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How ChatGPT and sounds from space brought a “luminous jelly” to life

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Julie Gould: 00:11

Hello, and welcome to Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. I’m Julie Gould.

In this episode we’re getting some insight into one particular art-science collaboration, where the science was influenced by ancient artistic methods, and the art was driven by futuristic technologies and ideas.

In keeping with our art and science theme, each episode in this podcast series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council (ISC).

The ISC’s Centre for Science Futures is exploring the creative process and societal impact of science fiction, by talking to some of the genre’s leading authors.

Laura Splan: 01:00

My name is Laura Splan, and I’m an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, New York. And my work explores intersections of science, technology and culture.

Julie Gould: 01:13

In 2022, Laura put out a call for an online international exhibition called GUI/GOOEY that ran from March 1 until June 11 2023.

Laura Splan: 01:24

What I was interested in with GUI/GOOEY was looking at digital and technological representations of the biological world.

And particularly in the intersections of the computational and the organic.

I work in a lot of different materials and media that is really inspired by conceptual underpinnings. So I wanted to use this idea of GUI/GOOEY to explore connections between the Gui materiality of biology and graphical user interface in technology.

So it was, you know, kind of a playful connection in terms of the title. So I’m really interested in how these, kind of virtual representations of organic or biological worlds, influences our understanding of them.

And so this first exhibition, people are exploring everything from interfaces to interactivity, to aesthetics of delay, progress bars, glitches, and artificial intelligence, and connecting that to the gooey elements of the biological world, which is a lot of maybe visceral or, you know, kind of drippy animation.

Julie Gould: 02:53

What are you hoping that the audience gets out of looking at the art that you’ve got in this curation, this collection of work that you’ve put together?

Laura Splan: 03:02

The work in the exhibition just presents a lot of really exciting ways to kind of reconsider how technology affects our understanding of nature and our constructions of nature.

So if we think about, you know, what we call biology, or science, we often think of them as these fixed entities.

And if we think about the way that they’re represented, we think of those representations as fixed and factual. And, in fact, the tools and technologies that we use to represent the biological world and to construct nature are actually very subjective.

And that opens up a lot of really interesting possibilities for artists to, to kind of play with that as material in and of itself, to play with that subjectivity as material, or even to kind of imagine new possibilities through technology, for what nature is, or what nature could be, in terms of our construction, our cultural understanding of it.

Julie Gould: 04:22

Diana Scarborough, a self-described artist engineer, is one of the artists whose work is featured in the GUI/GOOEY exhibition.

Diana spent more than a decade training and working as an electrical engineer before switching to art, and Diana loves to use her engineering background to fuel her artwork, the purpose of which is to share the magic of science with people who don’t always see it.

Diana Scarborough: 04:45

I’m fascinated with their research, the wonder, the beauty of either the nanoscale, the cosmos.

And my idea is to sort of understand that from their perspective, but also see the wonder and magic in what they do but reinterpret it through my eyes as an artist.

So what I do is understand it, ask questions, delve deeper into that. And then from that I go away and I process it in a kind of art-science way and it becomes an emotional story. It becomes a film, it becomes an installation, it becomes a painting.

Really, it’s not for me about the media, but it is to find the best way to really communicate the science, and what I want to say about the science.

Julie Gould: 05:43

As we’ve heard in a previous episode, Diana is the first artist-in-residence in Ljiljana Fruk’s laboratory, Diana and Ljiljana met a few years ago at a networking event that the University of Cambridge in the UK was holding, where the aim was for the creatives from different fields to connect, and maybe start something exciting together.

Ljiljana Fruk: 06:04

So I went to one of these events. We started talking and Diana, because she has engineering background and artistic background, was very much interested in bridging this art-science divide, which is not that divided any longer.

And so we started thinking about projects. We interacted over the years. And then we were looking into formalizing a little bit more Diana status. That means giving her access to our labs, making her come to the meetings and having access to all of the facilities that you would need.

And then we were looking at the opportunities of funding days and we managed to work it out.

So now it has been a long process. It takes a while for people to get to know each other, to see that they can interact and work creatively together.

Julie Gould: 06:59

Anna Melekhova, a postdoc in Ljiljana’s group, is working on artificial enzymes. She’s trying to produce catalysts that are more robust and can be used under different pressures and temperatures.

To do this, she’s combining natural catalytic systems with inorganic materials to stabilize them. At the same time, she wants to use materials which are cheap and affordable, which is how they came to clay. Here’s Ljiljana again.

Ljiljana Fruk: 07:24

If you think about origins of life, the first thing you had were some molecules and you had some minerals, some clays as well.

