Scientists using famous paintings to open doors to their minds, inviting us in: part 2

Douanier football game on slide

 

Dr. Josef Penninger at ideacity05 in Toronto with, above: Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Football Players’ (1908); a ‘genetically modified’ fruit fly with human teeth. Below: lovestruck fruit flies with Rousseau’s Eve (1904); Frido Kahlo’s ‘The Two Fridas,’ fronting for ACE2, the protein molecule subverted by the SARS virus. -- Slides by Barry Dickson in screen shots by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Dr. Josef Penninger at ideacity05 in Toronto with, above: Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Football Players’ (1908); a ‘genetically modified’ fruit fly with human teeth. Below: lovestruck fruit flies with Rousseau’s Eve (1904); Frida Kahlo’s ‘The Two Fridas’ (1939), fronting for ACE2, the protein molecule subverted by the SARS virus. — Slides by Barry Dickson in screen shots by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

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Frida Kahlo 'The Two Fridas' 1939 slide
part 1 is here

In the third picture, those are amorous, genetically modified, gay female fruit flies on the blue plates beside a section of Eve and the Serpent, a 1904 work in the ‘modern primitive’ style by the French artist usually referred to as Le Douanier — customs official — Rousseau.

What are they doing there? If you are a research scientist who wants to tell an audience of non-scientists about geneticists learning to stop deadly pandemics like avian ‘flu in their tracks — a story that encompasses the behaviour, in laboratory mice, of the snappily named protein molecule, Angiotensin Converting Enzyme or ACE2 — you would do well to shock them with a true account of how your research team changed a different creature’s entire sexual orientation by manipulating a single gene.

Especially if this is an audience that knows that there is no such thing as a ‘gay gene’ or set of genes controlling the sexual behaviour of human beings — people being a bit more complex than fruit flies — your preamble about tinkering with l’amour in the insect world will guarantee that everyone stays awake without intravenous infusions of caffeine.

That is exactly what Dr. Josef Penninger – scientific director of the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMBA) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna — did ten years ago at ideacity05, a conference of adventurous thinkers in Toronto (whose 2015 version, coincidentally, starts tomorrow.) As you can see on YouTube, he swept away all resistance to his lecture on recent developments in genetics with his first slide — ‘So that’s a typical fly, a genetically modified one …,’ in which the beast has shiny human teeth, which instantly sent a rumble of laughter through the crowd. The dentures were the gift, with a little help from Photoshop, of Barry Dickson — a fellow-scientist and at the time, IMP colleague, from Australia — who had appeared one day to make a request. ‘He came to me and said, “I want to study all the genes which control sex,” and I said, “Sounds good.”’

It hardly needs saying that Josef — as Dr. Penninger introduced himself, a few weeks ago — is a born populariser, in addition to being a scientist on the bleeding edge of medical research. He is probably most renowned, among his peers, for his work on the prevention and suppression of breast cancer. This has won recognition from the U.S. Department of Defense – an Innovator Award – which might soon have to lend him one of its morbidly obese military transporter planes to carry the many honours and awards that he, like Dr. Lawrence Steinman — featured in part 1 of this post — has been heaping up.

So there is Josef, explaining how modifying the ‘skirt-chasing gene’ named fruitless by its Australian discoverer can ‘completely rewire’ a fly brain. ‘This is males chasing males,’ he says about a slide in which inky black smudges appear to be dancing in a sort of orgiastic conga line. Before you have a chance to get over your surprise, he makes a flying leap from flies to explaining that the SARS virus that raged around the world scaring everyone silly in the early ‘00s made its victims ‘basically drown in their own lung fluid.’ His team of investigators ‘looked into the heart of a mouse,’ and soon found that ‘if you shut down the protein ACE2 in mice, they get absolutely unbelievable lung failure.’ Back to SARS in humans: ‘So the next question is, why the hell [did] SARS become such a lethal virus? … Why is it that SARS killed 10 per cent of the people [infected with it], and mind you, under the circumstances of modern medicine?’

