Author Archives: michelebanks1

Art of Science: The Curious Craft of Growing Ears

Diemut Strebe, Sugababe, 2014

Diemut Strebe, Sugababe, 2014

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh famously cut off his own ear. Now, another artist, Diemut Strebe, has made him a new one from tissue engineered cartilage. Strebe took genetic samples from Lieuwe van Gogh, a descendant of the artist’s brother Theo van Gogh, and created a new ear, titled Sugababe.

The harvested cells were grown onto a 3D printed scaffolding made to resemble the ear Van Gogh is to said to have cut off in 1888. The ear is displayed in a case containing a nutrient solution which could, in theory, last for years. Visitors to an exhibition in Germany last year could “talk to” the ear through a microphone which converted their voices into nerve impulses. (OK, sure, whatever. It can’t hear.)


Vacanti and Langer’s Mouse

Strebe is just the latest in a line of artists and scientists who have freaked people out by growing ears. The first were Robert Langer of MIT and Charles Vacanti of Harvard, who in 1995 succeeded in growing a pretty convincing-looking ear on the back of a mouse.  Although the ear represented a huge advance in tissue engineering, the undeniable creepiness of the image worked against it. Critics pounced on the mouse as a sign of the imminent arrival of human-animal hybrids and a bustling trade in body parts, even taking out ads in the New York Times to denounce the new technology. In fact, the technique has mainly been used to help children born with missing or underdeveloped ears and people who have lost their ears to fire or trauma.

Stelarc, Ear on Arm, 2006-

Stelarc, Ear on Arm, 2006-

The most famous engineered ear in the world resides on the inner arm of performance artist Stelarc. His ongoing “Ear on Arm” project began in 2006, when surgeons inserted a “biocompatible scaffold” under the skin of his left arm. Since then he has undergone numerous procedures to upgrade it.  In a 2012 interview with Wired, he noted “At present it’s only a relief of an ear. When the ear becomes a more 3-D structure we’ll reinsert the small microphone that connects to a wireless transmitter.” In any Wi-Fi hotspot, he said, it will become internet-enabled. “So if you’re in San Francisco and I’m in London, you’ll be able to listen in to what my ear is hearing, wherever you are and wherever I am.” (An update on Stelarc’s website indicates that the microphone was successfully inserted and used, but later caused a serious infection and had to be removed.)

Stelarc says his project “sees the body as an extended operational system,” a subject with obvious relevance in a world where we’re tethered to our smartphones day and night. Alas, his experiences with surgeries and infections indicate that, for most of us, keeping the tech on the outside of our bodies is a safer option. And the revulsion that has greeted all three of the artificially grown ear projects I’ve described indicates that society has no great longing to change that.

Science Caturday: The Latest from the LHC


Big news in tiny particles: the Large Hadron Collider has set a new energy record ahead of its scheduled full restart in June.  Scientists at CERN reported that on May 20, the LHC succeeded in smashing together protons with an energy of 13 trillion electron volts (TeV). That’s close to the 14 TeV maximum that the LHC is designed to achieve.

The record was reached during tests to prepare for a second run of experiments starting next month. The collider underwent a $150 million upgrade after its first run, which produced results that helped confirm the existence of the Higgs boson.

Our physics kitties tend to have substantially lower energy levels than that, but the Large Hairball Collider (pictured above) looks likely to yield important data on particles found under the sofa. The red dot, the so-called “holy grail” of kitty physics, remains elusive. Reached for comment, the head of the LHBC said:


Art of Science: Katie Lewis – Visualizing the Unquantifiable

Katie Lewis, Accumulated Numbness. pins, enamel, pencil

Katie Lewis, Accumulated Numbness. pins, enamel, pencil

Katie Lewis uses simple materials like pins and thread to create her artworks, which are based on data she collects about her own “bodily sensations” – but she won’t tell you what sensations she’s measuring. Twinges in the back? Rumbles in the tummy, perhaps? She says she uses a very strict method to collect and visualize her data, but she won’t tell you what her method is, either. According to Lewis, it’s all about questioning medicine and science’s view of the body as a quantifiable and endlessly analyzable thing.

