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June 26 2013

Podcast: what makes a scientist?

At Sci Foo Camp last weekend we enjoyed sitting down with several thoughtful scientists and thinkers-about-science to record a few podcast episodes. Here we speak with Tom Daniel, a professor of biology, computer science, and neurobiology at the University of Washington, and Ben Lillie, co-founder of The Story Collider and a Stanford-trained physicist. First topic: what brings people to science, and how we compare to our icons. Along the way, we mention Hans Bethe, Isaac Newton’s epitaph, and John McPhee’s trip across Interstate 80.

We’ll post the rest of the series over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can find more episodes of our podcast and subscribe on iTunes or SoundCloud.

April 26 2013

Glowing Plants

I just invested in BioCurious’ Glowing Plants project on Kickstarter. I don’t watch Kickstarter closely, but this is about as fast as I’ve ever seen a project get funded. It went live on Wednesday; in the afternoon, I was backer #170 (more or less), but could see the number of backers ticking upwards constantly as I watched. It was fully funded for $65,000 Thursday; and now sits at 1340 backers (more by the time you read this), with about $84,000 in funding. And there’s a new “stretch” goal: if they make $400,000, they will work on bigger plants, and attempt to create a glowing rose.

Glowing plants are a curiosity; I don’t take seriously the idea that trees will be an alternative to streetlights any time in the near future. But that’s not the point. What’s exciting is that an important and serious biology project can take place in a biohacking lab, rather than in a university or an industrial facility. It’s exciting that this project could potentially become a business; I’m sure there’s a boutique market for glowing roses and living nightlights, if not for biological street lighting. And it’s exciting that we can make new things out of biological parts.

In a conversation last year, Drew Endy said that he wanted synthetic biology to “stay weird,” and that if in ten years, all we had accomplished was create bacteria that made oil from cellulose, we will have failed. Glowing plants are weird. And beautiful. Take a look at their project, fund it, and be the first on your block to have a self-illuminating garden.

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November 09 2012

George Church and the potential of synthetic biology

A few weeks ago, I explained why I thought biohacking was one of the most important new trends in technology. If I didn’t convince you, Derek Jacoby’s review (below) of George Church’s new book, Regenesis, will. Church is no stranger to big ideas: big ideas on the scale of sending humans to Mars. (The moon? That’s so done.) And unlike most people with big ideas, Church has an uncanny track record at making his ideas reality. Biohacking has been not so quietly gaining momentum for several years now. If there’s one book that can turn this movement into a full-blown revolution, this is it. — Mike Loukides

George Church and Ed Regis pull off an exciting and speculative romp through the field of synthetic biology and where it could take us in the not too distant future. If anyone with less eminence than Church were to have written this book then half this review would need to be spent defending the realism of the possibilities, but with his track record if he suggests it’s a possibility then it’s worth thinking about.

The possibilities are mind-blowing — breeding organisms immune to all viruses, recreating extinct species, creating humans immune to cancer. We’re entering an age where the limits to our capabilities to re-make the world around us are limited only by our imaginations and our good judgement. Regenesis addresses this as well, for instance proposing mechanisms to create synthetic organisms that are incapable of interacting with natural ones.

Although the book is aimed at a non-technical general audience, the science is explained in excellent detail and is well-referenced for further study.

As the book documents, we’re in the middle of an exponential increase in genomics capabilities that dwarfs even the pace of change in the computer industry. In such a rapidly changing field if you can imagine a plausible technical approach to a problem, no matter how difficult or cumbersome it may be, then soon it’s likely to become easy.

To give an example of an idea long discussed in science fiction, the book addresses re-creating extinct species. Surprisingly, there is already a successful example of this having occurred! The Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo, is a type of mountain goat that went extinct in 1999. But before the last ibex died, researchers scraped a few tissue cells from the ear of the last surviving ibex. They were able to induce the skin cells to become stem cells, and then in a process called interspecies nuclear transfer cloning they were able to fuse those stem cells with de-nucleated donor goat eggs, implant the eggs into domestic goats, and successfully birth a living ibex. By extension, the book examines the implications of reviving the wooly mammoth, or even neanderthals.

