Tag Archive for: Mathematics + Computation

Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime

Painting by Numbers: Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime in Late Twentieth Century Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (May 2006)


Very large data sets are ‘collections’ too: in an increasingly digital world, we need to understand their materiality as continuous with other forms of material culture.  We need to understand how they are generated, how they are analysed, how they produce knowledge, and what this means in epistemological terms.

Shortly after the completion of my NESTA residency at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, I was invited to present my research findings at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Under the direction of Professor Lorraine Daston, the ‘History of Scientific Observation’ project had just got underway, and I chose to make a contribution to this project with an extensive paper about numerical databases in recent astrophysical research.  In particular, the paper concerns the coming into being, use and impact of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine which for thirty years had been at the heart of data generation in UK astronomy.

This pivotal instrument was designed by Ed Kibblewhite on the cusp of the 1970s and operated by Mike Irwin at the Institute of Astronomy until 2005, when it was finally decommissioned.  The photograph you see above, taken by IoA Graphics Officer Amanda Smith, shows it leaving the building that was constructed to house it.

The main function of the APM was to scan very high quality all-sky survey photographic plates of the near universe and turn the numerical data generated into coherent, searchable databases. Its use precedes the wide use in telescopes of particle detecting CCDs (charge couple devices) which deliver a constant stream of numerical data. As such, it was the machine that produced an entire algorithmic lexicon for understanding the universe.

Here is an abstract of the paper, which I am currently preparing for publication:

What does “observation” mean in a digital age and how is this related to its origins in eras when visual culture was more physically tangible? Beginning with the material culture of astronomical photography and extending into current computational astrophysics, this paper traces the intertwined evolutions of data and image in astronomical practice. I will argue that, far from there existing a philosophical or methodological split between those practitioners who use images and those who use logics as ’observational’ tools, in astronomy image and logic are synonymous, collapsed into each other.

I will explore this phenomenon in part through its origin in traditional observational practices of technical and computational data extraction from photographs of the sky over a hundred year period, showing how this ’tribal memory’ affects not only contemporary astronomers’ relationship with avalanches of post-digital data, but also in turn culturally informs the production of present-day images synthesized from the accumulated data itself. The paper pays close attention particularly to the 1970s, a period in which overlap between the material culture of ’sky survey’ photographs, the design of automatic measuring devices and the rapid evolution of computer power — all functioning at the very limit of their capacities — created a nexus of image-data systems which enshrined the mobile equivalence between the two.

This evolving relationship from image to data and back again to image via scanners, computers and display technologies is a very important one for science in general and for culture at large in the last 40 years. In astronomy, the build-up of large data sets in what has been a supremely visual science of light extends the very notion of what the adjective ‘visual’ means and thus it is a good test case to examine these cultural changes.

Starting with an overview of recent historical, sociological and art historical attention paid to late 20th century astrophysics, I show different approaches to the visual culture of astronomy and to notions of aesthetics. I conclusion, I propose a mathematical sublime at the core of the production of photo-illusory visualisations of the universe produced for public consumption, and suggest that the feature missing from a clear understanding of all image-making in contemporary science is the still undeveloped context of a logic of aesthetics.


This project is one of several outcomes of my NESTA residency at the IoA: another was the assistant curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

It was to be the first of several visits to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science as a guest researcher. On that occasion in 2006 it was fantastic to be able to compare notes across astronomical image and data with photo historian Dr Kelley Wilder (now running the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University) and historian of 19th century physics and astronomy, Dr Charlotte Bigg (now a senior researcher at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris), both of whom were at the MPIWG at that time.

I have also more recently been a guest researcher again at the MPIWG in March of 2012, developing an exhibition project and giving the Institute Colloquium on 21 March 2012 — about the very different subject of natural history museums.


