Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Time and the Aquarium

I should probably preface this by saying that I am not high, nor is anyone painting, gluing or doing anything else with fumes in my vicinity. That being said...

The other night, I was thinking about time- a normal activity for an astro-filmmaker (especially one who just had to shove a whole story into a single minute of video). I think it's fascinating that we don't really know anything about time, yet it seems to have always been a part of our reality. It's so intangible, yet integral to science, philosophy, art, and life in general. How do you measure it, really? Every form of measurement is pretty arbitrary- every "standard" having been created by humans for convenience more than anything else.

Still, we know it exists. We feel it pass, sometimes painfully, sometimes fleetingly. It seems to be our measurement of reality (manipulation of time being a common way to imply altered states in film and music).

What the heck is it?

I was thinking about all of this while watching my aquatic roommates float in the current of their aquarium. Do they know that a mechanical pump is making this current? Do they even understand what a current is? For them, it is just something that happens- they know it innately from Nature.

I began thinking about fish in the sea. When the current is turbulent, do they understand that it is because there is a giant hurricane blowing over the water and changing the pressure? How could they? It would blow their little fishy minds to see that giant spinning cloud! ("And why," they might imagine, "does such a thing exist at all?") They don't even see that side of reality, except through a shimmering, blurry lens. All they know is the water.

I feel that we live in a similar reality when it comes to time. Time drives our "currents" (oh yes, pun entirely intended), creating pockets of turbulence and calm. What if we are like fish- unaware of enormous vortices of time that drive us while we swim in our sea of "reality." Almost everyone has experienced deja-vu or even "missing time-" phenomena that challenge the "linear time" reality that we know best.

And are there the "dolphins" of our world who can exist in both worlds (albeit temporarily)? Dolphins use the "mysteries of the world above the water" to ensnare their prey. They blow circles of "bubble nets" around schools of fish. The fish, afraid to pass through the strange shiny bubbles, school together while the clever dolphins take turns picking them off.
(Actually, dolphins love playing with "air reality" in water. For more info, see this article from Scientific American. They seem to be very good at manipulating it!)

I think there are dolphins amogst us. Many people throughout history have claimed to have manipulated time in some way or another. There was also Einstein, who presented the concept of time dilation in his relativity theories (time dilation was later proven). Some of the brightest minds have imagined (and even proven mathematically) some strange time realities- like those involving black holes and wormholes.

And then there are us filmmakers. Some of us just like playing with time. I've never met an experimental filmmaker who hasn't liked playing with slow motion, high-speed, or reversed action!
For the dolphin in all of us- keep blowing those bubbles!

Monday, August 14, 2006

One Big Happy Family

Just a quick update:

My neighbor told us that the baby deer were down the street, so we went on a walk to see how they were doing. Not only are they fine (one is quite a bit bigger than the other now), but their mother was there too! Although I am still sad for the deer that was hit, I am relieved that it wasn't her. I was so happy to see her there, nuzzling the necks of the little ones!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Touching the Stars (Without Leaving My Seat)

I have been researching the Harvard Computers for a while now.

Never heard of them?

I'm not talking about Dell or Mac, I'm talking about Fleming, Maury, Leavitt, Cannon (and that's Annie Jump Cannon, not the imaging company), and later, Payne-Gaposchkin. I'm talking about people. Women, to be precise:

The notion that women "suck at Math" is relatively new. Around the turn of the 20th Century, women were sought out by the director of the Harvard observatory for their mathematical abilities, their attention to detail, and, of course, their relative exploitability. They didn't seem to mind the tediousness of their work, and most of them had no aspirations to do their own research- a job in astronomy was glory enough. Interestingly, though, many of them still managed to make some extremely profound discoveries.

Henrietta Leavitt, for example, tracked variable stars (specifically, Cepheid variables) in the Magellanic Clouds. She discovered a curious pattern- the period of the variable star was related to its brightness. Brighter variables had longer periods and vice versa. She published her findings in the Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College. She continued to study this phenomenon until it could be confirmed that there was, in fact, a direct relationship between the two. This discovery became one of the most important "yardsticks" in astronomy. If you can monitor the period of a star, and based on this relationship, determine its true magnitude, you can calculate (based on how bright it appears here on Earth), its distance. These findings were used to prove that the Magellanic clouds and Andromeda, then thought to be nebulae, were actually distant galaxies and not part of the Milky Way!

Cecila Payne-Gaposchkin was the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard (that's right: first person, not just woman, to get a Ph.D. in astronomy, though she would later go on to become the first female professor there). Her work as a computer was a little more comparable to the kind of work the average graduate student would do (and she had to fight for that). She studied stellar spectra. She was able to (accurately) apply ionization theory to the spectra of stars and relate their spectral classes to their actual temperatures- effectively establishing that Hydrogen was the most abundant element in all stars (before this, it was thought that different spectral classes indicated a presence of different elements- a bit too much to explain here).

If I went on to list all of the important achievements and discoveries made by these women, this post would be too long!

I find it interesting that while I am studying these women, I have become a "computer" myself! Right now, I am using a virtual microscope to search for interstellar dust grains that might be hidden in 40 to 100 out of 1.6 million movies! The project is called Stardust@home. It involves the sharing of millions of images with the general public to help scientists find interstellar dust particles- the largest of which may only be a few microns across. These are the remains of distant stars that have traveled across the expanse of space to our solar system.

