Bioluminescence is the ability for an organism to create light by a physiological, chemical reaction. The ability to glow has evolved many times and is widespread throughout the animal and bacterial kingdoms. In the deep sea those animals that do not have the ability to glow on their own will form partnerships with microbiota that can. Nearly 90% of abyssal creatures are bioluminescent.
Even on land many animals have harnessed the power of light - insects, beetles, worms. Some glow to attract mates, others to warn predators or capture prey, still others to mimic another more dangerous luminescent creature.
Outside the animal kingdom fungus have also evolved the capacity to luminesce. Insects are attracted to the glowing caps and then disperse spores from mushroom to mushroom as they investigate the source of light.
Imitating nature, artists have attempted to capture the beauty of bioluminescent creatures. Yayoi Kusama used tiny lights, mirrors, and pools of water in an installation at the Whitney to recreate the mating displays of the golden fireflies that swarm the forests of Japan.
Others have used the organisms themselves as part of the piece. Using petri dishes to “paint” patterns, Angela Bowlds uses bioluminescent bacteria to create large-scale ephemeral installations.
Following on this style geneticist Hunter Cole assembles intimate collections of glowing dishes as drawings. Both women describe the microbiota as their “collaborators” in these works.
On a grander scale, Octave Augustin Marie Perrault constructed a collection of bioluminescent billboards on the shores of the Galapagos Islands. This piece was intended to be viewed from out at sea.
Science has now followed on art and nature. Bioengineers at UCSD assemble colonies of bioluminescent bacteria into microfluidic chips inhabited by thousands of fluorescent E. coli. Each chip contains thousands of individual organisms
These organisms have been manipulated to synchronize their luminescence in response to chemical triggers. In this way the chips are assembled into actual billboards containing thousands of these “biopixels”.
The goal now is to incorporate these glowing communities into architecture and urban design. Imagine a streetlight that needs no electricity since it is powered by bacteria or the stock tickers and billboards of Times Square illuminated only by thousands of organisms…
With the passing of Thomas Kinkade I thought I would take some time to discuss an artist who truly does work with light. James Turrell forms paintings and sculptures from natural and transmitted light, both mono- and polychromatic. Turrell’s work emphasizes the wonder of light, given the vast expanses of darkness in our Universe and uses the very spiritual connotations we often have of light. I will let Turrell’s words speak for his art, but first a quote by Hartmut Bohme that Turrell has used to describe his work
“We live in an age of consummate remoteness from God”
“There’s something about light which science cannot quite fully encompass or reduce”
“People think I change the sky, but I don’t. I change the context of vision so that we see the sky more intensely”
“I want people to experience vintage light, not just sunlight which is only eight and a half minutes old”
“I want people to realize that light is precious”
Artwork in descending vertical order: Rise, Ganzfeld Piece, Dhtu, Blue Planet Sky, Roden Crater East Portal Skyspace, Night Passage
2015 will a big year for light:
200 year anniversary of Fresnel’s theory that light is a wave
150 year anniversary of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory of light
100 years since General Relativity showed that light is the center of space and time
50 years since finding the Cosmic Microwave Background, the afterglow of the Big Bang
To support this effort PhysicsWorld has sponsored a wonderful science/art photo competition celebrating light: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/48805