Archive for Architectural Association School of Architecture

Back to the Drawing Board

Posted in Art, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by telescoper

I came across a press release this morning which contains the following

More should be done to encourage students to use their drawing skills in science education, researchers at The University of Nottingham say.

In a paper being published in Science this week, academics say that although producing visualisations is key to scientific thinking, pupils are often not encouraged to create their own drawings to develop and demonstrate their understanding.

In the paper the authors, led by Dr Shaaron Ainsworth in the University’s School of Psychology and Learning Sciences Research Institute, said: “Scientists do not use words only but rely on diagrams, graphs, videos, photographs and other images to make discoveries, explain findings, and excite public interest.

In the light of this I thought it would be topical to post an updated version of an old piece I wrote on the theme of sketching. This is quite a strange subject for me to have picked pick because drawing is something I’m completely useless at, but I hope you’ll bear with me and hopefully it will make some sense in the end. I always thought that drawing was an important and neglected aspect of education, but I hadn’t until today any solid research to back it up!

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What  spurred me on to think about this subject was the exhibit I was  involved with for the  Architecture Biennale in Venice as part of a project called Beyond Entropy organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. In the course of researching this project I came across this image of the Moon as drawn by Galileo

This led to an interesting discussion about the role of drawings like this in science. Of course  the use of sketches for the scientific representation of images has been superseded by photographic techniques, initially using film and more recently by digital techniques. The advantage of these methods is that they are quicker and also more “objective”. However, there are still many amateur astronomers who make drawings of the Moon as well as objects such as Jupiter and Saturn (which Galileo also drew). Moreover there are other fields in which experienced practioners continue to use pencil drawings in preference to photographic techniques. Archaeology provides many good examples, e.g.

The reason sketching still has a role in such fields is not that it can compete with photography for accuracy or objectivity but that there’s something about the process of sketching that engages the sketcher’s brain in a  way that’s very different from taking a photograph. The connection between eye, brain and hand seems to involve a cognitive element that is extremely useful in interpreting notes at a later date. In fact it’s probably their very subjectivity that makes them useful.  A thicker stroke of the pencil, or deliberately enhanced shading, or leaving out seemingly irrelevant detail, can help pick out  features that seem to the observer to be of particular significance. Months later when you’re trying to write up what you saw from your notes, those deliberate interventions against objectivity will take you back to what you  saw with your mind, not just with your eyes.

It doesn’t even matter whether or not you can draw well. The point isn’t so much to explain to other people what you’ve seen, but to record your own interaction with the object you’ve sketched in a way that allows you to preserve something more than a surface recollection.

You might think this is an unscientific thing to do, but I don’t think it is. The scientific process involves an interplay between objective reality and theoretical interpretation and drawing can be a useful part of this discourse. It’s as if the pencil allows the observer to interact with what is observed, forming a closer bond and probably a deeper level of understanding patterns and textures. I’m not saying it replaces a purely passive recording method like photography, but it can definitely help it.

I have not a shred of psychological evidence to back this up, but I’d also assert that sketching is very good for the learning process too.  Nowadays we tend to give out handouts of diagrams involved in physics, whether they relate to the design of apparatus or the geometrical configuration of a physical system. There’s a reason for doing this – they take a long time to draw and there’s a likelihood students will make mistakes copying them down. However, I’ve always  found that the only way to really take in what a diagram is saying is to try to draw it again myself. Even if the level of draftsmanship is worse, the level of understanding is undoubtedly better.Merely looking at someone else’s representation of something won’t give your brain as a good a feeling for what it is trying to say  as you would get if you tried to draw it yourself.

Perhaps what happens is that simply looking at a diagram only involves the connection between eye and brain. Drawing a copy requires also the connection between brain and hand. Maybe  this additional connection brings in additional levels of brain functionality. Sketching iinvolves your brain in an interaction that is different from merely looking.

