“Uncertainty”, an exhibition review


Black (W)hole, The Einstein Collective. Photo by Sheila Pinkel

Black (W)hole, The Einstein Collective. Photo by Sheila Pinkel

The exhibition “Uncertainty,” October _ – February _ 2017, curated by Stephen Nowlin at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, is a precisely and economically curated collection of art/science works that interrogate the concept of ‘knowing.’

Each exhibit is carefully configured to clearly make visible the ideas of each participant: a wall sized video projection at the entrance of the exhibition by Thomas McCauley of a representation of the Higgs Boson collision event; four large paintings that are sublime symbolic representations of biological energy systems and notebooks of the art/mathematics team Owen Schuh/Satyan Devadoss that produced them; Donald A. Glaser’s stunning photographs of bubble chambers revealing the path of sub-atomic particles (which yielded him a Nobel prize at the age of 34) and his notebooks; a room filled with Richard Feynman’s symbolic language for sub-atomic particles as manifested as sculpture elements and a processed photograph by Edward Tufte; a gigantic wall work by Jonathan Corum with dozens of examples of exoplanets as revealed by the Kepler Space Telescope; fascinating works by Jim Campbell which explore the boundary between information and noise for human beings; the marvelous floor and wall projections reflecting the mathematics and imagined morphing of black holes done by The Einstein Collective, Sarah Mast, Jessica Jellison, Christopher O’Leary, Cindy Stillwell, Jason Bolte, Charles Kankelborg, Nico Yunes, Joey Shapiro Key; Lia Halloran’s magnificent drawing and photographic transformations of the renderings of the eighteenth century French astronomer Charles Messier; and a marvelous wunderkammern by artist Marc Fichou in which scientific and spiritual forms from diverse cultures throughout time are assembled on large boards adjacent to desks filled with working papers suggesting the creative process itself. In front of ArtCenter College of Design is the van on which Feynman painted some of the symbols he invented of sub atomic particles reflecting his playfulness and delight in connecting ideas from theoretic physics with the temporal world.

The floor plan of the exhibition itself is a quasi labyrinth fluidly leading the viewer from one space to the next, inviting an intuitive experience of discovery.  The works of each artist are carefully juxtaposed to maximize their differences in terms of the macro and micro of time and space. For instance, a room filled with Tufte’s representation of Feynman’s language symbolizing the microcosm of sub-atomic particles is next to a room with a huge wall filled with the macrocosmic images of Jonathan Corum. This juxtaposition invites the viewer to rapidly experience these micro and macro landscapes and in the process move beyond the linear and expand into the grandeur that these imagined worlds suggest.

The exhibition does seem to be about the quest for knowing itself. The first work inside the catalogue is a montage made from images by each person in the show that becomes solid black in the center, the one pigment color made of all colors in the visible spectrum, an apt metaphor for the exhibition. As Nowlin writes in his catalogue essay, “In the seeker’s world, uncertainty is not its stereotypical composite of timidity, equivocation, and threat, nor is it license to fill the void with gods leaping the gap. It’s simply where we place a temporary ‘end of road-construction’ sign on the perpetually grand and noble journey.” The essay “The Trouble with Quantum Mechanics” by Steven Weinberg published in the January 15, 2017 New York Review of Books identifies the difficulties contemporary theoretical physicists are having with the current construct of quantum mechanics, a perfect example of Nowlin’s statement. Weinberg begins his essay with the following quote: “Regarding the future of quantum mechanics, I have to echo Viola in Twelfth Night: “O time, thou must untangle this, not I.”

The exhibition suggests more questions than answers, fulfilling the curator’s concept of destabilization as a vehicle for discovery. For instance, Nowlin has assembled works by acclaimed artists and scientists and in so doing destabilizes this binary, inviting the question of what distinguishes artistic and scientific exploration.

