Fog & Physics

Every day, hundreds of visitors to the recently relocated Exploratorium in San Francisco cross a pedestrian bridge between Piers 15 and 17. Here, if the timing is right, they can encounter and play within an immersive fog sculpture. “Fog Bridge” was conceived and designed by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. Its existence as interplay between art, aesthetics, and physics can be traced back more than four decades.

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Fog bridge at the Exploratorium; photograph by Gayle Laird © Exploratorium

Nakaya’s work began in the 1960s during the brief but potent flowering of formal collaborations between artists and engineers. A signature piece of this “art & tech” movement was the Pavilion. Initiated and sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, the multi-media experience that was the Pavilion opened in the spring of 1970 as part of Expo ’70 in Osaka. In an era marked by Big Science – typified by expensive large-scale research collaborations – we can see the Pavilion as the aesthetic analog: Big Art.


The Pavilion at night; Osaka, 1970.

Organized by Experiments in Art and Technology (or E.A.T.), a group co-founded in 1966 by Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver, scores of artists, engineers, and staff worked to bring the Pavilion into existence. Meanwhile, Pepsi poured over some $1.2 million into funding their work.1


Part of the team that made the Pavilion possible.

The Pavilion was the apogee of the “art & tech” movement of the 1960s and, as Klüver often pointed out, one of the grandest art projects of the 20th century. Visually, the most striking thing about the Pavilion, at least from the outside, was how much of it you couldn’t see. This is because the designers of Pavilion decided early on to shroud (perhaps hide?) the Pavilion’s crumpled geodesic-style dome – what one E.A.T. member lampooned as a “Buckled Fuller dome” – with fog.2 This was no natural fog however, but an artificially generated veil of atomized water droplets crafted by Nakaya and engineered by a small California company.


Fujiko Nakaya, c. 2005.

Born in Sapporo in 1933, Fujiko Nakaya was the daughter of Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya. He became well-known in mid-20th century for his path-breaking research on the science of snow.

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Ukichiro Nakaya, c. 1940

For decades, Nakaya – recently featured in a Google doodle – worked to perfect lab techniques for making artificial snow crystals. He then rigorously studied their structure and developed a classification system for them.3

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Nakaya in the lab, c. 1940.

The culmination of Ukichiro Nakaya’s work was a 1954 book published by Harvard University Press called Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial. Snow flakes, he wrote, were “hieroglyphs sent from the sky.”

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Ukichiro Nakaya’s 1954 book

His daughter, Fujiko, took her father’s empirical approach to understanding a specific meteorological phenomenon and applied it to art. After graduating from college in 1959 at Northwestern University, she spent two years at the Sorbonne in Paris where she studied painting. Around 1966, she met Klüver and participated in the (in)famous 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering show at the 69th Street Armory in New York City. When Klüver and E.A.T. got the nod from Pepsi to do the Pavilion, Nakaya became a central person in the project. Besides handling logistics and smoothing over Japanese-American interactions, in Osaka, she designed the fog sculpture that would surround the building.

Producing fog from pure water isn’t easy however. In nature, fog is often produced when the air temperature drops until the air is saturated and water droplets condense. One way to generate artificial fog would be to boil water which, when surrounded by cooler air, condenses. Another would be to dramatically cool the Pavilion’s roof. Both of these approaches would require huge amounts of energy. But there was a third method, the one that Nakaya wanted to do. Fog can also be made by atomizing water i.e. basically spraying tiny droplets of water into the atmosphere.

To realize her aesthetic goal, Nakaya struck up a collaboration with a physicist based in Southern California. Thomas R. Mee moved to the Pasadena area after working on a variety of weather modification projects for Cornell University in the early 1960s. After working a few years for Meteorological Research Inc..4  In 1969, he started his own company. Initially, Mee Industries Inc. made niche instrumentation for weather and pollution studies.

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Tom Mee, shown in 1985.

In June 1969, Nakaya contacted Mee who had never heard of E.A.T. and was unaware of plans to combine art and engineering at the Osaka fair. But he was “impressed by her knowledge of cloud physics” – Mee had met Nakaya’s father and was well-aware of snow research – and her probing questions about how one might go about making fog.

