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Bacterealistic Art – In Scientio, Veritas

Bacterealistic Art

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” — Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1931).

They (Science and Art) ask the same questions… really what it (Science) does at its best is force us to reassess our place in the cosmos. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? And those are the very same questions that you get in art, literature, music. Every time you read a wonderful book or see a wonderful film, you come out of it with a different perspective of yourself, and too often, it seems to me, we forget that cultural aspect of science…” — Lawrence Krauss, Interview on the National Public Radio, 2011.

As many accomplished scientists agree, there is a profound and enduring relationship between science and art. In a lecture, Robert Eskridge, Executive Director of Museum Education, at the Art Institute of Chicago, pointed out the nature of this relationship:

Science and art naturally overlap. Both are a means of investigation. Both involve ideas, theories, and hypotheses that are tested in places where mind and hand come together—the laboratory and studio. Artists, like scientists, study—materials, people, culture, history, religion, mythology— and learn to transform information into something else. In ancient Greece, the word for art was techne, from which technique and technology are derived—terms that are aptly applied to both scientific and artistic practices.

Today I learnt about a scientist, whose unusual art-form fascinated me and I wanted to share it with all. He is Professor Eshel Ben-Jacob, a theoretical and experimental physicist at the Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, Tel Aviv University. He holds the Maguy-Glass Chair in Physics of Complex Systems, and is a Fellow of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Frontier Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). He is an acclaimed expert in the field of self-organization and pattern formation in open and complex systems.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Professor Ben-Jacob began to study of bacterial self-organization and pattern formation, using two strains of soil bacteria, the Paenibacillus dendritiformis and the Paenibacillus vortex; he pioneered the study of the adaptive intelligence and social cooperation that these bacteria demonstrate in complex, hostile environments. Under laboratory-induced stress, these bacteria employ chemical mediators to communicate amongst themselves and cooperate in order to adapt to the stress, facilitating survival. Ben-Jacob, in collaboration with Professor Herbert Levine of the NSF Frontier CTBP, applied biophysical principles, advanced modeling, and molecular biology to unravel the mechanisms behind the bacterial cooperativity, task allocation, learning and decision-making that lead to the generation of complex patterns on artificial media – all of which have significance for both beneficial and harmful bacteria that living beings encounter.

Once these complexly patterned colonies are formed, Ben-Jacob uses simple stains, such as Coomassie Brilliant Blue, and digital color modification to produce absolutely stunning, artistic images of these bacteria. Some of these fascinating images can be seen on his gallery pages (1, 2 and 3), or as a slide show.

Paenibacillus colony morphologies, courtesy: Eshel Ben-Jacob, Tel Aviv University
All Images from Wikimedia Commons, deposited by Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob via his laboratory at the Tel Aviv university, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. A. Colony organization of Paenibacillus vortex; B. Colony generated by the Chiral morphotype of P. dendritiformis; C. Morphotype transition between the branching and chiral morphotypes of P. dendritiformis; D. colony generated by the Branching (Tip splitting) morphotype bacteria of P. dendritiformis.

Let me finish with the video of a lecture that Professor Ben-Jacob presented at Google in 2011, in which he talks about how social networks can be informed by bacterial colony morphology patterns and the cooperative information processing undertaken by them.


  1. Paige Brown

    I really like this quote: “They (Science and Art) ask the same questions… really what it (Science) does at its best is force us to reassess our place in the cosmos. Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” What do you think about that, the idea that science should have something to say on broader philosophical questions?

    I recently interviewed a group of science communicators and, interestingly, this idea came up as a theme – that science should answer broader questions of the meaning of life, the origins of life, etc. Funny that this quote says exactly that!

    • Kausik Datta

      Thank you for your considered comment, Paige. I would love for science to be able to give us definitive answers on broader philosophical questions. Unfortunately, by nature, the pursuit and scope of science are rather self-restricted. What I mean by that is, we can, of course, ask all sorts of questions, but the only questions that science is able to answer are ones that can be tested empirically, observed and analyzed. The origins of life, for the most part, would fall under the testable and falsifiable hypothesis category that science can address, but ‘who are we’ and the ‘meaning of life’ are rather dependent upon individual experiences and difficult to test objectively. Let me offer you the take by our favorite physicist, the erudite Neil deGrasse Tyson. Quoth he: “The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

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