Alessandro Scali & Robin Goode, Actual size, 2007, 100 µm, Atomic Force Microscope
…is a comment that I have seen on a number of geography blogs. I am surprised I have not seen it on this blog, as I have been asked this question outside the virtual many times. There are many reasons why geographers are interested in matter, in the liveliness of the inorganic, in new technologies, in ‘invisible processes’.
The most popular reason, as art curator Stefano Raimondi put it in the magazine Nano, ‘the infinitely small increasingly interacts with our daily reality’. While one could argue with the word ‘increasingly’ and be tempted to replace it with ‘in increasingly different ways’, he is probably right when it comes to news coverage of ‘micro’ and ‘nano’ events. Whether it is issues around sustainability (energy consumption, food security, biodiversity, artificial nature, climate change), security (smart environments, sensors), communication (new mobile devices, electro smog), medicine (mysterious diseases, medical monitoring, genetic engineering), economy (production and location of production of new technologies), these material events, whether self-generated or produced, are ever present and affecting us and our planet.
Secondly, geographers are concerned about the language of geographical conquest and exploration that is used by proponents of new technologies: are the micro and nano scale the new virgin territories for human exploitation and colonisation?
Questions that pose themselves in this context are, for instance: How far do we want to control nature? How much control do different groups of people have over what is done at this scale? How do people relate to the nano or micro scale? What do converging technologies mean for us? The academic journal ‘Area’ published a number of articles on ‘Geographies of Nano-Technoscience’, which deal with some of these questions.
Many geographers are also interested in how space is thought. The physical processes at the atomic or sub-atomic level pose an interesting challenge and inspiration, e.g. for people such as Derek McCormack or Stephan Harrison of Oxford University.
These are just three examples of how geographers are interested in ‘mutable matter’. I hope they have contributed to answering your question!
I keep on being told that ‘matter’ is a very abstract concept that does not really figure in people’s everyday lives. ‘Matter’ is stuff that things are made out of, that scientists engage with. People (as opposed to scientists?) do not perceive themselves as ‘matter’ or their environment as ‘matter’. Last week, I found two examples where people do get to perceive themselves as ‘matter’.
The first example I found in a book that I am currently ‘looking after’ for a friend who is away (thus introducing me to the novel concept of ‘book sitting’). In this book is a chapter by the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern which features an intriguing paragraph called ‘People and their cells’. The scenario is a hospital room where people get a glimpse at cells of a developing embryo – their future baby. Strathern asks ‘what are the people with on that screen?’ I like how Strathern then illustrates the image of this room: the people in their clothes and ‘neat haircuts’ next to a ‘zoom’ into their bodily insides. It feels as if the people have become an unpacked ‘Russian doll’ as
‘… people there no doubt think that this (the cells) are what they are made up of and that this is how things really are. Of course they would say that such a view is only one perspective. They are also made up of many other things, all the way from the wrist, to which a watch is attached, to the molecules that make up their cells. Cells, in any case, form tissues, and tissue forms internal organs, and the organs are hung on a frame of bones that is covered by skin, and before you know it, there are Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So.’
There are many interesting things in this image, such as, Strathern later notes, that although people, cells, atoms are all one ‘thing’, they are seen as distinct spaces and are dealt with in different spaces, even when the ‘occupy the same visual space’.
Another interesting image I found in Nicholas Negroponte’s book ‘Being Digital’ (if you thought ‘matter’ was abstract, would you think of ‘digitality’ of a more abstract concept, because it is ‘immaterial’ or a less abstract concept, because we use computers, digital radio or television everyday? ). I came across this book in a local charity shop where it was marked ’50 p’. What attracted me to it was not (only) its seductively low price, but how it was introduced by its author. Not often do you come across a book that explains to you that ‘world trade has traditionally consisted of exchanging atoms’.
