Art of Science: July – Golden Memories

Art of Science Golden Memories Ullrich Bartsch July 2015

Science is amazing. Science is advancement. And sometimes, science is art. Each month this year Memetic Drift will feature a winning image from the University of Bristol’s Art of Science competition 2014.


It is often quoted that “all models are wrong, but some are useful” – George E. P. Box, mathematician.

A model is a simplified representation of a complex system, both in art and science. The simplification process is the source of a model’s wrongness, but also its usefulness.

Scientific models are built using what we know so far, often pulling together many strands of research. If you can get it to behave like the system it’s based on, that’s a sign you understand the key components. Then you can start pushing the boundaries. The model is ready to be tested in new situations, perhaps running experiments that can’t easily be done in the lab.

These models are “wrong” because they can never truly predict to infinite accuracy every aspect of the system. If that were to happen, you’d have a duplicate of the entire universe rather than a model of a small part of it!

Of course, models are also wrong and useful in art. Sculptors and landscapers tasked with creating large pieces will design miniature approximations first, called maquettes. They act like 3D sketches and may be physical or computer generated, but give the artist a good idea of whether a design works well and how it might be improved. And I’m sure everyone’s been made to draw those posable wooden model people at some point during their school life!

July’s Art of Science winner is essentially a model of a model of a nerve cell in the brain. Golden Memories was created by Ullrich Bartsch from the School of Physiology and Pharmacology based on computer models from neuromorpho.org, a neuron imaging database.

Specifically, the cell is a hippocampal pyramidal cell, known to be important in memory formation. These cells were a key feature of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. It was won for the discovery that some of these cells fire only when the animal is positioned in a certain location. This forms a kind of internal GPS within the brain that allows you to readily navigate around a familiar place.

So is this model “wrong”? Well, technically yes. Besides accuracy, Ullrich also had practical considerations. The model had to come out of the 3D printer successfully and then hold itself together and remain on the stand! But it’s useful as there’s a lot that can be learned from it, such as the huge mass of dendrites coming off the front and back. These link up to other neurons, providing the connections that gives our brain such astounding complexity.

Ullrich is currently working on the fascinating topic of sleep’s importance in memory and mental health. He wants to understand how different parts of the brain interact during sleep and how this gets disrupted in people with mental health problems.

Art of Science Golden Memories Ullrich Bartsch  July 2015

Golden Memories. Photograph courtesy of Ben Cowburn

Next month’s image might put you in stitches…


The annual Art of Science competition at the University of Bristol bridges the perceived divide between art and science, showing images which visually demonstrate that the pursuit of knowledge can be as beautiful as it is fascinating. 

This year there were three prize categories; Judges’ vote, People’s vote, and Schools’ vote. Each category had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize, and a runner-up. Golden Memories won 2nd prize in the People’s vote. Image used with permission. 

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