So it was kind of natural to look a little bit into geology and mineralogy for materials that would be abandoned and could be combined with biomolecules to do some catalysis.

Anna Melnikova. 07:42

And the beginning this product, it was inspired by art as well.

Julie Gould: 07:46

This is Anna Melekhova.

Anna Melekhova: 07:48

Because we tried to stabilize the flavonoids, flavonoids, it’s enzyme cofactors, with natural support was natural materials with clays. It was Ljiljana’s idea.

So we tried to find the ways how it was done before. And we found actually one paper that fixed, like, some dyes on the clay just to stabilize them to make them live longer. They didn’t give details.

So how they did this, they just gave the name, so like pigment method. And we try to find out what was this like pigment method.

And we found that actually it very ancient method. And artists for like centuries used this to fix the dyes on clays to make pigments, to use in the real art.

Ljiljana Fruk: 08:41

So we basically went back into the art and the way how the pigments were stabilized with clays. We were reading about Mayan art as well, because Maya used to produce very light fast blue colours.

And they did it by mixing plant pigments with clays. And we know now that these clays were composed of nanostructures as well.

So without knowing anything about nanotechnology, they developed the protests that stabilized the colours. And we wanted to stabilize the biomolecules as well.

Anna Melekhova: 09:19

And we decided to try it. We didn’t have some other alternatives, a lot of other alternatives, and we tried this way. So it actually worked. Yeah. So there was there was artistic, artistic beginning in the story.

Ljiljana Fruk 09:35

So this was the first inspiration from art. And then it felt very natural that this project would be inspiration also for Diana, who is an artist.

So she wanted to take the material which was made using old methods and show what would, what is happening right now with artificial intelligence, with nanotechnology.

Julie Gould: 10:07

So just before Christmas 2020 Diana Scarborough sat down with postdoc Anna Melnikova to watch and record how she was making the goo.

Diana Scarborough: 10:20

So she made this goo, which is luminescent in daylight,

Ljiljana Fruk 10:24

Although it’s made entirely of organic nonliving material, but when you put it in the dish, it moves around and it looks very organic.

Anna Melekhova: 10:34

I think we did this experiment like in two turns. Like the first time they are just looked how I’m doing this. And next, she just got some idea. So what we can do, what she can film. And so in the end, like we did it together, so I helped her to film all the processes.

Diana Scarborough: 10:52

And so she mixed it and I filmed it. And it was a jelly and it was luminous. And I found it beautiful. It’s like cooking a new material. And I thought this was the starting point.

So over Christmas, I had to have a look at how can I make this intersection of this new material that’s not out in the world yet into something to meet the brief of GUI/GOOEY. And I guess that’s where my artist craziness comes in.

I don’t really know how my mind works. But I guess when he talks about this intersection of art and science, it all goes in my mind, all sort of wrestles around, and then it comes out as some kind of integration.

So I, after a lot of experiments over Christmas with the footage I had with some I don’t kow what you call it. The stress reliever goo I don’t know if you ever had that when you were there. Luminous goo.

I had some visuals, but I hadn’t got the story. And I also am interested in text and pattern. Alice in Wonderland is my favourite film. And I was interested also in AI ChatGBT.

So all these new looking at, at developing a work that’s about the past and the present and the future, I combine these three ideas into a rather crazy film, using soundtracks from space.

So I hadn’t seen them for a month. I’ve taken this footage, and then transformed it into this very surreal, quite dark art film.

It was on a big screen in a lecture theatre. And I decided not to tell them anything before that. So they weren’t pre-empted. And I was just watching the body language. So there was probably 15 people and the professor, that was in the room.

At the end of a very heavy kind of research centred seminar, this was there and then it was like, “What do you think?”

And I wasn’t sure what they would think. So that was a special moment.

Ljiljana Fruk 13:10

It felt a little bit…I was fascinated by all of the movement and capturing the movement of this nonliving material, but it looked really as though it is a living organism. I could very easily imagine alien species looking like this.

And then the whole fact that she incorporated a little bit of ChatGPT discussion into the video was also a little bit scary because it was almost a dialogue running while this nonliving matter was moving on the screen. It was a little bit scary at some point.

Julie Gould: 13:49

Drew Baker is another postdoctoral researcher in Ljiljana’s lab and he was there when the group was shown the video for the first time.

Drew Baker: 13:57

It has this kind of mind of its own. Like seeing I guess your symbols kind of morph and the symbols morphed into this like living and breathing. Like real but not real.

