Almost Scientific on CNET at Maker Faire 2011
Almost Scientific on Make TV at Maker Faire 2011
What’s the most important thing that science and the scientific method have brought to your life and work?
I think being trained as a scientist, is probably the most valuable thing I have.
A lot of people think what you learn as a scientist is a lot of facts and procedures. While you do learn a lot of facts and procedures, what you learn that’s more valuable is how to think about things scientifically, how to approach things scientifically, and how to design experiments that ask and answer the most important questions. So science has given me a set of tools for thinking about complex problems and thinking about situations that I use every day.
It’s also taught me how to complete large projects and tackle large questions, by break things down into components and figuring out what order to do things in.
Executing a scientific project from conceptualization, through experimental design, experimental execution, analysis, and publication, is a huge effort, and it takes a lot of work. And creating works of art is very similar in that there’s a conception phase, there’s a design phase, there’s a fabrication phase, and there’s a showing phase. Both are massive undertakings, and you have to persevere through the whole thing. Working in science has really shown me that even at those darkest hours when you think it’s not going to work, or it’s not working, or you think no one is going to care, or nobody does care, that you just push through, and ultimately your hard work will usually be rewarded.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been doing a series of interviews with members of Applied Kinetic Arts (AKA), “a community of artists working within the medium loosely defined as ‘kinetic’. Works incorporating motion, light, sound, and interactivity are represented by the group’s ever expanding member base.” The more members I chat with, the more I’m impressed and moved by their sense of camaraderie. The talented folks who make up AKA are not just a group of artists, but they are a community in the true sense. Today, we speak with Alan Rorie. I first met Alan a couple of years ago at Maker Faire Bay Area, where I saw his Neuron Chamber (pictured above) for the first time. The steel and glass sculpture demonstrates the firing of neurons in the human brain, and I approached Alan to give him an editor’s blue ribbon for the project. He immediately smiled and said, “We won!” The “we” naturally meant the collective and he was eager to share with the crew. The vibe these folks create is inspiring.
1. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I started making things when I was in graduate school at Stanford working on my Ph.D. in neurobiology. Although the work was really interesting I found it unsatisfying. So much of it was in the abstract; I was interested in the physical world, but in science you begin in the physical world but you end up in abstraction. I wanted to work more with actual physical objects, so I decided to get more involved with making things. There were always things I wanted to do but couldn’t because I didn’t have access, like welding, but when I went to Burning Man I found a community of local people involved in making crazy stuff, and doing awesome metalwork, so I became involved with them and slowly taught myself how to weld. A lot of the people in that community were my inspirations, particularly Kinetic Steam Works, and my fellow member of AKA, Nemo Gould. It’s an honor to now to be able to work alongside a lot of the people who inspired me to get involved with this kind of stuff to begin with.
Alan Rorie is a neuroscientist by training. These days, however, you’re more likely to find him using an MIG (metal-inert gas) welder to send sparks skimming over a cool slab of metal than peering at glowing monkey neurons through a microscope.
From Neurons to the Neuron Chamber
Not too many years ago, Rorie was a graduate student at Stanford University, investigating the amalgamation of different types of information in the cortexes of macaques during the decision-making process.
Now, Rorie amalgamates metals (and sometimes other materials) into works of art in a process that he calls “almost scientific.” This is also the name of the science and art collaborative that Rorie founded, as well as the name of his website, www.almostscientific.com. The goal of Almost Scientific, the collaborative, is to “educate scientists about art and artists about science” through the creation of art pieces that tend to be quite large, with moving parts.
Rorie always has been intrigued by moving parts— as a child, he says he was “really interested in taking stereos and blenders apart and putting them back together.” He also loved to read and write stories, which eventually led him to study the humanities in college. But, Rorie began to feel that the true source of being able to understand and appreciate the humanities was rooted biologically, in the brain. “What makes a great painting or symphony really has to do with how you perceive it,” says Rorie, “so I became very interested in the neuroscience of perception.”
Check out this Cnet article on the RGR, featuring a very garbled explanation of the Uira Engines drive mechanism. I had no idea this guy was shooting video with his DSLR. This video starts pretty much right after I finally got it all working. There is also a shot of the Dihemispheric Chronaether Agitator in the photo gallery.
Okay fine, maybe this is more of an artistic representation that’s taken a few liberties, but still, the Neuron Chamber on display at Maker Faire 2009 is a pretty cool looking piece of extraterrestrial art.Creator Alan Rorie says that the concept behind the Neuron Chamber is that there are alien brains inside the chamber that are under observation, and we’re watching the cerebral process at work. In this case, it’s an reaction moving from the Soma down the Axon of the neuron.
In actual terms, this is an arc puller causing an atmospheric reaction that looks like a flame moving down the rail. Rorie likens the design to a horizontal Jacob’s Ladder. Throw in some steampunky elements for good measure and you get a pretty neat art exhibit.
