Can science inspire art? Can art inspire science? The two disciplines can often seem very far apart, but some researchers are looking into how each can open up innovative perspectives in the other.

Dr. Till Korten (left) and Dr. Tim-Otto Roth (center) underneath the artistic Installation.

As an experimental scientist, I believe that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. When it became possible for our FET-PROACTIVE Bio4Comp EU project to attract an artistic residency funded by the VERTIGO Starts initiative, we jumped at the opportunity. We had the good fortune to attract Dr Tim Otto Roth, an artist who has a great affinity to science, and has collaborated with top research institutions around the world (including the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, TU Dresden, and KIT Karlsruhe in Germany, the European Southern Observatory, the European Space Agency, and NASA, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Fermilab in the US, and KEK Tsukuba in Japan).

Tim started his residency by joining our Bio4comp workshop “New Directions in Biocomputation” in September 2017 where he made himself familiar with the network-based biocomputation concepts that I recently introduced in a blog article. Briefly, we use biomolecular motors grown inside insect cells and put them into networks that encode mathematical problems. Just like children exploring a maze, the biomolecules can solve the mathematical problem by exploring every possible path through the network, working as a highly parallel computer.

Tim’s residency gave us a great opportunity to put a new design workflow to the test. When the Bio4Comp team designs a new biocomputation network, we first use computer simulations to predict the behaviour of the biomolecules in each component of the network. That way, we can ensure that the network will perform as intended before we go through the costly and time-consuming nanolithography process to make actual networks.

This workflow greatly improved the efficiency of our design cycle and the tight schedule of Tim’s residency made good use of it. After the workshop, Tim had a mere week at TU Dresden, where we simulated and improved several layouts of circular networks that he had envisioned for his smart self-organized sound synthesizer (SMART>SOS), which is described in more detail below. He then spent a couple of days in Chemnitz, also in Germany, at Fraunhofer ENAS, having hands on the nanofabrication of his designed biocomputation networks in the ENAS cleanroom, and then came back to Dresden, where we attached the motor proteins into the freshly fabricated networks and observed their movement under the microscope. Afterwards, Tim spent some more time at Lund University and Linnæus University in Lund and Kalmar in Sweden, where he performed similar experiments with a different kind of motor protein. A summary of this part of his residency is shown in this video (below) and you can watch also an extended version.

In Tim’s astonishing work of art, individual biomolecules moved inside a microscopic ring that was only 200 millionth of a metre in diameter (approximately as wide as three human hairs). Using a microscope, we recorded the movement of the molecules in the ring structure. Whenever a molecule passed one of 30 predefined detector areas, the volume and pitch of sound played by a loud speaker as well as the intensity and colour of a light attached to the speaker would change. In fact, Tim developed a novel sound synthesis method that uses bands of white noise to turn the information generated by the molecules into a thrilling piece of music and light. This is played by a circle of 30 glowing loudspeakers, turning the biomolecules into a smart self-organizing sound synthesizer (SMART>SOS). The artwork recently premiered at IRCAM in Paris, where Tim and I gave an introduction to the project.

Coming back to our initial questions, this fruitful collaboration clearly showed that science can inspire art. Fortunately for us, it did not stop there: Tim’s work of art challenged us in ways we had not been thinking about before. Previously, we were very happy that the biomolecules in our networks hardly interact with each other, as this allows them to work side by side without hindering each other, which is great for parallel computing. However, in order to create enticing sound, Tim needed the biomolecules to interact and create feedback loops. Therefore, we redesigned the junctions to force the molecules to interact more strongly than usual. We are now exploring ways to use this interaction to build molecular switches that act in a way that is similar to a transistor in a computer chip. Thus, I can clearly answer both questions in the affirmative: science can inspire art and art can inspire science.