TIME Innovation

When Growing an Ear on Your Arm is Art

da-vinci-reconstruction-aerial-screw
Getty Images Model reconstruction of Leonardo da Vinci's design for an aerial screw.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Leonardo da Vinci made no distinction between art and science—and the two fields are converging again

In 2007, the Australian performance artist Stelarc started growing an extra ear on his left arm through a series of operations that are still ongoing. The ear is actually made up of his own stem cells woven into a biodegradable frame. Eventually a Bluetooth device will be inserted and Stelarc will be able to hear and communicate through it.

Stelarc’s work focuses on body enhancement, exploring the radical changes our bodies will undergo in the 21st century. He also created “Exoskeleton,” a 1,300-pound prosthetic machine with six legs driven by 18 pneumatic actuators. Stelarc climbs into the middle of this huge device and pilots it with arm gestures. It is a harbinger of how technology and humans will increasingly merge—a future in which cyborgs (or robotic machines) will be operated by our brains, while the rest of our bodies will become obsolete.

In these experiments, Stelarc creates a brand new art form using science and technology in ways that are artistically pleasing, or aesthetic. Our notions of science and aesthetics are two concepts that have been undergoing redefinition for centuries.

I’ve studied the connections between art and science for 30 years, a passion first sparked while I was growing up in New York City as a kid interested in science in a city with some of the greatest art museums in the world. A few years after earning a doctorate in physics, I decided to focus on a question I was constantly asking myself: “What is the nature of creativity in science?” In studying the original German-language papers in relativity and quantum theory by Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and others, I was struck by the importance of visual imagery and aesthetics in scientists’ creativity.

In the early 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci made no distinction between art and science. The imaginative submarines and helicopters he designed and drew were as much art to him as the “Mona Lisa.” A century later, in 1687, Isaac Newton’s magisterial laws of motion led to the “Age of Reason,” in which the search for truth resided in science and art was relegated to mere ornamentation. It was not for another 300 years that art and science began to move closer again. The rise of industries fueled by spectacular developments in science and technology—the electrical dynamo, photography, and cinematography—plus scientific discoveries such as x-rays, radioactivity, and mathematicians’ explorations of multi-dimensional spaces inspired scientists and artists to new heights of abstraction.

Einstein was inspired to discover special relativity in 1905 by his desire to remove the asymmetries in nature implied by how scientists interpreted equations in the physics of that era. He found these asymmetries “unbearable” because he believed passionately in a pristine beauty in nature that he thought ought to be reflected in the mathematics of a scientific theory. In fact, Einstein introduced beauty — simplicity in explanations, a sense of proportion in equations — as a guideline in scientific research.

Developments in technology, science, and mathematics were also of central importance to artists. Pablo Picasso’s breakthrough 1907 painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” contained the seeds of Cubism. Picasso interpreted X-rays, discovered in 1895, as revealing that what you see is not necessarily what you get, a keynote of Cubism in which forms are reduced to geometry.

Picasso’s Cubism led to Futurism and then to Surrealism. Yet these art movements used only the ideas of science and technology, not the media like actual X-rays or actual cinematography. All this changed in the second half of the 20th century when electronics became readily available. But artists could not use this material without help from scientists, which led to collaboration. The first major collaboration took place in 1966 when the scientist Billy Klüver brought together 30 colleagues from Bell Labs and 10 artists from the East Village, among them Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. This combustible mixture exploded in a series of performances called “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering.” Rauschenberg’s performance started with a tennis match in which the lights automatically dimmed when each player hit the ball, while Cage filled the auditorium with a cacophony of sounds collected from various sources such as hotel kitchens and police and marine radio bands piped in from around the city through telephone lines.

Today, artists can express emotions and depict nature by using tools that go beyond paintbrush and chisel. They can use data from airplane flights across the U.S. or insert a fluorescent jellyfish gene into a rabbit. I call the new art movement “artsci.”