The problem with excessive use of handouts – and this applies not only to figures  but also to lecture notes – is that they turn teaching into a very passive process. Taking notes in your own hand, and supplementing them with your own sketches – however scribbly and incomprehensible they may appear to other people – is  a much more active way to learn than collecting a stack of printed notes and meticulously accurate diagrams. And if it was good enough for Galileo, it should good enough for most of us!

The Sketch Process

Posted in Art, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by telescoper

It’s pouring with rain so, rather than set off home and get drenched, I thought I’d spend a few minutes on the blog and hope that the deluge dies down before I leave. Knowing my luck it will probably get worse.

Anyway, I thought I’d put together a short item on the theme of sketching. This is quite a strange subject for me to pick because drawing is something I’m completely useless at, but I hope you’ll bear with me and hopefully it will make some sense in the end.

What  spurred me on to think about it was the exhibit I’ve been involved with for the forthcoming Architecture Biennale in Venice as part of a project called Beyond Entropy organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Unfortunately, although I’d originally planned to attend I can’t be there for the opening Symposium, but I hope it turns out to be as successful event as it promises to be!

Anyway, in the course of this project I came across this image of the Moon as drawn by Galileo

This led to an interesting discussion about the role of drawings like this in science. Of course  the use of sketches for the scientific representation of images has been superseded by photographic techniques, initially using film and more recently by digital techniques. The advantage of these methods is that they are quicker and also more “objective”. However, there are still many amateur astronomers who make drawings of the Moon as well as objects such as Jupiter and Saturn (which Galileo also drew). Moreover there are other fields in which experienced practioners continue to use pencil drawings in preference to photographic techniques. Archaeology provides many good examples, e.g.

The reason sketching still has a role in such fields is not that it can compete with photography for accuracy or objectivity but that there’s something about the process of sketching that engages the sketcher’s brain in a  way that’s very different from taking a photograph. The connection between eye, brain and hand seems to involve a cognitive element that is extremely useful in interpreting notes at a later date. In fact it’s probably their very subjectivity that makes them useful.  A thicker stroke of the pencil, or deliberately enhanced shading, or leaving out seemingly irrelevant detail, can help pick out  features that seem to the observer to be of particular significance. Months later when you’re trying to write up what you saw from your notes, those deliberate interventions against objectivity will take you back to what you  saw with your mind, not just with your eyes.

It doesn’t even matter whether or not you can draw well. The point isn’t so much to explain to other people what you’ve seen, but to record your own interaction with the object you’ve sketched in a way that allows you to preserve something more than a surface recollection.

You might think this is an unscientific thing to do, but I don’t think it is. The scientific process involves an interplay between objective reality and theoretical interpretation and drawing can be a useful part of this discourse. It’s as if the pencil allows the observer to interact with what is observed, forming a closer bond and probably a deeper level of understanding patterns and textures. I’m not saying it replaces a purely passive recording method like photography, but it can definitely help it.

I have not a shred of psychological evidence to back this up, but I’d also assert that sketching is very good for the learning process too.  Nowadays we tend to give out handouts of diagrams involved in physics, whether they relate to the design of apparatus or the geometrical configuration of a physical system. There’s a reason for doing this – they take a long time to draw and there’s a likelihood students will make mistakes copying them down. However, I’ve always  found that the only way to really take in what a diagram is saying is to try to draw it again myself. Even if the level of draftsmanship is worse, the level of understanding is undoubtedly better.Merely looking at someone else’s representation of something won’t give your brain as a good a feeling for what it is trying to say  as you would get if you tried to draw it yourself.

Perhaps what happens is that simply looking at a diagram only involves the connection between eye and brain. Drawing a copy requires also the connection between brain and hand. Maybe  this additional connection brings in additional levels of brain functionality. Sketching iinvolves your brain in an interaction that is different from merely looking.

The problem with excessive use of handouts – and this applies not only to figures  but also to lecture notes – is that they turn teaching into a very passive process. Taking notes in your own hand, and supplementing them with your own sketches – however scribbly and incomprehensible they may appear to other people – is  a much more active way to learn than collecting a stack of printed notes and meticulously accurate diagrams. And if it was good enough for Galileo, it should good enough for most of us!

Now it’s stopped raining so I’m off home!


