May 30, 2013
Those who have a neurological condition called chromesthesia associate certain colors with certain sounds. It’s these people that I think of when I see Mark Fischer’s Aguasonic Acoustics project. Fischer systematically transforms the songs of whales, dolphins and birds into brightly colored, psychedelic art.
The software developer from San Jose, California, gathers the sounds of marine mammals in nearby Monterey Bay using a hydrophone and the chirps of birds in his neighborhood with a digital recorder; he also collects audio of other hard-to-reach species from scientists. Fischer scans the clips for calls that demonstrate a high degree of symmetry. Once he identifies a sound that interests him, he transforms it into a mathematical construct called a wavelet where the frequency of the sound is plotted over time. Fischer adds color to the wavelet—a graph with an x and y axis—using a hue saturation value map—a standard way for computer graphic designers to translate numbers into colors. Then, he uses software he personally wrote to spin the graph into a vibrant mandala.
“The data is still there, but it’s been made into something more compelling to look at,” wrote Wired.
The first animal sound that Fischer turned into visual art was that of a blue whale. “I was spending some time down in Baja California. Someone had posted a note on MARMAM [the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation email list] looking for volunteers for a blue whale population survey out of the University of La Paz, and I volunteered. We spent the next three days in the Sea of Cortez looking for blue whales,” says Fischer. “We never did find a blue whale, but I was able to make recordings. I just got fascinated with the sounds of whales and dolphins.”
Fischer concentrates on whales, dolphins and birds mostly, having found that their calls have the most structure. Humpback whales, in particular, are known to have incredible range. “They make very well defined sounds that have extraordinary shapes in wavelet space,” says the artist. The chirps of insects and frogs, however, make for less engaging visuals. When it comes to a cricket versus a humpback, Fischer adds, it is like comparing “someone who has never played a guitar in their life and a violin virtuoso.”
Animal sounds have long been studied using spectrograms—sheets of data on the frequency of noises—but the software designer finds it curious that researchers only look at sounds this one way. Fischer finds wavelets much more compelling. He prints his images in large-scale format, measuring four feet by eight feet, to call attention to this other means of analyzing sound data.
Some researchers argue that little progress has been made in understanding humpback whale songs. But, Fischer says, ”I am concluding that we are looking the wrong way.” The artist hopes that his mandalas will inspire scientists to look at bioacoustics anew. “Maybe something beneficial will happen as a result,” he says.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, will include a selection of Fischer’s images in “Beyond Human,” an exhibition on artist-animal collaborations on view from October 19, 2013 to June 29, 2014.
May 29, 2013
Wim Noorduin has a green thumb—but, he doesn’t grow your standard garden-variety roses, tulips and other flowers. The postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, instead, tends to microscopic “buds” that he carefully cultivates in his lab. The blooms—delicate and fragile—are made out of crystal.
“The technique is remarkably easy: fill a beaker with a solution that has a salt and a silicon compound dissolved in it. Put in a glass slide or a bit of metal to act as the soil on which the crystal ‘plants’ will grow. Allow carbon dioxide from the air to diffuse into the solution, triggering a simple reaction that causes the dissolved chemicals to come out of the solution and form a solid crystal—one that is curvy, rather than jagged,” the Boston Globe explained in a recent article. Add a little dye here and there and what results are crystal growths that resemble the leaves and petals of flowers.
The Globe‘s peek into Noorduin’s project was prompted by the journal Science and its decision to feature the scientist’s “nanoflowers” in its pages. Science published a paper authored by Noorduin and three of his colleagues describing the creative endeavor and an essay about the work.
Previously, scientists have grown structures that resemble flora from materials like zinc oxide before, but what is unique about Noorduin is his ability to manipulate the growth of barium carbonate and silicate to his liking. He and his team understand what conditions produce what shapes, so much so that they are able “to design the resulting shapes at will and to combine different growth conditions to generate even more complex shapes,” writes Elias Vlieg, a chemistry professor at Radboud University in the Netherlands, in Science. “Rather than selecting one set of conditions and letting the system evolve passively, the authors change the process conditions actively, allowing the construction of elements such as stems, vases, branches, and leaves.”
For example, to produce a vase, Noorduin fluctuates the amount of carbon dioxide that enters his solution, simply by covering or uncovering the beaker. The supply of gas controls the thickness of the vase. Within the vase, he then places a stem; while cultivating it, he says he adds a “pulse of CO2″ so that the stem opens into a bud. If he wants to build a rose, the scientist-cum-artist adjusts the pH level of the solution. This way, the petals curl up and form spirals, he explains in an email. In an electron micrograph, Noorduin’s garden is naturally black and white in color, but he adds artificial hues to the images to distinguish the plants’ leaves and stems from their blossoms.
To really drive home the miniscule scale of his creations, Noorduin planted a field of flowers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—on a penny.
Thus far, the scientist has experimented with floral patterns. He is curious, though, about other tiny architectures he might be able to construct. “Nature has many examples of remarkably diverse and complex mineralized architectures such as coral reefs at the macro scale, and the amazingly intricate skeletons of microorganisms such as acantharea at the micro scale,” he says. “Our aim is not so much to reproduce any particular shapes seen in nature. Rather, we’re inspired by a more fundamental observation: the diversity, hierarchy, and complexity of the patterns seems to be virtually unlimited.”
Noorduin’s repertoire will no doubt expand as he explores these limitless shapes. “More control will undoubtedly lead to structures that may be less artistically pleasing, but more technologically useful,” writes Vlieg.