Further Links:   Institute of Astronomy University of Cambridge; History of Scientific Observation, MPIWG; Dr Kelley Wilder; Dr Charlotte Bigg

[Image References: the decommissioning of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine (Amanda Smith, 2005); black and white photo of the prototype automatic plate measuring machine by Ed Kibblewhite]

Full Solar Spectrum

You are Here: The Design of Information

You Are Here: The Design of Information, Curatorial Advisor, Design Museum, London (2005)


Curatorial Advisor to Lead Curator James Peto concerning overall exhibition structure and science content on this important exhibition looking at information design and graphics; curation of the Cosmos section of the exhibition relating to the history of astrophysics and the development of the universe.

This wonderful and wide-ranging exhibition, curated by James Peto, included everything from street signs to geological maps, morse code, pie charts, timelines, timetables and teaching models.  The exhibition concentrated on areas of information which affect all of us: “information that helps us understand what we are, where we are and how we get from one place to another, literally and metaphorically.” The show set out to “explore the history and evolution of information design and consider the extent to which advances in knowledge and technology have affected the way that designers approach their fundamental task” (quotes from the exhibition introduction).

James consulted me for advice about the science fields he wished to explore with this interdisciplinary exhibition. These ranged from astronomy to anatomy, mathematics to meteorology.  The design of information of course involves the practice of science as well as science communication: without the use of the information design technique of the grid, for example, Mendeleyev would have had difficulty discerning the structure of the periodic table and predicting those elements which had not yet been discovered.

The exhibition was loosely structured on a scale from the cosmic to the microscopic, taking its cue from one of the most significant information designs of the 20th century: Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, which was first produced as a film in 1968, and then published as a book in 1982 by Scientific American.

I curated the COSMOS section of You Are Here, which was the show’s ‘opener’.  It was an exciting way for me to build a bridge between a major cultural museum and hard-science aspects of astrophysics. Having spent the previous year at the Institute of Astronomy of the University of Cambridge as part of my NESTA Fellowship, I knew that the processes by which astrophysicists create the beautiful images of distant stars and galaxies is even more amazing than the images themselves.  It involves complex particle detectors mounted in space stations, huge databases of numerical information, algorithms to analyse those databases, and high-spec software to polish up the final product. There is a long and fascinating history to unravelling the messages starlight brings us, and it is a history of information design.

My COSMOS section included a range of objects from an 1880s Browning spectroscope (on loan from the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford) to one of the first photon counting devices sent up a hundred years later on the Hubble Space Telescope (on loan from Alec Boksenberg and the Institute of Astronomy).  Images included a photograph of the ‘Harvard Computers’ — an extraordinary group of women mathematicians who effected many of the photographic plate measurements, calculations and classifications of stars and their spectra at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries — and a magisterial diagram of the evolution of the cosmos from The Book of Dust (1989) by the artist Agnes Denes.

Below you will find three ‘photo-focused’ references from my COSMOS section of the exhibition.  The rest of the show, containing over 350 objects and images, was as rich and info-packed as the COSMOS section, but — sadly — there was no catalogue.


COSMOS:  Light, medium and message

Locating our world in the universe means decoding information conveyed to us by the laws of physics before we can formulate anything resembling a map. Light itself is both organising principle and transportation vehicle for data about the composition and history of the cosmos.

Light travels as packets of particles called photons in waves at a constant speed: these key facts help us unlock the mass of facts organised in light’s complex structure and behaviour. From this ultimate ‘medium’, astrophysicists can extract timelines of development from the big bang, the evolution of atomic elements, galactic maps, and more.


Full Solar Spectrum

Solar spectrum showing the absorption lines which mark the presence of individual atomic elements in the sun’s composition. NOAO/AURA  1984  (National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science Foundation/Tucson Arizona)

Getting the information out of something often involves breaking it down into component parts. Light is no exception: the prism in a spectroscope bends visible light to show an orderly rainbow of colours. Without the spectrum colour-coding would not exist.

In 1814, Joseph Fraunhofer detailed dark lines appearing apparently at random in the sun’s spectrum. The startling accuracy of his diagram gave birth to astrophysics: others later proved the lines to be markers — a map — showing the various atomic elements of which the sun is composed. Spectroscopy techniques now extend far beyond the limited lightwaves visible to the eye.