Once you get over his fearless, endearing, German-accented rendering of his thoughts into English, you notice that the antics of his laboratory animals in his slides are accompanied by reproductions of several well-known paintings. Is this just another scientist enlisting art to ‘jazz up’ his work, a painter friend of ours enquired, in email reacting to part 1 of this post last week — a correspondent who also remarked, bravely, ‘Molecular biology? Bah, nothing to it!’. Obviously, the answer is, no. Not least because the lab coat-clad can always use Photoshop or some other tool or scheme to create splendid diversions — such as Josef’s bravura Dance Your Phd. performance of the chicken dance in a YouTube clip posted at gonzoscientist.org to commemorate his 1990 thesis, ‘Analysis of thymic nurse cells in the chicken.’

Comparing the Penninger technique with the Steinman approach to intertwining art and science, and thinking about what we’ve gathered about what art has meant to each of these scientists, we found ourselves considering that …

• Including art in expositions of science makes such a colossal difference to us civilians, the great unwashed, that it is amazing that this is not done routinely in teaching. Techniques could range as widely as between Dr. Steinman’s respectful ‘Chers collègues’ style, in his Charcot lecture, delivering a precise exegesis as structured as a Bach fugue, and Dr. Penninger entertaining non-scientists, concealing the years of grinding effort that produced the work he describes behind a seemingly improvised set of riffs, and merely suggesting by juxtaposition, rather than explaining, how they relate to his chosen set of paintings.

• Whereas pictures as intriguing as Mondrian’s trees or Rousseau’s effete football players (above) mean instant entrapment, the following example of the usual attempt to engage non-scientists in a science problem is – certainly for us – a colossal waste of time:

Many a physics graduate student has gnashed her teeth in frustration over the mathematics of general relativity. Perhaps she should try envisioning a flat, boundless desert, with rocks of various sizes scattered across its surface, whose mass creates dips of various depths in the sand. A sturdy canopy looms over that desert, stretched tightly over a skeleton of tent poles linked by bars, matching the rises and dips in the sand beneath it. The desert is all the matter and energy in the universe, while the canopy is the geometry of space-time. The poles and bars are the equations of general relativity, connecting the stuff of the universe with the shape of the universe. As Halpern writes: “Mass and energy warp space-time, telling it where and how to curve. The shape of space-time, in turn, governs how things move within it.”

That is a clip from an otherwise gripping read, a review by Jennifer Ouellette of a book by Paul Halpern about the competition between Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger to solve the biggest and most fundamental problem in physics. Our typical, yawning reaction to bait like this is, if you find the problem interesting, by all means meditate on it yourself and let me know when you’ve got the answer.

• We would not be surprised to find a study confirming our suspicion that many of the most creative scientists have been interested in art for most of their lives. Josef — described in a surpassingly literary profile in Esquire as ‘the son of Austrian farmers’ — said, by email, that he had ‘actually studied medicine and art history’ at university. Though he was diverted from his education in art, he explained, ‘my first scientific work was about Renaissance architecture in early 16th century Spain, e.g. the palace of Charles V in the Alhambra.’ In a spare, exquisitely restrained, affecting memoir about their father**, Dr. Steinman’s sister Louise has also described their mother, who, growing up poor in New York, would ‘escape the hot tenement on East 11th Street and stroll through the galleries of Greek statues, a woman of leisure alone with classical beauty’ — at which point we must mention that post-Gutenberg met this determined escapee’s son long ago through someone with extraordinary, laser-cut cheekbones, brought up in the art-steeped Russian cultural tradition.

• The most rubbery-brained, resourceful scientists seem drawn to art because they are interested in virtually everything. At the gathering at which we had Josef for a neighbour, someone sang a Schubert song based on a poem by Goethe we had never heard of, ‘Der Erlkönig,’ (The Elf King) — after she outlined its account of the ride through a forest on horseback, with his father, of a small boy who becomes the victim of a supernatural being, and dies in the last verse. ‘No, no, it is a wonderful poem!’ Dr. Penninger insisted passionately, when we expressed our dismay about this theme. ‘We all had to study it in school!’

• Being an intellectual omnivore, switching attention, might work something like discontinuous ‘interval training‘ for the brain — in the way ‘interleaving’ is being found to enhance learning in mathematics and science. A recent New York Times report said that …

… studying mixed sets of related things — paintings, birds, baseball pitches — greatly improves people’s ability to make quick, accurate distinctions among them, compared with studying as usual, in blocks. Others have found the same improvements when the items being mixed are specific kinds of problems, like calculating volumes, or exponents.

