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Brandeis explores the artistic in the scientific

By Victoria Aronson

Section: Arts

April 19, 2013

Debbie Chachra, materials scientist and associate professor of materials science at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, presented the final lecture of a three-part series titled “Art of Science.” She discussed the vast realm of technological innovations that have permitted scientists to explore 3D printing, buildings without right angles and inspiration from the intricate structures of human bone, and explored the evolution of organic architecture. Chachra is currently researching biological materials herself.

Chachra described the ease with which it is possible to distinguish between natural and synthetic design, explaining that in nature there is essentially only one right angle. This vertical right angle is manifested through the vertical growth of trees and vegetation toward the sky and the erect posture of human beings when standing. Synthetic design, in contrast, is highly categorized by the prevalence of right angles and geometric patterns.

Expanding on this notion, she asserted the ability “to exploit the fact that liquids are smooth” within design, specifically within the production of glass. She referenced early attempts to capture the unique patterns emerging in nature, such as the cracks in a snake’s skin to artistic renditions of the structure of sea creatures. Chachra pointed to the potential to “mathematically model the morphology of living things,” tracing attempts by biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson in 1917 to project the forms of fish species onto grids. By mathematically describing the distortion of the grid to correspond to the bodily form of each species, he could mathematically describe their different morphologies as well. This correlation between the intricacies of biological life and their implications within the realm of synthetic design gradually manifested within the field of architecture.

Tracing the emergence of an affinity for organic shapes, she referenced the curvature of tables by designer Noguchi. Confined to smaller scale projects, the complications associated with curvature in design may not be immediately evident.

Chachra jokingly described frustrated homeowners who struggle to arrange furniture in curved rooms, and pointed to the prevalence of right angles in everything from plywood to couches. She discussed the struggle of becoming accustomed to the characteristically curved streets of Boston.

When organic design is manifested on a grand scale, Chachra asserted that “people find it disorienting; some become physically nauseous.” Another potential drawback of organic design is the relative lack of efficiency, and tendency for materials to be wasted in comparison to modular, geometric designs.

Chachra discussed emerging technological innovations such as 3D printing, and the usage of mathematical algorithms to model biological patterns. As a relatively new technology still in its infant stages of development, 3D printing is being further investigated for serious implications in the field of health care and design. Scientists are seeking to explore the possibility of printing 3D organs for patients, which could revolutionize organ transplants if successful. Tying back again to organic design, Chachra pointed out the possibility to print buildings using this technology as well.

Chachra further alluded to the distinction between natural and synthetic design by elaborating upon the ability of biological materials such as proteins to self-assemble and form more complex structures. This, she explains, starkly contrasts with the methodical, orderly techniques used by computer programs.

Considering the negative attributes of organic designs, whether it be loss of efficiency or complications arising from curvature rather than modular geometric shapes, an audience member posed the question of whether there were any definable advantages to this approach beyond a purely aesthetic desire to soften the hard edges of traditional design. Responding to the question, Chachra pointed out her desire to neither dismiss nor condemn such views, but maintains that these innovations are about “people pushing the envelope in order to make a statement.”

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