Thomassons: extinct architecture

The 99% invisible is a brilliant podcast. I was alerted to the so-called Thomassons. These are architectural artefacts who have lost their function, but, and this is crucial: are still being maintained. For – essentially – no reason whatsoever. It is surprisingly hard to find images that exemplifies it. What I find fascinating, is the “used to be useful – now it is useless – we paint it anyway”. You could, I suppose, call it architectual evolutionary dead ends. Perhaps they are a comment on our society, but the point is they seem unconscious and somehow invisible. Look for them, they are extinct, architectural species.

The Arabesque

Islamic art and the patterns of the infinite

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine what exactly encompasses Islamic art. The term is not specific to a religion, place, time or even a field, and instead spans over 1400 years and receives influences from Roman, early Christian, Byzantine and even Chinese art. Although some think Islamic art is a false concept, the similarities between pieces of the Islamic world is what have kept scholars using the term.

An element that repeats in Islamic art is the arabesqueso much that it’s been called “the definitive characteristic in all Islamic art”. Because Muslims believe in the absolute and complete unity of God, Islamic artists had to develop a form of art that did not include any symbolic representation of God. Instead, arabesques use floral and vegetal patterns to symbolize the transcendent, the indivisible and the infinite.

Here’s something interesting about arabesques: They can contain mistakes. Some experts believe these errors in the repetitions were intentionally produced to show the humility of the artists who believed only God could create perfection.

Famous works of architecture that feature arabesques include the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Taj Mahal and the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain.



Medieval menagerie: the battle between knight and snail

In a lot of medieval manuscripts, there are depictions of knights fighting snails. No one seems to know why this is. There are some theories, but so far nothing really conclusive. It might look like some sort of insider thing, maybe among scribes or illuminators. I love that sort of thing: mysteries in plain sight. Delightful. Bizarre.

The British library

Hunting for snails


You know you want one: science nerd merit badges

Out of the generosity of the Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique I have been allowed to recreate their science nerd merit badges. You can find the indexed list here, or you can go directly to my Cafépress profile. No, this will not in any way make me rich and/or famous, but it might just pay for a few buttons for myself.

I do take requests, should you have a smashing idea.

The destroyer of quackery-badge:

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Dress to impress: Sexual selection and birds of paradise

There are an estimated 42 species of bird of paradise in New Guinea, and they all look completely different.

Females choose mates based on the condition and colour of the males’ plumage, so males puff their feathers, vibrate and buzz to attract their attention. Some even transform their bodies into strange, geometrical abstractions. If successful, these aesthetically pleasing features will be passed down to the next generation, process known as sexual selection.

On an island with very few predators, you don’t compete for resources. You compete for mates.

The majority of birds of paradise are sexual dimorphic and polygamous (males with the spectacular plumage that has come to typify the Paradisaeidae family, and females with a more conservative look of lackluster grays and browns). But not all of them look as surprisingly different, and those that don’t tend to be monogamous. Apparently, their diets are not as rich as those of the colourful species, so male and female must both help finding food. This leaves no time for complex courtships.

The dances the male birds of paradise perform evolve over time according to the tastes of the females. Unfortunately, there are trends as well: If a dance routine becomes too commonplace, females lose interest.

Some quick facts about birds of paradise:

  • Carola’s Parotia bird of paradise performs some of the most complex courtship dances in the animal kingdom.
  • The Greater bird of paradise was named Paradisaea apoda (“footless bird-of-paradise”) because feet had been removed from the first specimens that arrived in 16th-century Europe.
  • There are a number of hybrid birds of paradise due to crossbreeding between distinct species.
  • A male Raggiana bird of paradise is featured on the New Guinean national flag.

Photograph by Tim Laman, from National Geographic’s Paradise Found collection (more photos and videos here):


Colour guide anno 1692

A dutch artist – known only as A. Boogert – created a book of colours in 1692. Describing the use of colour in painting, s/he created an 800-page book with instructions on how to create hues and tones. It blows my mind, actually. The work, the meticulousness, the systematics, and not least: a book like that would not really be possible to reproduce back then. So this tremendous amount of work… for a prototype. I doff my hat to you, A. Boogert. (You can see the entire book here.).

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