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Crater 308

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 1, 2010 by telescoper

I haven’t got time to post much today – WordPress was down earlier when I had a bit of time and now I’m going to watch the highlights of England’s Test victory against Pakistan in the cricket today, which they achieved by bowling out their opponents for only 80 runs in the second innings.

Nevertheless, as a quick filler, I thought it would be nice to show this wonderful image of the crater Daedalus, formerly known as Crater 308, which is located on the far side of the Moon. Not the dark side, by the way, the far side of the Moon gets just as much sunlight as the near side!
This is one of the images I’ve been working on as part of the project Beyond Entropy for a forthcoming exhibit at the Venice Biennale of Architecture which opens at the end of this month. I won’t say too much about the exhibit I’m involved with, except that it explores the way higher-dimensional information can be recorded in surfaces of lower dimension, like a kind of architectural holographic principle. I was particularly struck by the way the pattern of cratering on the Moon yields information about its formation history, which is why I went looking for dramatic examples. This – taken during the Apollo 11 mission- is my favourite image of all those I’ve looked at. I love the complexy topography, its textural contrasts and the way the shadows play across it.

Daedalus is an impact crater that formed about 3.75 to 3.2 bn years ago. It’s about 93km across. The crater looks relatively fresh; showing sharp-ish-looking rims all around with sequences of wonderfully-preserved terraces down onto a pock-marked, flat floor consisting of numerous craterlets and a central peak divided up into two to three well-defined hills. You can also see the effect of more recent impacts in and around it.

Talking of impact, I wonder if I can get this project into our REF submission?

All in a day’s work

Posted in Art, Biographical, Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 30, 2010 by telescoper

I got back from yesterday’s trip to a very muggy London with a raging sore throat and a brain as sluggish as an England defender on an action replay. Come to think of it, I must be as sick as a parrot. I’m sweating like a pig too, although I don’t know whether that’s a symptom of anything nasty or just because it’s still so warm and humid. Anyway, in view of my likely incoherence I thought I’d keep it brief (again) and just mention a few salient points from the last day or two.

I went to London as part of my duties as External Examiner for the MSc Course in Astrophysics at Queen Mary, University of London. Of course all the proceedings are confidential so I’m not going to comment on anything in detail, except that I spent a bit of time going through the exam scripts before the Examiners’ Meeting in a room that did a very passable impersonation of a heat bath. When I was later joined by the rest of the Exam Board the temperature soared still further. Fortunately the business went relatively smoothly so nobody got too hot under the collar and after concluding the formal business, a few of us cooled off with a beer or two in the Senior Common Room.The students spend the next couple of months writing their dissertations now that the written exams are over, so we have to reconvene in October to determine the final results. I hope it’s a bit cooler by then.

I couldn’t stay long at Queen Mary, however, as I had a working dinner to get to. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) may remember that I’m involved in project called Beyond Entropy which is organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. I’ve been working on this occasionally over the months that have passed since I first blogged about it, but deadlines are now looming and we need to accelerate our activity. Last night I met with the ever-enthusiastic Stefano Rabolli Pansera at the house of Eyal Weizman by Victoria Park in the East End, handily close to Queen Mary’s Mile End campus. Assisted by food and wine we managed to crystallise our ideas into something much more tangible than we had managed to do before on our theme of Gravitational Energy. The School has offered us expert practical assistance in making prototypes and  I’m now much more optimistic about our exhibit coming together, not to mention excited at the prospect of seeing it on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale. I won’t say what we’re planning just yet, though. I’d rather wait until it’s done before unveiling it.

Incidentally, here’s a link to a  lecture by Eyal Weizman where he gives some interesting perspectives on architectural history.

Finally, and nothing to do with my trip to the Big Smoke, I noticed today on the Research Fortnight Blog that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) is planning to reduce the number of universities in Wales “significantly” from its current level of 12. This is an interesting development and one that I’ve actually argued for here. Quoting Leighton Andrews, Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for higher education, the piece says

“This target does not mean fewer students,” he said in a statement. “But it is likely to mean fewer vice chancellors. We will have significantly fewer HE institutions in Wales but they will be larger and stronger.”

