Sublime Highways of the Air

Originally written as part of the ‘Atmospheric Encounters‘ [1], exhibition at BOM 19th May – 28th August 2021

A whole new perspective can be gained from being aloft in a balloon. Far from the violent wrenching experienced when taking off in an airplane, a hot air balloon floats its passengers up into the sky almost unobserved. The flight is silent, save for the burners which are opened at intervals to heat the air. The ground drops away, the once-familiar now replaced with a vista of broccoli-like trees, miniature houses and toy cows. In ‘Falling Upwards’, Richard Holmes writes ‘Show me a balloon and I’ll show you a story; quite often a tall one. And very frequently it is a story of courage in the face of imminent catastrophe’.

The industrial revolution prompted an explosion in human activity and population. There were huge advances in manufacturing, science, medicine and more. The use of coal powered factories changed the atmosphere as well as urban areas and ways of life. Lighter than air transport was possible for the first time and humans began to explore the atmosphere. In 1783 the first manned balloon flight was made by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier. Richard Hengist Horne wrote in 1851 of the ‘Sublime highways of the air’ describing the balloon mania that gripped the 19th century. Men and women took to the air and floated in uncontrollable ways, at the whim of the air currents. The longest flight, the highest flight, acrobatic activities and science were pursued. However, the lack of control and some high-profile catastrophes deflated the enthusiasm for ballooning, to be replaced by more controllable forms of lighter than air travel and exploration.

Putting aside anthropocentric excursions into the atmosphere, animals and plants have been airborne for a very long time: the evolution of flight and gliding has occurred in a multitude of organisms in varied habitats. Indeed, some spiders have been described as ballooning, as they send out streamers of silk that can catch the wind and bear them aloft where they become part of the aeroplankton. Aeroplankton is the atmospheric equivalent of ocean plankton and consists of a myriad of tiny creatures that float and drift in the air. Many thousands of different species spend part of their lifecycle in the air: from pollen to spores, wind scattered seeds to microbes and more complex organisms. These microbial assemblages can be propelled into the atmosphere by mechanisms such as storms, raindrops splashing onto soil and sea spray. Shape and weight contribute to the length of time they spend in the atmosphere. Aeroplankton are aloft for an average of 3 days, allowing plenty of time for them to cross land and water, arriving at new places to inhabit.

View of the Gloucestershire countryside and atmosphere above from a hot air balloon. Image: M. Grant

There are also microbes that appear to inhabit the atmosphere, particularly clouds. Next generation sequencing [2] has been used to explore the composition and activity of cloud assemblages or communities. There is evidence that the microbes in clouds are metabolically active, i.e. are alive and functioning, and have roles as cloud condensation nuclei, or cloud seeds, on which water vapour condenses. The most commonly acknowledged to have this property is Pseudomonas syringae [3] but many species have now been shown to be able to help form clouds. What of the microbes not in the potentially protective environment of a cloud? Experiments have shown that bacteria, such as the soil microbe Bacillus subtilis, can survive the range of temperature, desiccation (removal of moisture), and pressure conditions of not just the troposphere but also of the stratosphere. (The troposphere stretches from Earth to around 7 miles upwards.)

The stratosphere is the layer of the Earth’s atmosphere above the habitable troposphere, approximately 10-50km from the Earth’s surface, and is accessible by balloons. It incorporates the ozone layer and accommodates a wide range of temperatures (0 to -60 ᵒC) and pressures (110 to 22,000Pa). Experiments started in the 1930s to reveal microbes that live in this habitat, and now there is a list of nearly 50 species or genera that have been isolated and cultured [4]. Often the time needed to create cultures is slow and has led to concerns about terrestrial contamination. However, great efforts are made to prevent contamination and experiments are used to model efforts made to prevent planetary contamination, for example for missions to Mars. The use of chemical treatments such as UV-C radiation, ethylene oxide and sodium hypochlorite (bleach) have been tested. The idea of using antimicrobial surfaces to prevent transportation of terrestrial microbes into the stratosphere has also been pondered. Copper containing surfaces are known to be antimicrobial and have been used to prevent biofouling by barnacles on ships and microorganisms in hospital settings. Fascinatingly in 1843 Jean-Francois Dupuis-Delcourt constructed a copper balloon, just to see if it was possible, which could have flown but he ran out of funding before getting the project completed.