Another question suggested by this exhibition is to what extent is scientific knowledge subjective or objective? Is everything understood about the physical world ‘a temporary ‘end of road-construction’ sign as Nowlin suggests in his essay or are there some things we know about the world that are enduring? For instance, will Sir Isaac Newton’s equations about planetary motion and gravitational force survive the test of time?

Nowlin provides limited wall explication of the works, forcing viewers to grapple with interpreting the works based on their own perceptions and cognition. Does this add to a more intuitive experience of the works or detract from enabling the viewer to comprehend the works? He does include links to additional information about each participant on the exhibition website should viewers want to learn more.

Cartography of Tree Space, Owen schuh and Satyan Devadoss

Cartography of Tree Space, Owen schuh and Satyan Devadoss. Photo by Sheila Pinkel

Questions specific to some of the works are: what function does the shadows in Tufte’s sculptural recreations of Feynman’s Diagrams have besides Tufte’s aesthetic addition to Feynman’s language? Why are the shadows important enough for Tufte to include their representation in a two-dimensional work of these same figures? Also, does it matter that physicists familiar with Feynman’s images read them for their scientific meaning while the rest of us see only beautiful morphing forms?

How do titles of works affect their reading? For instance, the titles of the paintings of Owen Schuh based on the mathematics of Satyan Devadoss, such as Cartography of Tree Space (Woven), suggest that they are inspired by mathematics of biomorphic phenomena. However, without these titles, these works seem to have more in common with intersecting Islamic designs or continuous Celtic patterning or even field paintings or modernist works done by artists in the 1960s. Is it relevant that these similarities are suggested when the inspiration for the Schuh/Satyan paintings come from such a different origin?

Linear understanding seems less the goal of this exhibition than an experience of the marvelous that each artist/scientist has accomplished in his/her work. In this regard, then, the show is an experience of the macro and micro and everything in between exhibited economically for maximum effect. This exhibition is a cumulative poem of possibilities for the human mind to imagine the unimaginable and an example of art/science at its very finest.

Additional information about the exhibition can be found at:


Sheila Pinkel
Emerita Professor of Art, Pomona College
International Editor of Leonardo
Leonardo Abstract Services English Language Coordinator


Reimagining Leonardo



Dazzling FireBall: Space Junk, UFO or AI Swarm distribution coverup


While we were in residence at Scientific Delirium Madness a large fireball was seen in the sky over Palo Alto. Actually it was seen from San Francisco down to Los Angeles at the same time and it made it to Nevada and Utah before breaking up. The standard news took a few days to debate what the slow, glowing, giant comet-mass was. Delta Aquarid Perseid Meteor Shower ice ball? Flaming commercial airliner death ball? Off track or off map space junk?

Two days afterwards, Jonathan McDowell, astronomer of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics tweeted, “Observation reports from Utah indicate the second stage from the first Chang Zheng 7 rocket, launched Jun 25, reentered at 0440 UTC.” So, officially we have an identified flying object, synopsis… Chinese space junk. It was 36 feet long, 10 cubic meters, about the size of a school bus. Yes it was a big mofo. It scared lots of folx into thinking it was armageddon, a missile attack or an alien invasion. Capt. Nick Mercurio from Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenburg Air Force Base, said “Given the size of the rocket body, some pieces of it may have survived re-entry but it’s unlikely it posed any threat to people.”

I can tell you that there was some curious followings along the trajectory of our CZ-7 Rocket booster flame out. The skies had f-19s scrambling the first day and copters with surface to air missiles the second day. They seemed to be tracking the path of the Chinese space manufacturing drizzle. Perhaps looking for covert pico-cricket robot swarms, Zika glossolaia attenuators, silicon eating 味噌 tauco 豆醬 fungal strains or rapid prototyping AI bunker camoCNC Router malevolent machine superintelligence (see http://leonardo.info/blogs/djerassi-field-notes-asa-calow/ ).