Mee w agreed to meet with Nakaya and experiment with a method in which water was sprayed under high pressure through a very narrow nozzle to produce a dense cloud of tiny water droplets. More experiments and hardware development followed. A few months later, on a hot, dry August day in California, Nakaya and Mee met in his Altadena backyard, set up the equipment – 60 pin-jet nozzles connected to piping in which water was pumped at 500 psi – and successfully tested a prototype system. The result was a large cloud of artificial fog that partially obscured Mee’s house.

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Testing Mee’s fog system, August 1969.

The nest step was to scale up the system in Osaka for the Pavilion. Ultimately, 2,520 of Mee’s specially-crafted nozzles and 11,000 gallons of water an hour would enshroud the Pavilion in an ever-changing fog sculpture some 150 feet in diameter. The humid Osaka air cooled the air around the Pavilion so that the pure white fog that Mee’s system generated poured down over the structure in patterns that Nakaya wanted. To pull this off, Nakaya and a team of specialists carried out detailed monitoring of the environment around the Pavilion site to account for wind speed, humidity, and temperature.


Fog-shrouded Pavilion, Osaka Expo ’70.

After Expo ’70 ended,  Mee’s company eventually began to sell fog-making systems. A patent application he submitted in 1970 cites the possibility of using his system for agricultural purposes, either for cooling areas or frost control, as well as producing a “visible cloud” which can have a “highly decorative and entertaining effect.” By 1985, company sales were approaching $2 million. After some rough financial times as a public company, the company rebounded as Mee’s children – Tom Mee passed away in 1998 – took over the business and a controlling interest in the firm. The company saw a major expansion in 1997 when the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to install fog systems on its four dozen gas turbines to improve their efficiency. Similar orders followed and the company expanded into other areas such as providing cooling for data server installations for companies like Facebook. As of 2014, some 80 people work for the company.

Fujiko Nakaya and Tom Mee maintained a working relationship, with his company providing hardware for her art installations. Since Expo ’70, she has created a variety of fog works – gardens, geysers, falls – at sites around the world including the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Besides the “Fog Bridge” at the Exploratorium, she recently crafted an immersive environmental piece called “Veil” for the Glass House, a work of modern architecture by Philip Johnson from 1949. At the Glass House, Nakaya’s fog appears every 15 minutes or so, obscuring the house (as it did with Pavilion) and making it appear to vanish.

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Nakaya’s fog sculpture at the Glass House, 2014.

As a young artist, Nakaya painted clouds. But, as she told The New York Timesthe activism of the 1960s made her want to interact more directly with the environment and society. Where the elder Nakaya wanted to control and classify the creation of ice crystals, his daughter’s approach is orthogonal – change, chance, and contingency dominate. Both are united, however, in combining physics with an aesthetic sensibility.

  1. Over $7 million in today’s currency. []
  2. This choice stemmed, in part, from the fact that Klüver and the other E.A.T. members disliked the Pavilion’s architecture, which Pepsi selected and a Japanese firm produced. Nakaya’s fog offered a way to obscure it. []
  3. I find Nakaya’s snow research just fascinating;there’s a good graduate student project here… []
  4. This company was started in 1951 by Paul MacCready (1925-2007), a Caltech graduate who later became famous for designing and building the Gossamer Condor, a human-powered aircraft. MacCready later started another southern California company, AeroVironment, which today is one of the largest manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”). []

Of Geese, Gravity, and Subjective Science

Note: A few months ago, I wrote about Bishop Francis Godwin, his 1638 book The Man in the Moone, and the 17th century space race. What started me thinking about this was a series of art installations by the Berlin-based artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis. Since my new research project is exploring the art-science-technology interface, I decided to look further. This post is adapted from a forthcoming essay that will appear in the journal Leonardo

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THE MOON GOOSE EXPERIMENT Island of the Sacred Scarab, launch pad, in the River Ob, near Novosibirsk, RU, 1st Aug. 2008, photograph @ Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG-Bildkunst

On the first of August in 2008, there was a total solar eclipse in Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia. Starting in the late afternoon, the moon slowly slipped in front of the sun. Normally invisible wisps of the solar corona came into view during the brief period of totality as did the planets Mercury and Venus.