Colony of Mortierella humilis isolated from the atmosphere above Saana Vanka in northern Finland. Image: M. Grant

The culturing of microorganisms has held a fascination for many researchers – from the arts, sciences or other fields of study. The billowing growth of the fungus Mortierella humilis evocates clouds. It was detected in near ground atmospheric sampling experiments, using a tethered balloon to keep the experimental equipment in the atmosphere, recently made by the High Altitude Bioprospecting (HAB) team in Kilpisjarvi, northern Finland.

“A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation” from Airopaidia

In comparison to the A Balloon-prospect from above the clouds drafted by William Angus for Thomas Baldwin’s ‘Airopaidia’: containing the narrative of a balloon excursion from Chester (1786). I t is easy to cross the macro and micro scales of the two images and centuries of time between the first forays into the atmosphere and some of the latest. ‘A Balloon-prospect from above the clouds’ shows the river Mersey meandering through a green landscape partially covered in white billowing clouds. It is overlaid with the air current driven twisting route of the balloon, again reminiscent of microbial movement. Another image from Airopaidia shows ‘A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation’ laid out before those ingenious and fearless travellers of the 18th century. 360ᵒ cameras are now making this viewpoint more commonplace and increasing the feeling of living in multiple miniature worlds inhabited by assemblages of human and nonhuman actors. Both these image types are evocative of the circular Petri dishes in which stratospheric treasures are encouraged into visible colonies displaying the otherworldliness of hidden microbial flora.

“A Balloon-prospect from above the clouds” from Airopaidia

The HAB team have made two expeditions to sample atmospheric micro-organisms. The first used a balloon and a rocket to propel the experiment into the atmosphere, though unfortunately one of the tall tales with a catastrophic ending foretold by Richard Holmes ensued. The second HAB team expedition, to northern Finland, was part of the Finnish Bioart Society’s Field_notes programme, exploring ‘The Heavens’ as an art-science field laboratory. Tethering hand-made, sterilised silk windsocks to a balloon-kite hybrid (Helikite), the team captured microorganisms from approx. 70m above ground. Bacteria and fungi slowly materialised on agar filled Petri dishes and were 16S rRNA [5] sequenced for identification. Many of the genera or species found were similar to the ones previously found in the stratosphere: Paenibacillus, Cladosporia, Pseudomonas, Micrococcus. One had a name evocative of not the Arctic but the Antarctic: Micrococcus antarcticus. This psychrophilic (cold adapted) bacterium was originally isolated at the Chinese Great-Wall station in Antarctica and was described as being closely related to other microbes found there. These include Micrococcus luteusArthrobacter citreus and Kocuria rosea, which have been implicated in cloud seeding, and were also found in the HAB experiments in Lapland.

The question remains of whether these are regular residents in Lapland or visitors carried on potentially high-altitude winds and captured in the windsock. Atmospheric modelling has suggested that in the autumn in northern Finland there is a low quantity of microorganisms resident in the atmosphere but that this is the time that they are most abundant in the Southern hemisphere [6]. Perhaps it is wishful thinking that the microbes actually came from Antarctica, and instead may be more ubiquitous than we give them credit for, but nevertheless there is a suggestion that they could have made such a long journey. As has been suggested that ‘aside from some understanding of their diversity, properties of airborne microbial communities and their sources in the Arctic have yet to be investigated’ the role of aeolian sources are being investigated in both the Arctic and Antarctic [7].

