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]

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]

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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 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.