Throughout the book, Negroponte displays the curious worldview of dividing the world into ‘bits and atoms’. This may have to do with his philosophy that in order to understand digitality and its consequences, it helps to make this comparison. Currently, he writes, most information is still ‘delivered to us in the form of atoms: newspapers, magazines and books’ or, in other words, ‘when ink is squeezed onto dead trees’. These atoms have to be transported in often cumbersome ways (‘driving my atoms into town’), get held up at customs and, in the case of rental videos/dvds even get ‘forgotten under a couch’ and thus cause financial loss. On the other hand, ‘bits’ don’t respect national boundaries (and customs), ‘never go out of print’ or take up any sort of space in the traditional sense (maybe being replaced by his fictional ‘Mathland’?). While this may be an overly optimistic vision of digitality, other comparisons of matter and ‘bits’ serve well to explain the latter, as well as out perception of the former.
‘If you could look at a smoothly polished metal surface at a subatomic scale, you would see mostly holes. It appears smooth and solid because the discrete pieces are so small. Likewise digital output. But the world, as we experience it, is a very analog place. From a macroscopic point of view, it is not digital at all, but continuous. Nothing goes suddenly on of off, turns from black to white, or changes from one state to another without going through a transition. This may not be true at microscopic level, where things that we interact with (electrons in a wire of photons in our eye) are discrete. But there are so may of them that we approximate them as continuous.’
Whether it is this comparison of bits and atoms, of pixels as the ‘molecular level of graphics’, the ‘clipping’ of bits and atoms, the ‘mating calls’ of modems, or bandwidth as plumbing (or ski lifts), we have to re-evaluate whether atoms are really so ‘strange’ to us, or suddenly the more familiar entity compared with ‘information’. After all, ‘bits’ travel through matter such as ‘sand’ (fiber optics connections are in Negroponte’s world ‘just sand’), ‘air’, or ‘metal’ and make this information manifest for our range of perception, be it as print-outs, computer screens or even toast (if you happen to have Negroponte’s invention of the internet connected toaster which burns your favourite bit of news onto your slice giving additional meaning to his statement that ‘bits themselves are not edible’). But is this distinction between ‘atoms’ and ‘bits’ and the casting as matter as the carrier of information really this easy? Thinking back to Marilyn Strathern’s example of the embryo (the fascinating ‘self-assembly’ of matter into babies) and an article from 1998 by Nigel Clark called ‘Materializing Informatics’, it probably is not. But what then would be suitable images of the relationship between ‘bits’ and ‘atoms’? As if, you might say, we didn’t have enough of a hard time to imagine, what ‘matter’ or ‘bits’ are by themselves!
During one of my searches for ‘nanoscale’ images I came across the usual computer generated and airbrushed SciFi imagery of nanotechnology illustration. Normally I just note them, grin and continue my search for STM images. But the caption under the above image actually made me stop.
‘Computer artwork of a kogin spacebloom, part of a fictional 23rd-century range of edible space flora (xflora). Spaceblooms combine nanotechnology and biotechnology. Several metres in diameter, they drift or move through space, feeding, growing, reproducing, and being harvested for food and other products. Kogin moves by newclear power.’
Wow. That was one step beyond – and one refreshing bit more entertaining (as an avid SciFi reader, I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to visions of the future…).
Of course I immediately had to look two things up: one was the book these images had come from and the other one was whether people were actually working on ‘edible space flora’ (or fauna – think ‘pigs in space’…) – since reading the White House’s pages on space colonisation I wouldn’t put anything past NASA (where has the page gone?). Of course, my suspicion was confirmed: NASA is working on ‘space flora’ – in conjunction with Mars terra-forming (for future US explorers).