Bacteria and fungi isolated from the atmosphere above Saana Vanka in northern Finland. Image: M. Grant

Whereas Micrococcus antarcticus seems somewhat ‘exotic’ in its discovery, other microbes appeared more customary in hindsight. Several species of the fungus Cladosporia, with their distinctive black pigmentation were found by the HAB team. A previous survey highlighted these fungi to be highly prevalent in outside dust samples gathered from across the east half of the United States of America [8].

Some of the microbes sequenced returned new identifications: perhaps highlighting that there is always more to be discovered in our desire to understand the planet and its myriad environments and habitats. Discovery of multicellular organisms (macro-organisms) is relatively rare but micro-organisms continue to be discovered regularly. Should the humans of planet Earth be allowed to bioprospect these microscopic forms of life and potentially exploit any novel properties they have? That remains a contested issue for further discussion. This is not a new dilemma, the human race has harnessed many (micro)organisms for their own benefit – from making bread and wine to degrading hydrocarbons and pollutants, and producing antibiotics. How can, and should we go about the work of discovering and living with these forms of microscopic airborne life?

[1] Atmospheric Encounters is an exhibition by the High Altitude Bioprospecting team that explores the microbes that can be found in the atmosphere using DIY devices. The exhibition centres around the microbes found during field_notes field lab expedition to the arctic circle in northern Finland in 2019 with the Bioart Society. The identification of the microbes formed a large part of the expedition and this is explored in pieces in the exhibition but also conversations around the ethics of bioprospecting in the atmosphere are contemplated. IUR section heads Melissa Grant and Oliver de Peyer led the HAB group at field_notes.

DIY atmospheric microbial sampling device (HAB device). Image: Thom Bartley

[2] Next generation sequencing refers to the developments since 2009 for the large-scale sequencing of genetic material – this can cover whole genomes or parts of them, for instance, for the identification of microorganisms in particular settings or environments.

[3] Pseudomonas syringae is a bacterium that is a commonly plant pathogen.

[4] An excellent review of the microbes discovered in the stratosphere has been made by Priya DasSarma & Shiladitya DasSarma (Survival of microbes in Earth’s stratosphere, Current Opinion in Microbiology 2018, Volume 43, Pages 24-30).

[5] 16S rRNA is an essential and abundant nucleic acid structure found in bacteria. The sequence is specific to the originating bacterial species and can be used in identification

[6] Burrows et al. Bacteria in the global atmosphere – Part 2: Modelling of emissions and transport between different ecosystems. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 9, 9281–9297, 2009

[7] Šantl-Temkiv et al. Aeolian dispersal of bacteria in southwest Greenland: their sources, abundance, diversity and physiological states. FEMS Microbiology Ecology, Volume 94, Issue 4, April 2018

[8] Barberán et al. Continental-scale distributions of dust-associated bacteria and fungi. PNAS 2015, volume 112, pages 5756–5761

Just Like in the Movies: The Science and Fiction of Organ Transplantation

A transplant surgeon once asked me why people have so many doubts about becoming an organ donor. Why do they think organs transplantation is dangerous or immoral? I believe the main reason is that what they see on television and read on the Internet raises so many philosophical questions. For example, when I think of organ transplantation the first image that come into my mind it that of COMA. I saw this movie in the late 1970s as a young girl. It was the first thriller I saw, very exciting. The movie tells the story of healthy people who get into a COMA after undergoing a relatively simple surgical procedure. These COMA patients are moved to a special clinic where they are to receive proper medical care. But as the heroin of the story discovers, the Jefferson Institute is not a hospital, it is a repository of fresh, healthy human bodies whose organs are collected and traded on the black market.

The story, written in 1977 by Robin Cook, is a reflection of the developments in medical science at the time. A number of successful first organ transplants were performed in the late 1960s. One breakthrough followed another. The first successful heart transplant was performed in 1967 by the charismatic South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard. His patient, Louis Washansky, lived another 18 days after the procedure. He died of pneumonia. This medical breakthrough fueled fiction and wild fantasies.

