Found art


A coal miner and his canary.

There exists a school of thought in the art world that anything can be art, because the artist’s designation of the object as “art” changes our perception of it; therefore, it no longer exists in its original state, but has been irrevocably changed. This concept, called found art, is interesting in that it challenges the extreme boundaries of our abstract perception of art. In found art’s first and perhaps most famous instance, Marcel Duchamp’s collection of “ready-mades” was highlighted in 1917 by his pieceĀ Fountain, a standard urinal bought at a hardware store and lain down on a pedestal. The fact that we viewed it as art, effectively that we now used it as art, was what made it art, he argued.

Starting years before Fountain and extending well into the late-20th century, canaries were used in coal mines to detect rising levels of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases before humans were affected, giving them time to evacuate or don gas masks. The gases could easily build up in mine shafts, and since canaries are more susceptible, they would succumb before the miners began to feel any adverse effects. From 1911 to 1986, any coal mining pit in Great Britain was required to have at least two canaries in it.

But would you call the canary a biosensor?

The use of canaries as an indicator for hazardous gas concentration is really not so different from Duchamp’s urinal. Both stand astride the line between two abstract classifications: that of their original purpose, and that of their new use. Is Duchamp’s urinal art because he classified it as such? Is it art because he removed it from its original purpose’s setting and brought it into an art gallery? By laying it down and placing it on a pedestal, did he alter it enough that it became art then? If he had walked into the art gallery’s bathroom, pointed at a urinal there, and said, “I call this piece Fountain,” would that too have become art?

It’s a dicey thing to argue no matter which stance you take. But conduct a thought experiment. Think about your answer to the questions just above regarding Fountain, and now think about the chipper yellow bird twittering in a dark mine shaft. Is this canary a biosensor because we classify it as such? Is it a biosensor because we removed it from its original purpose’s setting and brought it into a mine? By thrusting it into a cage and hanging it on a hook, was it altered enough that it became a biosensor then? If we clambered out of the tunnel back into daylight, strode over to the nearest tree, pointed up at a canary there, and said, “I call this a biosensor for carbon monoxide levels,” would that one too have become a biosensor?

There are other examples with easy compromises with which we may wriggle out of the above thought experiment. For example, it was determined in the 1950s when searching out likely spots for uranium ore deposits that certain deep-rooted plants like juniper have the ability to carry uranium from underground ore deposits all the way to the growing tips. Samples from these plants were taken back to labs, ashed, and analyzed fluorimetrically for abnormal uranium levels. Environmental uranium detection has since been updated with better technology and now-relevant situations; inĀ a recent paper published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, researchers grew uranium-sensitive plants in varying levels of toxically radioactive soil, took root samples, pressed them, and analyzed the roots for absorbed uranium by UV-Vis spectrometry. Question is, are the plants biosensors, as they’re the object actually sensing the uranium? Are the UV-Vis spectrometers the biosensors, as they’re the part feeding data into the computer? It’s easy to say the spectrometers are sensing ecological radiation levels and call the problem solved. But what if the scientists had grown plants under a range of soil radioactivity and then measured the stunted growth of the plants? There’s no technological black box to pin the “biosensor” label on, but soil uranium levels are being sensed nonetheless.

I would argue that the plants themselves are the biosensing components, and the spectrometers used to quantify the roots’ radioactivity are analysis components in an overall biosensing system of plant/spectrometer/computer screen. But that’s just me. I hold that nature is wonderful but never sacred. We shouldn’t think ourselves above it, but neither should we ever hold it above us as inviolate, something to be appreciated and not used to our own ends.

Science has indicator species, art has found art… Let it never be said that art and science are foreign forces in anything but nomenclature.

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Less feeds more

A farmer weeds his field according to SRI protocol. Note the wide spacing of individual plants, and the relatively low water level. [Source: Wikipedia]

A farmer weeds his field according to SRI protocol. Note the wide spacing of individual plants, and the relatively low water level. [Source: Wikipedia]

The world record for most rice per unit land was shattered recently by a small farmer in the poorest state of India. The farmer managed to coax 22.4 tons of rice from his single hectare of rice paddy, surging well past the previous record held by world-renowned GM (genetically modified) rice creator Yuan Longping of 19.4 tons per hectare.

And the best part: he did it the old-fashioned way.

