• Joe Davis, he came, he talked and he swept us all off our feet 

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    Posted: 9 December 2012

    Report by Wiepko Oosterhuis

    Almost nobody in the Netherlands knows about this guy, but he is quite famous abroad for being that rarest of species: an artist who can rightly claim to be a scientist too. This combination of talents was the norm a few centuries ago. We all know Leonardo da Vinci as the exemplary homo universalis, who combined painting the Mona Lisa with devising experimental flying machines. But he was just one of many. More often than not, artists were the ones who thought about the laws of nature during the Renaissance, much as in Greek and Roman times. In our age this is almost inconceivable. Everyone is engaged in highly specialised jobs.

    Nowadays you are already considered a homo universalis if you are capable of repairing a leaky sink and writing a book. This has been going on for such a long time that we have apparently forgotten that despite being very different, science and the arts also have common roots. Joe Davis talked about these roots, about their shared history and their connection throughout the ages. He beguiled us with stories about the mathematical discoveries painters made and how the builders of Greek temples discovered how to visually trick your brain into thinking something is straight when it is actually curved. He talked about why flowers look like flowers, how to create art with the genome of apples, that there is a protein called Rubisco and that it is the starting point of life on earth, how all laws of nature, language, art and culture are based on mathematics. And how with these discoveries we alter the planet as well as the way we perceive it. He spoke about the shared history of art, numbers and geometric forms, of them being regarded as having mystical qualities, of being divine. In the thirteenth century the famous philosopher Roger Bacon, also called Doctor Mirabilis (meaning 'Wonderful Teacher'), wrote in a letter to the pope that numbers are not only the laws of nature but the laws of God and that the pope should tell all artists that they must study mathematics because it is the hand of God. Later, in 1563, a famous art academy was founded in Florence where students had to learn about drawing, geometry, anatomy, optics and philosophy. This combining of art and science can be seen as the advent of technology because, for example, by using linear perspective artists could draw perfect building plans.

    We are now only 20 minutes into the lecture. He is going to talk for another two hours. We will learn about our bones and brains, about intelligence and shapes, about plastic surgery and genetic engineering, but most of all why it is important that artists and scientists break out of their constructed fortresses. And that this is not easy. He has encountered a lot of resistance in the 30 years he has been combining arts and science. Nowadays scientists accept him, but as a consequence he is blocked by the art world. Many art-science projects fail because artists aren't really interested in the science behind it. According to Davis they should be. He is called the father of bio-art, but that is too limiting. Indeed, he invented a bacterially grown radio and a frog-leg powered airplane. He developed a way to embed Greek poetry into the DNA of white-eyed flies and the image of the Milky Way into the ear of a mouse. But he has done way more besides: he also transmitted the most powerful and scientifically most thought out of extraterrestrial message. That it contained the vaginal contractions of ballerinas shows only that he has an unconventional brain. He has the interests and capabilities of a modern Leonardo da Vinci and combines these with the enthusiasm and magic of our own Dutch hero Robert Dijkgraaf, who, by the way, studied art at the Rietveld Academy and science at Utrecht University.


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