utopia (n.)
1551, from Modern Latin Utopia, literally “nowhere,” coined by Thomas More (and used as title of his book, 1516, about an imaginary island enjoying the utmost perfection in legal, social, and political systems), from Greek ou “not” + topos “place”. Extended to any perfect place by 1610s.


This 1987 IBM advertisement depicts a fractal landscape image created by IBM physicist Dr. Richard Voss. The text in the ad discusses IBM’s approach of intellectual freedom coupled with technological support.

Shadows and other signs of life

“Shadows and other signs of life” is a title of an Andy Warhol book I just saw on someone’s coffee table, reminded me of these images I came accross when grabbing Abu Dhabi textures.



which reminded me of a project from a while ago that looked at humans revealed in much more detail by shadows when shot from outer space, but I couldn’t find it, only this post:

Shadows are often edited out of the satellite images used for GIS and maps because they obscure what’s really there. They can be edited out fairly easily because, like clouds, they are always moving and images of the same area from different times of day can be easily combined filling in the shadow area with the pixels from anther time. Shadows and clouds are alike in this way, having to do with obscuring and revealing, light and darkness, and are signs of life of a sort, as much as stillness is a sign of death, the change connoting metabolic cycle of the planet as opposed to bionic inertness.

Ice Nucleation

Pseudomonas syringae is well known for its ice-nucleating properties. This ability to freeze water at higher than normal temperatures helps the bacteria get on the ground from the clouds – by inducing precipitation. Humans have been trying to induce precipitation since the 1940s to this day using much the same mechanism – except the ice nucleating agent in this case is the chemical Silver Iodide, which when sprayed into clouds freezes cloud droplets which then fall to the ground. Pseudomonas are a better ice nucleator, and are commonly used in production of artificial snow or ice rinks, but not – as far as I know – sprayed into clouds. Other bacteria have an ability to do the opposite – act as ‘antifreeze’ by lowering the freezing point of water. The genes for these two proteins were engineered into one bacteria by an iGem team in 2011. The team’s project also proposed to engineer a genetic switch to turn on either of the genes by some outside input. We will be building on their project to create a switch which would introduce even more control over bacteria’s time of transit in the atmosphere.


The plasmid with the inaZ gene (used by the iGem team) was inserted into e. coli bacteria, which is safe to use in a lab, and saved for future use. Plasmids are circular pieces of DNA that can be inserted into the bacteria. In higher organisms the DNA inserted into a cell would be integrated into its host genome. But bacteria have one circular chromosome and the plasmids we’re introducing are not integrated into its genome but float freely in the cell. Our synthesized DNA will also be inserted as a plasmid into the bacteria.

We did the ice nucleation test at Genspace (with the help of Will, Julie and Blacki). We prepared a negative control of e. coli bacteria without the gene, and followed iGem’s protocol:
An overnight preculture was inoculated at an initial OD of 0.1 in 15mL medium, and grown for 5 hours at 37°C. Cells were spun down and resuspended in 1 mL filtered water, after which they were washed twice with 1mL filtered water. The ODs of the resulting cell suspensions were determined and all cells were diluted to the same OD of 10. In the meanwhile, a cooling bath was prepared to a temperature around -10°C, and clean, plastic tubes filled with 5mL filtered water were put in the chilled bath to create supercooled water. The same amount of INP-expressing or control cells were added to the 5mL supercooled water and checked for ice nucleating activity.

Addition of bacteria expressing INP to supercooled water induced ice crystallization earlier than with addition of bacteria without the INP gene. We discovered that the difference between the two is fairly narrow and getting a nice result of water turning into ice as if by magic requires precise control of the temperature of the water, and it took us a few tries to try to demonstrate it. For example in the first try I took the tubes out of the cooling bath a few minutes before adding the bacteria, and the water didn’t freeze in either sample. But after putting the samples in the cooling bath again, one with INP froze after a few minutes while the control remained liquid.

iceNucleation from amateurhuman on Vimeo.

iceNucleation control from amateurhuman on Vimeo.

Here’s our supercooled water turned into ice with the help of the bacteria.


And the plasmid map of the plasmid containing inaZ gene. It is prepared using synthetic biology tools that attempt to standardize biotechnology techniques, approaching biology with an engineering mindset.