She organizes her data into “grid-like charts and diagrams mimicking science and medicine’s representations of the body as a specimen, visually displayed for the purpose of gaining knowledge” – a mindset she sees as false. “The artificially rigid organization of my materials alludes to control – of the individual body as an institutional domain, and of irrational experience as a manageable, concrete set of events.”

Color me conflicted. On the one hand, I understand the artist’s resistance to the idea that every aspect of the self and the human experience can be quantified, crunched and displayed in neat charts. On the other hand, a lot of it can be quantified, and creating art from the data can be beautiful and meaningful, if never the definitive measure of a life.

You can see more of Katie Lewis’ art at her website.

Science Caturday: Introducing KittyBiome


Scientists have made huge strides in understanding the human microbiome, and now they’re ready to move on to more advanced creatures – cats. A crack team* of microbiologists headed by Jonathan Eisen, Jennifer Gardy, Holly Ganz and Jack Gilbert** just launched KittyBiome, a citizen science project that aims to understand “how microbiomes differ among cats, whether those differences reveal insights into cat behavior and biology, and how the kitty microbiome depends on and may shape the health of your cat.”


Among the questions they plan to address are:

  • How do grumpy cats compare to happy cats?
  • How do athletic cats compare to couch potato cats?
  • Does it matter if you feed your cat a paleo-mouse diet?
  • How do indoor and outdoor cats compare?

They reckon the answers are in the poop.  For a $99 donation to the KittyBiome Kickstarter, any cat owner can send in a fecal sample and answer a few questions about his or her cat’s health and diet. The researchers then sequence the DNA of the bacteria in the sample and, after a few weeks, share the type and concentration of the bacteria online. Participants (or their hoomins) can even compare their microbiomes to those of other cats, including some “celebrity kitties.”

Don’t have a cat of your own? For just a $25 donation, the researchers will sequence the microbiome of a shelter kitty. KittyBiome plans to expand beyond housecats, too – a pledge of $149 or more allows donors to see the microbiome profile of a wild cheetah, leopard, puma, or lion.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other awesome perks the KittyBiome team is offering – they include a cool illustrated book about bacteria by Jennifer Gardy and an exclusive Kitty Microbe scarf, designed by me.

IMG_20150310_151124-2 (1)

*Extra points for refraining from using the word “buttcrack”

**Noted dog person

For more information and microbiology-related lolcats, you can follow @KittyBiome on Twitter

Art of Science: Send Me to the Arctic, for Science and Art

Help support my art-science residency in Finland and this Reindeer Moss could be yours.

Help support my art-science residency in Finland and this Reindeer Moss could be yours.

I have been writing about the intersection of science and art here at The Finch & Pea for the past 3 years. I’ve been painting cells, bacteria, viruses and more for even longer, but I’ve never had the opportunity to work with real scientists in a lab – until now! I’ve been selected to be the Artist-in-Residence at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Finland in October and November 2015.

This is Kilpisjärvi. Photo by Tea Karvinen

This is Kilpisjärvi. Photo by Tea Karvinen

I’m very excited about this opportunity and I’m asking for your help to make it happen. I just launched an Indiegogo campaign to help pay my expenses for this amazing experience.

Installation view of Culture Dishes at AAAS, 2014

Installation view of Culture Dishes at AAAS, 2014

The Ars Bioarctica Residency Program is a joint project of the Finnish Bioart Society and Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in sub-Arctic Lapland. The residency has an emphasis on the Arctic environment and art-science collaboration. I’ll have access to the station’s lab and equipment and I’ll be working side-by-side with scientists conducting research on vegetation, local fauna, and soil chemistry. izzyscarffinland2Kilpisjärvi’s location near the Arctic Circle puts it on the front lines of climate change, a subject of much of my recent art.

Like most art residencies, this one is unfunded. I hope to raise enough money through Indiegogo to cover my travel and room and board and to buy some art supplies. To thank you for your support, I’ve come up with an array of amazing perks, including a scarf and print based on Reindeer Moss, a lichen native to the region.

There’s lots more information about the residency on my Indiegogo page. Please look, click, spread the word, and support sciart!

UPDATE: As of 5pm on May 14, this project is fully funded! Thank you so much for your support.