04/10/2008 07:00:00

Scientists Display High-Tech Art at MoMA

PASADENA, Calif.--The California Institute of Technology's Paul Rothemund, senior research associate in computation and neural systems and computer science, and Michael Roukes, professor of physics, applied physics, and bioengineering, are scientists who can now add artist to their resumes. Rothemund's DNA origami and a colorized electron micrograph of Roukes's nanoscience work will be displayed now through May 12 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Roukes's micrograph was even selected for the museum's permanent collection.

MoMA has taken a less-traditional path than usual this spring, featuring Rothemund's and Roukes's works alongside more than 200 objects and installations related to science and technology in an exhibit called Design and the Elastic Mind. Also shown: bioengineered wings grown from living pig tissue, a "Mind Chair" that mechanically taps images onto a person's back to be processed visually in the brain, and "Pox Teddy," a soft, virus-impregnated teddy bear that replaces needles as a means of vaccination.

"The exhibit has all kinds of stuff on origami," says Rothemund. "But it's also got a ton of information about bioengineering, genetics, and all kinds of displays on the future of technology." Roukes adds, "There can be a really beautiful aesthetic to high tech."

Rothemund's work involves taking strands of DNA and folding and pinching them into useful, and often decorative, shapes. According to Rothemund, the DNA origami are imaged by an atomic-force microscope that "essentially feels the height of the origami with a microscopic needle," like a record player generating music by moving over the grooves of a record, to generate a topographic map. Ultimately, DNA origami may be used to pattern wires and switches one-tenth the size of those inside current computer chips, potentially even leading to cheaper and toxin-free chips.

Rothemund's molecules self-assemble, and to illustrate how intricately they can do it, he has dictated that they fashion themselves into familiar icons like a map of the Americas, a smiley face, and various letters and geometric shapes. While traditional displays, like the scientific journals in which he publishes, flatten the origami into two dimensions, the MoMA exhibit allows Rothemund to show off the three-dimensionality of his work. Alongside still images, visitors will find magnified origami shapes etched by laser into glass blocks.

Roukes also works at the nanoscale level. Keith Schwab, a physics professor at Cornell University and a former postdoctoral scholar in Roukes's lab, Erik Henriksen, a graduate student in physics at Columbia University and a former junior staff scientist in Roukes's lab, and John Worlock, a research professor at the University of Utah and former visiting associate at Caltech, collaborated with Roukes on the project. They discovered a fundamental limit to the amount of heat that can be conducted by objects of atomic dimension. To observe this limit, they used tiny devices with specially patterned features only 300 atoms wide--a few millionths of an inch--to detect phonons, the primary conductors of heat through an atomic lattice. Their work in nanotechnology could eventually have profound implications for the future design of microscopic electronic devices and for the transmission of information.

The Roukes team artwork is an electron micrograph, or nanoscale picture, of the device used in their discovery. Roukes added color to the originally black-and-white photograph to emphasize the elements.

Of the device's design, Roukes notes, "Sometimes when you try to make really intricate, sophisticated structures, a certain amount of design aesthetic and sensibility is required. If you make structures that are impeccably designed, they also often tend to work really well."

Design and the Elastic Mind offers a glimpse into what the future holds by displaying the latest developments in design. It explores the reciprocal relationship between science and design in the contemporary world, showcasing designers' abilities to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and history, and to convert them into objects that people can understand and use. Objects and projects by teams of designers, scientists, architects, and engineers from all over the world convey concepts ranging from the nanoscale, like Roukes's and Rothemund's work, to the scale of the cosmos.

Various lectures, discussions, and gallery talks related to this exhibit will be offered at MoMA throughout April. For more information on the exhibit, visit http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/exhibitions.php?id=5632. To see Roukes's nanostructure on display, go to http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2008/elasticmind/#/144/ For pictures of Rothemund's work, go to http://www.dna.caltech.edu/~pwkr/.

Written by Jacqueline Scahill