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A Laboratory for Mixing Art and Science

11.9.09

The panel discussion at the Laboratory at Harvard opening. From left to right: Michael John Gorman, Lisa Randall, David Edwards, Mohsen Mostafavi, Ken Arnold, Donald Ingber, and Diane Paulus.

The panel discussion at the Laboratory at Harvard opening. From left to right: Michael John Gorman, Lisa Randall, David Edwards, Mohsen Mostafavi, Ken Arnold, Donald Ingber, and Diane Paulus.

Photograph by Justin Ide/Harvard News Office

To David Edwards, McKay professor of the practice of biomedical engineering, the intersection of art and science represents a gold mine of creativity.

Edwards has written a book about the potential for transformation and innovation inherent in this nexus, ArtScience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation (2007). He teaches a course that challenges students to address real-world problems by inventing solutions that draw on the arts, the sciences, or both (“Engineering Sciences 147: Idea Translation—Effecting Change through the Arts and Sciences”). And on November 8, he oversaw the opening of The Laboratory at Harvard, which promises to engage the wider Harvard community.

The basement of 52 Oxford Street (the new Northwest Science Building) had been transformed into a gallery for displays of student work and discussion of the Laboratory’s underlying concepts. But when the evening ended, so did this installation; the Laboratory is a conceptual and virtual space for the meeting of minds. When physical space is needed—for future exhibitions, and for the monthly “Idea Nights” Edwards has planned—the Northwest building, with its sleek, modern design, will be the Laboratory’s home.

With funding from sources including the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the Harvard Initiative for Global Health, the Graduate School of Design (GSD), and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, as well as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Edwards has laid out an initial three-year plan: the first year focuses on connecting with the Harvard community, the second and third years shift to bringing the public into the conversation.

Above all, Edwards and his collaborators hope to work against academia’s tendency to box people into disciplines with neat, nonporous boundaries. A life of ideas is much more exciting when it’s messy, said Peirce professor of technology and public policy Venkatesh Narayanamurti (former dean of SEAS, who filled in when his successor, Cherry Murray, was delayed by travel): “We’re here tonight to celebrate complexity and ambiguity, and their role in defining the future.”

 

Since 2007, Edwards has maintained Le Laboratoire, a space at 4, rue de Bouloi in Paris’s first arrondissement, where artistic and scientific minds can meet. A list of endeavors pursued there gives a sense of what the Harvard community might expect:

  • Artist Fabrice Hyber, collaborating with MIT professor Robert Langer,  aimed to allow viewers to “know what it meant to be a stem cell becoming a neuron.” The installation included, among other things, a “neuron” made of 4,000 pieces of strawberry bubble gum, heated and stretched from a ceiling beam to the exhibition floor.
  • Edwards and designer Mathieu Lehanneur worked together to create “Bel Air,” an air purifier that uses a plant in place of a filter, capitalizing on plants’ natural detoxifying attributes. (Their invention was named invention of the year by Popular Science in 2008, and is commercially available in Europe and the United States.)
  • A collaboration between the double-Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx and colloid scientist Jérôme Bibette yielded an improved strategy for encapsulating flavors (an area where chefs including Ferran Adrià had already been probing the overlap of cooking and science). From this came Le Whif, a product consisting of a lip-balm-sized plastic tube containing “inhalable chocolate”—super-fine chocolate powder designed to be breathed into the mouth for a low-calorie way to satisfy chocolate cravings.
  • An exhibition by digital composer Ryoji Ikeda, inspired by a conversation with number theorist Benedict Gross, Leverett professor of mathematics. (Sanders Theatre was also commissioned for the Laboratory opening, to present Ikeda’s most recent work, Datamatics 2.0, an audiovisual performance that adds sound to patterns inspired by data, from “sequences of patterns derived from hard-drive errors and studies of software code” to “dramatic, rotating views of the universe in 3D.”