Similar detailed examples and discussions take the reader through the potentials of synthetic biology to transform fuel production, food production, waste processing, medicine, and even engineering of the human genome to produce Homo evolutis. Church’s background is in directed evolution — he invented many of the most powerful techniques to rapidly evolve portions of a genome to possess specified characteristics. To hear the inventor of such a powerful technology explore the ramifications of it is a real treat. Society will be exploring the issues raised in this book for many years — how to take advantage of the ability to re-engineer life while protecting against the risks that such a powerful technology must bring.

Refreshingly, in Church’s view protecting against those risks need not exclude amateurs and citizen scientists. Regenesis proposes a licensing scheme, but much more akin to a driver’s license than a formidable hurdle, and suggests a model where a combination of engineering techniques and basic shared procedures is sufficient to protect against any reasonable threats to safety while still ensuring the widest possible access to the technology.

Regenesis provides an accessible and engaging introduction to the revolutionary potentials of synthetic biology and should be of interest to both experts and a general science audience.


October 26 2012

TERRA 720: Atom

Atom is a short, animated film about the ‘life’ of Atom X. From the Big Bang to the emergence of life on Earth and beyond, this film tells a rather brief story of, well, everything.

October 03 2012

Biohacking: The next great wave of innovation

Genspace and Biocurious logosGenspace and Biocurious logosI’ve been following synthetic biology for the past year or so, and we’re about to see some big changes. Synthetic bio seems to be now where the computer industry was in the late 1970s: still nascent, but about to explode. The hacker culture that drove the development of the personal computer, and that continues to drive technical progress, is forming anew among biohackers.

Computers certainly existed in the ’60s and ’70s, but they were rare, and operated by “professionals” rather than enthusiasts. But an important change took place in the mid-’70s: computing became the domain of amateurs and hobbyists. I read recently that the personal computer revolution started when Steve Wozniak built his own computer in 1975. That’s not quite true, though. Woz was certainly a key player, but he was also part of a club. More important, Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club wasn’t the only one. At roughly the same time, a friend of mine was building his own computer in a dorm room. And hundreds of people, scattered throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, were doing the same thing. The revolution wasn’t the result of one person: it was the result of many, all moving in the same direction.

Biohacking has the same kind of momentum. It is breaking out of the confines of academia and research laboratories. There are two significant biohacking hackerspaces in the U.S., GenSpace in New York and BioCurious in California, and more are getting started. Making glowing bacteria (the biological equivalent of “Hello, World!”) is on the curriculum in high school AP bio classes. iGem is an annual competition to build “biological robots.” A grassroots biohacking community is developing, much as it did in computing. That community is transforming biology from a purely professional activity, requiring lab coats, expensive equipment, and other accoutrements, to something that hobbyists and artists can do.

As part of this transformation, the community is navigating the transition from extremely low-level tools to higher-level constructs that are easier to work with. When I first leaned to program on a PDP-8, you had to start the computer by loading a sequence of 13 binary numbers through switches on the front panel. Early microcomputers weren’t much better, but by the time of the first Apples, things had changed. DNA is similar to machine language (except it’s in base four, rather than binary), and in principle hacking DNA isn’t much different from hacking machine code. But synthetic biologists are currently working on the notion of “standard biological parts,” or genetic sequences that enable a cell to perform certain standardized tasks. Standardized parts will give practitioners the ability to work in a “higher level language.” In short, synthetic biology is going through the same transition in usability that computing saw in the ’70s and ’80s.

Alongside this increase in usability, we’re seeing a drop in price, just as in the computer market. Computers cost serious money in the early ’70s, but the price plummeted, in part because of hobbyists: seminal machines like the Apple II, the TRS-80, and the early Macintosh would never have existed if not to serve the needs of hobbyists. Right now, setting up a biology lab is expensive; but we’re seeing the price drop quickly, as biohackers figure out clever ways to make inexpensive tools, such as the DremelFuge, and learn how to scrounge for used equipment.

And we’re also seeing an explosion in entrepreneurial activity. Just as the Homebrew Computer Club and other garage hackers led to Apple and Microsoft, the biohacker culture is full of similarly ambitious startups, working out of hackerspaces. It’s entirely possible that the next great wave of entrepreneurs will be biologists, not programmers.

What are the goals of synthetic biology? There are plenty of problems, from the industrial to the medical, that need to be solved. Drew Endy told me how one of the first results from synthetic biology, the creation of soap that would be effective in cold water, reduced the energy requirements of the U.S. by 10%. The holy grail in biofuels is bacteria that can digest cellulose (essentially, the leaves and stems of any plant) and produce biodiesel. That seems achievable. Can we create bacteria that would live in a diabetic’s intestines and produce insulin? Certainly.