How these reductions will be achieved remains to be seen, but it seems obvious that quite a few  feathers will be ruffled among the management’s plumage in some institutions and it looks like some vice chancellors will be totally plucked!

When Energy Becomes Form

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on February 28, 2010 by telescoper

I’m back in Cardiff, exhausted but, at the same time, rather exhilirated by the past few days in Geneva. Before I crash out I thought I’d update the post I filed a couple of days ago.

On Friday we visited CERN, the highlight of which visit was, for me, seeing the facility where they test the superconducting magnets used in the Large Hadron Collider. We also saw the surface buildings of the ATLAS experiment, but since the LHC was getting ready to rumble again after its winter break we weren’t allowed to see the thing itself, 100 metres below ground. Coincidentally, I learned today that the LHC is now back making collisions once more. Obviously, the practical tips I passed on while I was there did the trick. One likes to help where one can.

The rest of Friday, back in downtown Geneva, was bizarre to say the least. We had the obligatory Swiss dinner of fondue, which is basically a big bowl of melted cheese into which you dip bits of bread repeatedly while hoping that at some point they’re going to bring some proper food. They don’t. To make matters worse we were serenaded by Swiss folk music:  cowbells, alphorns, yodelling – the works. One of the musicians was the spitting image of Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies but at least there was no sign of Mini-me. I was traumatised by the thought that the world might be brought to a premature end, not by the LHC creating black holes but by excessive yodelling.

After that, as midnight approached, all 24 of us – 8 scientists, 8 artists and 8 architects – gave very short presentations about our work to the others in the hotel lobby area.  I couldn’t do justice to the range of ideas and forms presented there in a short blog like this so I’ll just say it was totally fascinating to listen to these people, see examples of their work, and have the chance to ask questions.

Saturday was the most intense and also the most interesting day. We were housed in a beautiful 19th Century house in the old part of Geneva that used to be the French ambassador’s residence the whole day. Split into various groups we thought, discussed, sketched, scribbled and generally brainstormed our way towards ideas for something to exhibit on our allocated theme. We got together at the end so each group could exchange their ideas with the others. It seemed every group had great fun and there seemed to be some great concepts floating around.

The artist I’m collaborating with is Carlos Garaicoa, who was born in Cuba and who has exhibited his work all over the world. He now shares his time between Havana and Madrid. He showed us examples of his work encompassing a huge range of materials and technologies: video, photography, sculpture – you name it. One of the themes he has been interested in is the idea of documentary matter, meaning objects of various kinds that bear testimony to events or forces acting on them.  Eyal Weizman is the architect Carlos and I will be working with.  He’s a research architect who has, amongst other things, recently completed a long project looking at the construction of the wall that the Israeli government has built in the west bank

And then there was me, like a fish out of water. I had looked at the title of the programme, Beyond Entropy: How Energy Becomes Form and decided that it might be interesting to get across the central idea in general relativity, i.e. that gravitational forces can be described in terms of the curvature of space. In my presentation I took this to an extreme and tried to explain how the large-scale structure of the Universe is shaped by small ripples in space in the early Universe that evolve under the action of gravity to produce the structures we see on scales as large as 100 million light years. It seemed to be a good example of gravitational energy becoming form. I summed it up with a quote from John Archibald Wheeler:

Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move

Taking cue from these perspectives we had a wide-ranging conversation that took the idea of gravity as an effect of space, and explored this in more general contexts and from different angles. Space is often understood through its boundaries or through the surfaces constraining it and these edges take on a form that represents a sort of diagram of the forces that have acted on it. On a human scale we thought about walls and how the path they follow is shaped not only by topographical constraints but also by socioeconomic considerations. Walls and buildings generally suffer decay or damage too, including catastrophics events like explosions or earthquakes.

We also talked about the relationship between surfaces and the spaces they enclose or divide. The path of a wall such as the west bank barrier is extremely complicated because of the interplay between such factors. It curves in and out seemingly at random, but its shape makes it a document that contains information about the forces that have shaped it. It is a document in itself, not just because it happens to have things written on it in some places!

