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Uni project: science-y Christmas cards

Six weeks ago I was given a broad photo project. The possible themes were ‘still life’, ‘a journey’ or ‘a document’, which meant I could shoehorn in anything I wanted; I just needed to come up with something interesting.

I had an idea. It only required dry ice, a prism, fifty light bulbs, and access to a physics lab. So one Saturday morning I was figuring all this out, and at the same time (in an uncharacteristic fit of forward planning) looking for decent non-religious Christmas cards. I idly tweeted about the dearth of good cards from the BHA/NSS, and Andrew of Apathy Sketchpad replied with a comment about making your own. Well, that did it. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, so I changed my entire project in an afternoon1.

So I wanted to produce images for non-religious Christmas cards. Not in an avowedly there-is-no-god way – no need to be a jerk about it – but (somehow) pro-science and secular wonder. My lofty dream result was images that evoked a sense of awe. Not at the aesthetics or my photographic skill or anything2, but at the facets of nature they represented. They’d have a festive air, but be about reality and the joys of discovery. I also wanted them to work as images on their own, but with a ‘something else is going on here’ for anyone interested. If that makes sense.

That’s what I wrote in my project proposal, anyway. I figured this might be pretty difficult in practice, but really I just wanted to produce some cool science-y Christmas cards that I could actually send out. The only catch was the project needed to be on film, so I couldn’t use Photoshop – everything had to be done in-camera.

Anyway, I had good fun with this project, and did eventually produce some actual cards (until WH Smiths ran out of photo-card printing packs, anyway). If anyone’s interested, here are the final results (the captions were printed on the back of the cards):

The Candle Aquatic
The Candle Aquatic
(no Photoshop involved)


Fibonacci Cones
Fibonacci Cones
Pine cones grow to the Fibonacci golden spiral:


Oh say can you C
Oh say can you C
(yes, if you know one Smartie = 15mm)


Bauble Fractals
Bauble Fractals

More info after the break, for anyone interested.

The Candle Aquatic – is an optical puzzle. The tinyurl link shows how it was done. The idea came from here.

Fibonacci Cones – pine cones grow according to fibonacci spirals: the curve that results from connecting sequentially smaller divisions of the golden ratio, which is the ratio between any two sequential numbers in the fibonacci sequence. It’s better explained here.

Bauble Fractals – put four baubles together, and you get fractals. A wada basin, to be exact. The idea came from here.

Oh say you can C – this is an extremely geeky puzzle. You’ve been warned:

Put a bunch of smarties in a microwave and some will explode. This is because that’s how microwaves work – some parts of the food get heated, and this heat spreads throughout and cooks the food. The smarties are smaller than the waves bouncing around the microwave, and only those Smarties at certain points on the wave will get heated. Because Smarties are so small, they can’t spread the heat around, so they just explode. Now, in the middle of the image the yellow smarties spell f lambda: f stands for frequency, lambda stands for wavelength. The frequency of the microwave is how many microwaves it emits per second – this is written on the sticker at the bottom left. The wavelength is the length of these waves, and this is double the distance between exploded smarties (why double? because of the locations of the high-energy points on the wave – see the info page for more details). Multiply the frequency by the wavelength and you get the distance travelled by a wave in a second, which is the speed of light. Or, as it’s commonly referred to: C.

To be fair, this doesn’t quite work as the smarties haven’t exploded at the exact correct distances – there is probably variation in the tendency of smarties to explode – but the concept is sound (I hope). Look, I told you it was geeky.

I enjoyed this project. My teacher is a little bemused, but I had fun :-) Thanks to Andrew for giving me the idea.

  1. my workbook is…messy []
  2. as if []
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