But industrial applications aren’t the most interesting problems waiting to be solved. Endy is concerned that, if synthetic bio is dominated by a corporate agenda, it will cease to be “weird,” and won’t ask the more interesting questions. One Synthetic Aesthetics project made cheeses from microbes that were cultured from the bodies of people in the synthetic biology community. Christian Bok has inserted poetry into a microbe’s DNA. These are the projects we’ll miss if the agenda of synthetic biology is defined by business interests. And these are, in many ways, the most important projects, the ones that will teach us more about how biology works, and the ones that will teach us more about our own creativity.

The last 40 years of computing have proven what a hacker culture can accomplish. We’re about to see that again, this time in biology. And, while we have no idea what the results will be, it’s safe to predict that the coming revolution in biology will radically change the way we live — at least as radically as the computer revolution. It’s going to be an interesting and exciting ride.


July 06 2012

TERRA 712: Vitamin ConspiraC

Do you take vitamin C when you get sick? Well, now you don't have to! Filmmaker Christina Choate urges you to skip the pill and eat plants instead. In her quest to find the truth about vitamin C, she introduces the man responsible for popularizing vitamin C supplements, retraces the history of scurvy, explains the vitamin's evolution, biochemistry and richest sources. With wit and humor, she de-bunks popular myths and takes a stand against the quick-fix health industry.

April 30 2012

Leonardo's real body of work was anatomy, claims new exhibition

Royal Collection to display scientific drawings of Renaissance polymath, which scientists say show his dedication to physiology

Leonardo da Vinci was primarily a scientist later in life, with art and painting very much a sideline – according to the biggest exhibition yet of his groundbreaking anatomical studies.

The Royal Collection is putting on display 87 pages of Leonardo's notebooks packed full of detailed notes and astonishing drawings of bones, organs, vessels and muscles.

The show's curator, Martin Claydon, said his drawings were among the finest depictions of the human body ever created. "People have known Leonardo as the archetypal renaissance man since his death almost 500 years ago, but on the whole people have seen him as a painter who conducted scientific research on the side, almost as some kind of bizarre hobby.

"What this exhibition shows is that Leonardo was primarily a scientist, at least for the latter part of his life, who executed a few paintings on the side."

Leonardo was observing things that had never been observed before – narrowing of the arteries, say, or coronary blockage and cirrhosis of the liver – and he was drawing things that had never been drawn, such as his depiction of the mechanism by which the forearm twists so that our hand can face either up or down. It would be another 200 years before the observation was repeated.

There are extraordinary drawings of cardiovascular systems, for example, and of coitus, and eddies in an animal's aortic sinus.

But the show raises many what-ifs. Leonardo had intended to publish his anatomical studies – which would have been the most important anatomical work ever written – but two things got in the way of him completing them.

One was the untimely plague death of his young collaborator, Marcantonio della Torre, and the other was the Swiss/Venetian invasion of Milan, forcing him out of the city. The studies remained largely unknown for the next 400 years.

What is known is that they were mounted in albums by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni between 1570 and 1590 and these albums made their way into the Royal Collection in the 17th century, possibly during the reign on Charles II. They were then not properly examined until 1900.

So what if he had finished his studies? "We would now regard Leonardo as one of the greatest scientists of the Renaissance and one of the greatest anatomists of all time," said Claydon. "His work would have been the most important work on anatomy ever published."

Because Leonardo's earlier work was not published, Vesalius's Humani Corporis Fabrica from 1543 is considered the first anatomy textbook.

Whether his studies would have led to medical advances is trickier. "It is not until antiseptics and anaesthetics in particular that surgeons could do anything with the knowledge that people gained through dissection," said Claydon.

• Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace from 4 May – 7 October © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 19 2012

How the Cost of Computation Restricts the Processes of Life - Technology Review

The energy required to process information places a fundamental limit on biological processes, say scientists who are teasing apart the link between computation and life.

//oAnth - source URL -

March 29 2012

Rembrandt and the art of growing old gracefully

While other artists were coldly curious or, worse, cruel in their depiction of old age, Rembrandt relished the effects of time

Rembrandt painted old age with a nobility and power that no other artist has ever approached. The authentication of his picture The Old Rabbi at Woburn Abbey adds yet another marvel to the world's most sensitive gallery of ageing.