It was kind of this like, what’s it called, the uncanny valley. Like it seemed like you’d want to talk to it, but then you’re also afraid that it knows too much. And it is cool.

Julie Gould: 14:25

Will Etheridge, a PhD student in the lab was there as well.

Will Etheridge; 14:30

For me, it was quite fascinating. To give you some context. I hadn’t heard anything about the project until I saw the video for the first time.

Obviously I knew the material and I knew that Anna was working on it. But for me, I got this real sense of, like, an embryonic nature from the goo. And the conversation, the AI conversation with ChatGPT, the way I interpreted it was this material coming to life.

It was like the first time anybody had seen this material and it was the material kind of getting a sense of its own properties, right, which is what we do in the lab, we kind of like tried to study it and try to figure out exactly how it behaves, what colour it is, if you illuminate it under different light, its strength, whatever, temperature resistance, all of these kinds of things.

And I guess for me, it was his representation that every day, these people like Anna, for instance, go into the lab and they create a brand new material that nobody’s actually seen before, and it just passes by.

Whereas just by having this kind of video and this different way of presenting it, as you say, it gave me a moment to stop and pause, that we create these things.

And we don’t take a moment to kind of appreciate that nobody’s kind of seen this before. It’s completely new. It’s got completely new properties. So it was like, that was what it was, for me.

It just represented this kind of embryonic substance that was just coming into being and questioning its own existence.

Anna Melekhova: 15:57

And it’s very interesting that you say embryonic because, you know, there is a religious point of view that all, like humans, they were created from the clay.

And here we’re using clay, you know, like a new, you know, new life, again. Like the rise from the clay with Diana’s vision.

Will Etheridge 16:16

Yeah, it’s very cool.

Diana Scarborough: 16:18

And I thought, yes, you get it, you know, absolutely.

Ljiljana Fruk 16:24

But I was amazed that we could turn something which was meant to be a sustainable material for photocatalysis you know, how boring sounds that title of a paper, into kind of artificial intelligence living matter. fascinated with realisation.

You actually see a kind of very science fiction-y vision of what is the science right now.

But actually, if you look into the chemistry of material, it is done with a methodology that is existing for centuries already. So it’s, the project is merging old and new.

Julie Gould: 17:13

You can watch Diana’s video on the GUI/GOOEY exhibition website at www.plexusproject.org/gui-gooey

In the next episode of this series, we’re looking at the relationship between data and art. But before that, we’ve got the sponsored slot with the International Science Council about the creative process and societal impact of science fiction.

Thanks to Diana Scarborough for letting us use the soundtrack of her GUI/GOOEY video for this episode, and to the sounds of space team, which is Nigel Meredith, Kim Kunio and Diana for letting us use the final track of their Aurora Musicalis album, The Ending of the Symphony of the Harmony of the Celestial Revelations 10:10am.

Paul Shrivastava 18:17:

Hi, I’m Paul Shrivastava, and in this podcast series I’m talking to science fiction authors about the future. I think their unique way of looking at things can give us valuable insights into how we can create the kind of world we want and avoid the kind we don’t.

Fernanda Trías 18:37:

We are all hoping that science is going to come and save us from the disaster and the havoc that we wreaked, and that’s not the way it’s going to work.

Paul Shrivastava. 18:46:

Today I’m speaking to Fernanda Trías, a Uruguayan novelist and short story writer. She’s also a lecturer in creative writing at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. Her book, Pink Slime, was recognized as one of the best literary works by a female author in the Spanish-speaking world. We discussed her inspiration, whether dystopian horror can bring about change, and the importance of bringing the arts and sciences together. I hope you enjoy.

So welcome, Fernanda. Thank you very much for joining us on this podcast series. I’d like to begin by asking you if you can talk a little bit about your own background and your relationship with science.

Fernanda Trías 19:37:

Well, actually, I come from a family where science and art have always been intertwined. My father was a doctor. I grew up, for example, playing in the corridors of hospitals, and my father would talk about the human body, and for me it was very interesting. But at the same time, I had more like a humanistic inclination, so I ended up studying human studies. I worked for many years as a translator, but I specialized in medical texts. In translation, I found a way of having both, right, on the one side, languages that I love and, on the other hand, I could do research, learn.

Paul Shrivastava 20:20:

Wonderful. Your new exciting book that is getting translated, Pink Slime, into English – can you tell us a little bit about the general theme of the book and how you talk about science and the organization of science in this work?