A growing number of cognitive scientists now believe that this cocktail-shaker approach could improve students’ comprehension of a wide array of scientific concepts, whether chemical bonds, parallel evolution, the properties of elementary particles or pre-algebra.

This was how Josef concluded his ideacity05 talk — clicking an image from Austria on-screen:

So here is this beautiful building in Vienna which has a very beautiful Klimt painting inside — the Beethoven Frieze — and … on the top, it says, ‘Every time has its art, and all art must be completely free.’ So I think that every time has its science, and all science must be completely free. … We live in a great time. Let’s use our science to do something good for people. Thanks.

** The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War, Louise Steinman, 2008.

 

What’s more enlightening than a good biopic? Scientists using famous paintings to open doors to their minds, inviting us in: part 1

mondrian red tree wiki IMG_6616

Piet Mondrian’s ‘Red Tree’ (1908-10) opens Dr. Lawrence Steinman’s talk about solving the problem of multiple sclerosis

mondrian red tree wiki IMG_6616

Mondrian Gray Tree 1911 arrblogbybob

Mondrian- grey becoming more abstract fineartchina.com 256385

Mondrian-FINAL LS CHOICE CHECK Composition-Trees-II_-1912-large-1044457612

In these thumbnail images, Mondrian’s trees grow steadily more impressionistic — or from the Steinman perspective, ‘molecular’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a new biography of the polio vaccine hero, Dr. Jonas Salk, only months after the fêting and nomination for innumerable awards of a biopic about the computer pioneer, Alan Turing, and a film about the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Once, there was not much more than portraits like these — and occasionally, a decent novel set among the petri dishes — to give non-scientists an inkling of how the mind of a scientific research star works. This was always intensely frustrating. No matter how gifted the writer or lifelike the cinematic conjuring, if what you crave is a feel for the mental acrobatics, the cerebral gambolling and sensibility involved, you leave the table as hungry as after you saw Shakespeare in Love or The Agony and the Ecstasy, and they failed to make you any wiser about the mind of the Bard or Michelangelo, respectively.

Creativity at the coalface — in art or science — is close to impossible to demonstrate from the outside, looking in.

In science, though, something wonderful has been happening. The evolution of media used in scholarship and every other intellectual realm from chiefly text-centred communication to including images wholesale, has some of the most inventive scientists deploying post-Gutenberg tools to open small doors to their minds to the rest of us.

An unanticipated encounter in Silicon Valley, the other day, with a friend and former student of Dr. Lawrence Steinman, led to a lively conversation in praise of the rare gifts for inspiring and elucidating of this quietly distinguished neuroscientist, molecular biologist and immunologist — who could never be accused of the avid self-promotion that, according to his biographer Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, destroyed Dr. Salk’s reputation with fellow-scientists. For eight years, from 2003, Dr. Steinman coordinated immunology research across all departments at Stanford University. On more than one occasion, he and his research team have come tantalisingly close to discovering what causes multiple sclerosis, and devising a cure for this inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord — the nervous system — which is being diagnosed in growing numbers of people.

Four years ago, Dr. Steinman interwove a report on some of his research team’s latest findings about MS with a captivating appreciation of studies of trees by the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) — part of the De Stijl movement in abstract art — at a ceremony at which he was presented with the Charcot Prize.

The Charcot is awarded every two years by the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation to a scientist who has made exceptional progress in working out what causes this condition, and devising treatments for MS patients. Turning to art to aid enlightenment was apt because Jean-Martin Charcot — the French 19th-century scientist considered the founder of modern neurology — was a tremendous enthusiast for the use of drawings and photographs to demystify anatomy. But Dr. Steinman was actually primed for joining visual art to science by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel — co-winners of the 1981 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine — whom he credits with introducing him, in his student days, to ‘the neurophysiology of perception of art in the brain’.

Here are quick sketches from parts of that Mondrian-inspired lecture — ‘Piet Mondrian’s trees and the evolution in understanding multiple sclerosis’ — with reproductions from the series, starting with ‘Red Tree’. We will not pretend that this is anything other than a ferociously technical paper only comprehensible impressionistically by a non-expert. All we want to say is that it offers tiny, enticing glimmers of the way the mind of one scientist works.

