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An MIT Artist Used Slime Mold to Simulate COVID Spread

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Diemut Strebe, artist-in-residence at MIT, has a lot to say about the United States’ failure to contain or even meaningfully slow down the coronavirus pandemic.

But she decided to let a single-celled organism called Physarum polycephalum, better known as slime mold, do the talking. In a new project titled “HYDRA,” Strebe and scientist collaborators at MIT plopped blobs of slime mold onto a map of the USA — one on each of the first ten counties to hit 1,000 cases of COVID-19 per day. They allowed the slime old to grow, extending its unsettling tendrils outward, in a biological mirror of how the coronavirus spread across the country.

Futurism caught up with Strebe to talk about “HYDRA” — as well as her career of using cutting-edge scientific techniques to create poignant art. Our conversation, edited for length and clarify, is below.

Futurism: Hi, thanks for taking the time to chat! But before we get into “HYDRA,” I’d love to learn more about your background. I looked over a lot of your work, and I’m sure we could dive into each project for hours. But as a bigger-picture thought, you’re the Artist in Residence at one of the world’s premier scientific institutions — how did you find yourself in that role, and what’s it like to create art with career scientists?

Diemut Strebe: Actually, it’s kind of a funny story. I started out working with Noam Chomsky on a GMO beer I wanted to make. We encoded human statements like the seven deadly sins into the DNA of yeast cells. The yeast changed by mutation the meaning of the text, but it was about breaking down meaning. We made a six-pack of GMO beer. The project happened alongside a major push to use DNA as data storage.

How did it taste?

DS: Oh, the beer was terrible, you can’t drink it. In many countries you’re not even allowed to drink it. In Europe it would be banned. It would be disgusting, you shouldn’t drink it, but it’s about the artistic statement.

So, I moved to the U.S. and met many other scientists. I worked on this unusual project, regrowing Van Gogh’s left ear. It used this unusual technology that’s now in the spotlight, mRNA technology which is now used for vaccine production. And CRISPR Cas9 technology, not with a focus on health, but with a focus on human enhancements and a speculative focus on creativity.

This romantic idea, always being on the verge of creation or destruction. And our step to regrow this ear that was so iconic for Vincent van Gogh’s life and his public perception.

And then the next thing I developed is something I’m particularly proud of. Over the course of a five-year project, we developed the darkest black on earth, which is blacker than Vantablack. And our project inspired a scientific discovery. You saw that in the Renaissance, but I don’t see too many nature papers coming from art.

That project brought together the most extreme opposites in exposure to light. We used diamonds, which is the most reflective material on earth, and carbon nanotubes, which are the most absorptive materials on earth. Both are made of the same element, carbon, but just the atomic structure makes the difference. It was all about how we assign value as humans and the devaluation of a diamond to a nanotube.

How do you go about actually approaching scientists to start a new project? Where do the ideas come from and how much do you depend on that scientist’s expertise?

DS: I always develop my art projects completely alone. The conceptual side is my dialogue with science. I always read papers, I read articles, because I find science extremely imaginative. People say only art has that feature, but I honestly do believe that there’s creativity and sometimes really surreal concepts in science. Particularly in physics, to speak of quantum mechanics, and wave-particle duality, and superposition. It’s so counterintuitive to our everyday Newtonian world that it brings you to spaces of imagining you would not even be able to think of just by itself. I think it’s extremely inspiring and I believe that art and science can do a lot with each other.

Art is becoming. Evolving. Never finished.

In current times, we moved away from the threats of nature to the direct impact of the technological world, which plays back into nature at some point. I’m very interested in catching this contemporary aspect of what makes our world and how the future could evolve, and science allows us that like no other field. And that’s why I think the science-art interface is strikingly good for the arts. I think art has the depth and the fantasy and the imagination to capture a conceptually important aspect of the depth of science but put it in another language. It puts the human central, puts perception central — which is actually denied by scientists. For instance, we know nothing about colors. We know how our bodies contribute to the perception of colors, but everything that we know about art is so much in this Newtonian world, which is very much questioned in the physics world. Even up to space and time, or spacetime, which are supposed to be not real. But to us, it’s real.

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All this contributes to the artistic perspective, and that can potentially mean a lot to science as well.

So let’s talk about “HYDRA.” Why slime mold? It certainly looks unsettling with its tendril-like networks, so I’d say it’s a good fit, but was there any specific reason you chose slime mold over other organisms? On the “HYDRA” website, you go into some detail about how the organism can appear “smart” or capable of learning. Did that factor in?