Screenshot 2015-07-21 10.38.38

Pseudomonas syringae produces a protein on its surface which promotes water molecules to crystallize into ice at temperatures higher than normal. The bacteria is associated with all the environments in hydrological cycle, including being well adapted to the atmosphere. Its role in controlling precipitation patterns and potentially in energy budget, physiochemical processes of the atmosphere and hydrological cycle are just beginning to be mapped out. But ice nucleation has been linked to inducing precipitation since scientists at GE (including Bernard Vonnegut, brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut) used silver iodide in 1946 to successfully precipitate a cloud – literally creating a hole in it by freezing those droplets to let them fall down to the ground. GM at the time was tasked with research in weather modification. Today silver iodide is a standard agent used in cloud seeding: “approximately 50,000 kg are used for cloud seeding annually, each seeding experiment consuming 10–50 grams.” Kurt Vonnegut, who also worked at GM at the time – in the PR department, was inspired by these experiments to predicate his next novel, Cat’s Cradle, on an invention of a substance (Ice-Nine) which could freeze water at room temperature, which led to the Earth freezing over.

GE research scientists Irving Langmuir, Bernard Vonnegut, and Vincent Schaefer are seeding a snow cloud:



The ice nucleating gene has been of interest to scientists for a long time, partly because it is responsible for early frost causing substantial damages in agriculture. In 1987 Pseudomonas syringae with the ice-nucleating gene snipped out through genetic engineering was tested on a field of potatoes – a very first field trial of any GMO. The trial sparked a long-lasting debate on safety and remifications of genetic modification.

Berkeley plant scientists under direction of Steven Lindow spraying a field of potatoes with ice-minus, a genetically engineered version of Pseudomonas syringae that prevents frost, in 1987.


As a member of atmospheric microbiome, Pseudomonas syringae deserves special attention. It thrives in the clouds, with high resistance to UV, cold and salinity, and with an ability to utilize air pollutants as nutrients. It is found in all habitats associated with the water cycle. Its size, buoyant density and surface properties determine its high capacity to remain aloft in the air. Studies have shown that the bacteria not only passively travel in the clouds, but are also metabolically active there and might effect the physicochemical properties of the atmosphere. In particular, P. syringae’s ability to induce clouds to form and precipitate might influence solar radiation balance and hydrologic cycle.

Plants are the most important source of microorganisms in outdoor air. The studies of plant-bacteria interactions developed into what became a new field of aerobioogy in the 1900, when American farmers started planting a new hardy crop: Crimean variety of winter wheat released by scientists from the US Department of Agriculture. The wheat monoculture spread from Mexico to Canada creating what was termed the ‘grain belt.’ This plant monoculture was devastated by epidemics of stem rust caused by a pathogenic microorganism which – as it turned out – travelled through the air for many miles. To control the epidemic, a fleet of planes was deployed sampling the atmosphere at all altitudes to map out the organisms’ presence in the air. These samplings demonstrated that microorganisms are present and common at altitudes of clouds and beyond.

Covering the landscape with particular vegetation thus creates conditions for proliferation of microorganisms that favor it, which in turn might have an effect on the processes in the atmosphere and even subsequently affect the climate.

To support our cloud bacteria we are preparing a plant that would nurture and amplify it when it is on the earth’s surface. The plant will be based on a red clover, which is already present in most temperate environments around the globe, thrives in most soils and, as nitrogen fixer, is already mixed in with many crop plants.

LOS and politics of verticality

I came across Eyal Weizman’s articles on politics of veticality when preparing for doing Picture Sky in Israel. Weizman is an architect by training, based in Tel Aviv and one of his projects involved research into urban planning and architectural layouts of Israeli’s occupation settlements, “purpose-built settlements perched on its hilltops, overlooking long-established Palestinian lowland communities.”
He writes: “The government wanted to resettle the mountain and architects needed to learn how to build there, so the Ministry of Housing came up with guidelines that promoted the use of topography for the establishment of observation points. These were new urban typologies that maximized the potential of the mountain and made use of the precise morphology of the topography. Basically, if you look at the master plans of the settlements, the roads retrace the topographical lines that we charted on maps, so that each settlement takes the exact form of the mountain summit and is built around it as a ring that overlooks all directions.”

He describes how 3d reliefs of the terrain were created from stereoscopic images taken by low flying aircraft equipped with a rig of stereo cameras, and says he found it fascinating “how a methodology of design so clearly relied on a technical apparatus – the stereoscopic images became the primary tool with which topographical lines were charted on maps and then provided the slate for the design work itself. The desire to map the West Bank immediately after the occupation showed clearly that you don’t just map things – mapping is an act of proprietorship.”

