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Science Comes to the Canvas

“Inquiry: The Art of Scientific Discovery” shows the beauty of science and the artistic side of even the most lab-bound of scientists.

Arts & Culture  |  Feb 22, 2017  |  By Shane Bevell
artwork from Inquiry: The Art of Scientific Discovery

There is tremendous beauty in the natural world, from the birth of distant galaxies, to the smallest details of life on Earth. Often, though, it can be overlooked because of the technical nature of science. Now, researchers from the UNLV College of Sciences are showcasing the artistic side of science by featuring their most captivating research images in an exhibit on campus. “Inquiry: The Art of Scientific Discovery” runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Feb 3. to March 31, Monday through Friday, at the Jessie & Brian Metcalf Gallery on the second floor of the Richard Tam Alumni Center. A public reception is set from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 24 in the Jessie & Brian Metcalf Gallery. Please RSVP. Here, we'll take a look at a few of the works on display and the scientific research that went into them. 

artwork from Inquiry: The Art of Scientific Discovery

Martian Meteorite Nakhlite Miller Range

Arya Udry, assistant professor of geoscience

The image is a 30-millimeter slice of a Martian meteorite, Miller Range 090030. This meteorite was found in Antarctica in 2009 by a NASA Antarctica Search for Meteorites expedition. It's is a nakhlite meteorite, which is a type of Martian meteorite similar to terrestrial volcanic rocks. The nakhlite meteorites are all 1.3 billion years old and originate from an unknown location on Mars. The different minerals visible on this picture are called pyroxene. To the naked eye, pyroxenes are black minerals and are very abundant in basalts, such as the volcanic rocks found in Hawaii. In this image, pyroxenes appear to be various colors due to the use of a polarizer lens. This filter allows scientists to more easily distinguish all the different minerals and mineral orientation.

Udry researches Martian meteorites to understand the magmatism on Mars and how the Martian crust and mantle evolved. Our only window into understanding the Martian crust is through Martian meteorites, particularly the nakhlite meteorites. She has access to approximately 30 Martian meteorites, including 11 nakhlites, which she owns or borrows from the NASA Johnson Space Center and the Smithsonian Institution.

The sample shown here is part of a comprehensive study that aims at understanding how these magmatic rocks formed in the Martian crust.  

artwork from Inquiry: The Art of Scientific Discovery

Polyurethane Foam

David Hatchett, professor, and Gayani Kodippili, M.S. Chemistry, 2003. Department of chemistry and biochemistry

This image is a polyurethane foam sample that is utilized to encapsulate nuclear warheads. The image was produced using an optical microscope, black and white scale. The foam is prepared using inject molding equipment.

The research that produced this image evaluates both the physical and chemical properties of shock isolating foams from the nuclear stockpile. Specifically, they worked with professor Brendan O’Toole’s group in mechanical engineering at UNLV on this collaborative project. The engineering team measured physical parameters such as density, rigidity, and strength of the materials and Hatchett and Kodipilli looked at the chemistry using microscopy.

The experiments were conducted on pristine foam that was never exposed to heat and samples that were subjected to increasing temperatures that would be encountered with the thermal decay of a nuclear warhead. They utilized samples such as the one presented here to evaluate the chemical changes as a function of temperature and showed that a decrease in chemical linkages could be correlated with losses in structural rigidity.

This is just one of approximately 1,000 images that were taken of the foams produced in their research.

artwork from Inquiry: The Art of Scientific Discovery

A Window into the Head of a Xenopus Tadpole

Cindy Kha, Ph.D. student in the school of life sciences.

The image features a side view of the head region of a tadpole of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, from the lab of assistant professor Ai-Sun Tseng in the school of life sciences. The tadpole eye is quite complex and consists of the same tissues found in human eyes including ra etina, lens, optic nerve, and cornea. This image uses color to highlight the key tissues that enable tadpole eye function.

The tadpole head is mostly transparent. This valuable feature enabled graduate student Cindy Kha to label tadpole eye tissues with markers that glow in different colors. The neurons and the optic nerve that attaches to the eye are marked in green. The muscles attached to the eye that are required for movement are red. Individual cells in the tadpole head are blue.

The Tseng lab is working to understand how some animals (such as frogs) regenerate organs, but other animals cannot. This is an important biomedical question because because understanding the ways in which animals regenerate organs could help biologists develop therapies to repair body parts in humans. Studies from the Tseng lab showed that tadpoles successfully repair their complex eye after injury or loss. By comparing the differences at the gene level, this knowledge can be applied toward improving human tissue repair in the future. 



artwork from Inquiry: The Art of Scientific DiscoveryKepler Field of View

Ian Rabago, undergraduate student, and Jason Steffen, assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

This picture shows the full field of view seen by the Kepler space telescope. This image was from Kepler’s primary mission, which lasted until 2013 and viewed a portion of the sky in the summer constellations of Cygnus and Lyra.

The Kepler telescope uses 42 different cameras in 21 square cells to carefully watch stars for exoplanets. It’s mainly interested in the scientific data from the stars only, so full images like this one aren’t usually saved. However, some full images are still taken and made available to the public, so Rabago took one full set of images and opened them up in Photoshop. From there, it was a matter of positioning the images in the correct places to match how Kepler saw them in the sky.

Of course, this image wouldn’t exist if the Kepler space telescope wasn’t out there right now. It’s a very big telescope with very good cameras in an amazing photographing location, so that helps in getting a nice shot. Actually arranging the individual images from Kepler only required Photoshop and some time.

Exoplanets are a pretty busy field in astronomy right now. Kepler discovers exoplanets using a technique called the transit method, which watches a star for the small decrease in its light if an exoplanet passes directly in front of it. Such discoveries can allow us to determine the orbital configuration of the planetary system, among other things. Rabago is currently doing research with Steffen, looking at some of the consequences, especially for life, in exoplanetary systems where a planet gets ejected out of the system. These ejected planets are called rogue planets, and have been discovered in other exoplanet searches. They may be produced through strong dynamical interactions with their planetary siblings.

So far, the Kepler mission has discovered several thousand exoplanets using the transit method, and most of them are from the primary mission. That means there are thousands of exoplanets, of all different types, captured somewhere in this image. Also, it’s worth mentioning that in this huge sprinkling of stars there are many other worlds that were too small to be seen by Kepler, or weren’t blocking their star’s light.

artwork from Inquiry: The Art of Scientific Discovery

Starry Night: A van Gogh-Inspired Collage of Mathematical Objects

Arthur Baragar, professor

Department of Mathematical Sciences

Mathematics professor Aruthur Baragar used a collage of mathematical objects to create this piece called Starry Night after the Vincent van Gogh masterpiece.

The patterns of the moon, sky and tree are visual representations of the math behind a certain type of cone, while the foreground and sky are cross sections of an Apollonian packing, a mathematical structure studied by René Descartes, among others.

The sky, in fact, is a two-dimensional cross section of the four-dimensional Apollonian packing, which was once thought to not exist. For a three-dimensional cross section, imagine that each circle represents a sphere. The largest spheres are laid out in an infinite, cannonball-like stack. Where the circles converge to a point (like at a star), imagine that this is a point of tangency of two spheres, one in front of the picture and the other behind it.