Renaissance artists were by turns reverent and coldly curious about the effects of age on a face. In 15th-century Florence, death masks of elderly patricians were kept by their families. In early 16th-century Venice, the painter Giorgione, who was to die young, made a disconcerting portrait of an old woman, who bears a banner that says "Col Tempo", or "with time". Giorgione seems to be mocking vanity, pointing out that even the most beautiful face will wrinkle and yellow with time.

It is not a heartening message. Leonardo da Vinci was crueller, mocking elderly faces as monstrous wrecks in his caricature drawings. It took Rembrandt to recognise the dignity and character of aged faces and to embrace the marks of time as beautiful, mysterious and rich.

His paintings of old faces neither flatter nor scrutinise, are neither in denial about nor repelled by age, but instead relish the effects of time. Rembandt is, above all, interested in the inner self, the mystery behind someone's eyes, and the distractions of youthful glamour just get in the way of that pursuit. An elderly face framed by a white ruff collar over black clothes allows him to see deeper.

Rembrandt's deepest study of ageing was a lifelong project: he watched himself grow old. His unrivalled and sustained self-portraiture shows how he himself changed with time. As he ages, he sees himself more intimately: he stops pretending to himself. To compare his Self-Portraits at the ages of 34 and 63 is to witness someone grow in suffering and sorrow and, perhaps, wisdom. At 34 he looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human.

To be sure, Rembrandt is an artist to grow old with. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 19 2012

January 04 2012

World-first hybrid shark found off Australia |

Scientists said on Tuesday that they had discovered the world's first hybrid sharks in Australian waters, a potential sign the predators were adapting to cope with climate change.


 // quotation by oAnth:



The Australian black-tip is slightly smaller than its common cousin and can only live in tropical waters, but its hybrid offspring have been found 2,000 kilometres down the coast, in cooler seas.


It means the Australian black-tip could be adapting to ensure its survival as sea temperatures change because of global warming.


"If it hybridises with the common species it can effectively shift its range further south into cooler waters, so the effect of this hybridising is a range expansion," Morgan said.

"It's enabled a species restricted to the tropics to move into temperate waters."


Climate change and human fishing are some of the potential triggers being investigated by the team, with further genetic mapping also planned to examine whether it was an ancient process just discovered or a more recent phenomenon.



- original Url:

December 23 2011

TERRA 618: The Action of Attraction

This eight-minute film explores an entomologist's research into the relationships between the genes, receptors, pheromones, and behaviors of moths and other insects.
TERRA 618: The Action of Attraction

This eight-minute film explores an entomologist's research into the relationships between the genes, receptors, pheromones, and behaviors of moths and other insects.

October 31 2011

TERRA 614: Feeding the Problem

What began in 1912 as a gracious effort to save the Jackson Hole elk herd from harsh winters, shrinking habitat, and dwindling forage, has morphed into a century-long feeding program on what is now the National Elk Refuge and 22 other State-run feed grounds. This biological experiment has created a petri dish for wildlife disease and is now one of the most contentious, fiercely debated issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Feeding the Problem is a balanced and in-depth exploration of this unique conservation dilemma from the people most intimately connected to it.

September 15 2011

TERRA 701: Connecting the Gems

Wildlife biologist Gregg Treinish and filmmaker Deia Schlosberg hike 520 miles along one of the most important wildlife corridors in North America. The two adventurers seek to gain a better understanding of the health of the region from an animal's eye point-of-view by assessing habitat and by monitoring corridor usage, as well as barriers to movement and human-related development along the journey.
TERRA 701: Connecting the Gems

Wildlife biologist Gregg Treinish and filmmaker Deia Schlosberg hike 520 miles along one of the most important wildlife corridors in North America. The two adventurers seek to gain a better understanding of the health of the region from an animal's eye point-of-view by assessing habitat and by monitoring corridor usage, as well as barriers to movement and human-related development along the journey.

August 21 2011

When two tribes meet

Science and art are often considered opposites – so what happens when top practitioners in each field collaborate? The results, finds Stuart Jeffries, can be seismic

Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and inventor. True, Brian Cox was in that band before he gave it all up for the Large Hadron Collider. But in general, art and science seem to eye each other uncomprehendingly. Medical research charity the Wellcome Trust has long tried to make artists and scientists work fruitfully together by funding collaborations. Can the divide ever be breached? I talked to four scientists and four artists who have worked together to find out.

