Saturday, May 18, 2013

Skywhale: evolution inspired

I recently received an email brining my attention to a new piece of artwork with an evolutionary inspiration.

Patricia Piccininni was recently commissioned to create a piece for Canberra, Australia's 100th birthday.

She imagined:
"My question is what if evolution went a different way and instead of going back into the sea, from which they came originally, they went into the air and we evolved a nature that could fly instead of swim. "
 And then she created the Skywhale:

There were some negative comments, but here is my favorite response about it.

I love the creativity, and admire all of the skill that went into creating it. Like all of her artwork, it makes me a little uncomfortable. But that seems to be her shtick. Generally science fiction is very limited in its imagination of non-human aliens (they all basically look just like humans with a different skin pigmentation or frills on their faces). The Skywhale is... a creature of its own. It is not simply a whale with wings.

But, I also have a hard time thinking about the Skywhale in evolutionary terms (although I do love that she used that as inspiration). Just off the top of my head, I wonder:
- How much lift would something so large need to get off, and stay off the ground?
- What about its skin? The whale evolved for aquatic life - how would it have transitioned to air life while still maintaining similar skin? It would also likely need to have darker pigmentation, or some sort of skin covering (fur? hair?) to prevent skin damage from being out in the direct sun all the time.
- Would it need to lose the blubber because, on land or in the air, it wouldn't need to stay as warm as in the depths of the ocean.
- Why does it have 10 teats? I have nothing against breasts, but 10 doesn't make a lot of sense. A rough rule of thumb is that mammals have twice as many teats as they (usually) have offspring. But also, larger mammals have fewer offspring. So, I would expect the huge Skywhale to have one baby, and two teats.
- And why does it still look like a whale at all. This looks like a whale (that evolved to live in the ocean) suddenly changed to live in the sky. Such a transition would like take millions and millions of years, and it seems very unlikely that its face would still resemble a whale at all.

But, being inspired by science, and conforming to science are two different things.

Fly on Skywhale. Fly on.


Alexis Rudd said...

This is going to probably make some people mad, but from my experience hanging out with art majors in college, my impression was that sometimes they make something that looks cool first, and then make up a reason for making it afterwards.

mathbionerd said...

Lol, that might be true. I have a couple professional artist friends, and find that they truly do make whole themes of work, and spend a lot of time considering the motivation, and the outcome.

But, in some ways, coming up with a motivation (or at least a justification) afterwards is not so different from some scientific endeavors (at least when written up for publication). We set out in one direction, but the data and results take us somewhere we never imagined.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing it could have evolved from a land, or semi-aquatic animal like a hippo. Perhaps it lost its legs, and evolved bouyancy to float, and then the bouyancy mechanism took it to the sky. Maybe the functions of the teats have similarly been coopted to the new function of floatation ... just as wings of birds evolved from feathered arms designed to keep eggs warm.