LOS and politics of visibility

I came across Christina Williamson’s research on visibility as a factor in state formation. Her research “focuses on the internal mechanisms of how landscape is turned into territory by examining political change through the lens of visibility. Visibility and the role of landscape are seldom taken into account in studies on state formation in antiquity. This research will investigate landmark sites and their commanding views as organizing principles, using as case study the renowned city of Pergamon, in Asia Minor (Western Turkey). The working hypothesis is that as it developed into a kingdom in the Hellenistic period, Pergamon became the centripetal focus of a visual network of power constructed from local sacred, heroic, and military landscapes.”

Density of trees in US

From the NASA Earth Observatory, the density of trees in the US.

Compared to the grain belt before the spread of rust epidemics:


fluid states

Margaret Cohen attempts to “delineate concepts at the intersection of modernity’s epistemology and aesthetics that take on particular clarity from the perspective of the maritime world” in her essay Fluid States. In the introduction, she writes: “From the mid-19th through the end of the 20th century, the great cultural theorists delineated a geography of modernity that was primarily land-based. The focus of Marx, Benjamin, or Foucault on terra firma, on territorialized spaces like the nation state, the city, the colony, the home, and the factory, would have surprised Hegel and, indeed, his early-modern predecessors, who lived with a keen awareness of the waterways of global capitalism. Today the history of cross-ocean travel is once more spilling over from the specialized purview of maritime historians and sailors. While narratives of human struggles with the sea’s most inhospitable waters, like Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, Alfred Lansing’s Shackleton, and Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, attract a general public, scholars in the university are organizing the regions of the world’s oceans into new interdisciplinary paradigms such as Atlantic Studies or the recent Oceans Connect project at Duke University.”?
Many humanists and scholars are attempting today to do the same – delineate some concepts at the intersection of epistemology and aesthetics – from the perspective of atmospheric studies. “I seek to leverage these forays into aerology as a way to critique the cultural imaginary of immateriality at the heart of the “dream of absolute communication and universal contact” inherent in the promotion of new media. I propose a meteorology of the media to assist media scholars in redirecting media studies towards considering questions of (im)mediacy,(im)materiality, and (in)visibility in the context of technical innovation and the production of new mediated forms of living,” writes Stephen Groening in Towards the Meteorology of the Media
Silvia Benedito writes: Peter Sloterdijk claims that the present context of atmospheric disruption, and the correspondent collective alertness, calls for a meteorological turn in design, environmental aesthetics, and cultural theory.

Paint by numbers: first closeup of Mars

Finally looked up the image of Mars, made by the Voyager Telecommunications Section employees too impatient to wait for the numbers coming in to resolve themselves into the first ever image from the planet’s surface.

As described in this Scientific American blog post:

How did the image come to be? As Robert B. Leighton wrote in The Photographs from Mariner IV (Scientific American, April, 1966):

“Experience had shown that the best way to send a weak radio signal through space in the presence of background noise is to use a signaling method known as pulse-code modulation. In this signal-coding method the output of an electrical device, whether it be a thermometer or a television camera, is coded into a sequence of “bits,” or binary digits made up of 0?s and 1?s, that represent a particular level of intensity. Accordingly the output of the Mariner IV television camera was translated into a six bit code that identified the brightness of each picture element on a scale that had 64 steps from full black to full white. The 64 steps of the sequence ran from 0 to 63. A sequence of six 1?s represented full black, or no light at all; a sequence of six 0?s represented full white, or maximum light. To encode the information contained in 40,000 picture elements therefore required 240,000 binary digits.

As the signals arrived they were recorded on magnetic tape to provide a permanent record, and they were also typed out simultaneously…on paper tape that resembled adding-machine tape. Many people were clustered around the machines producing these tapes. It was an exciting experience to realize that we were actually receiving knowledge from a man-made machine almost 150 million miles away. Of course we were seeing only a sequence of bare numbers. What would the picture look like? Eight hours seemed an eternity to wait.

Then someone conceived the idea of cutting the tape from one of the printers into short lengths, each containing a series of 200 numbers representing the light intensity of one line of the picture. These sections of tape could be stapled together, one next to the other, to build up a two-dimensional picture of the numbers. To make the picture “readable,” each element was filled in with one of five different colors of crayon, depending on the light level indicated by its numerical code. Each color of crayon was applied by a different person. In this way the first closeup picture of Mars emerged line by line in the form of a hand-colored mosaic. Within the day it was framed and presented to William H. Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

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