DS: Yeah, I think one reason was that you can catch both. You can catch the spread of COVID. Mimicking the virus, with slime mold — a life form — while the virus can only exist through a host. And then having not only this navigational property of the slime mold, which is of course a very much featured specimen in the sciences, even for computing and navigation.

But also because I could have introduced measures to interfere with the pathway, to block the slime mold expansion, using particular light waves or salt walls. We didn’t use those measures because reflecting on their absence would highlight the silent horror.

That was a key idea: to catch both. You don’t have only the spread, but people did way too little, particularly in America, to fight the disease. Obviously, they could have done much more.

We have set up this experiment in a petri dish into which we added the slime mold and the food sources. We had a threshold of a thousand cases. We had a relatively high threshold. And the food source concentration was proportional to the infectious rate, and it kind of spread out unabated. Experiments with slime mold are difficult to make — it was a long experiment.

A little bit more onto the background onto this project. It was not only illustrating human intelligence and its limitations, but also how evolution stands in the context of different forms of life. Slime mold is a single-celled organism, but it collaborates. It’s very interesting to see its behavior, which you could see as “approaches” or “choices.” Obviously, it’s chemical reactions of repulsion and attraction. There are no neurons, there are no brains. But it’s very smart in its particular behavior and its niche. You see similar behavior in a virus. A virus, a piece of dead matter, an RNA string, gets into a host, an animal cell or a human cell, and hacks the whole machinery.

And so you see the unbelievably smart answers evolution produces. We see ourselves as the crown of evolution. We think we’re so smart, and we are. We are superior to the slime mold, but it raises the question. They will outlive us, and we are the smartest for only a particular bit of time. We are not very well-equipped to cope with complex and abstract threats. This started for me as the reflection of human intelligence and evolutionary intelligence as a whole.

Another question which to me is interesting is the interaction of physics and biology. We have so much purpose in biology, these simple creatures have purpose to do a specific job. And you find purpose even in your own body with how cells are generated and move. All these incredible individual components of life. But how does physics interpret it? That we are all atoms randomly moving and bumping into each other. How does this movement create life, and goal-oriented behavior? How can it withhold entropy?

Well, that all depends on how you define intelligence or even intentional behavior. While the slime mold certainly gives off an air of intelligence, what we do know is that it loves to feast. I’m glad you mentioned those measures that you could have introduced. And as the experiment and video elapsed, you deliberately allowed it to spread in an uncontrolled manner, representing the U.S. coronavirus response. After months of so many people isolating in their homes, what would you have wanted to see in terms of a coronavirus response in order for you to install a salt barrier or something else to curb the slime mold’s growth?

DS: Of course, you can see it as a critical statement on the administration and how this pandemic has been handled, undermining science over and over again. Putting things that are very well-researched into the new, very strange approach of just stating opinions rather than staying rooted.

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This is a particularly worrying trend, maybe also a problem that many people are left behind, because you cannot follow the developments of this time with a limited education. Or if you’re not self-driven, reading books, informing yourself outside of the very limited setups of Facebook and Twitter which undermine human intelligence in that sense that they don’t allow for a longer attention span. People that are then detached from education or developments in technology, science, and all its contemporary applications, get disconnected and find a certain pleasure in making ungrounded statements.

And of course, Trump has been the epitome of this, the singular item of that approach that really undermines a tradition of 200 years grounded in the European Enlightenment.

Enlightenment and science are completely intertwined. Having observations, having theories, checking on facts. That allowed us to thrive to an unbelievable extent, and now the same technologies that are being used in very unintelligent applications authorize people to make bold claims that are groundless and have devastating impacts on the state of our society. I think that’s very worrying. It even more undermines the statement that we would be the crown of evolution.

Yeah, it’s hard to justify our perceived position in the world, huh?

DS: Yeah, it brings us down to being very primitive, in terms of power, in terms of brute statements that have no evidence. That’s very sad. I never thought that would happen in America. I came here ten years ago with a very different experience, and we now encounter something that is very worrying.

It was definitely a critical statement on the administration too, of course. Wondering “How could you behave like that?” It’s very worrying. I thought we made a certain course of development intellectually.

Many people believe in the power of science that has enabled us to progress to the state we are in currently. And now there is a disconnected movement that has strong social support from people who don’t know anything about the world they live in.

Well, let’s talk about how you represented the state we’re in. How did you arrive at the decision to introduce a new mold in the first locations to hit 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day? I watched the video before I learned that that was your approach, so I had personally wondered why the initial hotspot in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t represented.

DS: Exactly. We are working on a follow-up experiment where we have that threshold lower. These experiments are very difficult to set up, so we had to set a threshold. I agree — we likely should have set this lower. I thought the video was really good in still expressing the topic.