This was Dr. Steinman’s opening:

[W]e pose four questions that are relevant to our understanding of multiple sclerosis (MS). For each, we shall look at the evolution of Piet Mondrian’s paintings of a solitary tree. As we follow the evolution in these paintings from representational to Cubist, we see that our understanding of MS is also a mere process, and that we have a long way to go before it is “complete.”

These were his questions for his audience of chiefly fellow-scientists, slightly simplified and re-worded, here:

1. The male/female disparity: why are women developing MS so much more frequently than men?

2. Are there guardian molecules that protect the nervous system in MS?

3. With all the approved drugs, how can we rationally decide which one to use?

4. The Precise Scalpel vs. the Big Hammer for therapy: in the future, will MS be treated chiefly with powerful, heavy-duty drugs aimed at ‘wide swathes of the immune system,’ or with fine discrimination, using treatments tailored to the needs of particular patients?

The parallels Dr. Steinman drew for the path of his MS research are to Mondrian’s going from depicting a tree more or less as most of us perceive one, to finer atomisations of the way we discern a trunk and branches from sets of shapes and correspondences we associate with ‘tree-ness’. Similarly, beginning with viewing people as whole beings – and concentrating on a disease afflicting some of them – Dr. Steinman proceeds to delve into causes of their affliction at the level of fractions, the realm of molecular biology. He advances from considering aspects of MS and its manifestations from the whole-person viewpoint — with symptoms and behaviour obvious to any observer — to exploring causes in microbiology, in an analysis growing steadily more abstract and arcane.

In viewing the disease from the whole-person perspective, he begins by asking …

… why there is an increasing incidence of MS in females. One might argue
that the increase in MS in females must be due to some factor in the environment. It is hard to imagine that females are “evolving” so rapidly that one might attribute this phenomenon to a genetic factor. We suggest the most likely environmental influence is the increased “fat” and increased caloric intake in the female diet. The set of receptors influenced by fats and by sex hormones is of course found in the
remarkable PPAR family.

Though men are also consuming more fat and calories, there is a peculiar — harmful — interplay between fat and female sex hormones.

Next, Dr. Steinman relates how research has been pointing to the behaviour of a particular protein:

We sought to identify molecules that are produced by both neurons and glia, and that serve to protect the brain from inflammatory and degenerative damage. […] The amyloid molecules produced in the brain in response to stress in a variety of pathologies including MS may be imbued with protective properties. These molecules may be actually converted into therapeutics for MS, in both the relapsing–remitting and progressive manifestations of the disease.

Now, Mondrian again, for a consideration of the third question on his list:

In Figure 5, The Flowering Apple Tree, painted in 1912, Mondrian has evolved his depiction of trees to an even more Cubist interpretation. It is a wonder that our brains perceive a “tree” in this representation with only subtle representational cues. But as we acknowledge these subtle cues, the rising verticality of the “trunk” and the characteristic horizontality of the branches, we learn that this is all that we need to convince ourselves, that is, our brains, that this is a “tree.”

… Just as our brains can discern what is a tree and what is not, we therefore ask whether there are rational algorithms to determine which therapeutic is most suitable for any particular patient. As treating neurologists we are blessed with
a situation now where we can choose between multiple orally active drugs as well as injectable drugs for treatment of RRMS. But how can we make rational decisions when choosing among them?

There is no substitute for the fun of reading the paper yourself, making of it whatever you can. That takes real effort if, like those of us at post-Gutenberg.com, your ignorance of molecular biology is a long way south of abysmal. To get hold of a free copy, you will need the help of a good research librarian  — or you can spend $5 on buying one on the PubMed site of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. [ Post-publication note with excellent news:  please see the offer in the comments section below. ]

Of course Mondrian had everything to do with luring us into persisting past our incomprehension and in spite of it, even though we had never encountered his tree pictures until the Charcot lecture found its way to us, serendipitously. Long ago, in childhood, we loved this artist’s geometric paintings in electrifying primary colours.

Steinman colleagues at Stanford, over the years, have included the late Carl Djerassi – the subject of several posts on this blog, not least as an exemplary forerunner of post-Gutenberg Man, about whom it is an understatement to say that he was equally at home in the arts and sciences. At a private celebration of his life in March, we found ourselves sitting next to someone else cleverly harnessing his love of fine art to his mission as a scientist — and he will be the subject of the next entry in this blog.

part 2 is here