Science or Art? Astrophysics Lab for 'Gifted' Microbes

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In January, San Francisco residents were treated to the unveiling of the world’s first Celestial Observatory for Single-Celled Organisms — actually, an art installation by Jonathon Keats that features cyanobacteria hooked up to the Hubble Space Telescope via a custom video feed.

“Bacteria have never been given observatory access, to study the cosmos for themselves,” Keats told Wired (for which he is an occasional columnist) back in January. “Their experience of the universe has always been at the scale of microns.”

Keats aims to rectify that appalling oversight, in hopes that his little cyanobacteria will succeed where humanity’s greatest minds have failed: devising a viable theory of everything “reconciling cosmic and quantum observations… in their own bacterial way.”

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Keats’ project is part of a larger exhibit called “Vast and Undetectable,” at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, designed to “explore space that is either so large or so small we cannot conceive of it with our known processes of sight and comprehension.”

The exhibit runs through April 14, and also includes installations centered on slime molds (video footage, not the actual slime molds, because gross!), embossed prints of star clusters stripped of colorization and presented in their raw form, and deconstructed color-coded maps from the Hubble Space Telescope’s deep-field images.

Keats has made a bit of a name for himself over the years as the agent provacateur behind various wacky exercises in multimedia performance art — or, as the New Yorker prefers to think of him, a “poet of ideas.”

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* He copyrighted his own mind in 2003, claiming it was a sculpture he had created, neuron by neuron, by thinking; he even created a conceptual futures market based on his copyright.

* In 2004, he collaborated with scientists at University of California, Berkeley, to genetically engineer god (they failed, but they garnered a lot of press).

* In 2005, he produced a series of paintings based on signals detected by the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

* His most controversial project? Establishing The Atheon, the first temple devoted to the worship of science, that annoyed scientists and believers alike.

* And then there was the time he attempting to forge a brave new economy based on antimatter. No, really. You could even purchase your own anti-money by sending a check to The First Bank of Antimatter.

I think you get the idea. His celestial observatory for cyanobacteria is very much in the same vein.

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There is no question that cyanobacteria deserve our respect, if only because they are the oldest known fossils — dating back some 3.5 billion years — and yet still flourish today. They get their name from their blue-green tinge that comes from a pigment, phycocyanin, which helps the bacteria capture sunlight to fuel their photosynthesis.

It’s that photosynthetic ability that Keats is exploiting in his installation, figuring the cyanobacteria should be able to detect starlight much like we see light with our eyes — or how telescopes gather light from distant stars.

His “celestial observatory” is actually terrestrial: rows of petri dishes teeming with cyanobacteria, thanks to brackish water, set on top of a flat screen monitor laid horizontally. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope are fed into the monitor, and the glow from those images should — in theory — be “detected” by the plucky little cyanobacteria. Then they’ll be released into their natural habitat, and new batch of cyanobacteria will take their place.

Keats acknowledged to Wired that many might perceive his project as “a sensationalist bid to get attention for marginal ideas.” And maybe it is; the same might be said of his previous undertakings.

But he defends his work, nonetheless: “Observing the microbes observing quantum and cosmic phenomena and taking their perspective, we can observe the limitations of our own scientific studies, and intuit the ways in which our understanding of the world is predetermined by our bodies, brains and genes.”

Personally, while I retain some skepticism about Keats’ quirky oeuvre, it seems oddly a propos to have a celestial observatory for microbes. I’d even take it one step further. If there is some form of life on other planets (including exoplanets), or even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, it’s likely to be of a microbial bent. Who better to make first contact than our hardy cyanobacteria?

Top image courtesy of Jonathon Keats.