LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
You might think it's pretty easy to tell the difference between a science lab and an art gallery. But if you happen to be in Paris this season, you could find yourself easily confused by a high-tech window display just behind the Louvre.
It's for a place that's called Le Laboratoire. It's a spot where scientists and artists undertake collaborative experiments, and it's the brainchild of a Harvard professor who has written a book about why the wall between art and science needs to be torn down.
Frank Browning reports.
FRANK BROWNING: It all started when David Edwards who holds a chair in biomedical technology in Harvard began talking to his colleagues, not only in other science departments, but also in art, architecture and music.
Dr. DAVID EDWARDS (Biomedical Engineering, Harvard University): We sort of had this sense of finding your lost brother and sister. And so we all came from such different environments, but we had very similar stories.
BROWNING: That common story was about hiding. The scientists hid their passions for art; the artists their curiosity for science.
Dr. EDWARDS: At the end of the day, I kind of asked myself the question why was it that all of us ended up in having an affiliation with an institution, in my case Harvard, but none of us were really kind of welcomed in what made us who we were.
BROWNING: Besides teaching medical technology, Edwards writes fiction and has long worked in the theater. He began to probe the question of what lies behind innovative intelligence. With a little extra money he'd picked up in the biotech industry, he launched Le Laboratoire in Paris where he lives part time.
(Soundbite of noise)
BROWNING: Because he once worked in Robert Langer's MIT lab doing stem cell research, Edwards hooked up one of France's best-known visual artists, Fabrice Hybert, with Langer. The idea was to give visitor a notion of what it would be like to actually be a stem cell in the process of becoming a neuron or nerve cell. In short, to give people a tactile experience of cell division.
Dr. EDWARDS: Fabrice's idea was to create objects that people could fall through and have this experience of cell division by falling like a sand particle through an hourglass.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
BROWNING: As you walk through the space - three levels of columns, colored floors, paintings, and sculptures - two images recur repeatedly - the hourglass and an apple tree with falling fruit.
Dr. EDWARDS: The work begins with this painting right here, which it shows an apple tree where apples fall to the ground and become cherries and ultimately cherry trees.
BROWNING: That is one life element transforming itself into another. It's a visual metaphor for the primitive stem cell emerging as a neuron. More than that, Edwards and Hybert aimed to draw the visitor to Le Laboratoire into the processes of making art and science.
Mr. FABRICE HYBERT (Visual Artist): One time, I remember I did a show in the gallery with 14 painting and I sent a painting not finished, and they sell the painting. And I finished the painting after here in laboratory, something that you can show the wait works.
BROWNING: Hybert, who was trained as a mathematician, distinguishes art from science this way: Science always has a clear end or objective or answer in mind, while art is a way of taking people in-between moments, in-between questions, in-between answers so they can intuit the movement of imagination.
(Soundbite of music)
BROWNING: Diana Dabby(ph) is one of David Edwards' favorite art/science case examples. Dabby was an accomplished concert pianist in her late 20s when she stumbled across some music criticism written by engineers. She realized she had no idea what engineers do. So being curious, she went back to school and got a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT.
(Soundbite of music)
BROWNING: Today, Dabby is a composer who uses what physicists call chaos or complexity theory to create variations in her compositions. Chaos theory first developed from mathematical models meteorologists were using to predict weather whereas the most modest event in one part of the world can affect weather thousands of miles away. A key term in those models that denote is the strange attractor.
Ms. DIANA DABBY (Electrical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): A strange attractor is something that basically acts as a magnet in the chaotic system. You might actually think of it as a whirlpool in a river. And that the currents of that river would follow different trajectories as they get pulled towards the whirlpool. In a sense, the technique that I developed is perhaps acting in the following way. You could think of the whirlpool as the original piece and the different trajectories of currents as a variation.
BROWNING: For example, Dabby uses one of the most famous pieces in Western music on which to impose this technique in order to create musical variations.
Ms. DABBY: It's "Prelude No. 1" by Bach from the "Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1." And here are the first four measures.
(Soundbite of song, "Prelude No. 1" from "Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1")
Ms. DABBY: Okay. Now, you think the technique that I devise, you're able to make a variation of the entire Bach prelude, and what we'll hear now is the first four measures of that technique-generated variation.
(Soundbite of "Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1")
BROWNING: Any composer could create variations on an established theme. What Dabby does is apply her technique to create a variation on the entire work.
Ms. DABBY: In jazz, this is done all the time. In other words, you can listen to "I'll Remember April," and you can hear Charlie Parker play it, and you can hear Earl Garner play it. And in a sense, the variations that each of these artists produces is a variation of the entire piece.
BROWNING: That process of innovative intelligence linking science and art is what David Edwards wants to put on display at Le Laboratoire. Edwards compares Le Laboratoire to an off-Broadway show.
Dr. EDWARDS: We take risks. We try out ideas with pretty small audiences.
BROWNING: But risk presupposes the possibility and indeed the probability from time to time of failure.
Dr. EDWARDS: Exactly. If you think of a lab - a normal lab - there is mostly process going on. We're mostly cooking things - making things. And every once in a while, sometimes,. Oh, my gosh, I got a result. And very rarely if that resulted was how we predicted it would be or - very often that's (unintelligible). We hope that it would be - we are always learning something.
BROWNING: And, Edwards says, people who come to Le Laboratoire relish that kind of learning experience. And what's more, once the current installations come down, they can take a piece of the stem cell to show home. It's all for sale.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.
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