Playlist TED Talks

6 mind-bending talks about biologically inspired art

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One of Drew Berry's incredible, scientifically-accurate animations of what's happening in our cells.

One of Drew Berry’s incredible, scientifically-accurate animations of what’s happening in our cells.

Art so often seeks to capture the beauty of the natural world — from cave drawings of animals, to paintings of landscapes, to sculptures of the human form in marble, bronze or wood. But in this playlist, find artists and designers who take this to the next level, making art based on the laws of nature and the invisible workings of biology itself.

Tom Shannon, John Hockenberry: The painter and the pendulum Tom Shannon, John Hockenberry: The painter and the pendulum Tom Shannon: The painter and the pendulum
In this interview, John Hockenberry questions artist Tom Shannon about his metallic sculptures that levitate, and about how his scientific inspiration has evolved over time. Shannon says that his art starts with the need to solve a question — a process similar to scientific exploration. In the privacy of Shannon’s studio, we see work that challenges the idea that objects can’t defy gravity, as well as a sculpture that simply exemplifies the complex relationship between earth and sun. But perhaps his most inventive meditation on biological occurrences is Shannon’s painting pendulum. Says Shannon, “As humans, ultimately being part of the universe, we’re kind of the spokespeople or the observer part of the constituency of the universe. And to interface with it, with a device that lets these forces that are everywhere act and show what they can do, giving them pigment and paint — just like an artist it’s a good ally.”

See also: Just as Shannon found an unusual way to paint, Phil Hansen is an artist who had to find new methods when he developed permanent nerve damage in his forearm. After a pivotal “embrace the shake” revelation, Phil began creating art focused on transforming limitations from frustration into inspiration. Watch his powerful talk »

Drew Berry: Animations of unseeable biology Drew Berry: Animations of unseeable biology Drew Berry: Animations of unseeable biology
Ever wondered what a molecule looks like? Well, your naked eye won’t help answer that question. “Molecules are smaller than the wavelength of light, so we have no way to directly observe them,” says biomedical animator Drew Berry, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010. By immersing himself in the world of cutting edge scientific research, Berry has made molecular and cellular biology accessible for the masses. In this talk from TEDxSydney, he uses intricately rendered animations to traverse the DNA highway into the depths of cells. This ambitious blend of art and science is matched by his determination to educate the public, in a beautifully engaging way, about important scientific discoveries.

See also: Speaking of unseeable biology, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg collects DNA “evidence” — found on cigarette butts and strands of hair — and uses it to create a sculpture of what a person may look like. Her project took off from one basic question: How much can be learned about a person from a stray hair? Watch this TED original about Dewey-Hagborg’s work »

Doris Kim Sung: Metal that breathes Doris Kim Sung: Metal that breathes Doris Kim Sung: Metal that breathes
Before houses had air conditioning, they used tiny windows and thick walls to combat extreme weather and regulate temperature. Before cars had air conditioning, they overheated and thus signaled to us the overuse of energy. Fast forward to today, where impossibly cold stores have become the norm. How do we make our buildings work better? At TEDxUSC, biology student turned architect Doris Kim Sung shares how she studied the human body to learn how skin regulates body temperature and, from that research, developed the smart material known as “thermo-bimetals.” She reveals how panels of this material can be used to create responsive ‘building skins’ that help our buildings breathe beautifully and efficiently.

See also: It seems like a big jump from studying the body to producing architectural innovations, but great minds think alike. Members of the Mediated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab have also developed a building based on skin, called Silk Pavilion. Using a robot to build the external framework, 6,500 silkworms then got to work enmeshing the exterior in their lovely, naturally-occurring materials. Read more at Fast Company »

Margaret Wertheim: The beautiful math of coral Margaret Wertheim: The beautiful math of coral Margaret Wertheim: The beautiful math of coral
In 2005, Margaret Wertheim and her sister, Christine, asked the internet and art institutions alike to join an interdisciplinary project that combined math, marine biology, environmental activism and feminine handicraft. With thousands helping, they set out to crochet the largest coral reef in the world to raise awareness of the impact global warming has on this massive, living ecosystem. In this talk from TED2009, Wertheim explains that the mathematical study of hyperbolic structures (aka, things frilly and curly) discovered in the 19th century couldn’t be depicted until Dr. Daina Taimina began to knit in 1997 and eventually crocheted a coral reef. Wertheim suggests that tangible understanding is equally as important as theory. “What we want to propose, is that the highest levels of abstraction, things like mathematics, computing, logic, etc. — all of this can be engaged with, not just through purely cerebral algebraic symbolic methods, but by literally, physically playing with ideas,” says Wertheim.

See also: Photographer Barry Rosenthal is another artist transforming traditional methods of portraying biological species. Instead of recreating botanical drawings of flora and fauna from real flowers, Rosenthal uses trash found in the streets of Brooklyn and New Jersey to create taxonomies of our littered sidewalks and gardens. Though these photographs may seem like collections of junk, the subtle environmental message is also quite alarming. See more at his website »

JoAnn Kuchera-Morin: Stunning data visualization in the AlloSphere JoAnn Kuchera-Morin: Stunning data visualization in the AlloSphere JoAnn Kuchera-Morin: Stunning data visualization in the allosphere
If you can imagine being inside a computer that looks like an omnitheater, you can partially imagine the mysterious, three-story metal arena known as the Allosphere. This echo-free chamber, connected to a very large computer, was created as an interdisciplinary center for artists, scientists and engineers to work together. While scientists explore complex algorithms and test new hypotheses, engineers build computers large enough to dynamically store data and artists create visuals and sounds to help holistically understand such sensitive information. Watch this demo from TED2009, as JoAnn Kuchera-Morin takes you through five research projects going on at the Allosphere — including quantifying beauty through monitoring the brain and working with quantum mathematicians to visualize and hear quantum information flow.

See also: Tomas Saraceno — an Argentinian artist — has created ‘In Orbit,’ an installation that rises about 65 feet above a piazza in Germany. It allows patrons to look, climb and feel like they’re floating in space, walking along a spider web or traversing the inside of a soap bubble. Read more at Design Boom »

Lucy McRae: How can technology transform the human body? Lucy McRae: How can technology transform the human body? Lucy McRae: How technology can transform the human body
Lucy McRae is a self-proclaimed ‘body architect.’ How does one get that title? She has a background in ballet, architecture and fashion, with an added interest in transforming the human body. While working for Philips Electronics, McRae worked on projects that resembled sci-fi realities, but working on prototypes wasn’t enough. She began to ask questions about communication and sexual attraction —  like “Would it be possible to create swallowable pills that allow you to perspire perfume to attract partners?” Watch this talk from TED2012 to see her provocative, visionary work exploring the limitless future of biology and technology.

See also: Speaking of perspiring perfume, another hybrid team of designers and scientists is exploring synthetic biology to detect toxins and bacteria using colored biomarkers. The EChromi team is engineering bacteria to secrete colors that indicate whether the water is safe or if the food is good to eat, and this work won them the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM). Read more at their website »