The artist and the geneticist

Just before 9/11, Marc Quinn did a portrait of Sir John Sulston, one of the genetic scientists who decoded the human genome. "At the moment this divisive attack happened, John's work and this portrait were suggesting that we are all connected – in fact that everything living is connected to everything else," Quinn says.

It was a radical departure for portraiture. Certainly few sitters contribute, as Sulston did, a sample of DNA from his sperm. That sample was cut into segments and treated so they could be replicated in bacteria. The bacteria was spread on agar jelly and placed under glass, forming a portrait about A4 size. "Some say it's an abstract portrait, but I say it's the most realistic portrait in the National Portrait Gallery," says Quinn. "It carries the instructions that led to John and shows his ancestry back to the beginning of the universe."

"Well, yes," says Sulston, "but DNA gives the instructions for making a baby, not an adult. There's a lot more to me than DNA."

A decade after their collaboration, Quinn and Sulston are meeting in the artist's east London studio. Did the collaboration change each man's attitudes towards the other's discipline? "I still think science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions," says Quinn.

"Science simply means finding out about stuff, but in that process science is the greatest driver of culture," says Sulston. "When you do something like decode the human genome, it changes your whole perspective. In terms of genetic manipulation we're not just looking for answers but modifying what's there."

That is very much the focus of Quinn's recent work. Last year, his White Cube show featured a sculpture called Catman, depicting Dennis Avner, who has been tattooed to look like a cat, and another of Allanah Starr, a transsexual woman who, according to the blurb, "has changed her body into the idealisation of femininity even though she also has a penis". Quinn says: "They're about the fantasy of being someone else – you can be a man or a woman, anything. We've always had those fantasies and now science is making them possible."

Quinn says Sulston's portrait was important to his later work. He shows us his painting of a human iris in the studio. "I've made a lot of work since, to do with eyes and fingerprints, because we are controlled so much more by scans of abstract data about ourselves." As for Sulston, since he finished working on the human genome, he has become concerned with ethical questions to do with the application of his work to police DNA databases and civil liberties.

The collaboration came about when Quinn was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, with the support of the Wellcome Trust, to do Sulston's portrait. "John did all the work," says Quinn. The artist, at least, decided on the portrait's frame. "People can see themselves in the reflective surround, which highlights that we're all connected – one of the great messages of the Human Genome Project.

"Because it's true, isn't it, that our DNA is 90% the same as bananas'?" asks Quinn. "Well, no, actually it's more like 50%," clarifies Sulston, who won the Nobel prize in 2002. "Our DNA is about 90% the same as other mammals." Our material connection with everything else, not just our world but in the universe, clearly appeals to Quinn: no wonder that his Iris painting from 2009 is subtitled We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars.

In Quinn's most famous work, Self (1991), he made a sculpture from a cast of his head filled with nine pints of his own deep-frozen blood. It is carefully maintained in a refrigeration unit, reminding us of the fragility of existence. Every five years since 1991, he has replaced what he calls a "frozen moment" on life support, with a new transfusion of his own blood. He calls it an ongoing project, while the portrait of Sulston is suspended in time for ever; once the Nobel laureate dies, there is something of him preserved in this picture, a code from which, perhaps, he could be cloned.

The poet and the speech scientist

"I once overheard someone say, 'Its mother was a crab,'" says Valerie Hazan, professor of speech sciences at University College London. "Can you think of a situation in which that would be used? I often ask my students this."

Hazan's point is that hearers often work imaginatively to supply a context to a discombobulating utterance, to annex incomprehensible or uncanny speech into the more soothing realm of the understood. But there's another point, too: "Certain utterances stick in your mind: a contorted use of language not planned in any way is often most memorable."

This resonates for poet Lavinia Greenlaw. "Those are the things I'm trying to recreate in my work," she says. "I'm trying to get at that unconscious manipulation of language. I've become more and more interested in particular voices at the edge – especially overheard, fragmentary voices."