One need not be a science fiction writer to envision the possibility of future murder rings supplying healthy organs for black-market surgeons whose patients are unwilling to wait until natural sources have supplied the heart or liver or pancreas they need. More prosaically, shall people near death be allowed to sell their heart or liver to the highest bidder or shall the future use of such vital “spare parts” be decided by some agency set up by society ” wrote a New York Times commentator about Barnard’s revolutionary transplant.

In the years that followed, the techniques improved and with the discovery of cyclosporine in the early 1970s, organ transplantation became a more and more a common medical procedure. It radically changed the way we perceive the human body, and therefore human beings.

Transplant medicine, forced us to replace a holistic image of the body with a mechanistic image. The body changed from a unique entity into a  body made up of interchangeable parts. The body became a machine and organs become a commodity.

The fact that we can so easily replace body parts also raises a another philosophical question. How is the body related to the ‘I’, or the soul? Can you just take part of a body and transplant it to another body without affecting the identity of the recipient of the organ?

This question is older than transplant surgery. Take for example the silent movie Les Mains du Orlac from 1924. This movie narrates the story of a successful pianist who loses both his hands in an accident. His girlfriend cannot accept the loss and urges the doctor for a transplant. Coincidentally, a violent criminal was executed the same day so his hands are used. You can guess it, those hands lead a life of their own. These were the hands of a murderer. Orlac cannot control the hands (with which he cannot play the piano) and starts killing.

A more comical and absurd variation on this story is the halloween episode of The Simpsons Halloween Special IX, Hell Toupee. The story is similar to Mains du Orlac: serial killer Snake is executed and Homer Simpson gets a hair transplant that same day. He looks good, only the nerves from hair transplant grow under his skull to his brain and take control of Homer who suddenly behaves like a serial killer.

Here you can see how he wants to kill his own son with a sledge hammer. It is bizarre. It is funny. What do these fantasies, these horror stories tell us about how people feel about and think of organ transplantation?

Bruce Hood, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Bristol, studied the effects of information about the donor’s moral character on the potential heart recipient. It made a huge difference. Most of the respondents did not want the heart of a rapist or serial killer. I fully understand this. It’s just not a nice idea that walk around with the heart of a rapist beating in your chest. According to Hood, we feel that way because we deep down believe that after a transplant we become a little bit like the other person.

 “Essentially they believe they will take somehow on those characteristics of the donor.”

I give you another example. Not fiction but a true story: Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was a serious criminal, convicted for multiple rape and even murder. He was sentenced to life for his actions. He did not like that. That is why he asked the American state to be executed. He wished to die in front of a firing squad. But he had one more wish. He also wanted to donate his organs. This happened in 1977. Someone got a kidney (the other was damaged by a bullet). Two others got his corneas. Strange thought? That’s also what Timothy Smith songwriter, singer of the punk band the Adverts, thought. He wrote a song about is:

I’m lying in a hospital,
I’m pinned against the bed.
A stethoscope upon my heart,
A hand against my head.
They’re peeling off the bandages.
I’m wincing in the light.
The nurse is looking anxious,
And she’s quivering in fright

I’m looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

The doctors are avoiding me.
My vision is confused.
I listen to my earphones,
And I catch the evening news.
A murderer’s been killed,
And he donates his sight to science.
I’m locked into a private ward.
I realise that I must be

Looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

Looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

I smash the light in anger.
Push my bed against the door.
I close my lids across my eyes,
And wish to see no more.
The eye receives the messages,
And sends them to the brain.
No guarantee the stimuli must be perceived the same

When looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

Gary don’t need his eyes to see.
Gary and his eyes have parted company.

These kinds of reflections go beyond biology. It’s about the relationship between body and personality. Body and identity. Organ transplant enables people to fuse. That simply must have an effect on the recipient. At least, that what some people, with no medical expertise think. There are plenty of high-profile cases of people claiming to have changed character after a transplant. Their  stories are weird and amazing and very entertaining!