A ‘proposed mission’ could test these plants on Mars within 2007 (er, that’s this year). And, of course, the idea if we can use Mars as a preservation habitat for threatened Earth species is not far, not to mention the ‘resources in space’ question that appears on the Foresight Institute for Nanotechnology’s pages…
There is another strand of ‘space flora’ that is under development: plants that can be taken on space travels to feed astronauts and keep them happy: initial trials have found that ‘Space age gardening’ with the help of ’salad machines’ have ‘psychological benefits’. According to this article, ‘foreseeable advances in biotech and nanotech’ would even permit researchers ‘to alter plants’ genes so that their cells produce little molecular sensors, transmitters, and receivers. These would monitor the plants internally and report on their health to ensure a good crop, and could even make the plants controllable, sprouting and flowering on cue.’ Other ideas are to make the plants produce protective chemicals against radiation in space or new planets or using ‘nanotech devices in the plants’ cells’ to ‘deliver light directly to the cell parts that perform photosynthesis, making the plants more efficient.’ Apparently, ‘we can’t quite do it now, but nothing we are considering is against the laws of physics or chemistry or nature.’ Somebody isn’t exactly lacking confidence here… At the moment, as a humble Earth creature, you can actually be part of this plant project. There is the BioBLAST® Plant Production Simulator, NASA’s ’Farming In Space’ youth quest or the Whitehouse’sMars Millennium Project for kids.
The Guardian reports on a more sober issue of ‘space farming’: using sensors in space to monitor our fields. The article tells us that ‘it is easier for a satellite in space to see whether a crop needs watering than for a farmer on the ground’. One of the developers of the technology envisions the future of farming as ‘The satellite images show what is needed and a robot fixes it.’ As an afterthought he adds that ‘here will need to be some cultural changes, though. It’s hard to separate a farmer from his wellies.’ Well, no need to separate farmers from wellies, when the robot is out and about ‘fixing’ crops, the farmer can do whatever he or she likes!
After this futuristic take on the use of nano and biotech, I wondered what the ‘Spacebloom’ project had in store. I was not disappointed. ‘Spacebloom : A Field Guide to Cosmic Xflora’ starts with a SciFi timeline, continues with detailed descriptions of 23rd century ‘Xflora’ descriptions and even supplies recipes! As one reviewer remarks, this all seems a bit silly, but Martin Naroznik, the creator of the flying nutrients (some of which even ‘bite back’) counters with something (perhaps) surprisingly ‘unsilly’. In an article in Wired Magazine on NASA’s interest in his work, a NASA spokesperson remarks, that his work may be inspiring for future generations, yet maybe not conservative enough. Naroznik comments: ‘In our collective imagination, when we think of space, we always have huge space ships and weapons. Why not have something we can go out and collect, and come home and make pie?’
I often find it amusing how things that don’t have a fixed image are illustrated by graphic designers/artists for magazines and newspapers. Examples are emotions, university subjects or new technologies. A lot of these images are fairly what we expect them to look like: a woman cringing in pain and putting a hand on her forehead in headache tablet adverts, a image of the Earth symbolising ‘geography’, some weird space robots signifying ‘nanotechnology’. Wait a moment: weird space robots signifying ‘nanotechnology’? How do they get from these to space robots? Obviously there is more than just a little projection going on.
Source: nearing zero
Bioengineering gets a similar absurd treatment with ripe tomatoes getting injections from scarily-clad ‘scientists’ and, as we expect, lots of gloves, gasmasks, goggles, test tubes, syringes and ‘code’/double helix imagery. A surprise was the astronaut with the giant egg though… I bet the artist had this idea over continental breakfast! Talking of weird imagery within the weird: sometimes people are trying to break the mould by using different kinds of images (whatever different means to them). For instance, I remember one Open University prospectus for Geography sporting the drawing of a head with a ‘brain map’ illustrating our theorising about the world. Has anyone seen any examples for things like love, English or nanotechnology? :D
Other good examples of the invisible are quantum mechanics, energy and mathematical equations. What I need to mention in this context are the marvellously mad craft past-times of mathematicians, as seen in the news under ‘Crocheting Chaos’.
As further research brought to light, this is only the tip of the iceberg of wacky scientifically motivated craft activities. There is the home of mathematical knitting if you feel like knitting ‘moebius scarfs’, klein bottles or hyperbolic planes, but you can also make klein bottle handbags, pascal triangle needlepoint and a selection of stuffed, beaded, quilted goodies. So you don’t need to be Kenneth Snelson or a Benjamin Storch, you can just go for it from your comfy chair. Never has mathematics been so tangible!
By the way, my find of the day regarding ‘invisible things’ is the following site… http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/5251