Ada Lovelace Day: Katherine Jones-Smith and the Pollock Fractals


It's Ada Lovelace Day!

Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852) is often referred to as the world's first computer programmer. The daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, and the admired intellect, Annabella Milbanke, Ada Lovelace represented the meeting of two alternative worlds: the romanticism and art of her father versus the rationality and science of her mother. In her attempt to draw together these polar opposites and create a 'poetical science' during the Victorian age, Ada collaborated with the renowned mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage. (source)

I'm betting famous names like Marie Curie and Emmy Noether get lots of love from other bloggers, so I decided to blog about a contemporary woman, an early-career researcher who bridges technology, art and science: Katherine Jones-Smith of Case Western Reserve University.

Over the past several years, Jones-Smith has been involved in an ongoing controversy over a proposed fractal method for authenticating the paintings of Jackson Pollock. The controversy began in 1999, when Richard Taylor, a physics professor at the University of Oregon, claimed to have identified a distinctive fractal geometry in 14 authentic Pollock paintings.

When a cache of unknown paintings, possibly by Pollock, were uncovered in 2003, Taylor used his fractal method to evaluate their authenticity. In a 2006 Nature study, Taylor ruled that they lacked the fractal geometry of an authentic Pollock, and that the variability between the paintings suggested they had been done by not one master, but several different artists.

Enter Katherine Jones-Smith. Then a physics grad at Case, Jones-Smith released her own Nature paper in 2006, in which she showed that an intentionally rudimentary doodle of stars was "fractal" enough to satisfy Taylor's definition of a Pollock (which Taylor disputed). Jones-Smith and her co-author, Harsh Mathur, questioned the mathematical validity of applying fractal analysis to the paintings because of the relatively narrow size range between the individual paint drops and the entire painting.


Untitled 5
Katherine Jones-Smith

Jones-Smith has now followed up with another study, described at the March APS meeting, which shows unequivocally that fractal analysis doesn't identify authentic Pollocks:

In the new research, Jones-Smith and colleagues commissioned local painters to create drip paintings in the size and style of Pollock. The researchers applied fractal analyses to two such paintings, and three undisputed Pollock paintings. Both of the two commissioned drip paintings turned out to be fractal, and thus, appeared to be authentic Pollocks. Meanwhile, only one of three undisputed Pollocks was fractal.

"That closes the question," says Jones-Smith, that fractal analyses cannot be used to authenticate the origins of these paintings. Taylor's work was "well-motivated, but when it comes right down to it, it doesn't stand up under scrutiny" Jones-Smith says. "When science does come into these interplays, it should be done with caution, with rigor, with error bars." (source)

The interesting thing is that in the process, Jones-Smith and her colleagues discovered a new way to identify mathematical fractals (which apparently prove more amenable to identification than Jackson Pollocks.) So what began as a specific examination of paintings by a single artist became a study of paintings done in a certain style, and eventually evolved into a description of what might be a general mathematical principle. That's pretty cool.

Art critics are happy, too. In his 1999 paper, Taylor asserted that "scientific objectivity proves to be an essential tool for determining the fundamental content of the abstract paintings produced by Jackson Pollock in the late 1940s." Unsurprisingly, many critics and scholars did not agree that science could discern more about Pollock than they could, and the press spun the debate as an art vs. science showdown, which of course it isn't.

This example of a faulty method underscores that caution is needed when interpreting scientific results, especially when applied to the art world, Peter Lu of Harvard University said at a news briefing March 18 at the APS meeting. "It's a little dangerous for scientists to get too far into the business of providing the final word. I think it's a little more complicated than that." (source)

When Jones-Smith's scientific analysis showed that scientific analysis (at least the fractal kind) can't unambiguously identify a Pollock, that was exactly how science is supposed to work! The truth will out.

It's not too late to blog about your own woman in technology - sign the Ada Lovelace Day pledge today and blog away!

Update: view a map of Ada Lovelace Day entires around the world here.


"Fractal Analysis: Revisiting Pollock's drip paintings." Nature 2006 Katherine Jones-Smith & Harsh Mathur

"Fractal analysis of Pollock's drip paintings." Nature 1999 Richard P. Taylor, Adam P. Micolich & David Jonas


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I think it'd be fascinating if they could authenticate a Pollock with fractal analysis. It'd be equally surprising if his movements were so articulate and coordinated as to leave an unmistakable mark in the first place.

Really, his work is more about the inherent beauty of a stochastic process than it is about skill in throwing paint.

It's great she was still able to innovate despite the spurious "showdown".