Reflections on a Pandemic Rainbow

Oil Painting - Pandemic Rainbow, March 2020

Oil Painting from March 2020 Entitled “Pandemic Rainbow”

While I give it my best to be the adult and hopefully a halfway decent parent, often it is my children who end up guiding and grounding me.

One example of this was mid-March 2020. We were far enough in to know that COVID was serious, but it was still a largely inconceivable looming horror that had hardly begun to hit home. I had followed the story since before the disease cancelled Lunar New Year celebrations abroad, so I was not quite as surprised as some seemed to be. Still, I am pretty sure I was in shock.

Honestly, I think I might still be in shock.

At that time, though, my brain still wanted to treat COVID as a theoretical construct, not something…real. I had yet to have a case reach the outskirts of my personal orbit, let alone see a dear one pass or begin to experience the painful details of how everything would go. I was already thinking of collateral concerns that for so many were already more pressing than the disease but, for me, it was all processing like a computer with too many programs running, a computer with not just a mind, but a heart that was overwhelmed as well…and I know I was among the luckier ones…

The first case was confirmed on Long Island by March 5th. A week later, in what felt like a watershed moment, the NBA suspended its season right at the tipoff of a Jazz/Thunders game while at the same time Tom Hanks told the world he was sick. The next day a “temporary” school closing was announced, followed promptly by the shutdown of just about everything.

Teachers, parents and children turned on a dime to transform education as offices also emptied into homes. Overnight, Zoom went from being a cool app someone had suggested we play with, to the platform that would host most human encounters for the next two years.

In true apocalyptic fashion, folks that couldn’t stay home were suddenly being called heroes. This was an honor some immediately warned was less than empty and that others are actively praying we will more substantially appreciate to this day. Given the scarcity of tests and plethora of potential symptoms, it was fairly impossible to tell whether one had hay fever or might kill grandma.

This was just a sliver of the world’s hardships, with some facing suffering far worse than others. Already, we were realizing there wasn’t even sufficient protective gear for nurses. Hoarding was a concern. We were in it deep. There was hardly any toilet paper. Coming together as a nation seemed sadly and painfully less likely than ever, but at least folks were washing their hands.

With hardly any discussion it suddenly became perfectly legal to get take-out cocktails. Fellow Gen Xers were filling my Facebook newsfeed the way many of my friends do when things are stressful, scary and beyond our control: One part public service announcement, two parts “how y’all doin’ out there?” and three parts bad jokes as we collectively decided this was all way too serious not to laugh. It all seemed terribly surreal, especially when paired with the emergence of Tiger King, the unbelievable, utterly meme-able Netflix documentary about an ill-fated private zookeeper. We didn’t watch it here, but we couldn’t miss it either. Somehow, it seemed to fit.

Me? I was doing what I generally do in times of crisis, shunting aside feelings and endeavoring to be useful, going into overdrive to keep things moving and to share news of so many wonderful folks I saw giving it their best to be of service…teachers, human service providers, scientists and so many folks who sew or learned to sew just for the occasion. Grateful for so many artists and librarians rising to a quarantined call, I was also warmed by the concept of “Rainbows across Nassau and Suffolk Counties,” which were largely drawn by children and starting to appear everywhere.

I thought it would be nice to publish one. I asked my youngest, who had just turned 12, “Would you please draw me a rainbow for my newsletter?”

My daughter is a born artist. It’s just who she is. At this particular time in life, she was also (hopefully) at a height of adolescent prickliness toward her mother. Perhaps, this time at least, it was well deserved. She gave me a drawing she wouldn’t have been satisfied with when she was three.

“I’m not using this.”

“Use it.”

“Well, I’m not putting your name on it.”

”Fine.”

So…I used it. Without her name. She was fine with that.

A child's drawing of a rainbow

A few days later, I was up late working. It was sometime after midnight when she emerged from her room, came to my desk and thrust her arm forward.

“You want my rainbow? Here’s my rainbow!”

I looked at it, a ragged, shaken assault of color. Marks that looked like tiger swipes tore through it. Other areas were marred by splotches of brown as though dirt and other…stuff…had been hurled at it. Smears of white evoked flashes of terror…and…contagion….

I was stricken to see my heart laid bare on her canvas. Her heart laid bare on her canvas?

“I’ve never used oils before,” she said, her voice sweet and childlike as she considered her work. Funny how they switch back and forth so suddenly at that age, “I’m really pleased with how I got this wash along the edges…”

She’d always been all about the process, even when she was three…

I looked her in the eye. She looked back. Words went unspoken. Feelings, however, I think, transmitted. She retreated to the room that would become her fortress, her cocoon for the next several months.

The painting remained beside me, saying more than either she or I had words for. It got me to pause. It got me to think. It forced me to allow the weight of the situation to settle, to allow her the space she needed to process, to be a bit more mindful with her and all I encountered.

The work was soon followed by a similarly abstract piece entitled “Earth Day.”

“I sure hope we get it together.” was all she said.

“Me, too.”

Oil Paintins, "Earth Day" April 2020

Prints of “Pandemic Rainbow” (top of article) and “Earth Day” (immediately above) are available at The Firefly Artists in Northport. While she’s not nearly as attached to them as I am, the originals are not for sale. I am grateful to the galley for hosting these pieces, and for everyone who gives it their best to make the best of things and guide others to see the light. It matters more than we know. Thank you.

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Firefly Lights – December 2020

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On Sunflower’s Golden Spirals

Photo credit: Esdras Calderan/wikipedia (CC BY 2.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Espiral_de_semillas_de_Girasol.jpg
 
I’d like to talk about patterns. In particular, the pattern that you might see if you look at the sunflower above.*
(Photo credit: Esdras Calderan/wikipedia (CC BY 2.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Espiral_de_semillas_de_Girasol.jpg )
 

Before you even think about it, I’m sure you can see spirals. Maybe you see them whirling clockwise, maybe counter-clockwise. Let your eyes refocus and another set of spirals will appear. They almost seem to pop out in your vision, but hang on; which is it? Are they going left or are they going right?

