Première: The Matter of the Soul | Concentration

Performance at Spektrum, Berlin on Saturday 3rd March 2018
During Alien Organs, part of the Sonic Vibrations series, curated by Alfredo Ciannameo

Oceans are drastically changing. Seawater is less salty, and is becoming more acidic. The crisis in our seas is intrinsically linked to humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels. We release carbon dioxide into the air, causing temperatures to rise and ice to melt, we use them to make plastics, and we burn them to move ourselves around.

Two of my works specifically addressing these issues were shown at Spektrum, Berlin earlier this month when I debuted Concentration the first performance from my Arctic project, The Matter of the Soul, next to the Coral Empathy Device.

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The performance,The Matter of the Soul | concentration, with live video from Hiroshi Matoba, is a sonic exploration of acid crystal immersion. By controlling acidity and salinity, scientific instruments scream their truths about the consequence of changing oceans.

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The Matter of the Soul is an ongoing work comprising musical performance and sculptural installation to engender empathy for dispersal and transformation in the Arctic region. During a residency on the ship the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, sailing through the Canadian High Arctic, I made field recordings of the acidity and salinity of Arctic waters using hacked pH and conductivity meters. I have used these recordings, along with my hydrophone field recordings, in a composition that accompanies a live performance where I play the hacked scientific musical instruments by manipulating their physical environment with acid, crystal alkaline and salts. Forthcoming artworks from The Matter of the Soul are a sculptural installation and a longer musical composition with live performance focussing specifically in three-parts on the process of dispersal and transformation in the Arctic.

The Coral Empathy Device was exhibited along with the performance. This artwork is an experiment in interspecies empathy, aiming to create a conversation between humans and corals under anthropogenic influence. It explores differences in the way we perceive the world, and translates between a coral’s physical experience in its native marine environment, making its experience understandable to a human in their native terrestrial environment. Worn over the head, the device is driven by hydrophone recordings from the marine environment and DIY chemistry investigations into microplastic pollution near Norwegian coral reefs.

 

Works created with support from:

Piksel Festival, NYU Shanghai Gallery, Programme for Creativity and Innovation NYU Shanghai, Mono Shop, Friends of SPRI, Bonhams, One Ocean Expeditions, Polar Museum, Chemistry Department, University College London, and Cultural Institute at University of Leeds

Performance supported by:

Musikfonds and Re-Imagine Europe

 

Mixing disciplines is clear necessity, but do we need art?

Alfred Nobel was a man of many talents – poetry, science, languages; and no formal education. And as I mentioned in my last post, he would have struggled to qualify for the Lindau meeting where every year winners of his prize gather together.

There are changes afoot with respect to how we determine authority and legitimacy, as I also mentioned in my last post. There is also an accompanying trend when it comes to expertise and specialisation, and it takes two forms: interdisciplinarity and cross disciplinary migration.

As Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith told me earlier this week, “I’ve always felt that you should change your area of research every 12-15 years because you stagnate in a certain area after a while. Not always, but you need to move on. And if you move into another area you can bring new insights into that area.”

That such changes can be successful is attested to not only by Smith’s career. There are numerous other examples; this month journalist Shane Snow launched his book Smartcuts, in which he argues that some of the world’s most successful people – such as the most popular US Presidents – rise up in one discipline, and then hop over to an equivalent height in a completely new field.

64th Lindau NobelLaureate Meeting Lindau, Copyright: DAAD/Nicole Maskus-Trippel
Rolf Zinkernagel at Lindau 2014. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Nicole Maskus-Trippel*

But aside from discipline hopping, there’s also a good deal of collaboration. Rolf Zinkernagel was a surgeon working with vet Peter C Doherty when they discovered how the immune system recognises foreign cells, which led to their 1996 Nobel Prize. According to Zinkernagel, it was important that they came from different fields looking at life, and that they were working with no preconcieved ideas. A similar attitude is taken by the younger scientists at Lindau. Over dinner I spoke to a fascinating psychiatrist who was also working on model brain cell systems to study bipolar disorder and ADD. She told me that in her lab it was of utmost necessity that she work with psychologists, neurologists, imaging specialists, and a bioinformatician, in order to understand the wealth of varied data they’re accruing about the workings of the brain.

