"Kingfisher" by 'rolli (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission)
“Kingfisher” by ‘rolli (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission)

Sure, Legos are way too heavy as a building material to make a bird that could actually fly, but I feel like physics might give this kingfisher a pass. The techniques and creativity used to craft a visually compelling bird using these building blocks always impress me. I have the birds from Thomas Poulson’s collection sitting on my office shelf right now. My favorite of those is the hummingbird, because it is crafted to not only represent the bird, but also to convey the dynamic, kinetic energy of the bird in motion. Builder ‘rolli’s Kingfisher similarly calls to mind that actually animal moving and living in its environment taking this build beyond the recreation of a snapshot to a representation of the thing itself.

Art of Science: Natalie Jeremijenko, Idea Factory

AgBags and Flower Food, part of the Farmacy Project, 2014
AgBags and Flower Food, part of the Farmacy Project, 2014

Natalie Jeremijenko calls herself an artist, but she’s really more of a one-person idea factory. A professor of Visual Arts at NYU with a PhD in engineering and a background in neuroscience, Jeremijenko heads up The Environmental Health Clinic, a cross-disciplinary lab that develops and prescribes systems that improve human and environmental health. In a recent talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, Jeremijenko focused on the idea of mutualism, a concept that suggests that, since all the species of an ecosystem depend upon each other, they should work for mutual benefit.

She contrasts this idea with sustainability, saying that, rather than try to use less and less resources, or disturb the environment less, we should seek out ways to actively improve it. In her talk, she described a number of the conceptual projects that she has developed toward this goal.

One of these projects is the Farmacy, a group working on ways to not only reduce food miles and fertilizers and pesticides, but improve environmental health and shift patterns of food consumption toward foodstuffs that enhance the biodiversity of both our surroundings and our gut flora.

Jeremijenko is enthusiastic about the idea of getting people to eat flowers, which are vitamin-dense, support pollinators and suck up air pollutants with their leaves. She came up with the idea of the AgBag, a system which allows flowers to be grown in Tyvek bags on the sides of urban buildings.  And because flowers are highly perishable, Jeremijenko came up with ways of making them into drinks and cotton candy, which…might not be the basis for a healthy diet.

Another project aimed at the food/environment interface is The Mussel Choir, in which live mussels equipped with magnetic sensors “sing” different notes depending on whether the mussels are open or closed. “It tells us a lot about water quality. When they’re open the track is singing, when closed there’s a humming, which is less good.”

Among the other projects Jeremijenko described were a butterfly bridge, designed to attract butterflies to urban areas with “bridges” of plants installed above roads, a “tree office”, which would allow people to work in a natural setting, and a system for turning paper waste into fertilizer.

While some of Jeremijenko’s projects may be more practical than others, all are aimed at a noble goal: rethinking our relationship with natural systems. You can read much more about her and the Environmental Health Clinic here.

Future Travel Plans

There was a time when travel was sleek and sophisticated (and inaccessible). Frank Sinatra sang about flying. I remember finding an old PanAm in-flight service menu my grandfather ha kept in his attic. There was real food that you might actually want to eat. The newest installments in the NASA/JPL Visions of the Future poster series invite us to imagine travel across our solar system and the galaxy with nostalgia for the optimism of mid-20th Century travel and hope that the future of space exploration is sexier than The Martian.

Music of the Spheres

This was something I wrote for the “review” assignment of my writing course.

2016-01-20 17.44.32There is a time and a place for complex atonal music, and perhaps the drinks reception of a genomics conference at the Excel Centre was not it. Through the chatter it wasn’t always easy to hear what the string quartet was doing, and meeting attendees were confused about the performance. “I thought they were still tuning”, said one of the guests.

There was a good reason the Kreutzer Quartet was playing here, at the Festival of Genomics, surrounded by exhibit stands for DNA sequencing companies and clusters of geneticists. Their performance was a crucial part of an art piece by Charlotte Jarvis, which explored the possibilities of encoding complex information in DNA.

Jarvis and Goldman introducing the Kreutzer Quartet.
Jarvis and Goldman introducing the Kreutzer Quartet.

The work, Music of the Spheres (named after a Byron poem), combines music, science, and a bubble machine. It requires some effort on the part of the audience to grasp how all the components fit together.

