Joe DavisLecture

"Swansong: Biochemical Orthography and the Wheel of Time"

Efforts to contact extraterrestrial intelligence inevitably call for concise answers to fundamental philosophical questions about who we are and what we know. Human activities on our own planet have precipitated global environmental changes and the extinctions of numerous species. What’s more, almost every part of the human race has exterminated some other part of the human race since before recorded history. Messages transmitted to other stars have nevertheless tended to imply that Homo sapiens is a friendly, peace-loving species with rational, scientific attitudes. While such messages include purported "universal" mathematics, graphics and audio frequency content suitable for the human sensorium, any extraterrestrial sentience will have evolved in a perceptual, social and philosophical reality that would be wildly unlikely to be compatible with our own. The least ambiguous parts of our most serious messages for extraterrestrials are the messages they contain for human beings themselves. I will trace the history of several projects centered on ideas about extraterrestrial communications that have given rise to new scientific techniques and inspired new forms of artistic practice. Huge numbers of biological agents with robust archives can now be transmitted across vast astronomical distances and over periods spanning millions of years, but an even newer form of interstellar transmission falls just within the realm of possibility. I will explain how an interstellar message can be created that is intended explicitly for human beings rather than for aliens: a "swansong" with precise reports about the human condition that might be used to break the wheel of time.


Joe Davis

JHe spent most of his early life in the American Deep South. While earning his Creative Arts degree (1973) from Mt Angel College in Oregon, he pioneered sculptural methods in laser carving at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, University of Cincinnati Medical Center Laser Laboratory and other renowned laboratories. In 1976, Davis signed the first launch services agreement with NASA to fly a payload for the arts on Space Shuttle and in 1980, was the first non-scientist to address Goddard Spaceflight Center’s Engineering Colloquium. He joined MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1981 as a Research Fellow and was appointed Lecturer in Architecture shortly thereafter. In 1986, Davis created Microvenus, the first genetically engineered work of art and organized the most powerful and lengthily radar signals for extraterrestrial intelligence ever transmitted (Poetica Vaginal). In 1989 he created large permanent public sculpture, fountain and pedestrian lighting for Kendall Sq. in Cambridge, MA. In the same year Davis joined the laboratory of Alexander Rich at MIT where he is widely regarded to have founded new fields in art and biology. He attached fishing rods and miniscule fish hooks to his microscopes and developed other whimsical instruments that could resolve audio signatures from microorganisms. His projects involving “DNA programming languages” for inserting poetic texts and graphics into living organisms have been frequently cited in scientific literature. In his 2009 Rubisco Stars project, Davis transmitted the gene for the most abundant protein on Earth from Arecibo Radar in Puerto Rico to three sun-like stars. In 2010, he joined the laboratory of George Church at Harvard where he is designated “Artist Scientist.” In 2011, Davis worked with collaborators at Havard and the Japanese National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences to genetically modify silkworms to produce transgenic silks biomineralized with metallic gold. Davis was awarded a Prix Ars Electronica "Golden Nica" in 2012 for his Bacterial Radio project. In 2012-13, Davis organized an international consortium to sequence the genome of the ancestor of all domestic apples and later, to contain a highly compressed version of Wikipedia in that same genome. He contributed Astrobiological Horticulture to Ars Electronica in 2016, a multifaceted project to create organisms suited for survival in extraterrestrial environments. Davis is currently collaborating with colleagues at Harvard to insert 3D moving images and holographic data into living cells and in a project with Ashley Seifert Lab at University of Kentucky, Davis is investigating genetics of serendipity in mice using mouse-driven mechanical dice-throwing apparatus.

When and where?

16 september 2017,
7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.,
Planetarium

Registration required