Southern Sky Survey showing Orion and its immediate region. UK Schmidt Telescope Unit of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh for the UK Science and Engineering Research Council and European Space Observatory, 1985 -1999  [The full ESO/SERC Southern Sky Survey in several wavelengths contains 1,956 fields]  Thanks to Dr Mike Irwin, Director: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit, Institute of Astronomy/Cambridge.

Taking pictures of the sky through telescopes began with photography itself and originally was limited to plates of particularly ‘interesting objects.’ This evolved into the All Sky Survey: the whole visible sky is divided into a vast image-grid. Astronomers measured and analysed varying intensities of the recorded light and distances between stars.

By the 1980s scanners were systematically used to extract information from these pictures. Each plate generates hundreds of thousands of digits of raw numerical data. Long before a ‘pretty picture’ of a new astronomical discovery appears in a newspaper, an elaborate processing of data received from space missions has occurred.


The “Harvard Computers” including Annie Jump Cannon, and the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Edward Charles Pickering, 1912  (Harvard University/Cambridge Massachusetts)

In the early 20th Century, many of the photographic plate measurements, calculations and classifications of stars and their spectra were done by an extraordinary group of women mathematicians known as the “Harvard Computers” decades before the computer as we know it was even conceived.

The patterns they saw emerging from the sea of information they were hired to handle have become fundamental to the mathematics of data mining in current astrophysics. The work of these ‘information designers’ 100 years ago contributes structurally to how we model the evolution of the cosmos today.



You Are Here: The Design of Information was reviewed by the Guardian, EYE Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. (Press Release from the Design Museum.)

Further Links:  Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames; Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge; Agnes Denes

[Image References: Periodic Tables of the Elements; Solar Spectrum, NOAO/AURA; Orion, ESO/SERC Southern Sky Survey; Harvard Computers, Harvard University; views of You Are Here by Rose English and by Jonathan Hares, one of the exhibition’s designers

NESTA Fellowship

Fellow, National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (2004 to 2007)


Three year Senior Fellowship awarded by closed nomination for research exploring observational practice across scientific disciplines — astronomy, particle physics, spectroscopy, ophthalmology — and identifying potential methodological alignments between these practices and artistic practices.

The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts was set up through an endowment from the UK National Lottery in 1998, and has been through several ideological and corporate incarnations.  In the beginning under Jeremy Newton, and through the time that I was a Fellow, it was clearly focused on nurturing UK creativity across the arts, sciences, design and technology — its brand was ‘creative investor’.

The complex application procedure began with a closed nomination: my name had been put forward to them by a senior advisor, which meant that I received a call from NESTA inviting me to apply for a Fellowship. Following that, there were two sets of interviews at NESTA, a formal written application with a research plan and budget for three years’ work, letters from three referees, and an external evaluation interview — with Jim Al-Kahlili.

My main activities included a residency period of over a year at the Institute of Astronomy of Cambridge University.  This was both formative and productive, and led to my curating the COSMOS section of James Peto’s exhibition You Are Here: The Design of Information at the Design Museum.  I was also able to formulate a brief history of plate-measuring and scanning machines in astrophysics — Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime — which became a contribution to the History of Scientific Observation project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Of course, the overarching common interest between astronomers and artists is light: and I learned how much more to light there is than the visible spectrum, as well as the co-extensiveness of light with all other matter by dint of its particulate nature. The fact that it is possible to ascertain the elementary makeup of matter by measuring its radiation — often light itself — is profoundly exciting. Spectroscopy is one of the techniques I explored during this period.

Researchers at the IoA and also at the Cavendish Laboratory across the Madingley Road were generous with their time, and I received both formal and informal mentoring from Dr Robin Catchpole and Dr Jon Zwart.  The Institute’s Librarian, Mark Hurn, shared his history of astronomy knowledge and more, and I attended conferences and classes as an observer. Professors Craig McKay and Alexander Boksenberg, alongside Dr Mike Irwin, were especially helpful in illuminating the links — both theoretical and technological — between photons and data sets, via detectors and photomultipliers.

