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Can You Imagine a George Lucas Museum?
“I’m a storyteller at heart,” Star Wars mastermind George Lucas says at the beginning of his proposal for a new museum to be built on the grounds of San Francisco’s Presidio, “and I understand the power of a visual image to tell a story.” The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, the proposed name for the museum, “will be a center highlighting populist art from some of the great illustrators of the last 150 years through today’s digital art used to create animated and live-action movies, visual effects, props and sketches.” Many museums offer exhibitions or departments dedicated to this brand of “populist art,” but Lucas’ museum, relying heavily on its founder’s personal collection (and $300 million USD of his money), will explore that art and its influence on an unprecedented scale. A veritable “Death Star” of public-friendly art, The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum boggles the imagination with possibility. Can you imagine a George Lucas museum?
When the Presidio opened the floor for bids for proposals for the use of the newly available ground, 16 different bidders threw their hat into the ring. I’m sure that they’re all great ideas (a proposed National New Deal Museum sounds especially intriguing), but Lucas’ bid stands out from the crowd, not just because of undeniable star power and Star Wars cash, but also for the epic scope of the idea itself. Lucas never thinks small. “As a popular artist, I hit the same chord with people that [Norman] Rockwell hit, that Michelangelo hit, that the people who painted on caves in France hit,” Lucas told one interviewer. “I relate to art more as an emotional experience than as an intellectual experience.” Most people would hesitate before putting Rockwell, Michelangelo, and the Lascaux cave painters in the same sentence, let alone putting themselves in the same category, but Lucas unashamedly (perhaps grandiosely) goes with his gut, just as he does in his experiencing of art.
Lucas’ skill in synthesizing ancient mythology and modern technology in his films comes into play beautifully in his proposed museum. The filmmaker sees all these disparate artists “united by their ability to capture our shared cultural story—from Rockwell’s pencil sketches to computer generated moving images.” “More than just exhibiting illustration and technological innovation,” the proposal continues, “this cross-section of art can help to describe and define our culture—its past, present, and future. It provides a unique way to see what’s emotionally important to us as a society and how we communicate those feelings without words.” Lucas wants to offer a way to understand that often ineffable emotional appeal of the art that resonates the most deeply with us and roots most deeply into our culture. Whether he (or anyone) can make the ineffable “effable” remains to be seen.
The museum will house most of Lucas’ personal art collection, which he claims has outgrown his 6,000-acre Skywalker Ranch. The first section will feature the best of American illustration, including Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, J.C. Leyendecker, and others often denigrated as “merely” illustrators. Just as the Delaware Art Museum’s 2011-2012 exhibition Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered (which I reviewed here) argued for the continued influence on the American imagination of an artist most people didn’t even know, Lucas’ museum aims to rediscover and reposition these artists often shouldered to the side of other museums. Likewise, the masters of children’s illustration, such as Arthur Rackham, John Tenniel, and Jessie Willcox Smith come out of their corner. “Countless children worldwide continue to come of age with some of the same illustrated stories that have long helped teach right from wrong, nurture young imaginations, and create the magic of story-time each night,” the proposal argues, hoping to prove that kid’s stuff isn’t just for kids, but also for the adults those kids become. Speaking of kid’s stuff, Lucas’ museum will also find room for comic art, with everything from Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant to Mad Magazine. “Perhaps no more irreverent art form exists,” argues the proposal, “yet artistically, comics and cartoon art can be technically sophisticated and witty and are the precursor to early animated movies.”
Lucas’ museum would connect the dots between still and moving pictures seamlessly. As the proposal proposes, comics and cartoons were “a refined kind of visual storytelling, [that] essentially morphed into the use of storyboards to make intricate adventure and fantasy films.” It’s one small step from Ming the Merciless to Darth Vader, but one giant leap from the page to the screen. When Lucas’ museum ventures into Vader territory, the Star Wars stamp is unmistakable, but justified. In the “Cinematic Art and Design—Fashion Design, Costumes” department, the museum will celebrate “the artistry of the cinematic process,” specifically “[t]he intense design processes involved in filmmaking—whether it’s storyboarding and model-making, or costume and set design—[that] have rippled through the broader culture, providing inspiration and sparking creativity.” Even if you didn’t like Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, you probably remember the first time you saw Natalie Portman regally dressed as Queen Amidala (shown above; costume designed by Trisha Biggar). The Asian and Middle Eastern influences of that costume and much of the Star Wars look resonate in ways that we the viewers hardly notice, but now could notice thanks to this museum.
The culmination of all this populist art is digital art. Lucas sees digital art as just the latest innovation in a long continuum reaching back to those cave drawings. “The latest renaissance in techniques used by artists to tell their stories came about with the invention of computers,” the proposal argues, harking back to the days of da Vinci. “The current evolution of digital technology allows artists new flexibility and control over their visions… to tell stories and create imagery in ways that hadn’t been possible before.” I’m not a fan of the word “evolution,” because it implies to some people “improvement,” which I don’t think is Lucas’ intent. Instead, I think Lucas makes a valid, and illuminating, point that if da Vinci had an iPad, he would have used that instead of paint on a wood panel. “Renaissance” is much more applicable in the sense of a continuous “rebirth” of imagination fueled by the latest technology.
Is The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum hubris of the highest level? Has George Lucas bought into his own hype? It had to be heady stuff to be called “the greatest artist of our time” by Camille Paglia in her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (which I reviewed here). “[George Lucas] is a man of machines yet a lover of nature,” Paglia gushes in her book, “his wily persona of genial blandness masking one of the most powerful and tenacious minds in contemporary culture.” With this proposed museum, Lucas’ days of “genial blandness” may finally be over, as he steps out of the shadows and stakes a claim for populist art as being on the same tier as “highbrow” fine art. Lucas’ proposal calls “[t]he construction and endowment of The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum… a gift from George Lucas to the Bay Area,” but it really sounds like a gift to the world. I doubt Lucas will need a Jedi mind trick (or a Jedi mind meld) to convince the selection committee to pick his plan, but if you want to add your comments, you can do so here. For a museum of populist art conceived by the most popular filmmaker of our time, a little vox populi seems like the perfect “force” to make this dream a reality.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."