Take for example, the remarkable story of Sonny Graham. Too good to be true one might say.  He married the 20 years younger widow of his heart donor. (When he got the heart he was married to another woman with children!) Several years after the wedding, he commits suicide with a firearm. Just like his heart donor did.

Would you like to hear more stories like this? Then watch Mindshock transplanting memories, a channel 4 documentary. The main message of this documentary is that the heart is also a carrier of memories. You hear two scientists, who come up with very plausible explanations.

The Daily Mail is always a source of good stories. The one about a woman who started reading Dostoevsky after her kidney transplant is my favourite. Other stories are about fast food, green peppers, sports. Alle these articles tell more or less the same story: it is difficult for the recipient of a donor organ to let go of the thought of the other. The other person whose heart is pumping your blood through your body.

That is exactly what the 21 grams is about.

The movie begins with the following image: Sean Penn lying in an hospital bed, holding a heart in glass jar in his hand. His own heart. Someone else’s beats in his chest. Even if you do not have a medical background, you can see clearly his heart was in dire need of replacement. It does not look healthy.

Anyway, with that new heart his life becomes an emotional roller coaster. He argues with his wife (he finds out she once had an abortion) and becomes obsessed with that new heart. He must and know who was the previous owner of his new heart. He hires a private investigator to find out who that person was. He learns that the heart belonged to happily married man with children. Killed in a car accident.

As soon as he discovers this, he starts chasing the widow. She is a nice woman, beautiful woman. He makes contact with her. The rest is easy to guess. I find the most dramatic scene when she lies with her head on his chest and listens to the beats of her deceased husband’s heart. The film does not have a happy ending. But I can recommend it. It is very relatable.

This I cannot say about Heart of a stranger ‘based on a true story’. This story is about a female piano player, who receives a heart from a young brash drunkard. After her operation she turns into a ruthless woman. With a lust for beer. The story on which the film is based is that of Claire Sylvia, allegedly her first words after the successful heart transplant were: “I am dying for a beer.”

She had never drunk beer in her life.

The Anatomical Preparations of Frederik Ruysch: Art, Freak Show or Science?

The anatomical preparations by Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) are part of the anatomical collection of the Academic Medical Centre in Leiden. They are centuries old. The material, body parts of deceased people, was prepared by Ruysch in the early 18th century. He often used the bodies of criminals, but also very young and stillborn children. Ruysch added all kinds of elements to the preparations, lace collars, bonnets, or even glass eyes. He turned them into true still lives. It is still a beautiful collection. The fact that these preparations, almost 400 years later, still look so good is due to the special embalming technique that Ruysch developed. As a result, his preparations have retained their natural color. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great was so impressed by Ruysch’s work that he bought almost the entire collection and had it shipped to Saint Petersburg. Through intervention of professor Albinus, a student of Ruysch, some of Ruysch’s preparations ended up in Leiden. Doctors and medical students can see them, but the general public cannot. When the Boerhaave Museum decided to exhibit them in 2015, this gave rise to ethical questions.

I was asked, what I, being a bioethicist, think of the public display of the preparations of anatomist Frederik Ruysch from the early 18th century.

The great thing about such an old preparation is that it is many things at the same time. First of all, it is a curiosity from the eighteenth century. Dressing up baby corpses and turning them into still lifes is not something we do nowadays. But it is also a story about the different moral values ​​of that time. For example, with today’s ethical standards, we would never be allowed to use the bodies of criminals or still born for art works. In the past, there was no such thing as a right to the integrity of the body. Deceased criminals could end up as a preparation without any problem. They lost the right of ownership of their body. We now have different ideas about these practices. Someone has to give permission for his body to be used after his death. This is what we refer to as informed consent in medical ethics.