In writing my new book, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art, I conducted more than 80 interviews with prominent artists and scientists working in the new art form. Through these conversations, I came to the conclusion that 21st century art, science, and technology are fusing into a third culture—a new avant-garde. Eventually this fusion— “artsci”—will be known simply as art. This is a highly controversial conclusion because most artists and scientists believe that art is simply art and science is simply science and that’s it. Right now, even artists who recognize the importance of science and technology in their work consider themselves to be merely producing scientific illustrations rather than work that could lead to scientific discoveries.

But the art created in conjunction with science can sometimes even benefit science. The British dance/science/engineering group “danceroom Spectroscopy,” which I discovered after I finished my book, choreographs beautiful pieces around themes like molecular dynamics. David Glowacki, a theoretical chemist at Bristol University in England, and his team came up with a dance performance called “Hidden Fields” in which interactive digital art and physics transform dancers’ movements into what the group calls “energy fields” that create disturbances in computer simulations of molecular dynamics projected onto a background screen. The super-fast algorithms cooked up for bringing together the dancers’ movements with the simulations of molecular motion have ended up helping scientists manipulate chains of protein molecules. They want to understand how proteins try to cooperate or bond together because mishaps in the process can lead to diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and Parkinson’s. Using these algorithms is sometimes 10,000 times faster than simply asking a computer to try different chains of protein molecules until it hits upon an appropriate structure.

This is the future of art in our age of computers and algorithms. Painting with oils and other traditional art forms will persist, but I think they, too, will soon merge with science and technology in new and imaginative ways. For a taste of this future, check out an electronic art fair like Ars Electronica, held in Linz, Austria, every September. Ars Electronica shows works generated by science and technology, with new sorts of images and sounds that would be impossible without computers and algorithms. There are no paintings—in fact, they’re sometimes derisively referred to as “flat art” by proponents of artsci.

Appreciating the new art on display at the fair requires knowledge of science and technology, computers, and algorithms. At Ars Electronica in 2012, visitors to Seiko Mikami’s installation “Desire of Codes” became actors in a work of art in which ambiguity reigns. The installation is made of six ceiling-mounted surveillance cameras on robotic arms and 90 wall-mounted sensors. These data are mixed with pre-recorded images and sounds from actual surveillance cameras to create images on screens in which the exhibition visitors see themselves walking through cities such as Berlin or in the countryside, as if in a dream or an alternate reality. In this new artsci, there is no one unique “Mona Lisa.” This is an art that does not stand still.

Arthur I. Miller is the author of the recently published, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art. He is a professor emeritus of history and philosophy of science at University College London. He wrote this for “Open Art,” a partnership of the Getty and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 2

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Never trust a corporation to do a library’s job.

By Andy Baio in the Message

2. Cost-cutting is killing U.S. military innovation.

By Dan Steinbock in Project Syndicate

3. We should streamline the patchwork of state licenses and certifications required for many jobs.

By Adam Ozimek in Forbes

4. Focusing on responsiveness over efficiency can spur business breakthroughs.

By First Round Review

5. A new concept for a cheaper, lighter space telescope could reach 1,000 times the resolution of Hubble.

By the University of Colorado Boulder

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Raspberry Pi Unveils Newer, Faster $35 Computer

The credit-card sized computer will also get Windows 10 at no additional cost

Technology and bargain lovers alike are in for some good news: The Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the release of a newer and faster model Monday called the Raspberry Pi 2. And like the original, it only costs $35.

For the uninitiated, the Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized, single-board computer that be hooked up to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

While the original model helped children learn basic programming skills, CEO Eben Upton told The Register that the Raspberry Pi 2 is “a usable PC now. It was always the case that you could use a Raspberry Pi 1 as a PC but you had to say ‘this is a great PC in so far as it cost me 35 bucks.’ We’ve removed the caveat that you had to be a bit forgiving with it. Now it’s just good.”

