Science and Art and Science Again: From Radiolarians to the Porte Monumental, the Pearl River Building, and DNA
The young Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was conflicted. He wanted very much to be an artist or a scientist but his respectable and prosperous family wanted him to pursue a professional career in medicine that would enable Ernst to support himself and a family. Ernst duly studied medicine, won his degree, and for a year practiced medicine in Berlin. His hours of practice were somewhat odd: he would see any patient so long as he or she appeared in his office between the hours of 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. By the end of the year his practice had grown to seven patients of whom "none had died under his care." (Wulf, 2015)
Reading The Origin of Species at age 25 caused him to fall in love with evolution and, as a result, science joined art in his heart. But to become either an artist or a scientist he needed to show that he could actually earn a living at one or the other, or perhaps both. Off he went to Italy, ending up on the strait of Messina located at the toe of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula. There he contracted with a fisherman to bring him a bucket of sea creatures each day. He would examine the contents and draw pictures while searching for a subject appropriate for scientific study. For several months, Haeckel's buckets offered no inspiration until the day that the radiolarians rescued him.
Radiolarians are microscopic single-celled organisms that have been in the fossil record for 550 million years, going back to the Paleozoic. Their most notable feature is their extravagantly detailed radially symmetrical silica skeletons.
What he saw through his microscope was an inspiration: "Everything now came before me in new and beautiful and remarkable forms...I began to see and hear not only the outer forms, but also the inner content, the nature and history of things." (Frazier, 2012)
By the end of the summer, Haeckel had what was needed for a career in science: he had identified more than one hundred new species of radiolaria, and had illustrated his findings in beautiful drawings. His 1862 book Radiolaria made his reputation as a scientist and his illustrations attracted a wide audience.
Among these was the French architect René Binet who used Haeckel's illustrations as inspiration for his Porte Monumentale at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.
Binet's work is the precursor to the modern architectural trend of "biomimicry," using natural forms and structures as the basis for architectural design. Binet used Haeckel's radiolaria as inspiration for designs for electrical switches and lighting fixtures he offered to his clients. The illustration at the left is from Binet's Esquisses décoratives (Decorative sketches).
The natural world not only has forms that can inspire but also provides models to accomplish necessary functions, for example, the generation of electric power.
An example can be seen in the Pearl River Tower in China whose design only borrows natural shapes to create its graceful lines but also uses biomimicry. The sea sponge pumps water through its pores to harvest food while the tower pumps the wind through four turbines to harvest electricity from the wind to power the building.
The designers were careful to create ducts that are shaped so that they accelerate the wind before it reaches the turbines in order to maximize the amount of electricity harvested. (Golenda, 2015)
The pressures of evolution have ensured that the design of plants and animals are exquisitely adapted to their environments and can inform engineering design to solve problems.
For example, the world faces a major data problem, given that more data has been generated in the past two years than in all previous history. The AAAS journal Science reports that researchers have developed a way to use nature's data system, the 4 billion years old data storage system of DNA, to encode digital data into DNA, creating "the highest-density large-scale storage system ever invented," capable of storing all human data in a space about the size of several pickup trucks." (Service, 2017)
Frazier, J. (2012). Proteus: How Radiolarians Saved Ernst Haeckel. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/proteus-how-radiolarians-saved-ernst-haeckel/
Golenda, G. (2015). Architecture Inspired by Nature: Biomimicry from Art Nouveau to Neo-Futurism. Retrieved from https://architizer.com/blog/biomimicry-binet-som/
Service, R. (2017). DNA could store all the world’s data in one room. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/dna-could-store-all-worlds-data-one-room
Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature. New York: Vintage. Retrieved from www.vintagebooks.com
Ernest Haeckel retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AErnst_Haeckel_and_von_Miclucho-Maclay_1866.jpg
Radiolarians retrieved from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/29646/title/Chasing-Haeckel/
René Binet’s Porte Monumentale at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 retrieved from http://www.dataisnature.com/?p=1789
Lustre: Electrique from Binet’s Esquisse Decoratives retrieved from Smithsonian Libraries http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/esquissesdeycor00bine
Pearl River Building retrieved from https://architizer.com/blog/biomimicry-binet-som/
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.