Kingslake uses these videos to model the ebb and flow of glacial lakes.
Similar to last year’s showcase, attendees cast votes for their favorite display of research art. After a tally, two pieces came out as clear front runners. In second place was a collage of figures by a team of researchers from The International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Ashley Curtis, Dannie Dinh, Angel Muñoz and Cathy Vaughan entitled Caribbean Connections. The figures, which look like the groovy illustrations created by retro Spirograph toys, depict a social network analysis of water managers in the Caribbean. Each node is an agency on a different island, and the connecting lines represent how those agencies interact with one another. It’s a dizzyingly complex and beautiful representation, and one that the team hopes to use to refine how critical resources are managed on island nations.
The grand prize, however, went to Anna Barth, a first-year graduate student in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. What Barth showcased was a thin section micrograph of the precious stone garnet with calcite-filled cracks, surrounded by a periphery of the shiny mineral mica. While this technical description might only pique the interest of a seasoned mineralogist, the large, framed final product had the whole Lamont community captivated. Some described this hard rock geological research as a hard rock album cover, while others likened it to an abstract depiction of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron. Any way you look at it though—and yes, it does look right back at you—the image is a stunning example of the artistry present in science when viewed through a different frame.
The Research as Art exhibit, generously funded by Lamont’s Campus Life Committee and Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, is an annual occurrence, and this year’s works will remain on display in the Lamont Café.