IMPACT
09/13/2018 09:56 am ET Updated 6 days ago

Ingenious, Beautiful And Extremely Weird: Welcome To Inventors Camp

As scientific experimentation retreats to laboratories, some are trying to tempt investigators back into the wild.
Sebastian Seifert at inventors camp this summer on Koh Lon, off the coast of Thailand.
Mark Iifana
Sebastian Seifert at inventors camp this summer on Koh Lon, off the coast of Thailand.

In the spring of 1917, a young scientist named Karl von Frisch stepped onto a German hillside armed with a paint set and a beehive. He was about to embark on an experiment that would take 20 years of his life and challenge some of humanity’s deepest held assumptions about the animal world.

The experiment’s crowning achievement was to decode the “waggle dance,” an erratic performance by honey bees that had confounded scientists since Aristotle first noted the phenomenon more than 2,000 years earlier.

Von Frisch’s painstaking observations proved that the dance was, in fact, a complex communication method, allowing bees to relay the precise location of food sources many miles from their colony. This begged the question: If insects could demonstrate such intelligence, were our assumptions about animal intellect fundamentally flawed?

The discovery earned von Frisch and two fellow naturalists the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Karl von Frisch testing the ability of bees to perceive color in his home garden in Austria, 1964.
Nina Leen via Getty Images
Karl von Frisch testing the ability of bees to perceive color in his home garden in Austria, 1964.

Despite this achievement, science began to turn its back on von Frisch’s observational methods, replacing them almost exclusively with controlled experimentation in the laboratory, says Andy Quitmeyer, professor of new media at the National University of Singapore. In response, Quitmeyer, an American polymath who works with biologists and also practices installation art, engineering and filmmaking, has spent the past decade setting up field-based labs all over the world to tempt scientists back into the wild.

“There are tons of valuable things to be learned in the lab,” says Quitmeyer. “But my feeling is that it shouldn’t be the end goal.” Shipping specimens thousands of miles from the field back to the lab, for example, is problematic both for the specimens, whose behavior can be affected by the change in environment, and for the scientist, says Quitmeyer.

Inspired by von Frisch, Quitmeyer teamed up with biologist Tasneem Khan to organize a six-week inventors camp on Koh Lon, a large, mostly empty, rainforest-covered island off the coast of Phuket in Thailand. Artists, scientists and technologists were invited to propose any kind of experimentation involving the local natural environment, the only requirement being that they documented their experiment and shared the tools and results online for others to see and recreate.

Andy Quitmeyer, professor of Biology at the National University of Singapore, on Koh Lon island, Thailand.
Tristan Copley-Smith
Andy Quitmeyer, professor of Biology at the National University of Singapore, on Koh Lon island, Thailand.

The gathering, which ran from May to July, was an eccentric mix of creativity and investigation, with the resulting inventions at once ingenious, beautiful and extremely weird. Michael Candy, an Australian roboticist artist, built a tree-climbing robot from a wire brush, a repurposed drone propeller and various 3D printed parts. The robot was able to quietly scale the island’s 70-foot palm trees without disturbing animals above the difficult-to-reach canopy, feeding back live video using an onboard camera.

Daniëlle Hoogendijk, a Dutch survival expert and field researcher, built a 360-degree camera trap using waste plastic bottles, an LED flash and open-source electronics. Camping deep in the jungle in a mosquito-proof hammock, Hoogendijk was able to review 360-degree images of the animal life visiting her site, including jungle rats, iguanas and even the occasional monkey. Many such systems would cost over $700, but Hoogendijk was able to produce hers for less than $100.

Daniëlle Hoogendijk's camera trap.
Danielle Hoogendijk
Daniëlle Hoogendijk's camera trap.

Professor and exhibiting artist David Bowen managed to determine the movements of a drone using a lily plant, capturing the moves on the beach in the evening with long exposure photographs. When reviewing the photos, Bowen, whose project demonstrates an artistic side of the island’s experimentations, experienced a moment of serendipity ― the drone had drawn what looked like a tree in the sky. “I wasn’t even making that connection, like they were going to look like a plant,” he says. “I mean, that’s impossible, that’s absurd!”

It is the kind of absurdity generated on this island that can lie at the root of scientific discovery. Khan believes that modern science, in its obsessive search for distillation and specificity, leaves little space for this sort of discovery. 

David Bowen's drone drew what looked like a tree in the sky.
Umeed Mistry
David Bowen's drone drew what looked like a tree in the sky.

“If you look at all the first questions that emerged that then led to what we call science, what we call philosophy, what we call the arts, they came from the keen observation of natural processes, that then led to experiments, led to documentation, and led to further questions,” Khan says. “In the essence of it, many of us in our practice, we have forgotten the root of that way of thinking.”

Khan believes that silos of knowledge are becoming hardened. A 2014 study published in BioScience found that, despite calls for increased data sharing, the majority of environmental scientists do not make their individual data sets publicly available online. Reasons for not sharing included the lack of incentives ― particularly for early-career scientists. There is also a concern that “research parasites” will emerge ― people who use another group’s data for their own ends without contributing to the greater good.

Some scientists remain skeptical about the benefits of sharing research from an accuracy point of view, worried that inaccurate interpretations can arise from taking data too far out of context of the experiment. 

Michael Candy's robot scales a tree.
Tristan Copley-Smith
Michael Candy's robot scales a tree.

Khan and Quitmeyer, however, hope that the growth of digital naturalism and the greater culture of open science that surrounds it can help direct scientific culture in a more open and participatory direction. Their vision’s mix of the creative, experimental and bizarre may help encourage this shift from within.

“Information is cheap now. Information is everywhere,” says Khan. “What is valuable is how we share this information. … If we waste our time and knowledge in building walls around that information rather than collaborating with people who utilize that information … that is where the ego becomes bigger than the intent or outcome of the science.”

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