 


For the opening, Edwards assembled a panel of people he hopes will be ongoing partners in the Laboratory, including:

  • American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus ’88, who in her first season has already made waves and won raves by experimenting with theatrical forms and conventions;
  • Pellegrino University Professor Peter Galison, an historian of science who collaborates with Arnheim lecturer on filmmaking Robb Moss to teach a course titled “Filming Science”;
  • Baird professor of science Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist who, in collaboration with composer Hector Parra, wrote the libretto for an opera—based on ideas set forth in her 2005 book Warped Passages—that debuted at the Centre Pompidou in June;
  • Donald Ingber, Folkman professor of vascular biology, professor of bioengineering, and founding director of the Wyss Institute, who spoke about the breakdown of the boundary between living and nonliving systems;
  • GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi, who spoke about architecture’s move beyond the visual to consider designed spaces from a multisensory perspective that unfolds over time;
  • Ken Arnold, head of public programs at the Wellcome Collection in London; and
  • Michael John Gorman, director of the Science Gallery in Dublin.

Gorman noted that the Wellcome Collection, the Science Gallery, and Le Laboratoire—spaces for showcasing what happens when art and science merge into something that defies classification—all opened within the span of a year. “You have to ask, ‘Why now?’” said Gorman—what cultural desires and needs coalesced to bring about several entities with such similar missions, with founders who were aware of each others’ plans. He shared his vision for the Science Gallery, which seems equally apt for the Laboratory at Harvard: it was formed to bring together people from different backgrounds, mix them together, and see what happens—“a particle accelerator for people.”

 


Providing venues where adults who are already practicing artists and scientists can talk to one another is important, the panelists agreed—but what is more important, Gorman noted, is finding ways to “infect” the educational system, at the college level or even earlier, to expose youths to these notions.

The evening’s displays included several projects by Harvard College students who have been thus “infected,” most of them from the Idea Translation course. The projects included:

  • GIGUE, a merging of music and technology that creates a continuous loop between biofeedback and sound. As she hooked visitors up to fingertip sensors for a demo, GIGUE co-creator Yi Wei ’10 explained that the technology could have diverse applications. A nightclub might equip patrons with wireless sensors, then turn up the music volume when most people are dancing with the abandon that indicates enjoyment, or change the song if people are standing still and sitting down. The sensors might be used for an interactive artistic performance, in which individual audience members’ pulse or respiration speeds generate a kind of output that the musicians read as sheet music, altering the way they play based on audience members’ vital signs; to add another layer, individual dancers could interpret the music, bringing into the foreground biological processes that aren’t usually the focus of conscious effort as audience members realize they can control the show they’re seeing.
  • SoundScapes, which uses GPS technology to turn hearing into a so-called “designer sense,” increasing the amount of information people can get through auditory channels. The student creators see immediate application in tools for the blind, but believe the invention could be useful for everyone, according to the promotional materials: “Imagine being able to walk through a city and know about nearby events without having to stare at a phone screen.”
  • LifeCell, a water transportation and purification device whose design was inspired by the structure of a biological cell.
  • sOccket, a light source inspired by Africans’ passion for soccer. The device, tested in South Africa last summer by co-creator Jessica Lin ’09, consists of a soccer ball containing a battery that uses the same technology as flashlights that recharge themselves when shaken; playing a game of pick-up soccer after school can generate the energy to power a lamp that stays lit long enough for a student (or soccer buddies studying together) to finish their homework—making it possible for children to study into the evening even if their homes lack electricity, and
  • VertiGrow, a vertical planter that facilitates growing food in places with little or no tillable land.

As visitors milled among the booths—bouncing soccer balls, watching a time-elapsed video of food growth in a slum, inhaling puffs of chocolate-mint powder, creating sound from their heartbeats—the activity swelled into a vision of what this new Laboratory could be: a playground of ideas that at one moment threatens to descend into chaos, but in the next resolves into a brilliant kaleidoscope.