Be aware that being from Woodstock NY allows for conspiracy theory to be wide and far fetched. When presented with a school bus sized surprise space junk sky show, it is not the worst independent maneuver to free associate worst case scenarios… international subversions, government cover-ups, even wildhair, keef brained kook theory. In my humble opinion 60% of X-files style panic nutball theory turns out to be closer to the actual than baseline liar-liar mass media CNNFOX whitewash.

Track yourself as space junk:


Djerassi Field Notes



A view from the trail

Over the past month (July 2016) I’ve been a resident in the Djerassi “Scientific Delirium, Madness” art-science programme, taking time out from MadLab to explore new intellectual territories – something which feeds directly into my role as a research director at the newly formed Institute of Unknown Purpose. What follows are some of the ideas which have thus far emerged…

Anthropomorph. An initial foray into creating a machine intelligence. It’s a non-sentient AI, attempting to theorize about its future sentient self.

You can view its output here.

Based on Andrej Karpathy’s excellent char-rnn but rebuilt using Google’s Tensorflow deep learning framework, it’s a 2-layer LSTM (“long short term memory”) deep learning network, which has been trained on The Bostrom (see below), along with some choice cuts from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

Anthropomorph Output

Roko’s Basilisk. A thought experiment, first encountered on the lesswrong forum. Those made aware of the concept* are compelled to dedicate their lives to the building of  ta malevolent machine superintelligence, in case a future instance of said AI comes back and punishes those who didn’t sufficiently assist in bringing it into being. Dismissed as logically inconsistent (and a potential future infohazard) by forum moderator Eliezer Yudkowsky and subsequently deleted, the basilisk has since entered internet myth thanks to the Streisand effect.

Having been rescued from anonymity, the idea is so delightfully villainous that it bears further exploration. Mix in a bit of Bond and you’ve got yourself a new shadowy organisation dedicated to evil – BASILISK – complete with secret urban HQ and footsoldiers in jumpsuits.

* Which now includes you

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. A book, released in 2014 by Oxford University Professor of Philosophy (and transhumanist) Nick Bostrom. It’s a thing of beauty, a logically self-consistent and beautifully argued treatise on what might happen if/when we bring a machine superintelligence into being. Regardless of which side of the “never going to happen”, or “my god we’re either all going to die, or the machine is going to lift us up into the universe” argument you sit on, it’s all kinds of beautiful.

The Bostrom has professed a disinterest in science fiction (and therefore presumably any cultural output involving the creative misuse of his ideas), so it is left to us to dismantle and recreate in his wake: Mind Crime! The Cosmic Endowment! Hedonium! So much good stuff.

Superintelligence Cover

On a less theoretical note, many of the arguments laid out in the book are compelling a number of people in positions of influence to invest in things like OpenAIVicarious and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. Adherents to the “let’s work on this lest we all die” school of thought include Professor Stephen Hawking, Stanford’s Stuart Russell, Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

These are clever people, so future death-dealing algorithms might be a thing?

“Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”

- Stephen Hawking, “Transcending Complacency on Machine Superintelligence”, April 2014

The Preserving Machine. Discovered after finding that one of my favourite music blogs, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, is similarly obsessed with The Bostrom. One of Philip K Dick’s earliest stories, in which the protagonist converts classical music into new animal species before releasing them into the wild. There they mate, fight, and mutate – developing spines, pincers, and mandibles in the process. At the end of the story, the animals are converted back into music, which has since become a dissonant howl.

That whole audio -> species -> audio interface would be a perfect fit for one of those seq-to-seq AI algorithms.

Deep Learning. The new hotness in the world of machine learning and it’s easy to see why. Layers of interconnected neural networks, running on superfast graphics hardware, turn out to be super great at figuring out patterns in data in a more human way – learning how to drive cars, make sense of speech, pick out objects in photos, that sort of thing.

Convolutional neural networks (for learning patterns in data, e.g. pictures with kittens in); recurrent neural networks (for series data, e.g. words in a sentence); “long short-term memory”; attention networks (augmented neural nets, with additional data which tells them where to look, e.g. Show, Attend and Tell image captioning); ImageNet; Char-RNN (RNN/LSTM-based text generator, cf. Anthropomorph); Inceptionism; Generative Adversial Nets. Sooo much good stuff, and the field is advancing at an incredible rate.