But in those few moments of darkness, something else was taking place. On a small island in the River Ob, 65 kilometers south of Novosibirsk, clad in protective gear akin to a hazmat suit, there was a person tethered to thirteen specially trained white geese arranged in a haphazard V-formation. When the eclipse arrived, the early evening sky glowed with a pale and eerie orange-red light. The geese became very calm. Blackness descended. And, for just a moment, the large white birds seemed to vanish from sight. Had they flown? If so – where?

The whole scenario – the geese, the potential passenger, the instrumented chair – was orchestrated by a German installation artist named Agnes Meyer-Brandis. I first learned of her work in 2012 at a meeting in Berlin on “outer space and the end of utopia.” I was really jet lagged and, when Meyer-Brandis began to describe her work, I first was very annoyed. “What kind of academic paper is this?” I thought. Then – almost simultaneously – all of the tired American academics (the Berliners, of course, knew the story) realized she was parodying the presentation of a research paper while showcasing her own work. The tension broke and the talk was the best part of the entire meeting.

For years, Meyer-Brandis had been intrigued by the perceptions and realities around what calls “gravitational anomalies.” To investigate these, she founded an Institute for Art and Subjective Science at Berlin’s decommissioned Tempelhof Airport. As the institute’s symbol, Meyer-Brandis adopted the same twin tools of Galilean gravitational investigation that Apollo 15 astronauts used on the moon in 1971 – a hammer and a feather.

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Symbol-laden logo for Meyer-Brandis’ research enterprise.

Meyer-Brandis’ “Moon Geese” projects were originally inspired by her discovery of Bishop Francis Godwin’s book. Godwin’s book – arguably the first work of science fiction in English – centered on the experiences of a Domingo Gonsales who is flown to the moon by a special breed of geese.

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She decided to extend Godwin’s account as part of an exploration of what she called “subjective science.” These investigations – what will happen if I try this? what will I see? – drop exploratory probes into the working worlds of both the laboratory researcher and the studio artist. “I was wondering,” she said with mock seriousness, “if these cosmic phenomena would somehow influence the behavior of moon geese. Maybe they take off and fly to the moon with such a phenomenon?”1

Faced with what she playfully labeled as “inconclusive results” in Siberia, Meyer-Brandis decided further experimentation was needed. Perhaps the problem rested with the birds. In 2011, Meyer-Brandis moved her project to Pollinaria, a village in east-central Italy, to launch an experiment of longer duration. Her Moon Goose Colony started with eleven new birds, each named after a spaceflight pioneer.2 It was a cosmopolitan flock. Besides Yuri, Neil, and Buzz, there was Valentina, for the first woman to go into space, Rakesh, named for the first Indian in space. And, of course, there was Gonsales.

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The Astronauts, Videostill, Moon Goose Colony @ Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG-Bild Kunst

Meyer-Brandis combined her interest in the peculiarities of gravity with forays into ethology and human-animal relations. As the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz demonstrated in the 1930s – work that helped him win a share of a Nobel Prize in 1973 – newly hatched goslings imprint on their parents. Short films created by Meyer-Brandis show her flock trailing her everywhere and getting quite vocal in their distress when she took a short break. For me, the most haunting image from this experimentation is this:

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Videostill @ Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG-Bild Kunst

Training days were packed full of activities designed to foster their training as potential moon-bound gansas. A wooden rig similar to what Godwin described helped the geese learn the proper V-formation.