For her latest project, Greenlaw spent two years eavesdropping on passengers at railway stations. She even has a Twitter feed to record gnomic utterances, such as her recent favourite: "trifle for grownups". She wrote monologues based on these eavesdroppings, got actors to voice them, and – with the help of a sound designer – cut them into little snippets. But the results weren't just what she heard. "I started with the overheard and then I moved into interior voices, which clearly I imagined. So I started with something very real and then it became about heightening it."

The result is called Audio Obscura. The project started at Manchester's Piccadilly station and will next month appear on the concourse of London's St Pancras station. Visitors put on headphones and, alone, engage in what she calls "dark listening" to voices in the crowd – fragments of narratives, glimpses of interior worlds.

For Hazan, this project bears comparison with her own research interests. "In my work, I'm realising more and more that you can't take things out of context and that if there isn't an obvious one, hearers supply it." Recently, Hazan recorded 40 speakers in 12 pairs trying to exchange information about a "spot the difference" picture. "In one of them, one talker heard the other via a three-channel noise vocoder. But even with minimal pitch and acoustics, that kind of very degraded speech can be given a context by the hearer."

What of that mysterious crab sentence utterance we started with? "I heard it in an airport," says Hazan. "The wheels of a trolley were splayed out, and it couldn't move forwards and back. It was odd to overhear that, but what it shows is how we try desperately to make sense with semantically anomalous sentences."

Is there any parallel between the two women's disciplines? Hazan says: "As a scientist you have to be creative to really think what is the question. I didn't think a poet had to be methodical."

Greenlaw says: "Poets are often thought of as vague and wishy-washy, but, like scientists, they can't be. A poem can be about vagueness, but it has to be in precise relationship to vagueness if it's any good. I'm ridiculously analytical. Poetry, though, is an unsettlement – unlike you, Valerie, I'm not drawing connections."

"But we're both manipulating reality to understand it," says Hazan. "What makes a good scientist is someone who can see beyond the obvious."

The photographer and the physiologist

When Mary Morrell and Catherine Yass collaborated on a project called Waking Dream, each hoped to unravel what, if anything, essentially happens in the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Physiologist Morrell, now professor of sleep and respiratory physiology at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, wanted to give a scientific account of that transition.

Turner-shortlisted artist Yass says she came to the collaboration with a lot of "what ifs". "What if we could be said at some moments to be both asleep and awake? What if we were both dreaming and in reality at the same time?"

The collaboration started after Morrell received an email from Yass asking if she could photograph and film patients at the sleep unit to capture this transition. "I thought it sounded impossible, but agreed to let her try."

In the corridor outside Morrell's office at the sleep and breathing unit of London's Royal Brompton Hospital is a lightbox photograph of one of Yass's subjects, Selina, depicted as she came from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to wakefulness. It's one of a series Yass took during the collaboration. Each image invites the viewer to decide whether she is asleep or not.

"I was interested in the limitations of my instruments and the impossibility of representing something," says Yass. "I enjoy that in photography – how it can point to a failure?"

"Initially, I didn't get that at all," laughs Morrell. "Failure pleasurable?" Morrell was also blindsided by the idea that the two women were going to be funded to collaborate on a project that had no obvious outcome.

"Essentially, once we got funding for the project from the Wellcome Trust, we were allowed to find nothing, which to me was incredible." Maybe that freedom, Morrell wonders, can give artist and scientist alike the chance to think outside the box.

Morrell shows me one of the results, hanging on the wall of the Royal Brompton's sleep unit. It's a lightbox in which a furl of lurid pink seems to unroll from the mouth of a black-and-white MRI scanner. "I love this because it looks like that Rolling Stones tongue," says Morrell. Yass says she was trying to highlight the discrepancy between a medium associated with truth, and images which are illusions.

"What came out of the project for me was how you look dictates the answer you get," says Morrell. "You can measures sleep with electrodes, MRI scans, measuring respiratory patterns and whichever way you choose changes your result."

Both women say working on Waking Dream broadened their horizons. "Catherine challenged my preconditioned ideas," says Morrell. After the collaboration, she took a photography course. Some photographs from mountaineering jaunts hang on the walls of her office.

"I was inspired by your attitude," says Yass. "I came with a tentative idea and you would say, 'This is how you can do it.'" Could Yass imagine having been a scientist? "I used to think about being a brain surgeon, but I wouldn't trust myself in a million years. In terms of science, I've always been daunted by the amount of knowledge a scientist needs, but I love the idea that there's a lot of knowledge and someone like Mary has it."