Magenta. A project from the Google Brain team, to produce new art and music via deep learning. The initial release takes MIDI as an input, generating new MIDI in the same style as an output. It sounds like this:

(Trained on James Brown “Sex Machine”, Celine Dion “My Heart Will Go On (Techno Remix”, Hanson “Mmm Bop”, and Ace of Bass “All That She Wants”. Resulting output dropped into Garageband and set to the Hip Hop rhythm).

Context. Something that AI algorithms have typically been terrible at. Computers have basically nailed the Turing test, because us weakling humans are so gullible. One of the latest challenges however involves something called the Winograd Schema. Consider the sentence “When the police baton-charged the protesters, they feared for their lives”. Who are they in this context? Algoriddle me that!

Existential Risk. Mechagodzilla. The brotherhood of immortal eugenicists. See also Superintelligence, above.

Existential Risk

Existential Risk, as represented in the Djerassi VHS collection.

Friendly AI. Or FAI. What you get once you’ve brought a machine superintelligence into being, and solved the control problem of the indiscriminate killing. What people like MIRI and Vicarious are working on. Arriving some time around 2040, experts say. Let’s face it, this would be pretty cool.

Friendly Neighbourhood AI. A failed early prototyping experiment, with the intention of creating a quasi-breezy machine bartender intelligence. (Every episode of Cheers is not enough training data.)

Status: needs more work, but the vision is there. Imagine walking into a bar and being greeted with a “Hey Bob, great job at work today! Here’s that drink you like.” despite having never been there before. Excellent PR for robots.

Miscellaneous deliria:

  • The Interval. The Long Now Foundation has its own bar! The sign of a civilised research institution. Very much enjoying the library containing books required to help rebuild humanity in the event of a catastrophic near miss. They’ve missed a couple of things though, maybe the IoUP should host a companion library in its art-science speakeasy?

  • “Take up arms for the cosmic endowment!” A transhumanist rally-cry. (Or, “Give alms…”, for the less war-like).

  • Re-extinction. Kill the last of its kind! Again!

  • The Clandestine Communicator. It’s a phone with no screen or dialling mechanism, just a single button which puts you through to The Society’s switchboard. Sshh! They know where you live.

  • “The flight of the centi-sperm”. That’s week two at Djerassi right there.

  • Institute Rule #137: No Disco Drinks in the Lab

About me: I’m a technologist, lapsed mathematician, and director of MadLab in Manchester UK – a community space for science, technology and art.

About The Institute of Unknown Purpose: The IoUP is a new kind of public scientific institution, founded as a collaboration between Professor James Crutchfield (UC Davis) and myself. It is intended to serve – in Willhelm Gottfried Liebniz’s words – as “a means of perfection for arts and sciences”; a centre for the narrowly improbable.

Thanks and acknowledgements must go to the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative for their generous support of both my place on the Djerassi residency, and the seed grant funding which has allowed the Institute of Unknown Purpose to get started!

Uranus’ Castrated Penis: centiSperm Glazed Ceramic Sculpture


centiSperm Glazed Ceramic tribute to Robert Arneson and the NorCal Funk Artists

centiSperm Glazed Ceramic tribute to Robert Arneson and the NorCal Funk Artists

The centiSperm was applied to Uranus’ Castrated Penis as a glaze. The sculpture fired well. The centisperm effect is basically un-perceptible. Yet, there is a pearly sheen to the penis of Uranus. Certainly, the ritual process of anointing the lingam, even the lingam forcibly removed, is of discerning taste. Here are some pictures of Uranus’ Castrated Penis. This sculpture is a tribute to Robert Arneson (a former teacher) and the NorCal Funk Artists.

tribute to Robert Arneson and the NorCal Funk Artists

tribute to Robert Arneson and the NorCal Funk Artists