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LUNAR BIKE, Astronaut Training Method No. VII, Videostill, Moon Goose Colony @ Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG-Bildkunst

Despite such resolute training, in the films Meyer-Brandis made, the presumed moon geese seem determined to remain earth-bound. More training was obviously needed. Therefore, she built a simulated lunar crater field at the newly christened “Pollinaria Institute of Technology.” Inspired by the Mars-500 mission, an international psychological experiment to simulate the isolation of long-term space travel, the “Moon Geese Analogue”  (a video of this work – well-worth watching – is here) facility she built provides ample space for the geese to gain experience for the harsh lunar conditions they might one day encounter. Goose-made tracks in the dirt seem to mimic boot prints left by astronauts on the lunar surface. Only the availability of air, the lack of weightlessness, and ample bird droppings disturb the Moon Geese Analogue’s verisimilitude as a training platform.

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ANALOGUE TRAINING, Astronaut Training Method No. XVI, Videostill, Moon Goose Colony @ Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG-Bild Kunst

Human space voyagers, once launched into space, must maintain close communication with mission control. The Moon Goose Analogue Control Room, a portable installation Meyer-Brandis built, was opened to the public in 2012. Visitors could monitor the moongeese  in real-time as they pecked and waddled across the simulated lunar surface hundreds of miles away at their training base in Italy. Internet communication channels provided two-way live video and audio feed between the Control Room and the Analogue. Telemetry showed data about the geese’s habitat and other experimental conditions.

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THE MOON GOOSE ANALOGUE: Lunar Migration Bird Facility Liverpool, Control Room installation, exhibition view, FACT Liverpool 2011, @ Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG-Bildkunst

Like Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, Meyer-Brandis’ “subjective science” experiments blend the playful with the probing. Separated by centuries, both Godwin and Meyer-Brandis have created a delicate yet durable alloy of artistic creativity and scientific inquiry.

In questioning what is science and what is experience, Meyer-Brandis also forces a reconsideration of what an experiment – something done, after all, to test the boundary between known and the unknown – really is. With work inhabiting the subjunctive and the subjective, she maintains a serious composure broken only by a winking awareness that, unfortunately, moon geese don’t exist. But there is nothing dishonest in her presentation. The degree to which an observer believes depends on how much they appreciate the gravity of the experimenter’s working life. Like Bishop Godwin, she takes us on a fantastic voyage to a liminal space just beyond the boundaries of believability.

  1. Kadhim Shubber, “This German artist is training geese to fly to the moon,” Wired.UK, 9 September 2013 []
  2. THE MOON GOOSE ANALOGUE: Lunar Migration Bird Facility” by Agnes Meyer-Brandis was commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT, in partnership with Pollinaria. „The Moon Goose Colony, P1“ is a Pollinaria project by Agnes Meyer-Brandis. []

Science (and Science History) for the Public

This past weekend, scholars met in Chicago for the annual meeting of the History of Science Society. A big highlight – for me at least – was that my book The Visioneers won the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize which “promotes public understanding of the history of science.”

I was especially pleased to see that my book’s award came on the heels of last year’s winner, David Kaiser’s romping How the Hippies Saved Physics. Given that a few of the same characters appear in both books, is it possible that HSS now stands for Hippie Studies Society. :) So, who were Watson and Helen Miles Davis?

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This question takes us to some interesting places in the history of how journalists, working with scientists, communicated new research discoveries to the general public. All of this activity unfolded against a backdrop of tremendous change, not just in science, but media technologies as well as public taste and expectations.

Watson Davis and Helen Miles were both born in 1896. As a young man, Watson trained to be an engineer but also had an interest in bringing news about science to a wider audience.

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Watson Davis, seated, 1920s photo (source: Smithsonian Institution)

In 1921, he was appointed Managing Editor of a new organization called Science Service. Now known as the Society for Science and the Public, Science Service was started that same year by journalist Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William Emerson Ritter.1  Its mission was to informed the public of the latest achievements in science. As Scripps said, their organization should “tell the millions outside the laboratories and the lecture halls what was going on inside.”2 At the same time, the service had to be perceived not as a cheerleader for science but rather an objective and reliable source of information for the public and newspaper editors. These activities were largely funded by Scripps who donated  $30,000 per year from 1921 until his death in 1926. His will put $500,000 in a trust for Science Service which provided an endowment for three more decades.