We have an incredible talent for picking out patterns out of noise; you can recognize a friend in a crowd or a familiar song over construction noises without thinking about it. Our sense for patterns is so sharp that we see faces in the moon or in potato chips, or shapes in the clouds. This is probably for the better; thinking you saw some food, some hidden danger, or even a friend where there is none is a lot safer than missing the one that actually is there, so I’d definitely take some silly crossed signals in exchange for this power of ours.

These are harmless examples, but there is a dark side. Gamblers see patterns in their wins and losses and make catastrophic bets. Con-artists exploit us, claiming to tell the future or read minds. Confirmation bias is a dangerous habit that has pervaded our political discourse, where we pick out evidence and patterns in data that suit our preferred answer. We don’t do this with ill-intent; it’s something our patterned-tuned brains do beyond our control. We can only fight it if we watch ourselves, think twice, and double check the news we forward it to our friends.

We also see patterns on another level; we find curious connections throughout the world, linking ideas that don’t seem related. Sometimes it looks like magic, others like design. Sometimes, it’s our minds searching for something that’s not there. As a scientist, this can be frustrating for me. I see articles about psychic powers and fake science, dangerous alternative medicine, and this prevailing tendency to make science mystical and unknowable. I think many people would be surprised as to how much they can understand with a little patience. We don’t need to scrutinize every detail in our experience, but I don’t like it when people assume that that is beyond them. Sometimes, with some care, the microscope lets us peel back the veil of nature and find the truth behind a pattern.

Picture

Photo credit: Max Ronnersjö/wikipedia (CC-BY-SA-3.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aeonium_tabuliforme.jpg
 
The Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio are patterns that pop up all the time in nature and in media. The Fibonacci sequence follows a simple rule; I start with the first two numbers, 1 and 1. If I add these numbers I get 2. If I add the 2nd and 3rd numbers (1 and 2) I get three. Add the 3rd and 4th I get 5, etc. The sequence looks like , etc. It sounds like the kind of thing a bored mathematician would do for fun, but it has a peculiar habit of showing up all over nature. Plants seem especially fond of it; you can see it in the arrangement of leaves on a stem, the scales of pineapples, and as it happens, the florets of a sunflower. If you go back to that first picture of a sunflower and counted the spirals in the seeds, you’d notice something interesting. I can pick out spirals at a bunch of different angles and directions, but the number is always a Fibonacci number.
 

Picture

Photo credit: Esdras Calderan/wikipedia (CC BY 2.0) Fibonacci Spirals added by Spencer Thomas
 

This is a peculiar quirk of the way these florets grow. The plant spirals out as it produces them, following a rule – each seed is some angle from the last. This angle happens to be a full  divided by , where  (the Greek letter ‘phi’) is the Golden Ratio, about equal to 1.618.

Like the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio appears everywhere in nature. People have known about this number for a very long time; the ancient Greek sculptor Phidias (400s BCE) worked it into much of his art. A quick google search will tell you how people have associated it with the ratios of beautiful faces, sections in pieces of music, etc. The ratio itself also has some neat properties, for example  (in fact  is sometimes likened to ’s little brother).

So what does  have to do with Fibonacci number? The two are intimately related. If I divide the 1st and 2nd Fibonacci numbers (1 and 1), I get 1. The 2nd and 3rd (1 and 2) give me 2, the 3rd and 4th give me 1.5, then 1.666…, then 1.6, etc. If I keep picking later and later Fibonacci numbers, I get closer and closer to . That’s that mystery solved, but why does a sunflower care? Sunflowers probably don’t know math, but they’re also not stupid. They’re carefully optimized by evolution to make the most out of what they’ve got; their mission is to fit as many seeds as possible onto their face. As a material scientist, I could tell you the very best way to do that looks like this:

 

Picture

Diagram provided by Spencer Thomas
 

It looks a lot like a honeycomb and that is no mistake. This is how bees achieve the same goal, but the sunflower kinda wrote itself into a corner. The spiraling mechanism that sunflowers use to grow can’t make a honeycomb; it’s terrible at making packed arrangements, always leaving some empty space. Instead of completely altering how the sunflower grows to solve this problem, evolution tuned it to do the very best with what it has, and  with its Fibonacci spirals happens to be the optimal turning angle.

It was shown by J.N. Ridley**  that this is the best possible way to pack seeds on a sunflower’s disc and this video is a beautiful demonstration of the idea. What it comes down to is that  is almost 21/34, and it’s almost 34/55, and almost almost 55/81, but these are all really bad estimates. By comparison, 22/7 is a pretty good estimate for Pi. You need really large numbers to get a ratio that’s close to, so a turning angle of  is a sunflower’s best hope at making the messiest spirals it can.

Give yourself some credit; that sunflower is doing everything it can to hide its spirals, but you can still see them clear as day!

Spencer Thomas recently received his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He is now doing his Postdoc at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He also happens to be Katie’s brother. Spencer studies metals at the atomic level; the way atoms are arranged in a material can change its properties; one can take ordinary metals make them stronger, more flexible, corrosion resistant, even radiation resistant.

Spencer believes that no matter who you are, good communication can put scientific concepts within reach. The modern world demands scientific literacy and it is the responsibility of scientists to make that possible.

 

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Dr. Kate Creasey-Krainer seems as much an elegant permaculturalist, dedicated to environmental health and sustainability, as she is a highly trained and published plant geneticist. She believes that science is only as good as the integrity of the science communication with those of us who aren’t experts.

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