April 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
February 22, 2013
The most radical figure in the biodesign movement is Eduardo Kac, who doesn’t merely incorporate existing living things in his artworks—he tries to create new life-forms. “Transgenic art,” he calls it.
There was Alba, an albino bunny that glowed green under a black light. Kac had commissioned scientists in France to insert a fluorescent protein from Aequoria victoria, a bioluminescent jellyfish, into a rabbit egg. The startling creature, born in 2000, was not publicly exhibited, but the announcement caused a stir, with some scientists and animal rights activists suggesting it was unethical. Others, though, voiced support. “He’s pushing the boundaries between art and life, where art is life,” Staci Boris, then a Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, curator, said at the time.
Then came Edunia, the centerpiece of Kac’s Natural History of the Enigma, a work that debuted at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis in 2009. Edunia is a petunia that harbors one of Kac’s own genes. “It lives. It is real, as real as you and I,” says Kac, a Brazil native living in Chicago. “Except nature didn’t make it, I did.”
Still, he had help. The project began in 2003, when the artist had his blood drawn at a lab in Minneapolis. From the sample, technicians isolated a specific genetic sequence from his immune system—a fragment of an immunoglobulin gene that produces an antibody, the very thing that can distinguish “self” from “non-self” and fights off viruses, microbes and other foreign invaders.
The DNA sequence was sent to Neil Olszewski, a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota. In recent years, Olszewski had identified a virus promoter that could control the expression of genes in a plant’s veins. After six years of tinkering, the artist-scientist duo inserted a copy of Kac’s immunoglobulin gene fragment into a common breed of the flower Petunia hybrida.
It’s not the first transgenic plant. A gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis is routinely introduced to corn and cotton to make the crops insect-resistant. Also, scientists are inserting human genes into plants, in an attempt to manufacture drugs on a large scale; the plants essentially become factories, producing human antibodies used to diagnose diseases. “But you don’t have plants that have been made to explore ideas,” Olszewski says. “Eduardo came to this with an artistic vision. That is the real novelty.”
Kac selected the pink petunia, in large part because of the distinct red veins that hint at his own red blood. And though he refers to his creation as a “plantimal,” that may be overstating the case. The organism has only a minuscule stretch of human DNA amid many thousands of plant genes. Yet it’s the idea of the encounter between the viewer and this curiously endowed plant that mainly interests the artist. Whenever Natural History of the Enigma has been exhibited, Kac has presented Edunia alone on a pedestal, to heighten the drama. “To me, that is pure poetry,” he says.
He predicts that people will have to get more used to strange, genetically engineered hybrids in the future. “Once you are in the presence of this other creature, the world is not the same,” says Kac. “There is no going back.”
February 21, 2013
When Julia Lohmann set out to create an artwork for the street-level windows of the London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, the health research foundation, she chose a classic subject: the female body. But where Lohmann broke from tradition was her medium. The German designer created her large-scale portrait of two reclining nudes using 9,000 petri dishes, each containing an image of live bacteria.
Suzanne Lee, a British fashion designer, is attempting to grow clothes. She cultivates bacteria in vats of sugary green tea and then harvests the cellulose that forms on the mixture’s surface. The durable film serves as a pleatherlike fabric.
The Italian artist Giuliano Mauri planted 80 hornbeam trees amid columns of bundled branches in Arte Sella, a sculpture garden in northern Italy. The trees inch up the columns to form Cattedrale Vegetale, a Gothic cathedral complete with naves.
All these works are prominent examples of a nascent aesthetic movement called biodesign, which integrates living things, including bacteria, plants and animals, into installations, products and artworks. “Designers and architects, more and more, want to design objects and buildings that grow by themselves,” says Paola Antonelli, design curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Biodesign takes advantage of the “tremendous power and potential utility of organisms and their natural interaction with ecosystems around them,” says William Myers, a New York City design historian and author of the new book Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity. “It can be a means of communication and discovery, a way to provoke debate and explore the potential opportunities and dangers of manipulating life for human purposes.”
Some ventures are very down-to-earth. Microbiologist Henk Jonkers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is developing self-repairing “bio-concrete”; he adds limestone-producing bacteria to cement and, over time, they fill in cracks. If adopted widely, the material could benefit the environment, since concrete production is a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Other proposals read more like science fiction. Alberto Estévez, an architect based in Barcelona, wants to replace streetlights with glowing trees created by inserting a bioluminescent jellyfish gene into the plants’ DNA.
The biodesign movement builds on ideas in Janine Benyus’ trailblazing 1997 book Biomimicry, which urges designers to look to nature for inspiration. But instead of copying living things biodesigners make use of them.
The effort brings artists and scientists together. “These novel collaborations are often joyous contaminations in which scientists feel, even just for a moment, liberated from the rigor of peer review and free to attempt intuitive leaps,” Antonelli writes in a foreword to Bio Design.
Julia Lohmann teamed up with Michael Wilson, a microbiologist at University College London Eastman Dental Institute. Wilson, who studies the bacteria that inhabit people, grew common bacteria from the female body and photographed the colonies under a microscope. Lohmann affixed these photographs to actual petri dishes and positioned each type of bacteria where it would occur on or in a woman’s body—pictures of the scalp microbe Propionibacteria, for instance, cover the head.
“The petri dish is a magnifying glass into this other world,” says Lohmann, who was inspired by the mind-bending fact that only one in ten cells in the human body is actually human. The rest are microbes. “There is so much advertising out there that tells you that all bacteria are bad, and it is simply not true. We couldn’t live without bacteria, and they couldn’t live without us,” says Lohmann. She considers her mural Co-existence to be part of the counter propaganda.