The Stardust spacecraft flew through the tail of a comet and then through a stream of interstellar dust particles, collecting bits of comet dust and star dust in tennis racquet-shaped aerogel collectors. Aerogel is some pretty cool stuff. Below, a sample weighing a little over two grams suspends a five pound brick (from wikipedia and NASA):

This is an image of the collector from the Stardust@home web site (note the hand on the left of the image for size comparison):

It's not for everyone. There is a test that you must take and you are frequently presented with "test movies" to keep you on your toes. I've gone through hundreds already, but there are a few folks who have already gone through thousands! Like I said, there will be only 40 to 100 grains in the 1.6 million "slices" of aerogel.

Who better than a filmmaker to determine whether an imperfection is a scratch on the surface of the aerogel, regular "Earth dust" on the surface or something embedded a little...deeper. Furthermore, a woman with a tedious receptionist "day" job (ahem) is all too happy to give some of her time to stardust hunting! Without the help of thousands of people like us, it would take them about twenty years to go through the whole thing! I'm not sure if they are still accepting volunteers at this point, but if you have a keen eye for detail, they need you! Click on the link above to learn more.

So far, I have detected about a dozen candidates, though we won't find out for a while if they are dust particles or not.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

(Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon) Liquid Crystal Films

I debated over what I was going to write about for this blog-a-thon (organized by girish). A friend of mine told me that she thought some people might want to know the science behind my liquid crystal films, so here we go:

My work is made using a technique known as cross-polarization. This technique utilizes two Polaroid filters which are placed at right angles to one another. Under normal conditions, this blocks out most light.


Most light waves, seen head on, propagate in all directions; up and down, side to side, etc. Polaroid filters work as "prison bars," blocking out all light except that which is propagating in the direction of the alignment of the "bars." This is called polarization. Incidentally, this happens when light is reflected, as well (this is why your polarizing sunglasses block out "road glare" which is reflected, polarized light).

By placing a horizontally aligned Polaroid filter in front of a filter that is vertically aligned, one can create a sort of "light prison" trapping all light between the two filters. To visualize this, see the diagrams below:

When both "jail bars" are aligned vertically, a vertically vibrating light wave can make it through both sets of "bars," while all other vibrations are blocked.

When a horizontally aligned set of "jail bars" are placed in front of vertically aligned "jail bars," the vertically vibrating light wave that makes it through the first set of "bars" will be blocked by the second set, preventing the light from "escaping" from its prison!

Artists are often required to bend the rules. I bend the light waves, liberating them from their polarized prisons!


By using liquid crystals, of course! Liquid crystals and some other materials display a property called birefringence (double-refracting or light-bending) Liquid crystals are materials that are not quite solid and not quite liquid (despite what we are taught in school, there are more than three phases of matter).

Using these "double refracting" materials, I can selectively bend the vertically aligned light waves that make it through the first set of "bars" so that they are vibrating in a horizontal direction and can pass through the horizontal "bars!" Through experimentation and study, I can choose my pallet by choosing the materials I use, the severity of a bend, the harshness of a twist, or the depth of a scratch. In effect, instead of painting with different colors of pigment, I'm painting with different wavelengths (colors) of light waves.

"Enough, chatter, egghead! Show us the results!"

Fair enough:

Stills from "The Light Touch Dust Nebula" and "Callisto"

From "The Light Touch Dust Nebula"

From "Callisto"

In these films, I used temperature sensitive (thermotropic) liquid crystal paints (available through Edmund Scientific at a reasonable price). This is the stuff that makes mood rings and those rainbow thermometers work. To obtain different colors in "Light Touch," I blew on the paints (and nearly passed out). For "Callisto" I decided to use an air blower and the evaporative effects of rubbing alcohol (much better).

Stills from "Europa"

This made a HUGE mess! The liquid crystal at play here is soap, which doesn't like to stay in one place for too long! Soap is a lyotropic liquid crystal (changes based on its concentration)

Stills from "The Counter Girl Trilogy"

I unveil my newest films!

From "Snake Oil"

From "Anti-Rides"

From "GWP (Gift With Purchase)"

This is a very special little trilogy for me. This film features three different shades of lip gloss that I got from my job as a makeup counter attendant. This particualr liquid crystal...(drum roll)...cholesterol! Can you imagine using that as a selling point? "Ooh! You'll love our new lip gloss! It contains green tea extract, Vitamin-C and a suspension of thermotropic cholesterol in its chiral nematic phase!" Which, I guess, quite a few of the cosmetics companies employ (click here)!

I have worn it, and yes, it does taste "greasy." Here is its "before" picture (this was the shade I used in "Anti-Rides"):

You can see how nicely it refracts the light...

The images in "GWP" show what this liquid crystalline material looks like when simply lit from above. In "Snake Oil" and "Anti-Rides" the material is cross-polarized to even further isolate and exploit the colors.

If you would like to see more examples, please click on this link to my site (or click on the film image to the right).

Little MissMatched Socks

Begin shameless self promotion...

So, I found this quirky little company that was holding a film competition:

LittleMissMatched Socks

The deal is: make a video one minute or less in length and use two of their mis-matched socks at some point in the video. If your video gets the most votes between August 2nd-16th, you win their first place prize: $1,000!

That happens to be just about enough to cover the costs of getting prints of my films made and putting them in distribution, so I figured I would go for it (plus, it seems like a good enough company)...

Now today is August 2nd, so I'm trying to get the word out. Check their web site out and watch the movies. I am hoping that you might like mine best ("I Was Left (You may be right)" is the title and my real name is Courtney Hoskins) and give me a vote, but vote for someone, at least (there's something in it for you, too)! My bestest buddy Carl Fuermann has a film ("Sockadoo") there too. I'd be thrilled if he won, as well!

End shameless self promotion...