From the Petri Dish to the Backyard Grill

photo by stevendepoloEven if you wanted to, you couldn’t buy test-tube hot dogs for your Memorial Day barbecue, but maybe in a decade or so we’ll all be noshing on barbecued goodies raised in the sterility of a laboratory near you. Doesn’t that sound tasty? Or yucky?  For me, it’s a little bit of both.

I’m fascinated by in-vitro meat. In part, I’m drawn in by this strange intellectual and visceral war it brings out in me. The resulting meat could eventually be tasty and environmentally sustainable. At the same time, I like good, real food. I just joined a CSA. I grow herbs and vegetables. My parents each grew up on farms. I can see where science might be able to feed people with high quality meat from a lab. But, intuitively,  my body isn’t quite sure whether I’d like it. Considering how wary I used to be of “mystery meat” in school cafeterias, it’s hard to figure out whether there’s a real future for it in supermarkets and restaurants.

I love the complex cast of characters that enter the discussion of lab-grown meat: a hodge podge of scientists from stem cell researchers to engineers, animal rights activists, chefs, food activists and sustainability experts. So Michael Specter‘s New Yorker story, “Test-Tube Burgers” was right up my geeky alley.

Lab-grown meat is a fascinating tissue-engineering problem, with all the same challenges of building organs in a laboratory for transplant. It has all the great drama of an automated architectural design challenge. What structures, conditions and chemicals do you need to allow a few seed cells to produce the marbled muscle that becomes good meat. The biggest scientific challenge is producing blood vessels to feed the tissue and create meat-like texture.

Specter’s story connects all of the threads of science, food, sustainability and even “the yuck factor” right back to the Petri dish. If you have a chance this weekend, it’s worth the read. I dare you to read it while the burgers are on the grill.

Photo Credit: stevendepolo on flickr

Where my interest in in-vitro meat began: I wrote this short item for Discover about 5 years ago.


Pondering medium and “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

replica of a Chauvet Cave painting from a museum in Brno, Czech Republic

I’ll admit a kind of mixed relationship with 3D movies. Done well, I love experiencing the depth, but it seems to me that 3D should be an artistic choice for its ability to convey an experience, rather than just a way to make sure that people see a movie in the movie theater.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog‘s new documentary, is the perfect match of its subject, Chauvet Cave in southern France, and the medium. A 2D film would not do this 30,000 year old cave and its intimate, yet expansive space, justice. The 3D glasses aren’t a gimmick, but a window to a moving diorama, a museum experience, a sacred journey.

This cave and its paintings were buried in rock slides thousands of years ago, only to be rediscovered about 15 years ago but closed to nearly everyone except the scientists who study it. So this space is mysterious, exclusive, and wondrous. Science meets art on every level: stalactites, stalagmites, natural artwork from above and below. But the undulating walls of these caves mesmerized me as they must have mesmerized the artists who drew on them. Cattle, bears, and even a mammoth, simple forms integrated into the movement of the walls, ancient, but fresh as if they were painted just a few years ago.

The film is an experience, well worth the money. But I found Herzog’s chosen coda to the film jarring. He talks about crocodiles that live in the warmed waters next to nearby nuclear plants. His comments were about the passage of time, how humans have changed the world and what life on earth might be like in another 30,000 years, and how those crocodiles might experience this world. Those could be worthy topics, but it’s unsatisfying information that leaves a giant question mark, with little context, at the end of a beautiful film.

With such a perfect match in the film, I’ve been thinking about subject and medium more in my work. I primarily work in printed words: the dizzying choice of nouns and verbs etches clear lines, subtly shades or brings out a new color. Words change color on radio or accompanied by video. When I spend hours in the pottery studio, I shape emerging forms from clay, add detail, think about designs on a surface.

Herzog matched his medium to an amazing subject, a cultural gift and a way to share the experience of this delicate space with a much wider audience. It’s a museum piece (in the best sense of the word) as much as a film. Ancient painters depicted their world, animating their world on a waving canvas of stone. I hope to channel an iota of that creative synergy.

Image Credit: The Adventurous Eye on flickr