The core of the work is a three-movement musical composition, written by the Kreutzer Quartet, and inspired by DNA. The musicians performed the first and third movements live during a drinks reception at the Festival of Genomics, on January 20th. They used asynchronous glissando scales to express the coiling strands of DNA, and tapped the strings with the wooden part of their bow (col legno) to suggest the sound of large machines handling genetic information.

Movement 2, however, was not performed – at least not by the string quartet. This middle movement was converted into DNA code according to a system developed by Nick Goldman at the European Bioinformatics Institute. He initiated this collaboration with Jarvis to illustrate the enormous potential of using DNA code to digitize large amounts of information: in this case, a recording of the Kreutzer Quartet playing the middle movement of their genetics-inspired piece. This segment of custom-designed DNA was then created and mixed into a soapy solution. So it wasn’t the string quartet playing the middle movement of the piece, but a bubble machine. While the musicians rested, Jarvis switched on the machine, and the music travelled in the air – unheard, but tangible and visible. If you were to capture a bubble, isolate the DNA and sequence it, you might be able to get the data for the recording back out of its unconventional storage format.

2016-01-20 17.48.45This was not the first performance of Music of the Spheres. It had previously been set up in a large empty building, a gallery along the coast, and Hornsey Town Hall. The string quartet can’t be everywhere, but the bubbles are always there, and form the core part of the work. In fact, Jarvis turned on the bubble machine a few times during breaks at the Festival of Genomics. Without the string quartet, this created an effect of simple party entertainment, not out of place at this conference, which also featured a lively talk show and a treadmill challenge. People engaged with the bubbles by photographing them, popping them, or shielding their coffee cups from soapy surprises. Many of them were unaware that each bubble contained fragments of DNA encoding a piece of music.

2016-01-20 15.29.00

But while the bubbles alone were a good match for the hectic venue, the live performance unfortunately was not. It seems a shame that the talented Kreutzer Quartet came all the way here to perform for a crowd that could barely hear them and was more interested in catching up with colleagues over a drink.

Music of the Spheres is a work that makes us think about the potential of DNA as a data storage method. It requires thoughtful reflection, and is best experienced against a quiet backdrop – not one of clinking wine glasses and murmuring conversations.

Art of Science: Philip Beesley’s Sentient Chamber

Sentient Chamber, 2015, Philip Beesley Architect and Living Architecture Systems Group

I’ve written before about Philip Beesley’s immersive installations, so I was delighted to learn that the National Academies of Science was bringing one to their headquarters in Washington, DC.  Last week, I had the opportunity to see it on a special tour with Beesley, and to hear him speak on a panel at NAS that night. The installation is called Sentient Chamber, and it looks a bit like a cross between an open-air tent-style church and a ghostly Rose Parade float. Beesley describes it as an “experimental architecture and sculpture installation [which] acts as a test-bed for ongoing research that combines the disciplines of architecture and visual art, computer science and engineering, and synthetic biology.” It’s silver and white, and as you come close it clanks and beeps in a friendly way, shimmying its fronds and extending slender robotic fingers.

The main structure consists of a flexible grid made up of many triangular shaped elements in metal and plastic. Beesley explains that the shapes of the structure are based on hyperbolic geometry, which creates maximum strength from minimum materials. Above and among the arches are clusters of “acoustic and kinetic mechanisms” – microprocessor-driven fronds and branches that reach out and whirr and clank and light up when people interact with them. Fruit-like clumps of glass globes and tubes contain what Beesley describes as “the beginnings of a synthetic biology system” – oils that react to each other and to changes in the environment.

Detail view from Sentient Chamber 

Beesley is an amazing talker, ranging from the concept of a structure as a box or a “raindrop” to metal-rod cores and distributed mechatronics within a single breath. But he returns often to a central theme – the idea of a new approach to shelter that is gentle and designed to be responsive to and integrated with nature, rather than an attempt to keep natural forces at bay with thick walls and high-tech climate-control systems.

He dreams rather about building gathering places that breathe, that learn, that welcome both humans and nature, and that are resource-positive – that is, generating energy and other resources rather than just conserving them. Although his Sentient Chamber at NAS is not ready to live in – it’s full of fragile pieces and there are laptops nestled in the treetops – it conjures up tantalizingly novel ideas about how we could live in the future. If you can, go see it now.

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