When asked who the audience was for his work during a public lecture here at MIT, Tomás Saraceno replied, “spiders!” Here we explore the artist’s ongoing interest in biomimicry—the creative application of natural systems and processes towards human solutions—through the work of several MIT researchers. Like Saraceno—whose aerial installations take inspiration from spider webs, soap bubbles, neural circuits, and cosmology—faculty Markus Buehler, Neri Oxman, and Dörthe Eisele are similarly interested in harnessing the power of nature to create new materials for a more sustainable future.
“The study of the arts may provide a powerful window to learn about the function and failure of biological materials.”
Markus Buehler’s radical proposal is that there may be more in common between a spider web and a concerto than one might initially suppose. Just as silk is made up of protein sequences, words are made up of phonemes and music is made up of different waveforms. Just as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen make up protein materials, the basic building blocks of music are sound waves with different frequencies. From a fixed and universal set of building blocks springs any number of possible outcomes. In his conversation with Saraceno, Buehler talked about these possibilities.
Modeling Spider Webs
In Buehler’s most recent study, he and others worked with a composer to create a musical model of the silk structure of a spider web, in the hopes of learning more about its complex network of connected proteins. Such an unconventional approach to modeling scientific phenomena, Buehler believes, may help design the materials of the future as scientists can visualize what they could not otherwise observe in an experiment.
In a similar fashion, Saraceno collaborated with scientists in 2010 to model in 3-D the complexities of a Black Widow spider web; the result, a hand-knotted model 30 times the web’s original size, was both scientific model and artistic installation. To help identify further the web’s internal rules and structure, Buehler suggested his research team could run simulations to determine the strength and flexibility of the individual strands and of the web as a whole. Once we understand how these building blocks work, the silk strands could be put to any number of potential uses.
Sequences and Structure
Beyond mapping proteins, Buehler is interested in understanding how sequences behave and interact together to achieve different outcomes – such as the ability to hold incredible weight or to stretch across distances. Understanding the secret of how these properties are generated is incredibly useful to scientists interested in applying nature’s techniques towards new technology.
Buehler believes that the physical and sociocultural worlds are more closely entwined that we might think. “Perhaps, all expression of arts are a mere representation of humans’ own inner workings to the outside world,” Buehler writes. The assemblage of language, sound or images is an act of design that echoes the sequence of proteins that form our tissue and brains, an unconscious mirroring of the body’s basic structure. Art might be literally inside us.
Markus Buehler is an Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at MIT.
“Novel technologies start out as art forms.”
While advances in digital technology race ahead—with ever-increasing promises of lightness and speed—the traditional language of architecture still remains one of bulky heft and immobility, forged from mid-century dreams of concrete and steel. Neri Oxman, the Director of the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, wants to change all that. Her work at the intersection of architecture, engineering, and computer science—what she calls “material ecology” —presents new nature-inspired design possibilities for the future.
“Materials will become the new software. Buildings will grow like trees and self-repair like bones,” Oxman says. She asks us to imagine a crane that can “weave” a skyscraper to sway and bend with shifts in weather, or clothing that resembles tissue and skin. For example, the Mediated Matter group’s robot CNSILK builds upon the prodigious flexibility and strength of silk fiber—a material of enduring fascination also to Saraceno—in order to create responsive, energy-saving habitats. These habitats could, for example, change transparency according to the time of day or “breathe” through pores to self-ventilate.
Biology is the muse, providing the elegant and efficient solutions for a changing world. When paired with digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing, natural forms and processes offer a radical new urban vision: responsive and adaptable buildings and objects that, not only shape the surrounding environment, but are shaped by it.
Neri Oxman is the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT.
Dörthe M. Eisele
“When you go into a new field, it’s like a new country with a new culture. And it’s always good to learn the language to understand.”
Imagine you are riding on a crowded escalator, sandwiched in between two other people. You feel, rather than see or touch, their presence. This is the analogy used by Dörthe M. Eisele in her conversation with Saraceno to describe the phenomenon of excitation in green sulfur bacteria. Found in the antennae system of the microorganism, a cylindrical structure consisting of closely packed molecules, this unique sensing behavior is the key to understanding how one of “nature’s oldest photosynthesizers”—dwelling in the sunless depths of the ocean—collects and transfers energy so efficiently.
Like Saraceno, whose floating biospheres are often solar-powered, Eisele is inspired by the light-harvesting techniques of nature. Her future vision is to achieve a fully synthetic analog of the green sulfur bacteria’s system, but first she must figure out how it works. Using an artificial model of nanotubes with dye molecules, Eisele is able to study the basic principles of how the bacteria’s molecular structure affects photosynthesis. This cylindrical form, she believes, may hold the secret to the light-catching method millions of years in the making.
Eisele is interested in how light energy spreads over multiple molecules in many different directions until it finally arrives at the center where photosynthesis occurs. What she is utilizing is the discovery that when many molecules are grouped together, they can suddenly absorb light at an entirely different wavelength. This revelation has tremendous implications for designing new materials to capture solar energy. Once they know how the bacteria’s supra-molecular structure effects how light is absorbed, scientists may be able to “tune” or develop material that can absorb light at particular wavelengths. Although the research is only just beginning, at some point we may be able to harvest energy from the entire spectrum of the sun.
Dörthe M. Eisele is a postdoctoral associate in the Bawendi Research Group, Center for Excitonics at MIT.
And with these new materials, perhaps Saraceno’s dream of the cloud city—self-sustaining, solar-powered villages floating in the sky—may indeed be possible.