This thread of discussion got us interested in the possibility of using material objects to reconstruct the history of the processes that formed them: the Moon’s surface offers an example wherein the sequence of impacts can be inferred from the pattern of overlying and underlying craters. This led on to discussions about the relationship between surfaces and volumes generally, taking in holography as a specific example where  two-dimensional object contains three-dimensional volumes.

This all took us quite a long way from the initial riff, but I’m glad of that. My main worry about getting involved in this was that we might end up producing something that was merely didactic, just a fancy metaphorical treatment of basic physics. I wanted to avoid that because I think it would be very boring. I think I shouldn’t have worried that we might head in such a dull direction.

Some of the other groups managed to work up concrete ideas for prototypes to be exhibited. We didn’t really get that far. We were much keener to explore as many concepts as possible before settling on one. For myself, I was just really enjoying the discussion! There are no real constraints on what we can make – within reason of course. Sculptures, plans, buildings, installations, videos, photographs, and even books are all possibilities. It’s quite scary having such a blank canvas. We discussed a number of ways we might develop our discussion into material that can be exhibited but they all need a lot of work to develop, so we’ll carry on our collaboration remotely. I’m quite keen to bring some sort of holographic element into it, and promised to investigate the possibility of making some prototypes.

For the meantime, however,  it’s back to reality for me. A lecture to prepare and give, problem sets to get ready and an exercise class to run, an examination paper to finish writing, and a whole afternoon at the School’s research committee. I wonder if what I’ve been doing over the weekend will count as having “impact”?

Beyond Entropy

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2010 by telescoper

It’s a cold and rainy morning here in Geneva, but I’m really looking forward to the next few days here. I arrived yesterday evening after a flight that was longer than it should have been. It seems the French air traffic controllers went on some sort of strike so my flight from Heathrow wasn’t allowed to cross French air space. For a flight between London and Geneva that is a bit of a problem. In the end we flew west over Belgium and then down into Switzerland from the North, the whole thing taking about an hour longer than expected. Still, when I did get to where I was going I found the hotel nice and comfortable and, better still, had a very enjoyable dinner at a swish Italian restaurant. It was nice to leave the chaos of French airspace behind.

I’m here as part of an unusual research project called (ironically, in the light of the aforementioned travel problems) Beyond Entropy. Organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture, this experiment will bring together a group of artists, architects and scientists to investigate the notion of Energy. The way this is being done is by setting up a series of groups (one artist, one architect and one scientist) to look at each of a number of different forms of energy: potential, electric, thermal, mechanical, and so on; my own focus is gravitational energy. Each group will work together over the following few days to generate ideas a collaboration intended to create a work of some sort that gives form to the specific concept of energy they’re looking at. The subtitle of the project is “When Energy becomes Form”.

After we go back home, we’ll continue to work over the following months to produce prototypes of whatever emerges from the collaboration. The results will be exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale and the Architectural Association in August 2010. It is hoped that next year these prototypes will be developed into full-scale installations for the Venice Art Biennale in 2011.

I have no idea at this stage how the collaboration will work out or what is going to come out at the other end. The canvas is completely blank. I don’t really know the artist (Carlos Garaicoa) or the architect (Eyal Weizman) that I’ll be working with either. That makes it strangely exciting. At any rate it’s certainly different from the sort of scientific workshop I usually attend.

Anyway, to kick things off we’re going to be spending most of today at CERN, where I’ll be heading by bus just about as soon as I’ve finished this blog post. Later on today I’ll be giving a short presentation about how gravitational energy relates to my own research in the hope that this will stimulate a few ideas for my collaborators. Arts-science collaborations like this have been tried before and they have a chequered history, but we’ll just have to see how it goes. It feels more like research than most research workshops I’ve been to, in fact, because I really haven’t a clue what is going to happen!

P.S. Fellow blogger Andrew Jaffe is here too, but I think I might have beaten him in the competitive blogging stakes.