But as Angela Michel* of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory told me, interdisciplinary collaboration is pretty much a necessity when you’re working on complex problems – such as their project on the structure and geography of the human gut microbiome. The organisation was designed in the 70s, and run nowadays, to promote conversation and collaboration.

Research in Germany Press Tour 2014

The awesome architecture of EMBL. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Volker Lannert*

Of course, most of these examples, barring Snow’s Smartcuts, relate to interdisciplinarity within science. What about outside? There are some efforts at EMBL, where artists and humanities experts, such as Martin Kemp, have visited and given seminars. Other examples have been thin on the ground this week, though just like Nobel, quite a few Laureates seem to have artistic flair aside from scientific excellence – mostly in the form of musical talents: taken Smith’s piano playing, or Thomas Sudhof’s conviction that he owes his powers of concentration to bassoon playing. Of course, there’s evidence that playing music can make beneficial changes in the brain, possibly because it helps us to live with uncertainty.

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Then there’s Australia’s Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, whose skills as a vintner supplied libation to the attendees of the Monday International dinner (courtesy of his home country, see above).  Though he says that the Nobel is good for his wine-making, I have yet to discover whether his wine-making activities have augmented his cosmic research.

The question I’m left asking is, would these eminent scientists gain anything from interactions with artists? Was there anything that could have come out of their having, say, an artist in residence in their lab? As always, we come up against the tricky problem of pinpointing in a concrete fashion the effect that mixing together artists and scientists has on the scientists’ work. However, as I remember Prof Rob Kesseler saying, trained artists are better at spotting patterns and phenomena in visual data than scientists, a statement supported by a number of studies in neuroaesthetics, such as Robert Pepperell’s work on ambiguous images which shows that artists are better at noticing visual subtleties. Artistic skills, just as musical skills, may be beneficial to brain development, and transferrable to progressing areas of science.

*My sincere apologies for having an incomplete photo credit on first publishing this blog. The EMBL representative we met was in fact Angela Michel.

Why Alfred Nobel would never have made it past the post

Alfred Nobel was the richest man alive when he passed away. He had invented dynamite, and held in total 350 patents. Not just skilled in science, he was fluent in numerous languages, and wrote poetry in his non-native English. In his famous will, he instituted the Nobel prizes – the most famous and prestigious prizes in the world.

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Alfred Nobel, who had connections and knowledge but no formal qualifications

Nobel Laureates aplenty convene this week at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, along with bright young researchers who have been chosen for their excellence in the fields of physiology and medicine. But would the extraordinarily gifted polymath Alfred Nobel himself have ever made it to Lindau? Probably not; Nobel had no formal qualifications. His only chance would have been a glowing recommendation from someone with more mainstream credentials, we heard at the opening ceremony yesterday.

This is a striking example of how authority and kudos is conveyed in the scientific community – usually through being at the right institution or getting funding from the right body. So young scientists who for whatever reason have less awareness of the political machinations of science and academia, or have fewer opportunities, but are nevertheless gifted in their research – have iteratively fewer chances. The consequence, arguably, is to create a scientific elite from those that begin on the right footing, have the right affiliations and want to stay inside institutions.

Increasingly, though, the workforce is moving away from traditional working patterns and towards freelance investigation and non-affiliated working. There are a number of important questions to be raised when looking at these phenomena – and some of them are being implicitly addressed in the rhetoric at this year’s Lindau meeting.

One relates to authority. Nobel Laureate Rolf Schekman is a vocal proponent of Open Access publishing, and argues that prestigious journals are skewing science for the worse. Having established eLife – a foundation funded platform that is free to read and free to submit to, Schekman believes we need to move back towards a meritocracy in science, where researchers are judged on the quality of their work rather than the lottery over where they publish. To this end, Schekman suggests throwing out the current system of gauging scientists by the number of publications in high impact journals, and instead have a system of one-page impact statements for each researcher, something that to me sounds very like the artist’s statement. In arguing this, Schekman is in fact arguing against the automatic conveyance of authority from a journal to a researcher – something that has always struck me a little like the rhetoric of an appeal to authority – and arguing for those wishing to assess a potential candidate to go deeper into their work.

SchekmanRolf Schekman at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

There is a resonance here with the idea of establishing authority for new techniques. I spoke to Arieh Warshel earlier today about the reception by the experimental community of computational techniques, such as his QM/MM methods for studying complex biochemical systems, for which he won the 2013 Nobel in Chemistry with Martin Karplus and Michael Levitt. A large part of gaining acceptance is about gaining authority, according to Warshel – an argument that is borne out by the main philosophers studying the tricky field of the validation of computational techniques. Warshel argues that in 50 years, most science will be done using computer models as a means to decipher experimental findings.

Schekman’s attitude to journals’ Impact Factors could equally be applied to the way we confer authority from institutions onto people. There is of course the potential for an institution’s good reputation to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy by bringing together many bright people in one place. Mark Pagel recently wrote on the innovative effect of living in cities, and some research and educational institutions can have similar effects on those within their walls. What is important about now is that these network benefits are not limited to universities and research institutions. They exist not only in the digital space but also in hackerspaces, coworking spaces, meetup groups, and in citizen science communities. However, these communities – which have a rich and varied population – do not fit within academic institutional siloes.

With increasing Open Access publishing, these people and communities now have access to current scientific research to inspire and inform their own endeavours. However, they are missing a couple of things: the funding and resources afforded by institutions, and the exchange with the broad swathe of the academic community that still doesn’t engage with them.

As I wrote recently, there are arguments about how innovative citizen science and hacker culture can be under present circumstances. But how many Alfred Nobels are out there, with sufficient knowledge, intelligence and motivation to add to our collective pool of scientific learning, but lacking a route into a dialogue with people inside institutions? Perhaps we need more unconventional routes into science – to apply this same meritocracy outside of the formal scientific community, just as Schekman argues for within it.

Designing for the Droplet water flow metre

We are heading for a global water crisis – and we know it. I’m not going to hammer the point home here, as there is a ton of background info out there about why it’s important to reduce unnecessary water usage, from rainy London’s counter-intuitive drought through massive subsidence in California from overuse of groundwater to the environmental and geopolitical challenges of the Middle East’s water shortages.

So, I’m working on a quantified self/ citizen science project with tech-for-social-impact company iilab alongside engineer Sam Carlisle to develop an open source water flow metre, Droplet, that allows users to easily monitor the amount of water coming out of their faucets and showers – and maybe even their loos – and, if they so desire, to share it with a community of similarly interested individuals to gather usage data and see how monitoring – and a device that interacts with you in real time – can change water usage.

We are particularly focussing on collecting shower data, as this is an area where most of us can easily reduce our water usage without compromising on hygiene. And we’re making the device open source so that people can hack it and come up with their own wonderously creative forms of feedback to the user in real time.

One of my favourite ideas for realtime feedback is a series of sardonic audio recordings triggered by specific levels of water usage. So, if you end up using a vast amount of water, you might end up hearing a depressive recording of Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning [you can hear a recording, along with a load of other great poems, here – though it’s not as depressive as I’d like for Droplet].

Anyway, here’s our first meeting working on Droplet – I’m taking the IT idea of a sandpit rather literally here 🙂 – making the most of the gorgeous spring weather.

Kat and Sam C courtyard

 

 

 

 

 

A call for a new language for interdisciplinarity

Why do we still need to fight for the idea of interdisciplinarity? I recently reported on the Wellcome Collection Hub and Reading Room renovation for CultureLab. These two new spaces mark a watershed for active interdisciplinary research and its dissemination into the wider community.

In my article, I juxapose this most contemporary enterprise with that of the Gaberbocchus Common Room, set up in 1957 by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson – a project that has been brought to public attention by an excellent exhibition at London-based gallery GV Art.

What is striking when you read the Common Room paraphinalia, is that the rhetoric its users applied to collaborations between disciplines is almost word-for-word the same as that which we use today in debates around the globe on the future of art and science collaborations. What’s also striking is that the misappropriated Two Cultures rhetoric, which often used as a justification of the division between the disciplines of science and arts (rather than the call to bridge the differences between science and literature as it was intended by CP Snow), is the one most commonly applied to these interdisciplinary endeavours. As I recently asked UCL Natural Sciences and BASc undergraduates and post-grads at my seminar on interdisciplinarity – the benefits of sharing knowledge from many disciplines on a common theme seem so obvious, it’s a wonder we have to so constantly justify it.

So why does a divisive paradigm persist? It’s something I have discussed widely and have come to the conclusion that it is perpetuated by 3 main factors:

1) Institutional structure
* physical boundaries get in the way of people meeting and exchanging knowledge* a lack of flexibility in demands on time, deliverables and top-down structures for courses and assessment hinder exploration of ideas

2) Funding models
* eligibility requirements can stymie good ideas
* bias towards institutions conferring legitimacy for applicants – in an era of portfolio careers, interdisciplinarity and start-ups this loses a lot of good people
* assessment criteria for the success of a project are usually outcome-oriented and fairly immediate. they often neglect value in information exchange, networking and longer-term delivery or inspiration

and most importantly:
3) An inadequate lexicon for interdisciplinary endeavours, and interdisciplinary researchers
By naming something we make it real to ourselves. But by naming we also tie something down into a generalisation that loses its uniqueness and nuance. Negotiating this problem is an issue in interdisciplinary research, for which there is no established language. It is time to develop a new language for interdisciplinarity – something that allows those practicing a multi-faceted approach to knowledge to name themselves and thus persist in the social consciousness. It’s something that Giles Lane recently had a stab at with his notion of Public Agent, but I think we maybe need to move beyond an amalgamation of existing words, to create a new description of people who seek to know the world in a multi- or interdisciplinary way – focussing on their way of knowing, not their means of production.

This perhaps would have helped the Themerson’s endeavour, and their own historical reputations too.

So, I’m going to kick off with a suggestion to get the conversation going. I think we need to keep familiar syllables to make a new word – but you can by all means disagree and go elsewhere with it.

How about: Netknower ?

OK, your turn.

 

Molecular Modelling is quite CHARMMing (that’s a geeky computational chemist’s joke)…

My favourite thing about computational chemistry research was always the visualisations. Being able to see atoms, the very stuff of our being, always sparked my imagination most. Perhaps it was a sign of change to come when the first thing my PhD viva examiners commented on was how much they liked the graphics in my thesis.

Now David Glowacki, one of the programmers behind computational modelling giant the CHARMM code, has taken things a step further. He’s rigged it up so that the whole room is one big molecular model, and puts people in the middle.

At the start of the month, Glowacki and his team put on a show where a violinist was immersed in this model, and the influence of her playing was visualised in a huge projection around her.

While computational chemistry is often a conversational culdesac, it’s always been my opinion that it’s rather under-sold. Glowacki’s project is quite possibly the most engaging and accessible thing I’ve seen to come out of the discipline for years. They’ll be touring for the next couple of years with the show and I’d heartily recommend seeing it.

Everything, all at once

Everything, all at once AKA The Multidisciplinary Manifesto

I recently had the marvellous opportunity to let loose and discuss the effect of multidisciplinarity on culture for TedX Albertopolis.You can read about my Multidisciplinary Manifesto on their blog, where I argue that emerging critical and intellectual engagement with open media is changing the way we think, act and interact with each other and the world around us.