Understanding how data is collected is one thing; grasping how it is analysed is another.  The evolution of mathematical understanding from probability and statistics to computed algorithms is also a move from human to computer calculations.  I was lucky enough to have Professor Marcus du Sautoy as a maths mentor during my Fellowship, and my comprehension of mathematical concepts has been greatly increased.  Sadly, the ability to actually apply any of these concepts to sets of numbers, or express them mathematically rather than in words, is still lacking.

I became captivated by the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine, an instrument which Mike Irwin had spent most of his career cajoling into creating vast accurate numerical representations of the near universe.  The APM, now decommissioned, existed to scan All-Sky-Survey photographs in the interregnum before all astronomical data came routinely from particle detectors.  It is essentially the history of this unique machine — designed in the 1970s by Ed Kibblewhite — that I outlined in Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime.

Not all those astrophysical particle detectors are out in the sky on satellite telescopes, either. Several are deep underground, where the mantle of the earth protects them from interference.  One such instrument is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which I visited in the framework of my NESTA Fellowship in March of 2006. It was a complex period for SNO; they were in the middle of a major building programme above ground, and were planning a second phase of experiments for the huge instrument, SNO+ — a phase that was at that time not assured of funding. It is one of the most important astrophysics instruments ever created, and I was very honoured to be so well received at such a critical moment.



The perfect little model you see here is of the heavy-water Cherenkov detector that is the core of the facility. The real thing is so big it requires a cavity in the rock the size of a ten story building, and it is installed two kilometers below the surface.  They carefully prepared me for the trip down the mineshaft and into the observatory; I was so excited that I hardly noticed the fear. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever willingly done.

I was also given a tour of the new research building being constructed to replace the series of sheds and portacabins that had housed the project’s researchers from the beginning. I was able to return in some small way the knowledge exchange by advising Director of Operations Dr Fraser Duncan with a list of the material culture items that it would be advisable to preserve and exhibit in the new building’s ‘trophy case’ once the move was complete.  It is so often the case in these moves that things get thrown out that in 30 years’ time would be vital clues to an historian — or indeed to a later astrophysicist. The smallest thing on my list was a mousetrap, and the largest was the iconic silver workshop formed from an old railway car: Shed P31. The history of physics is littered with sheds and their mousetraps, and it’s a history that remains to be told.



Some of the most important and productive areas of creativity are those which overlap between NESTA’s areas of arts, sciences and technology. This can be the case in the practice of individuals as well as in the practice of teams. Though the research and projects that I effected during the Fellowship were mainly self-directed, they intersected with a range of team-based institutions.

A big plus to being a NESTA Fellow for me was the opportunity to meet and exchange with colleagues working in science fields that were new to me. The Science Crucible Laboratories organised by Nicola Turner and later by Alan Morton — whom I had first met whilst working at the Science Museum — are a case in point. Groups of early-career researchers and those interested in interdisciplinary work and science communication were awarded for a year-long period that included regular meetings and mentoring.

On some of those occasions, other NESTA awardees were invited to be part of weekend retreats.  I spoke to the 2005 Crucible Meeting at Dartington College of Arts, alongside Mark Miodownik of the Materials Library, on the subject of Creativity. Among many other things I spoke about, I outlined the friendship that sprang up in 1950s Berkeley between the great American composer Harry Partch and the physicist Lauriston C Marshall, then Director of High Voltage Engineering at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory:

These two different men saw something in each other that was about the fundamentals of waves and resonance. Larry learned to play Harry’s instruments and was one of the few who understood the mathematical underpinnings of his ‘just intonation’ and the physics behind his music theory. In 1950 they applied jointly and successfully for a Guggenheim grant to develop an electronic organ. In a short two years a great body of work was produced by this pair, ranging from musical compositions to early software and even shared MSc students: William Max Muller’s successful thesis was entitled “A Cathode Ray Tube Harmonic Generator for Musical Tone Production” — Glass and Gas!


