A Nobel Prize winner’s vision of beauty

gilbert displaced #2

Displaced #2, Wally Gilbert

Back in 1987, here’s how the New York Times described the work that won Wally Gilbert the Nobel Prize:

In the mid-1970’s, Walter Gilbert developed with Allan Maxam (then a lab technician) a technique that, by chemically cutting DNA into segments of varying lengths, vastly simplified the reading of DNA messages. This rapid-sequencing method, together with a similar one developed by the British scientist Frederick Sanger, increased by a thousandfold the rate at which DNA information could be read, accelerating the pace of genetics research – and also earning both Gilbert and Sanger the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980.

In 1986, at a conference sponsored by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Gilbert inspired scientists to undertake the quest his work had helped make possible: to decode the human genome. Now, a quarter century later, that work has been done and science is able to look DNA as a laboratory, not just a code that governs biological reproduction and evolution.

As Gilbert told me recently, “We discovered very rapid ways of deciphering (the genetic code) and the world began to sequence DNA and genes. Twenty-five years later the first human genome was sequenced–three billion bases long (actually a yard of DNA long).  Today, hundreds to thousands of genomes have been sequenced.  This ability to decipher DNA underlies all of the biology one does today and all of molecular medicine.”

A dozen years ago, Gilbert closed his lab, though he’s still involved in some small biotech companies and does venture capital involving medical devices. Meanwhile, as he puts it, “I do Art.” His work is on view for a few more days at Viridian Artists in Chelsea and a month-long show just began at Khaki Gallery in Boston.

Specifically, he creates photographic images, using a computer to print enlarged modifications of shots he takes with a digital camera. He’s been involved with photography all his life. When he was a boy, he learned the dark room skills needed to develop film and print black and white images. For most of his life, photography was a way of recording his travels. About a decade ago, though, he discovered that he could use the two-megapixel cameras, available at that time, to make images that could be successfully enlarged to great size.  He increased the pixel count, using a computer, to attain images as large as eight feet by twelve feet. The emotional impact of the large photographs fascinated him and led him to explore photography as an art form.

He says, “I focus on images, created usually in the camera directly, of parts of the world.  I rarely photograph people, and I am not interested in photojournalism. I did spend several years photographing ballet dancers in rehearsal . . . but then I moved off into abstracts.”

He would take an image of a human head, for example, and then use it as the basis for a “drawing” on a computer. The head photographs occupied him for a year, then he moved into purely abstract imagery, geometric figures designed to create a sense of spatial depth.

“Today I am exploring both black and white (the current show at Viridian Artists) and brightly colored images forced to 100% saturation in the computer.” The images in his current show represent both unaltered shots and others manipulated using software.

I asked him if visualization was ever an element in his scientific work. Kerkule’s famous dream, of a snake with its tail in its mouth, led to the discovery of the benzene ring, for example. He didn’t offer any examples of this, but said the best comparison between his scientific research and his art is the way experimentation has been crucial in both. “I play with different things until I get the result I like. Some of the parallels with science lie in the experimental approach.  Although I was originally a theoretical physicist, I spent most of my life as an experimental biologist–making experiments work out in the lab.  And the experimental science is driven by finding new things, new discoveries, by looking at the world and being surprised.  So too with images.”

One identical motivation lurks behind both his science and his art. “I feel that the urge to do science is driven by an urge to discover new facts about the world. That search for novelty–in science a search for true new truths and in art a search for new images, beautiful new things–is the same underlying drive.”

Many of his photographs are strikingly beautiful, in a minimalist way. He frames and crops his image, and for this show, prints them in black and white on aluminum, to emphasize the geometry of the world around him. My favorite shot, though, is the final one in his catalog–Window, Tuscany–which suggests a hazy narrative and hints of either loss or expectation. The photographer gazes up at an open window with white curtains pulled back, as if someone is about to come into view or has just retreated, leaving a dark wedge of emptiness behind. The sense of life is so strong that you can almost feel a slight breeze ruffling the fabric, and the play of light hints at a fleeting time of day. The photograph isn’t simply formally beautiful, but evokes a complex feeling of vulnerability that’s hard to pin down. It would be wonderful to see him pursue whatever it was inspired this shot and build a future show around similar work.

What didn’t surprise me was the way beauty plays a role in both pursuits. Many scientists have spoken of the need to find a simple, “elegant” solution to a particular problem. “Art is a search for beauty–for an image that will thrill the onlooker.  Though science is dominated by a search for a truth that is usually formulated in abstract, non-visual terms, the scientist finds beauty in those ideas–and often uses a criteria of beauty as part of the way to grasp the truth.”

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