The Arthropologist

Art and science meld in Houston: From Buckyball to nanotechnology

Art and science meld in Houston: From Buckyball to nanotechnology

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“Da Vinci Dialogo”
 by Jo Ann Fleischhauer
 with granite floor, mirror, yew wood, paint and lighting at the 
UT Health Science Center Houston, MD Anderson Cancer Center, South Campus Research Building 3, 6th floor entryway corridor Photo by Ken Frederick and Jimmy Hemphill
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Jo Ann Fleischhauer
 Photo by Ken Frederick and Jimmy Hemphill
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Delfeayo Marsalis performs as part of Divas World's "Worldly Perspectives" Photo by Rodney Waters
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Anthony Brandt, an associate professor of composition and theory at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, and J. Todd Frazier, a composer and executive director of Young Audiences of Houston, have composed music to be premiered at Rice's Buckyball Discovery Gala on Oct. 10. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University
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Detail of mirrored ceiling Photo by Ken Frederick and Jimmy Hemphill
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Detail of inlaid granite floor, C60 molecule or fullerene, also known as the buckyball Photo by Ken Frederick and Jimmy Hemphill
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"The experiment and the poem complete each other," writes Jonah Lehrer, in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a book that looks at how artists intuit scientific breakthroughs. Art and science once operated in the same room, so what if it was back in the Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci probably had trouble wondering what occupation to check, artist or scientist. There are signs of a returning dialogue between the disciplines right here in Houston. 

In 1996, Richard Smalley, Robert Curl and Harold Kroto shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering a molecule measuring one billionth of a meter in diameter, comprised of 60 carbon atoms. The molecule, resembling two geodesic domes, was named the Buckminsterfullerene, and nicknamed the Buckyball. This discovery also proved the starting point for composers J. Todd Frazier, Anthony Brandt, and visual artist Jo Ann Fleischhauer.

Fleischhauer took her inspiration from the famous Italian artist in Da Vinci Dialogo, an installation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, MD Anderson Cancer Center, South Campus Research Building. Fleischhauer is most known as the creator of the Parasol Project, a large scale installation using intricately patterned brain scans printed on umbrellas, which covered the historic Foley home in downtown Houston.

As an artist-in-residence at UT, Fleischhauer has spent the past two years shadowing nano research scientists, gathering visual content, locating materials, collaborating with numerous artisans and finally creating a breathtaking work that stands as tribute to the stunning achievement of nano medicine.

Fleischhauer's permanent installation evokes a sense of awe and wonder, yet it's contemplative.

"Da Vinci Dialogo is an embodiment of a long lost partnership between art and science, where the two were essentially interconnected, and reciprocally necessary to advance each other," Fleischhauer writes in her artist statement. "My aim was not to illustrate nano, but find that conversation between art and science."

An inlaid granite floor, consisting of platonic solids and the Buckyball, spiral across the ground.

"The polyhedra twist in a galactic space of questions and possibilities," says the artist.

Influenced by the designs of Fan Vaulting found in Gothic Cathedrals, Fleischhauer covered the ceiling with mirrors, further expanding the work's dimensions. Doors veneered with honey brown Yew wood, an ancient tree species and source of "Taxol," used in chemotherapy, ground the installation. One wall is inscribed with the Fibonancci sequence in elegant, gray stenciled numbers.

"In science, math is the common language," Fleischhauer says. "The sequence addresses the geometry of nature, beauty, balance, harmony and pattern."

The opposing wall contains quotes contributed by the renown nano researcher Mauro Ferrari. Another section contains a floating glass ceiling crafted from hand-blown glass with cutouts of polyhedral shapes. For Fleischhauer, the labyrinthine patterns symbolize the researcher's quest to ask new questions and the patient's journey toward healing.

Composers Brandt and Frazier were commissioned by the The Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the Buckyball. Both compositions will be played at the Year of the Nano Gala by River Oaks Chamber Orchestra at the Hyatt Regency on Sunday, and again on Oct. 16 by Musiqa as part of  "She Told Me This" at  Zilkha Hall, the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

The works are scored for 11 musicians, representing a scaling down of an entire orchestra.

Brandt was inspired by the concept of nano itself, its completeness. He searched for a musical metaphor to create Nano Symphony.

"It had to have maximum efficiency. I worked with one musical motive, the smallest unit of identifyl," says Brandt, founder of Musiqa and Associate Professor of Composition and Theory at Shepherd School of Music. "The idea is that a complete symphonic concert, including tuning, overture, modern work, piano concerto, intermission, four movement symphony and encore, is compressed into less than six minutes."

The third movement is particularly intriguing in that it contains one moment (or molecule) from every other movement, merging the past and the future.

"It begins by looking back at the first two movements; and then goes forward into the piece. The nearby movements are the most literal; the quotations get 'hazier' the farther off in the future they are, just as in real life, we feel less secure about the distant future," Brandt says. "It's like a trailer of a movie."

Brandt relates his piece to a distilled powder that could expand with the liquid of time: "Nano is a vision of how the world could live together, how energy could be shared." Brandt is also the force behind 

Exploring the Mind Through Music, Shepherd's second conference integrating music and science, on June 13-17, 2011.

Frazier is somewhat of a Renaissance man himself as Founder of the American Festival of the Arts, Executive Director of Young Audiences and Managing Director of The Methodist Hospital Center for Performing Arts Medicine.

The composer took a more direct approach in "Save the World" In Memoriam: Richard Smalley by enlisting a narrator to read from Smalley's moving testimony to Congress, delivered in 1999, while undergoing cancer treatment shortly before his death. Smalley passionately spoke about the promise of nanotechnology for cancer research, breakthroughs in technology, manufacturing and energy.

Frazier spent  months researching nanotechnology and the people surrounding it.

"I envisioned the narrator as soloist of the piece, using words instead of notes, and the music organically growing from, by supporting, accentuating, and responding to, the narrator's words, so that the words and music together illuminate the story in a uniquely inspiring way," Frazier says. "The result is one of the most intensely meaningful pieces I have ever written, and a work that I hope will raise public awareness of nanotechnology, bring arts and science communities together, and pay tribute to the life and work of Richard Smalley."

Malcolm Gillis, the past president of Rice University and a close friend of Smalley, narrates both concerts.

Divas World takes a more sweeping stance by inviting scientists to share the stage when they open their Salon Series with "Worldly Perspectives" on Oct. 15 in a free performance at  Duncan Recital Hall at Rice University. Divas World artists Sonja BruzauskasKen Gayle, and Rodney Waters, along with jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, will be performing music from a variety of cultural perspectives.

The evening also includes commentary by NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski and will be moderated by neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, who gracefully straddles both worlds in his work as director of the Eagleman Lab for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine and in his book Sum, forty tales from the afterlives, and other works.

"Art and science are both creative pursuits, which explore what matters to humans," Eagleman says.

Each of these efforts point to a central idea: artists do indeed belong in the same room as scientists. Brandt agrees.

"It's part of an artist's responsibility to be as aware as possible of his or her own time," he says, "which includes a scientific understanding of how the world is put together."