Davis himself became director of Science Services in 1933, a position he held until 1966. He was married to Helen Miles (1896-1957) who herself was involved with science communication; she edited the journal Chemistry which the American Chemical Society published.

The history of Science Service’s and Davis’s professional life gives a fascinating window into all sorts of important events throughout the mid-20th century, some connected with science, some not. These are all the more fascinating given the huge changes that took place within the scientific establishment and mass media industries during this time.

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William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being interrogated by Clarence Darrow, during the Scopes trial (Source).

For example, Science Service provided extensive coverage of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Watson Davis went to Dayton to cover the proceedings. His photographs, as well as the official reports broadcast by Science Service, gave Americans a different sense of the controversy stirred by the “trial of the century” than they might otherwise have received from other news services. Two decades later, Science Service was one of the organs – along with the New York Times which had an inside scoop – that communicated the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the American public.

Although initially intended as a news service, Science Service produced an extensive and sophisticated set of products that spanned several different forms of media. Besides These included radio programs, motion pictures, phonograph records, and science demonstration kits that would be distributed through the mail.

Under Watson Davis’s directorship, Science Services also organized science fairs. The first Science Talent Search (originally sponsored by Westinghouse and now sponsored by Intel since 1998), was held in 1942. The first two winners were Paul Teschan who went on do research in nephrology and Marina Prajmovsky who had a career as an ophthalmologist.

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Watson Davis (center) with winners of ’42 science fair, Teschan and Prajmovsky

During the Davis’s career, science as well as the technologies of mass communication transformed. Science Service learned how to occupy a middle ground; it had to maintain enough public appeal (and, sometimes, sensationalism) to newspaper editors and radio hosts while not alienating the scientists and engineers who valued accuracy. During Davis’s tenure, the entire scientific enterprise in the U.S. transformed. Big Science, secrecy, and massive government-funded laboratories became the norm while science and scientists became newsworthy. New fields like cosmology, nuclear physics, and molecular biology became prominent while older ways of doing and funding research faded. When Davis started his career, newsprint was king and radio was just starting; both were becoming rapidly commercialized. By the time of his death in 1967, televised news dominated.

Science Service occupied a curious position in the science/reporting/public ecosystem of the mid-20th century. It was a not-for-profit independent news organization yet its goal was to promote understanding of science in a way that would not offend scientists yet would also appeal to publishers who bought its products. As Marcel LaFollette writes, Watson Davis’s appointment as Science Service’s director in 1933 was a “compromise that placed public interest and marketplace appeal first” but also responded to public demand for more stories about technological innovation while still, of course, attending to scientists’ concerns about accuracy.

It’s interesting to juxtapose the output of Science Service with other later ventures aimed to connect science and scientists with a broader audience. In the late 1970s, for example, there was a veritable boom in popular science. Dozens of new science and technology magazines, newspaper sections, and TV shows about science and technology appeared. One of the more curious critters to emerge was Omni magazine.

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Omni wasn’t a direct competitor to “establishment” publications like Scientific American or shows like NOVA but existed in a class of its own. Instead it was more of a “para-scientific” publication that reported on recent developments in science and technology but for a non-elite audience. Besides presenting popular science discoveries, Omni crossed borders into areas – the paranormal, fringe science, and fantasy – that more mainstream magazines like Scientific American wouldn’t touch. Like the Science Service, Omni was part of a longer trend of science communication efforts shaped in varying degrees by entertainment values.

Watson Davis and Science Service mastered the art of productive compromise – giving the public an engaging presentation while still maintaining respect for accuracy. As Davis wrote in 1960, “science is news, good news…that can compete…with crime, politics, human comedy and pathos.” At the same time, it could be “written popularly so as to be accurate in fact and implication and yet be good reading.”3 I’m proud to see Visioneers recognized with the Davis Prize.

  1. The creation of Science Service and its activities are documented wonderfully by historian Marcel LaFollette in a series of books. []
  2. Quote from article. []
  3. Watson Davis, “The Rise of Science Understanding,” in Smithsonian Archives []