Fernanda Trías 20:36:

Actually, pink slime is one of those things that I discovered when I was still doing medical translations. In this dystopian novel, there has been an environmental catastrophe, and I thought, well, let’s imagine a country where the thing they have to feed the population is this paste that is called ‘pink slime’, pejoratively. All the trimmings and all the little bits and pieces of the carcasses, the livestock, are heated at really, really high temperatures. Then they are centrifuged to remove the fat from the meat, and there results a paste that is very pink, that looks like toothpaste. The two main characters – the narrator is a woman and she takes care of a child who has a rare disease. One of the many symptoms that it has is the person is always hungry. The brain doesn’t receive the signal that says, OK, that’s enough. So it’s a very painful syndrome, and this woman is taking care of a child who cannot stop eating in a world where there is a shortage of food, and this pink slime is the main food available.

Paul Shrivastava 21:53:

That is so powerful. And one hope is that this kind of trope of horror and dystopia shocks people and gets them to change behaviours towards being more sustainable – either in nutrition of their own body, or in burning carbon, or what have you. Do you think science fiction can really bring about a change in mindset?

Fernanda Trías 22:17:

I don’t know, but every dystopian novel contains at least some echo of reality. I have the feeling that, as a society, we are in denial right now of what’s going on with climate change. And it’s normal because it’s so scary and also because… individuals – we don’t feel we can do much to change what’s going on. We feel this frustration, but that’s why I think it’s so important for art to bring the subject and to make it available for people because it creates a tangible example of what could happen. And suddenly we can imagine the whole world with all these consequence, and the details, and how this would affect normal, everyday people, and that’s how we can start talking about this.

Paul Shrivastava 23:13:

Very interesting. Do you reckon that certain scientific and technological developments are actually damaging to earth systems, and what could be the role of science fiction in preventing that?

Fernanda Trías 23:30:

What I sometimes have the feeling is that science is like a good mother that is running behind the spoiled child that is wreaking havoc in the house. And the mother is running behind just picking up the toys, right? So science right now is this safety net that we are all hoping that science is going to come and find a way to save us from the disaster and the havoc that we wreaked, and that’s not the way it’s going to work.

If we take the case of food, for example, there are estimates that the planet will need to produce 60% more food by 2050 to sustain the world’s growing population. That’s gonna be really difficult. There are scientific innovations already going in that direction, thinking, well, how can we genetically modify crops or seeds to make them heat resistant? But then if you think about it, around 30% of the food produced in the world right now is lost or wasted, and it’s hand in hand with capitalism, of course. So what we need is a change. Science fiction helps us, even if it doesn’t come up with a solution, of course, but at least it helps exploring the problem and it helps posing the question.

Paul Shrivastava 24:44:

The point you’re making about arts or narratives shaping the question – this goes to the heart of what some people are calling transdisciplinary scientific research, where research is done in co-creation with the stakeholders.

Fernanda Trías 25:00:

And that’s why it’s so important to integrate, you know, the humanities and science. Because the problems that we are facing right now spill across borders and fields of knowledge. So we take climate change, it’s not just an environmental issue. Any decision has an enormous economic and social impact. We need to think about the needs of each community in its context before implementing whatever we want to implement. You have to think how it’s going to work in community with those particular challenges.

Paul Shrivastava 25:36:

So this is very important point. The issue of localizing, not just being stuck with general solutions, but customizing them to the local cultural context. That is really the key to solution, and that to me is, again, somewhat outside the realm of traditional, normal science. What suggestions might you have for scientists to engage in this kind of outputs?

Fernanda Trías 26:04:

This idea that scientific research and art are separate is very widespread. However, I think they have more things in common than we think because they both require curiosity and then the willingness to connect to ideas that look far apart.

Paul Shrivastava 26:24:

Connecting the dots to make a bigger pattern. And this is, to me, an artistic move. It is not a scientific move.

Fernanda Trías 26:32:

Exactly, but I think probably the best scientists are the one that have this kind of thinking, you know, this creative mind. Creativity is something that is not just for some people that are artists. We are all creative people. When I started wri… thinking about the novel that would later be Pink Slime, I had some elements that looked completely unrelated. For example, the pink slime is paste, the child with this particular syndrome… This is like a, you know, like a patchwork, but for me as a writer, I need to trust this intuition. I knew they belonged together. I didn’t know how.

Paul Shrivastava 27:17:

Thank you for listening to this podcast from the International Science Council’s Center for Science Futures, done in partnership with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California San Diego. Visit futures.council.science for the extended versions of these conversations, which will be released in January 2024. They delve deeper into science, its organization and where it could take us in the future.

Look out for the next episode where I’ll be talking with Chinese science fiction author Qiufan Chen about artificial intelligence, its potential and concerns.

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