‘Getting your atoms about’ – On cells, bits & atoms

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!


Why I like looking at metal surfaces

I like hanging out on this website of the Technical University of Vienna which shows how atoms are arranged on metal surfaces (I can see a new breed emerging: the ‘nano voyeur’…). What do I find so fascinating about these images? 

1. It’s atoms! (well, sort of…)

2. These atoms arrange themselves in amazingly intricate and regular patterns – like fabric weaves or labyrinths.

3. The atoms in these images look like sweetcorn!


What I also like is the commentary accompanying these images. First of all, there is an Angela-friendly animation of how the machine works that obtains these images for us (it’s kind of like a record player basically). Then, an enthusiastic scientist tells us how atoms ‘bounce’, ‘get stuck’ or ‘wander about’ and engage in all sorts of other activities. There are also good examples of how these images help explain how things work in ‘our world’!


Sunflower Fragments 02 by Cris Orfescu

Another website I keep coming back to is the NanoArt site of the scientist/artist Cris Orfescu. My reasoning is that the next step after ‘nano voyeurism’ must be that you either want to obtain your own images from that scale – or want to be even less passive and mess around with ‘nano-matter’ (is that how a ‘nanoscientist’ feels? ;D). Well, you can kind of do that on the website, where Orfescu each year provides ‘the public’ with a series of nanoscale images, which you can manipulate in an artistic fashion and enter into a ‘NanoArt’ competition. Orfescu sees this process as a way of engaging people with the nanoscale or, more specifically, nanotechnology, which he believes will have an enormous impact on our life in the future. He invites questions in the form of artwork, but also seems happy to answer e-mails about his work as either an artist or scientist. Guess what I’ve been up to today… ;)

So why am I doing this project?

I have a long-standing interest in how people relate to their environment, especially to processes that cannot be seen or felt, but which still have an impact on our world and our experiences.

During my two previous interactive projects, ‘Mutation’ (2003-4, 2007) and ‘Animal Lab’ (2005-6), I drew attention to the link between the desire for perfection and environmental degradation and the ability or inability to direct processes such as mutation. The idea for ‘Mutation’ came from looking at pallets of apples in a supermarket for too long. These supermarket apples looked the same: shiny, green, no blemishes and, unfortunately, no taste. What led to the ‘design’ of those uniform, aesthetically ‘perfect’ apples? Food security? The fruit industry pursuing consumer ideals? And how was this mass idealisation/uniformity achieved?

During the project, patterns of ready-to-wear white shirts symbolised ‘perfect’ DNA and the desire for perfection. Participants were asked to express their relationship with this perfection – in relation to DNA, the environment or their everyday life – by making the shirt they were given ‘imperfect’ to the degree they were comfortable with. All participants altered their shirts while relating the story behind those modifications. By wearing the shirts, these stories were spread, for instance, through questions from other people about their unusual aesthetics.

In the ‘Animal Lab’, people playfully modified and made up patterns of toy animals with the help of a ‘mobile laboratory’, while engaging in conversation about genetic engineering. The ‘Animal Lab’ experimented with humour – in the first instance by turning the story of genetic engineering somewhat upside down. While most animal or plant modifications are made to benefit humans, the participants were asked to help an endangered animal species survive by arming them against their threat. The participants were offered labcoats and different species to choose from. Again, the project resulted in rich dialogue and objects that could trigger further conversation.

During the ‘Animal Lab’, I started looing at reports from nanotechnology engagments. I found that, quite often, participants in those projects described engineered matter as ‘doing things’. While such statements were usually dismissed as paranoia, fear of the unknown or superstition, I wondered whether people did in fact perceive matter as not just something inert. So I set out to design a project that allowed people to talk about how they imagined matter – in all its ‘incarnations’. What do people think goes on inside and between them and a wall or a table or the air that they breathe? Is the ‘mutable matter’ of new technologies part of a separate world, or is everything potentially mutable? Is the ‘infinitely small’ world of atoms and strange material behaviour removed not only in scale (atoms always seem to be ‘down there’ when people write about them) but from how we perceive our everyday environment? And why are people always kept from exploring this space by deeming it ‘too difficult’ or ‘too boring’? ‘Mutable Matter’ is an attempt at communicating about this space and our relationship(s) with it.