"I'm not sure I do," says Morrell.

The theatre director and the neuroscientist

"If you hear a recording of someone whispering in your ear," says theatre director David Rosenberg, "you can convince yourself you felt their breath."

"Expectation is everything," agrees Professor David McAlpine, director of London University's Ear Institute. "Your brain fills in so much it's not funny. You've got a very narrow bandwidth by the time you get to your ears and your eyes. The rest is artificial, filled in by that expectations machine – your brain."

For his latest theatre piece, Electric Hotel, Rosenberg wanted to play with some of these auditory ideas, to tease his audience with sound illusions. So he approached neuroscientist McAlpine, whose research work into brain mechanisms for spatial hearing and detecting sounds in noisy environments proved key to the effects Rosenberg wanted to achieve. "We were trying to create a very intimate experience for an audience in a show which they see from a distance and also through glass," says Rosenberg.

Electric Hotel initially took place in a decommissioned gasworks behind London's King's Cross station. As darkness fell, audience members were given special headphones and asked to sit before a four-storey set with glass-fronted chambers representing hotel rooms in which dancers played the parts of hotel guests, couriers and cleaners.

Those headphones supplied binaural recordings to each spectator's ears. Rosenberg, along with sound designers and composers Max and Ben Ringham, made a complete score made up not just of music but of everyday sounds. Soft noises were heard thrillingly close to audience members' ears: a woman pulling on a robe after a swim, the plumping of a pillow. The illusory effect was that the individual spectator, far from being in a crowd of other audience members, was in the room with them. While these noises sounded as though they were taking place on stage, in fact they were part of a pre-recorded soundtrack to which the dancers' choreographed moves were fitted.

What does binaural mean? "It's two-eared hearing, and involves extracting information you couldn't have from one ear," says McAlpine. "There are binaural recordings using two microphones at an appropriate distance apart used within a dummy head to try to reproduce effects of your normal hearing," says Rosenberg.

McAlpine recalls the most sophisticated binaural illusion he ever heard. "I was at Dolby's headquarters in San Francisco. They made me put on headphones, close my eyes and then you hear you're in an aeroplane and you crash into the ocean. I really felt a sense of the whoosh of water and the sense of going up on to a sandy beach. Those sensations were my brain filling in the experience from what it heard."

Rosenberg says a key moment of Electric Hotel was another illusion. "The sound moved out into the audience, and the audience became confused as to whether what they're hearing was part of the performance or the actual audience surrounding them."

It sounds like the aural application of a Brechtian alienation technique. Is it? "Totally. It was very important in a show which is essentially you alone with the performers, and then suddenly you have a moment when you recognise the audience around you."

Rosenberg's next theatre project will put his audience in the dark. "The show will enfold you when the lights go out. The audience will wear headphones, and their imaginative experience will involve creating environments they can feel they're a part of without the distraction of vision."

"Your eyes are in charge but not always," says McAlpine. "If it's dark, then you have to do imaginative work. People think of visual scenes, and there are gestalt [psychological] principles for understanding how that is put together. But there's also an auditory scene which is less robust than the visual scene, and how it's put together is still not very clear." Perhaps, then, Rosenberg's next play could be a rare case of art helping scientific enquiry.

Correction 22/8/11: We mistakenly called Professor Mary Morrell 'Margaret' in the piece. This has been corrected © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2011

David Measures obituary

Artist inspired by the natural world who was the first to paint live butterflies in flight

Paintings of butterflies used to be done entirely from dead specimens. David Measures, who has died aged 73 of complications from leukaemia, was the first artist to paint them flying in their natural habitats. He painted all of the British species, from the common cabbage white to the extremely rare large blue. David was a pioneering original in world terms – not just a superb naturalist, but also an inspired painter who extended the language of art.

David was born in Warwick. His childhood was idyllic. The family lived in the tiny Old Toll Cottage, tucked below Warwick Castle on the banks of the river Avon. As a boy, he spent every spare moment exploring the countryside, rowing and swimming in the river. Nature called to him all his life. He expressed it beautifully: "There is a magnet in me drawn to the subtle sense-aura of wild freedom, the porous exchange apparent in wild places and the richness of variety and subtlety which I miss inside a building."

