Did you ever wonder about all of those tiny microbes around you? Well, the obsessive-compulsive side of me was delighted to participate in a workshop at Eybeam, NY, this weekend called M(y)Crobes. The project was created by The Cotard Syndicate, a group of artists and scientists, including Stefani Bardin, Toby Heys, and Siddharth Ramakrishnan. This group uses the same thinking behind the idea of the “phantom limb” to ask, “what is it that we can’t see, but is affecting us?”. To investigate, they created mini wearable Petri dishes.
The dishes are 3D printed with matching rings, which hold an acrylic lid with a tiny hole. A solution of water, agar and sugar is poured into the bottom of the dish until it starts to gel, and then seeds are sprinkled on top. I chose wildflower seeds, since I thought they were more akin to native species, however, some people chose Chia or radish, or even a fun mix. Then, as part of the initial experiment, everyone was asked to swab a bit of dust from Eyebeam and touch it a few times to their dish. This bit of matter, combined with the airborne particles coming in through the hole in the lid, should have an affect on the seeds.
After an enlightening lecture on microbes, Stefani showed some pics of biosensors that had been exposed to a friend’s front yard and back yard in Brooklyn. The front yard faced a busy street with buses, while the backyard had a wonderful garden and trees. As you may guess, the dish from the front yard had black smudges of microbes and the seeds appeared dead. The dish from the backyard looked more clear and was filled with green leaves from thriving seeds. Stefani reminded us that microbes greatly outnumber cells in our body. So, the seedlings represent us in these experiments, as little bodies surrounded by microbes.
As part of the experiment, we have all been asked to photograph and record our findings. We add a drop of water into the opening of the lid at night and then check the dish every morning. This is my dish on Day 1. You can see the clouded areas represent the dust, and there are a variety of seeds, which are actually quite interesting looking. I should mention that microbes have become art these days, and you’ll find some beautiful examples on the net. Those inspiring works made me decide to take close-ups of sections of my dish, to further record the changes. Here’s a specific grouping from Day 2. Notice the root that has already started to emerge. It’s a reminder of how quickly life changes.
The Cotard Syndicate is in the process of creating a site which should show our data. In the meantime, I’m having a ton of fun wearing an interesting necklace and posting the visual data on social media. This is all part of the movement of Citizen Science, and although it lacks the accuracy of studies done by scientists, it still holds its own value by being cost effective and by being able to hit large populations. What if people in low income housing could test their homes themselves? What if findings were graphed around the world to indicate hazardous areas? Finally, what if your own findings enabled you to help your own surroundings. There are just so many possibilities. I’m excited because I feel like my love of electronics, art and science are all coming together in an exciting way. Like the Petri dish, I don’t know what it will bring, but it is certainly exciting. So, if you feel the same, you may want to start looking at Public Lab and other groups that pursue science on the cheap. I can tell you that for this experiment, it is mega helpful to have an Adafruit USB Microscope. I got mine as a holiday present and it’s so fun to take these photos and do video. Make science your new year’s goal and check out the microbes!
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