The Neuron Chamber by Alan Rorie is an electro-kinetic sculpture of a steel and glass frame that contains hand-forged steel and copper model neurons. Even better, the neurons within the chamber create and send beautiful electrical arcs down the interior of the sculpture. These arcs do more than merely look pretty, but they have changed the sculpture itself by oxidizing its innards, giving it a new layer of color and depth.
What interests you in the art and science worlds, and how do they connect for you?
Well my core interest in science is Neurobiology, the field I’m completing my Ph.D. thesis in down at Stanford. So, yeah, obviously I’m interested in my thesis work on how sensory and reward information are dynamically combined in the brain. But beyond that I think there is allot going on in science that is mind-blowing.
I’m really fascinated right now by Astrobiology, which is the study of biology in the context of cosmology — life on other planets kinda stuff. The discovery that there are living organisms in some of the most extreme environments on our planet (like the high-pressure, incredibly hot, pitch-black depths of the ocean and the ice-cold, low pressure, low oxygen heights of the stratosphere) and that biological fundamental molecules are produced in nebulae has really changed how we think about life on this planet and the potential for life on other planets.
I’m excited to see what the Phoenix lander turns up on Mars — I lost my keys at a party on the martin polar cap in 2002, hopefully they’ll show up when the Phoenix starts digging.
In the art world I’m excited by how technology is changing what and how we create.
I think the impact of the internet on the arts is just beginning to be felt. And I’m not even talking about using the internet as a medium (thought that’s got some dope potential). I’m just thinking in terms of communicating aesthetic ideas.
If I was making art twenty years ago it’s likely very few people saw it, unless I was lucky enough to live in a cultural epicenter (and connected enough to be part of their art world). Today, I can take my own fantastic photos, make my own video and show people what I’m creating. Text alone does not communicate the visual arts well — but now, with the internet, it’s not “hey let me tell you what I’m doing,” it’s “let me show you.”
Additionally, the internet is fantastic for picking up new techniques and method. Websites like this, where artist share their methods are fantastic. Sharing methods is something I try to do with my blog. I post about all the nitty gritty of how I make stuff.
I’m also curious to see what happens as CNC fabrication and rapid prototyping technologies become cheep enough for allot of artists to really start playing with them.
Art and science connect in a very specific way in my life. Art and creation are something that, in retrospect, had always been a major component of my life but that I had never fully embraced until recently.
I was one of those oddball arts kids in high-school but was too much of a hell raiser to every apply myself to anything other then trouble. Then in collage I became fully engrossed with science. But really it was art that brought me to science. Very early on in collage I was doing an independent study and I was writing a paper about the Dutch painter Modrian. I wanted to interpret one of his paintings (Broadway Boogie Woogie) from neuropsycholgical perspective. But I knew nothing about the visual system of the brain so I started to study it and that spawned an almost fourteen year Emerson in neuroscience.
But, around my fourth year of working on my Ph.D. I discovered that science, at the end of the day, left me very unsatisfied.
To me science is largely about taking concrete aspects of the world and abstracting so that they can be communicated. I would spend weeks and months working on my thesis and the result would be some bit of data that only existed on the computer and in the mind of my peers. I realized that I need to create real objects, things and stuff that existed in the world. Art, to me, is the flip side of science; it’s about taking the abstract ideas that exists in you mind and communicating them by instantiating them in the real world as solid objects.
SAN MATEO, California — In-between conducting lab experiments as a Ph.D candidate for a degree in neurobiology at Stanford, Alan Rorie builds time machines. Of course, Rorie’s machines don’t actually bend the laws of physics, but he credits his creations with helping to pass the time and “keeping [him] sane.” His steampunky time machine, or “dihemispheric chronaether agitator,” as he calls it, was handcrafted over the last few months, in his down time between research.
Created out of copper, sheets of steel and nitric-acid etched brass plates, the sculpture is hooked to a steam engine with a steam boiler to power its movement.
“In my lab, we have our own custom machine shop,” said Rorie. “So I play around and build art in my spare time.”
Rorie, who studies neuroeconomics (or the mechanics of how we make decisions) at Stanford, builds all of his own scientific apparatus to run experimental trials — everything from sensor-equipped headsets to eye-movement tracking devices.
Stanford neuroscience grad student Alan Rorie showed off his hand-built, steam-powered time machine.
Created out of copper, sheets of steel and nitric-acid etched brass plates, the sculpture is hooked to a steam engine with a steam boiler to power its movement. Of course, Rorie’s machines don’t actually bend the laws of physics, but he credits his creations with helping to pass the time and “keeping [him] sane.” His steampunky time machine, or “dihemispheric chronaether agitator,” as he calls it, was handcrafted over the last few months.