I’m not a person who would like to point the finger at others. I do believe there is a strong connection between art and humanism. I don’t want to say liberal but I want to say a humanistic perspective. This intertwinement exists in art theory and I thought it was important to reflect on a social development that is very worrying. It’s society falling apart and leaving people behind.

Society falling apart, yes, but many people certainly did their part this whole time too.

Democracy needs intelligent people. You can’t deal with people who have no brain anymore, like a slime mold. There is a problem that people are maybe too often left out here. Capitalism is driven to a point where people are left behind.

In that sense, I’m worried that we are in the full embrace of science — where we can figure out this language experiment with yeast — but we have a President who says “Don’t wear masks, it’s nothing.” Where are we going? It’s schizophrenia.

You mentioned that you’re working on a follow-up to “HYDRA.” The video you shared corresponds to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. between March and October 2020. How are you approaching the new video now that we find ourselves in a much worse situation than we were in October?

DS: The threshold would be lower. And visually, I think it would not be so different except it has much more stuff interacting. I decided to come out with this one now because it already compresses very much of what is to be said on how the spread evolved.

I want to have the second video more for an art show where I would likely work on a large screen presentation, in a gigantic room, totally dark. You can operate much differently with dramatic timing. You can make it much slower, and when it explodes you have different tools to time things. So for “HYDRA,” I thought this is a very good standalone project to describe the core of this idea.

So the follow-up will be more of a realized artistic vision than a sequel.

DS: “HYDRA” is more for presenting the project in its core. I think it’s a striking scene, but on the art side, I would want people to sit down for half an hour or twenty minutes and have an immersive experience of this slime mold growing all over. The sound will be much more immersive and threatening.

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It will not be that different. It would just have different timing and growth cycles. I will let it creep much slower. But really, it’s more the in-situ reference. It’s a different thing if you watch something on a video on a small screen.

It certainly sounds more unsettling to watch.

DS: Then we come back to a very interesting idea: the importance of the original of the artwork. This is reproducible, technically. Walter Benjamin stressed this in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” That was early 20th century, he was fleeing the Nazis. But that was the time when a technical reproducibility really attacked the unique, original aspect of artwork. He was worried that a technical reproducibility would undermine the auratic nature of an artwork.

He was so interested in this aspect of the on-site, real encounter with art in a site-specific experience. I think you still can generate this auratic nature, even if it’s used with technological means or produced with technological means. So in that sense he was not right, but the point he made was very valid. That reproduction, used as a kind of reflection on the original, is different from going into the site, different from going into a museum to reflect on an art piece and the true experience of the artwork itself. That is basically the difference with the ongoing experiment.

It will be much more dramatic, like a theatre play, because it lasts longer. But as a statement, I think this is a very good statement to show at this point.

After the “HYDRA” follow-up, what’s next for you?

DS: I have other projects still running at MIT. One on mathematics and sports and chaos theory. Another one on time. Time I find so fascinating. I always get inspired by reading papers. Reading information is like the salt of life for me. And then I work on a concept and then come to my colleagues and look for partners with whom I really can realize a process.

That’s everything I planned in advance to ask you about. Is there anything you want to add?

DS: There is one thing that’s not typical about me as an artist. Many artists reproduce a certain pattern once they’ve found something that works. I think that can be very interesting, but I always use new things. I love to surprise myself.

I’m very much fascinated by always having a completely new endeavor. The only downside is it’s very slow. “HYDRA” was relatively fast, but the ear project took almost ten years. It’s a very, very slow process. But I’m so excited to work through something entirely new. That’s the best in life.

When you’re pursuing a new project that involves an entirely different branch of science, how hands-on do you get? Do you learn the lab skills?

DS: I know how to grow nanotubes. I would not say I would make the blackest one. This is why my work depends so much on being in the company of very, very good people. MIT has been the best institution for me and my work.

The artistic concept comes from me, but it’s always a collaborative effort and it’s very important with whom you are able to team up if you want to achieve a very good result. In the end, that’s what the art piece is. There are very wonderful people here, and they’re very open minded, even if you don’t have a big budget or no budget. Something always evolves.

I’m very persistent. I think persistence is a very important feature if you want to produce something or find something that has a certain depth or standing. You must persist or you end up with nothing. And you always have to take the risk.

You can win, you can lose. Overall, I was lucky. Also through finding the right partners, and not putting financial restrictions on something. Many people in Europe, for example, cannot get things done because they want to see a budget. But here, you can just do something. You can always find people who love ideas. And that’s why I’m still here.

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