Perhaps, the anatomical preparations played a role in the education of  doctors in earlier centuries, but this no longer the case. These preparations are of no educational value to today’s medical students. Nowadays, students learn a lot more about the human body by dissecting the bodies themselves. So that is not an argument for showing those preparations to young doctors, but not to the general public. You have to be consistent. Either you say, those (remnants of) people retroactively deserve the right to their physical integrity and therefore a grave. Or you say, we wouldn’t do that anymore, but these preparations are already here and they are too good to throw away.

In that case, I would choose to show those preparations to the public, especially to show their unique beauty. It’s real craftsmanship. I really like them a lot. They tell a story. I think those preparations deserve the label ‘art’. I know that I am moving on slippery ice now, because it is also about the definition of art. I will not go into that further now. I would be delighted if these preparations, which for years were only visible for a select group of medical professionals, now become part of the collection of a science museum and can be admired publicly. Though, I do have some issues with the plasticized corpses in Bodyworlds. These are recently acquired bodies. Where do these bodies come from? Did those people give their consent while they were alive? What did they get in return?

Gold from Seawater – Inspiration for the IUR

Cover of Mr Henry James Snell’s “Processes for the Extraction of Gold from Sea-water (Works, Plants etc etc)”

It’s not just what we remember that’s important, but what is remembered about us. How do we achieve immortality? Is it through our genes as they are passed down? Why is it that sometimes we can feel so close to ancestors we have never even met? Our director, Anna Dumitriu has attempted to trace a genetic link to between her family history and her art-science practice.

Henry James Snell

The inspiration behind the Institute of Unnecessary Research is Anna Dumitriu’s great grandfather Henry James Snell 1842-1927. He was a renowned stained glass and ceramic painter (with studios in London and Brighton), a playwright and a songwriter (and father of seventeen children with three different women). Five of his books of plays, poems and enamel painting techniques can be found in the British Library rare books collection and he was known to have painted over three thousand stained glass windows.

HJ Snell’s Gold Works, Isle of Wight, UK

Whilst investigating the properties of enamel painting he found he was able to extract silver. This lead to further experiments into methods of extracting gold from seawater. Nobel prize winner Sir William Ramsey was retained by a syndicate, called the Industrial and Engineering Trust (Limited), to develop H J Snell’s work. Shareholders included Lord Brassey, Lord Tweedale, Hon. Alban Gibbs, several manufacturers and Albert Sandeman, foremost owner of the Bank of England. The syndicate had the modest capital of £3,000 in £1 shares.

Gold Works, Hayling Island, UK

Ramsey made experiments and stated in a formal report that “there is no doubt Snell has proved that gold can profitably be obtained from sea water on a large scale, and the amount of the gold obtained is so large that whether the cost of the treatment is £1 a ton or even the outside figure of £8 a ton, which it could not exceed, it would not make very much difference.”

HJ Snell at the Gold Works, Isle of Wight, UK

This research was unnecessary because the cost of electricity required to undertake the work would actually have been more than the gold that could be extracted by those means. If on the other hand nuclear fusion was possible, or green energy was used, it would be a relatively easy process, potentially leading to a crash in world gold prices and of course global economic disruption (especially at the time of the experiments when the gold standard was in practice). This has many parallels with contemporary cryptocurrency mining and blockchain technologies and a new artwork to explore this aspect of the story is currently being developed by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May.

Gold Works, Hayling Island, UK

Anna Dumitriu originally spoke about  H J Snell’s experiments  in her talk “Science and Art – A Genetic Link?” at the Catalyst Club in Brighton  on 21st February 2006, and later that year published an article in Aesthetica Magazine on the subject.

HJ Snell’s Gold Ore Concentrators

Also in 2006 she created a performative intervention “Putting Back Henry’s Gold” where she hired a boat from Brighton Marina, went out to sea and poured 24 carat gold dust into the water. The work can be seen as a reaction to the extraction of natural resources and its economic impact.

HJ Snell’s Laboratory