He had always drawn, and did so outdoors from the age of seven. When the time came to decide whether to pursue his interest in the science of natural history or develop his love of art, he chose the latter. The need to praise was stronger in him than the need to analyse. He studied at colleges in mid-Warwickshire, then Bournemouth, and finally the Slade School of Art in London. Like many of his contemporaries, he was excited by the panache of postwar American artists, and his work became increasingly abstract.

In 1964 he took up a lecturing post at Nottingham College of Art (now Nottingham Trent University) and settled in a 15th-century cottage in the nearby town of Southwell, with his wife, Christine, also an artist, and their daughter, Sally, soon to be followed by their son, Simon. Like the medieval stonemasons who carved the uniquely realistic foliage in Southwell Minster's splendid chapterhouse, David found his inspiration in the lush local countryside.

It was in the late 1960s that his particular interest in butterflies emerged. What drew him to them was his fascination with the effects of colour on the retina, a concern of many op artists at that time. As he began making studies of the iridescence on their wings, he found himself drawn into these creatures' lives, wondering what made them chase each other, what they did in the rain, where they went at night. The intimacy he had felt with nature as a child welled up inside him. He wrote of those rare times when "after a period of watching, your particular butterfly character appears to become reconciled to your presence, seems to allow a trust to exist, whereby both of you take part, each functioning in your own way, freely and co-existent".

It became his life's work to paint these moments, and he developed remarkable skills to capture them. You have to be very quick and agile to paint butterflies in flight, and your equipment must be light: a drawing pad, or sheets of paper clipped to a board, and a tiny box of paints. David learned to do without brushes and water. Amazingly, his delicate, energetic paintings were mostly done with his fingertips and spit; fine details were picked out with his nails. He used a child's multicoloured biro to record his observations of what was going on, because he wasn't creating pictures to hang on walls, but experiencing life as fully as one can. He wrote of the importance of being able to be absolutely still. He told of how one day he was standing in a clump of heather, wrapped up in an overcoat and scarf, when two walkers passed by. "What's that scarecrow doing there?" he heard one ask, as he remained motionless, smiling inside.

Slowly, but surely, his work gained a reputation in the field of natural history (though recognition by the art world still awaits). In 1973 he was featured in the programme David's Meadow, for David Bellamy's BBC TV series Bellamy's Britain. His book Bright Wings of Summer, illustrated with paintings and vivid texts, came out in 1976. He spent every moment he could out in the field, painting and observing all the British species, producing page after page of wonderful coloured studies: butterfly days, each dated and timed from dawn till dusk – a remarkable diary of life in nature. These were later bound in yearbooks, and one was published in 1996 as Butterfly Season: 1984.

David's interest in the natural world widened, and he painted the life of a wood and an old orchard as they changed through the seasons. The fruits of his four-year observation of a hobby falcon – a surprise visitor to Southwell – are to be published by subscription in his memory. He taught regularly at a summer school in Scotland run by his friend John Busby, based around the Bass Rock, and inspired new generations of wildlife artists. Defying a congenital disorder that made him unable to sweat, he began to travel regularly to Spain and Italy, excited by the brilliant southern light and unfamiliar species.

He also began to paint landscapes for their own sake. Experimental as ever, he developed an original technique using small rollers and stencils to create luminous yet rigorous designs that capture permanence and transience. These little, jewel-like paintings open in the mind's eye like butterfly's wings, letting us glimpse patterns of being that outlast death.

This work gained a deeper resonance after David's first bout of leukaemia in 2003. His subsequent paintings of Cressbrook Dale in Derbyshire, where he had been painting regularly since 1993, chart a remarkable re-emergence of the two aspects of his life, art and nature, infused with his sheer joy at being alive. People lucky enough to know him felt uplifted by his exuberance.

He is survived by Christine, Sally and Simon, and four grandchildren.

• David Guy Measures, painter, born 22 November 1937; died 4 August 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 30 2011

The Species Problem

These days the term 'species' is thrown around as if it were a definite unit, but the realities of defining a species are much trickier, and more contentious, than they seem. ;Biologists have argued over the definition of a species since the dawn of humanity, but have yet to come up with a single species concept that works for all types of life. This film explores current concepts used across the various fields of biology and covers some of the specific problems they encounter.

April 22 2011

HUMAN+ The Future of Our Species - in pictures

Artists and scientists explore the future of our species in the HUMAN+ exhibition at the Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin

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