At the latter end of my Fellowship, I returned to questions of the visible light spectrum, and had a closer look at ophthalmology with a view to understanding the physiology behind phenomenological experiences of light. NESTA’s Alan Morton arranged for several Fellows to spend the day at the UCL/Wellcome Institute of Ophthalmology with Professor Fred Fitzke.  I was also mentored by optometrist Andrew Field.

I became interested in the possibility of the reuse and repurposing of ophthalmological examination instruments and astronomical observation instruments — both optical and particle detection. The great advantage to having a period of time on such a research Fellowship is that hunches and interests become focused into frameworks for study and, ultimately, long-term projects.  As I wrote in 2005:

One sphere is the finite laws of physics which govern light, another sphere is the finite physiology of seeing — receiving light — and a third intersecting sphere in this Venn diagram would be the manmade instruments which manipulate light. I believe that somewhere in the intersection of these three spheres is a core of consciousness, and I also believe that we need as many phenomenologists as we do neurologists to explore this issue. We need as many artists as we need physicists. We need historians and we need historiographers. In short, we need to forge whole new methodologies.

Looking Back Towards the Light: An Artist in the Observatory, lecture delivered University of Oxford, University of Copenhagen, University of Calgary (2005)



Further Links: NESTA; Institute of Astronomy; Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; UCL/Wellcome Institute of Ophthalmology

[Image References: Institute of Astronomy Coradi Plate Measuring Table, in the shadow of Isaac Newton; Model of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory instrument showing the disposition of photomultipliers; Shed P31 workshop from Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; NESTA Fellows away-day meeting in 2006 at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, with l-r the then Director Michael Harrison, Brian Duffy (legs only!), Allan McRobie, Tom Shakespeare, Jane Prophet, Lise Autogena and Alan Morton]

Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust

Founding Trustee, Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust for Art and Science (2000 to 2003)


My governance experience of this art-science educational trust extended to the creation of a lecture series portfolio for our partnership with the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This built on the annual lectures which we had already been running — roundtable and keynote presentations on art and science. The Rosen Trust hosted a variety of events at the RI including speakers such as Carl Djerassi, Howard Hodgkin, Richard Gregory, Sander Gilman, Steve Baker, Brenda Maddox, Claire Tomalin, Dan Fern and others. Subjects included music and mathematics, epidemiology and representation, human-animal relations, scientific biography, colour and more.

I was invited by Dennis Rosen’s children to be a founding Trustee of this small but dynamic Trust, alongside Professor Sir Eric Ash, Professor Lisa Jardine, and Professor Richard Kitney.  As the only artist in this illustrious group, it was my pleasure to art direct the Trust brand, and I worked with graphic designer Michael Martin of Oblique Design to create stationery and a logo for the Trust.  I based this on a series of roundelles that featured in the artist’s website I had created for the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, entitled Rain of Atoms. Of course, there is rather more to good governance than good design, and my experience with artist-run centres and on editorial boards in Canada prior to moving to the UK stood me in good stead.

From the Trust’s website:

Dennis Rosen was a scientist who took the trouble to be a well-rounded man. A biophysicist who specialised during the latter stages of his career in pattern recognition, he was as curious about the application of this technique in science and medicine as in fine art and painting. His love of theatre, music and history were deep-rooted parts of his life that supplemented his scientific activities.

I had first heard of Dennis Rosen when I bought the book he co-authored with his wife, Sylvia, entitled London Science: Museums, Libraries and Places of Scientific, Technological and Medical Interest (1994).  Of course, I had already visited a number of the repositories they listed, but it was an important guide for me when I first moved to the UK shortly after it was published.  Though slightly out of date now — mainly for all the right reasons that many of the collections it describes are now more publicly acccessible — it is still a very insightful and helpful volume.


Further Links:  The Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust