Thursday, 26 January 2012

Invisible Fields: an interview with José Luis de Vicent

Italian magazine, Domus, have published an interview with José Luis de Vicente, the co-curator of the art-science show, Invisible Fields.

Ethel Baraona Pohl introduces the interview by writing: "We inhabit intangible territories. The networks of invisible infrastructures which surround our world are extensive and growing day by day. In this context, Invisible Fields explores how the understanding of our world and our cosmos has been transformed by the study of radio waves."

In the interview, José Luis notes:
"I have an ongoing interest in my work in the infrastructures of information society, the historical, political and technological factors that have shaped them, and their impact on us as citizens. I feel it's hard to talk about technology as a agent of transformation without paying more attention to what goes in the infrastructural layer. This is quite common in architecture and urbanism, for obvious reasons, not so much in design or contemporary art. And one of the grand narratives about this theme is the progressive process of conquest and colonization of the radio spectrum throughout the 20th century, culminating in a way in the Digital Switchover in the first years of the 21st century. I've thought for a long time this is a story that has not been told cohesively, and evaluated from different disciplinary perspective. Invisible Fields is not that (that would be a titanic project, the work of a lifetime) but intends to be another piece in the construction of this greater story."

Read the full interview and review here:

Invisible Fields is showing at Arts Santa Mònica in Barcelona, from 14 October 2011 - 4 March 2012.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Spider-goats and the Rise of Synthetic Biology

Spider-goats, synthetic neurobiology and bio-hacking - Adam Rutherford's recent synthetic biology documentary for the BBC's flagship science programme, Horizon, is an important compendium of cutting edge ideas. Equal parts fascinating and disturbing, the documentary, provocatively entitled Playing God, was an overview of how synthetic biologists are breaking down nature into spare parts, and rebuilding it however they please.

Rutherford began by introducing viewers to "spider-goats" - goats which have been cross-bred with spiders, so that they excrete spider-silk in their milk.

Spider-silk is among the strongest materials which occurs in nature, but it's practical use to science has been limited by the relatively tiny amounts that scientists can extract from spiders. Spiders are notoriously impossible to farm, due to their cannibalistic nature. So scientists at Utah State University have come up with an ingenious method of producing spider-silk in industrial quantities.

As Rutherford explains in an article for The Observer, Randy Lewis, a professor of genetics at Utah, took the gene that encodes silk from an orb-weaver spider, and placed it among the DNA that prompts milk production in the goats. This genetic circuit was then inserted in an egg and implanted into a mother goat. Now, when the goats lactate, their milk contains spider-silk protein. The practical use for large quantities of spider-silk are numerous, but Lewis is interested in it's medical potential. He notes, "we already know that we can produce spider silk that's good enough to be used in ligament repair. [....] We've done some studies that show that you can put it in the body and you don't get inflammation and get ill."

The documentary further probed the medical implications for this type of work by introducing Ron Weiss's work at MIT. Weiss's team are creating living programmable machines that seek and destroy only the cells that cause disease. Using BioBricks, they have built a "cancer assassin cell". It distinguishes a cancer cell from a healthy cell using a set of five criteria. It then destroys the tumour cell if it satisfied those conditions. As Rutherford notes, "this sniper targeting is the opposite of the blunderbuss approach of chemotherapy, which can destroy both tumour and healthy cells with reckless abandon."

The documentary also probed how relatively simple it has become to experiment with synthetic biology, due to the popularisation of BioBricks and the emergence of biohacking and biology-hobbyists such as BioCurious. After visiting the BioCurious hobby space in the States, Rutherford comments: "there, high-school students were learning about biology by introducing fluorescent proteins from deep-sea jellyfish into bacteria to make them glow in the dark. In 2009, three scientists won Nobel prizes for this work. Already, it is literally child's play."

The documentary analyses industrial applications of synthetic biology, such as the development of synthetic biodiesel. Biotech companies Amyris have modified brewer's yeast so that instead of fermenting sugar to produce alcohol, diesel seeps out of every cell. The biodiesel is already in use.

Rutherford takes a balanced approach to the field, giving watchdog and campaign group, ETC, an opportunity to point of the risks of producing synethetic organisms on an industrial scale.. Their stance on synthetic biology can be found here.

This fascinating documentary and the companion article in The Observer, which documents the main narrative, is an excellent primer to an incredibly fast-moving field.

BBC Horizon
The Observer

Friday, 6 January 2012

Remnants of Cosmic Noise in New Zealand

Yesterday a friend of mine, Mike Hodgson, drew my attention to a plaque he discovered in Piha, near Auckland, in my native New Zealand. The plaque - pictured above - is commemorating a major event in radio astronomy history. In August 1948, two radio astronomers, John Bolton and kiwi, Gordon Stanley detected radio waves from outside the solar system for the first time.

This blog post from documents the scientific discovery in detail.

"It is difficult to comprehend the emotional impact of an observation which took us from the partially explicable solar system and galactic radio emission phenomena, into the realms of phenomena with inexplicably high energy outputs," Stanley wrote in 1994, in a tribute to Bolton, who died in 1993. "Neither of us ever approached such an emotional high again in our work."

Further research showed that the radio signals emanated from the Crab Nebula, the remains of a star that went supernova over a thousand years ago, and a source of fascination for radio and optical astronomers alike. Some of the other radio sources they detected in the same year, during observations in Australia, turned out to be distant galaxies. Radio waves were generated by gas falling into giant black holes.

Following their pioneering discoveries, Bolton went on to become a major figure in Australian radio astronomy, helping found the famous Parkes radio telescope, becoming director of the Australian National Radio Astronomy Observatory and winning the the inaugural Jansky Prize in 1966 (so named after the father of radio astronomy, Karl Jansky).
Stanley became the first Director of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory in the States, run by Caltech.

As a New Zealander with a passionate interest in radio astronomy, I was mightily pleased to discover that 64 years ago, New Zealand was at the very epicentre of radio astronomical research. I'm not sure the same could be said now, but perhaps the radio astronomers of the future can take inspirational from the past.