Sumant Kumar, the farmer in question, works his field according to the method called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a result of a Jesuit missionary in Madagascar spending 20 years between the ’60s and the ’80s observing and experimenting. It’s basically a loose manifesto of guidelines centering around one fact: the happier a plant is, the better its yield. Under traditional rice paddy conditions found all over the world, rice plants are grown for three weeks before they are planted in clumps of three or four per mound of earth in completely waterlogged fields. SRI, by comparison, mandates that seedlings be transplanted into the field quickly and carefully at just 8 days old, and spread out in a square pattern which gives each plant’s roots and canopy much more room to grow. Rather than continuously waterlogged fields, SRI dictates that fields be kept wet but not with the typical large amounts of standing water. This means that weeds now have the ability to grow, so that the farmers need to weed their fields constantly.

This mantra of less, less, less, while not “traditional” to rice farmers, is more old-fashioned in the sense that it goes back to the very fundamentals of plant life in nature: plants seek space to grow, no competition from other plants for sunlight, nutrients or moisture. Because there are less plants, there are more nutrients per plant, and more sunlit area per plant. Since the fields aren’t waterlogged they grow better as well, provided they’re carefully weeded. Humans have used these since the moment the Neanderthals cleared competing plants from around their favorite plants.


A figure taken from a 2009 study of irrigation water usage in Iraq. The results, published in the Journal of Paddy and Water Environment, showed nearly double the root growth using SRI and a 42% grain increase, while reducing the need for irrigation water by 38%. Irrigation water scarcity is the limiting factor for Iraqi rice farming. [Source: SRI-Rice]

And the best part: less, less, less is cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. With world rice demand expected to outstrip supply within 20 years, and rice being the staple food of over half the world population, coaxing any gain out of the same supplies is critical. Because of this, SRI could be of the most benefit to the poorest farmers in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the world–they spend less on supplies and get more from their harvests. Plus it has been adapted to a number of other staple crops, such as potatoes, wheat, sugarcane, and yams.

So GM agricultural engineers take note. The beta-carotene-rich golden rice trick was really cool and saved lives, but at the end of the day, every engineer’s best friend is less, less, less.

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A Preface

This blog is a very selfish thing.

I intend to use it to aid the expansion and delineation of my own thoughts on biomimicry and drawing inspiration from nature. I originally intended to name it “Cheating Off Nature” as a joke that we were all just taking things we see and using them ourselves, filling out our blueprints with the answers we saw nature jotting down at the desk next to us. However, this lends a misleading slant to my view of biomimicry. I don’t actually believe it’s a simple matter of cut-and-paste. It’s much more intricate.

I believe that an engineer’s purpose is optimization of all things, including the process of optimization. As such, taking ideas, curves, principles, logic, or structural elements from nature is just optimizing the process of optimization. It allows the engineer to skip many iterations of trial and error by moving straight to things which have been proven over eons in the natural environment. Automotive engineers haven’t been reinventing the wheel for every iteration of car, they take what they see works best. A major step early on in the design process is a thorough search of the status quo, the gold standard, the current best way of solving the problem. If you can’t come up with something better, there’s no need to bother. And what if nature currently solves the problem better than any way you could dream up in a finite period of time? Shellfish have had millions of generations to optimize the brick-and-mortar method of nacreous protection, millions of iterations to their design process. Why shouldn’t we consider this in optimizing the strength of our composites? We don’t reinvent the wheel each time we sit down.

There is a distinct sense of polarity in technology and nature. The prevailing attitude seems to be that there is nothing natural about technology, and nothing technical about nature, and that technology is bad for nature and vice versa. I would argue that technology is an extension of nature–humans are optimizing their primary survival technique (higher intelligence) like shellfish are optimizing their primary survival technique (the composition and fabrication of their shells). Everything boils down to Darwinian survival, and technology’s an extension of that. The quicker we can learn to see nature as a potential aid, and not as a social burden to advance technology in spite of, the better we as engineers will be at optimization.

The rest of the posts on this blog will likely be more concrete. There’s lots of cool designing going on. High-energy impacts are being mitigated through cartilage-inspired viscoelastic materials and dragonfly-inspired energy dissipating exoskeletons, self-healing materials are being designed to immediately fill in their own microcracks and prevent crack propagation, and the next generation of Frank Lloyd Wrights are translating natural beauty into architecture. There’s too many high-wow-factor solutions mimicking or inspired by nature to bother with the abstract like this post. Leave that to the philosophers… I’m an engineer, and I celebrate optimization.

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