The British charity behind the technology says the new model is six times more powerful than the previous version. It has 1GB of RAM, double that of the prior model. Its new 900MHz quad-core processor means it’s faster, too.

But one of the cooler announcements is that Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 10 operating system is coming to the Raspberry Pi 2 at no additional cost. It will be shipped to makers free of charge once the software is available.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 30

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. What if football helmet safety ratings are measuring the wrong hits?

By Bryan Gruley in Bloomberg Business

2. If France wants fewer radicalized Muslims, it must clean up its prisons.

By Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post

3. They 3D-printed a car.

By Umair Irfan in Scientific American

4. The low price of meat doesn’t reflect its true cost.

By the New Scientist

5. Lesser-known cities and young architects are perfect for each other.

By Amanda Kolson Hurley in CityLab

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 29

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The homeownership safety net may be unraveling for the next generation of seniors.

By Taz George and Ellen Seidman in MetroTrends

2. As we try to understand what draws Americans to ISIS, one judge hopes we can slow radicalization by putting recruits in halfway houses instead of jail.

By Dina Temple-Raston at National Public Radio

3. Phones for farmers: With a mobile phone, a developing world farmer can learn best practices, get weather data, follow crop prices and even access financial services.

By Gates Notes

4. A new food studies program at a Bronx community college will look at healthy eating and obesity in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

By Winnie Hu in the New York Times

5. A new initiative is pushing to get more women into the debate on global issues. Meet Foreign Policy Interrupted.

By Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

This Airline Is Giving Passengers Virtual Reality Headsets

Virtual Reality
Patrick T. Fallon—Patrick T. Fallon An attendee during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015.

Some Qantas passengers will get Samsung's Gear VR headset

Your next in-flight movie could be a lot more immersive.

Australian airline Qantas is partnering with Samsung to bring the electronics company’s virtual reality headsets to some of its passengers. First-class fliers will soon be able to use Samsung’s Gear VR headset during flights to explore virtual reality worlds. The headsets will let customers digitally explore the Qantas airport, visit the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and travel through the Australian wilderness.

In addition to in-flight VR, Qantas fliers will be able to use the headsets in first-class airport lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

In a press release, a Qantas executive also promised that passengers will be able to access “the virtual worlds of their favorite Hollywood blockbusters,” though there are currently very few films release in a VR format. For now, the headsets are being offered in a limited three-month trial.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 28

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. As pressure builds for U.S. military attention to Boko Haram in Nigeria, that nation’s political situation and past abuses complicate planning.

By Kevin Baron and Molly O’Toole at Defense One

2. What was once an “artist” is now a “creative entrepreneur.” Marketing and networking have forever changed art.

By William Deresiewicz in the Atlantic

3. Does the rising danger of digital attacks mean traditional warfare is irrelevant?

By David Barno and Nora Bensahel in War on the Rocks

4. Probability forecasts would take some getting used to, but they are a better way to tell the public about major weather events.

By Graham T. Beck in Time

5. Improving the ‘cold chain’ — how food stays fresh from farm to table — could massively reduce waste and carbon emissions.

By Adam Wernick at Public Radio International

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME China

See China’s Internet Dilemma in One Screen Grab

Can the country really hope for entrepreneurial innovation while restricting Internet access?

Chinese state media today announced a plan to lure more “entrepreneurial” expatriates to China. The goal is to get people into startups and promote innovation, according to a site-leading story Wednesday on the English-language edition of the China Daily.

Running just below that article, though, was a piece headlined “VPN Providers Must Obey Rules.” VPN (virtual private network) providers are the companies that help people jump over China’s Great Firewall. In recent weeks, the government has targeted several such firms, slowing or stopping their services altogether.

The thing is, the “innovative” foreign entrepreneurs China seeks will almost certainly want unfettered access to the Internet. You know, crazy stuff like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (all of which are banned in China). What’s a startup-loving Communist Party official to do?

