Adam W. Brown & Robert Root-Bernstein: Origins of Life: Experiment #1.x (2010)
Who are we as human beings? How did we get here? What created life on Earth? It takes both art and science to answer these questions, which is why two professors from Michigan State University’s art and physiology departments united: to reenact the Miller-Urey experiment.
Lansing, Michigan — home of MSU — is a growing hotbed for ArtScience activity. Take, for instance, Adam W. Brown's collaborations. Brown is an art professor who uses a background in biology to create electronic art and intermedia. In 2010 he worked with Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of physiology well-known for his research on the benefits of creativity and polymathy (varied learning in multiple disciplines). Together, they appropriated the Miller-Urey experiment conducted in 1952 to test how “the stuff of life” could be made from inorganic molecules by simulating Earth's early atmosphere using a closed biosphere system.
Video: ‘Origins of Life’ series explores worlds enclosed in glass and formed from gas.
But Brown also wants to draw attention to science being done in an art gallery, questioning whether or not the results are artistic, scientific or altogether a new hybrid. He explains:
Combining methane, hydrogen, ammonia and water in the presence of an intermittent electrical discharge, [Stanley Miller’s] miniature world yielded amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. We have re-imagined his apparatus as a functional art installation to consider worlds Miller could not. In this version, we test whether recreating the primordial sea along with the primordial atmosphere will yield not only amino acids, but nucleic acids, too—the building blocks of genetic information and sources of cellular energy. Art-as-experimentation is sensual. One sees the boiling water, the sparks of the Marx generator, the lightning flash, the subtle colors that appear as the chemical reactions occur, combining invisible building blocks into light absorbing complexes. We have emphasized these aspects of our installation by redesigning the apparatus to focus attention on its synaesthetic nature. Beyond aesthetics, we invite the viewers to feel knowledge and know feeling and question whether scientific and artistic methods are as different as commonly portrayed. This is an experiment in synthesis—both chemical and cultural.
To this day, the results of Miller-Urey’s experiment spurs large debates about its validity; yet it remains an important work in understanding the origins of life on Earth. Brown and Root-Bernstein’s version has been performed six times — each with different improvements to its form and function, further adding to Stanley Miller’s original experiment.
Brown says in an interview, “My favorite part of working at MSU I’d have to say is the diverse research practice and the people that are here.” Lansing is a city full of pioneering research in genome sequencing, robotics, nuclear science, astrophysics, and more. “For someone that works like me who wants to interact with other disciplines, it’s perfect because all I have to do is walk into the proverbial backyard to find people that have expertise in a field. And for the most part, people here are very gracious and want to work together.” His next collaborative project? Engineering bacteria to turn non-gold into gold in The Great Work of the Metal Lover with Kazem Kashefi, a microbiology professor.
Credit: Photos by Adam W. Brown (1-2) and G.L. Kohuth (3).