TIME Innovation

Here’s the One Simple Way To Fix Weather Forecasts

A woman stands in falling snow in front of an electronic sign displaying the weather forecast in Times Square in New York
Mike Segar—Reuters A woman stands in falling snow in front of an electronic sign displaying the weather forecast in Times Square in New York City on Jan. 26, 2015.

Graham T. Beck writes about cities and the natural world.

Probabilistic forecasting would take some getting used to—but it could save us a lot of headaches

Just after midnight on Tuesday morning, Gary Szatkowski, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s office in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, took to Twitter for some good old fashioned self-flagellation.

“My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public,” he wrote to his 14,000 followers. “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t. Once again, I’m sorry,” he added two minutes later.

Szatkowski, of course, was apologizing for his agency’s forecast for a blizzard of historic proportions that — at least in his part of the world and as far north and east as New York City — fell far short of expectations, leaving inches of snow where people were expecting feet.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took a decidedly different approach to the miscalculation. “Would you rather be prepared or unprepared? Safe or unsafe?” he asked rhetorically at a post-snow press conference, where his agency heads proudly boasted of their heroic responses to an average winter storm.

So, who’s right? In an age of weather hype, with 24-hour news cycles and superlative-laden click-bait headlines, is it have better to under promise or plan for the worst?

The answer, according to Susan Joslyn, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington who studies decision making in applied settings, is complicated.

In a 2015 paper, co-authored with Jared Le Clerc, Joslyn examined how the “cry wolf effect” impacted weather-related decision making. According to her research, increasing false alarms (like over estimating snow totals or issuing unnecessary travel bans) has a negative impact on the quality of decisions down the road, but reducing false alarms doesn’t have a positive impact on the quality of future decisions. Adding an uncertainty estimate to the forecast, however, does.

“My personal feeling about this is it is appropriate to take precaution, even if there’s a small chance, especially if human life is at risk,” Joslyn said during a telephone interview.

“But what authorities ought to do for decision makers and the public is tell them ‘yes, I think there’s a good chance’, and then tell them the probability. What they tend to do is say ‘It’s going to happen or ‘It’s not going to happen.’ Our research indicates that giving the full story has the best results,” she said.

Mike Smith, a meteorologist from AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and a weather historian, thinks that Joslyn’s work is fine in theory but sees some real challenges to probabilistic forecasts in practicality.

“In this storm, which point do you pick to represent New York City? Is it the west side of Manhattan, the east side of Queens? There’s an 8-inch difference in total accumulation between the two,” Smith said in a telephone interview, adding, “And when you’re on TV, you can’t go on and on about how Staten Island has this likelihood of that amount and Brooklyn has that likelihood of this amount.”

“Perhaps as weather science advances,” he added, “and as the web becomes more ubiquitous, maybe. But with toady’s dissemination technology it’s very difficult to give probabilistic snow forecasts to everyone.”

What’s more, Smith thinks the forecast was just fine.

“The average snowfall in New York was 11”. Did they have had to load the trucks with salt? Yes. Did school have to be called? Yes. Would workers have been told to stay home or telecommute? Yes. Would flights have been cancelled? Yes. Once you reach that threshold it really doesn’t matter how much more snow falls.”

“Was it an excellent forecast for points south and west of New York City? Of course not, but it was useful. For everyone north and east, I’d say that it was lifesaving. To me, that makes it a good day for meteorology.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 27

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Political differences aren’t the problem in America. It’s our fierce intolerance of political differences.

By Clive Crook in Bloomberg View

2. Instead of burying carbon emissions underground, a new plan converts it to minerals for longer-lasting, safer storage.

By Andy Extance in Slate

3. As more states and communities give ex-cons a fair chance at employment, the momentum is building for action by the White House.

By Lydia DePillis in the Washington Post

4. Games inspire deeper engagement and interaction. Can we gamify the news?

By Lene Bech Sillesen in Columbia Journalism Review

5. It’s time to reimagine youth sports in America with an eye on inclusion and health.

By Tom Farrey in the Aspen Idea Blog

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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