Creating Art from Microbes and Molecules

Maverick Joe Davis creates art—and controversy—out of bacteria, deep space transmissions, and lightning.

By Steve Nadis|Friday, March 29, 2013
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joe-davis-1

Joe Davis stands at his sculpture Galaxy: Earth Sphere, an icon at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sam Ogden

Joe Davis depresses the clutch and puts his truck in gear. The first stops on today’s tour are MIT and Harvard Medical School—the two institutions at which Davis has held research positions (mostly unpaid), serving as an unofficial artist-in-residence, free spirit, and mad scientist all rolled into one. 

Although his ’79 GMC pickup is a bit sluggish, Davis’s brain runs at one speed only and that’s overdrive. Ideas pour out of him at a breathtaking pace, and if you ask him what he’s been up to these days (as I did), you’re likely to get an earful. He tells me about experiments he’s doing at MIT with highly tempered glass that can withstand bullets and sledgehammers, yet, with subtler prodding, “explodes catastrophically.” 

He launches into a discourse about “polytractors”—plastic disks with engraved markings, modeled after familiar protractors, that he invented for drawing regular polygons. Without stopping to catch his breath, he talks about the “optical theremin” he built for an upcoming performance at MIT, based on the work of artists Elizabeth Goldring and Otto Piene. 

The theremin, an electrical instrument featured in science fiction movies, is typically operated by hand movements, but Davis’s version can also translate light signals into musical tones. “I’ll get paid for this project, but not in money I can use to buy gas or food or pay rent—just electronic equipment,” Davis notes. “It’s the same old rigmarole, but at least I get a bunch of transistors and capacitors out of the deal.” 

His mind operates on multiple tracks, at a pace that many find dizzying, but the GMC holds to its lane. The faded yellow pickup—with its old-fashioned sidewalls and antique plates—stands out from the usual crowd of Priuses, Accords, and Smart cars found in Cambridge. 

Davis does too: As a result of a motorcycle crash three decades ago, he’s got a peg leg that he sculpted himself out of an aluminum baseball bat, parts of two lamps, and a synthetic rubber stopper normally used to seal laboratory flasks. But he also stands apart in his chosen field as a scientifically driven artist whose work has never fit the confines of either art or science.

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joe-davis-2

A workbench at Davis’s home is jammed with dozens of tools, parts, and electronic works in progress.

Sam Ogden

The 62-year-old Davis is balding and of sturdy build. His intense gaze conveys both intellectual gravitas and implacability; rarely can he be swayed. He’s known worldwide as a genre-bending pioneer who has pushed art into areas—such as interstellar space and the DNA of E. coli bacteria—that it has rarely, if ever, been before, and where some say it doesn’t belong. But he’s never veered from his course, and other practitioners have since followed his lead, opening up emerging forms of expression that blur traditional boundaries between science and art. 

Davis always has a large number of projects going on at any one time—not surprising, given the rate at which ideas come to him—and he discusses some of them during our visit to his MIT and Harvard labs. In one current venture, he’s developing the capacity to eavesdrop on microscopic organisms, collecting sounds he might one day weave into an orchestral piece. 

The “audio microscope” he’s invented to do this, laid out on his Harvard desk, is built with lasers, a microscope, photocells, a receiver, and a speaker. The band OK Go is working on incorporating Davis’s audio microscope sounds into a new song.

As a tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, he is preparing to build a towering monument on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that would capture lightning and fling it back toward the heavens. The blueprints for this structure, which Davis shows me, are almost big enough to cover a wall.

Harder to visualize is Davis’s decades-long effort to create a new kind of archive, in which great works of art and literature, and the story of human history itself, can be coded in the language of DNA. Already, Davis has encoded a Goethe poem and a map of the Milky Way, all implanted into the genomes of hardy bacteria and kept in refrigerated vials at MIT and Harvard. His goal is storing important products of human enterprise that might last long after we have disappeared. 

While these undertakings may sound unrelated, Davis sees a common thread running through them. “Artists have to open up a window on the world, because art must describe everything,” he says. “Since all of our dreams will come true, somebody had better have some good ones.”

DINOSAUR DREAMS

A dream about drawing dinosaurs, which Davis had when he was about 3, got him into art in the first place. And he’s pursued that course ever since, though his road to international prominence has been anything but smooth. As a reminder of his turbulent past (and present too), Davis was recently invited to give a talk at Jefferson Davis Junior College in Gulfport, Mississippi—the same citadel of higher learning that expelled him more than 40 years ago. In fact, from grade school through college, he was tossed out of more schools than he can remember. 

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Davis makes colorful “prayer flags” printed with the code for the genetic markers of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

Sam Ogden

As an eighth grader growing up near Biloxi in 1963, Davis and his classmates were asked to reproduce a famous work of art. He threw himself into the project, doing a pastel that, by his reckoning, “turned out really well.” But rather than rewarding him for the effort, his teacher decided he couldn’t have done it himself, so she got him expelled. 

In 1965, he was suspended from high school for arguing in favor of interracial marriage at a Mississippi Youth Congress. None of his relatives or peers sympathized with that argument, nor apparently did the people who later beat him up. The experience reinforced an impression that had been dawning on Davis for years: He did not fit in with the people around him. He seemed destined for another path—that of an outsider, an iconoclast—and, sensing no good alternative, he embraced it whole hog. 

Concerned about their adolescent son, his parents sent him for a psychological evaluation. The clinician suggested some occupations to which Davis might be suited, including “scientific artist”—a field that barely existed at the time, but one that Davis would soon help to define. 

He moved closer toward that prescribed career during his years at Mount Angel College in Oregon. There wasn’t much technology to be found at this tiny liberal arts school, so Davis instead devoted himself to tasks like making teepees or building treehouses while working as a farm laborer on the side to help subsidize his education. 

But he also spent time as an undergraduate at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, after securing permission to use Bell’s high-powered lasers to etch out designs inside transparent blocks of acrylic, glass, and plastic. Davis published an article in an American Chemical Society journal about his laser-carved sculptures—which appeared in science textbooks—but the head of Mount Angel’s art department was so unimpressed, he refused to accept the sculptures for Davis’s senior project. Davis prevailed in this dispute and ultimately graduated by gaining the support of other faculty members, but it wasn’t the last time he’d be told that his creations were not art.

That refrain has followed him, intermittently, throughout his career, and it also followed him back to Mississippi, to which he returned a couple of years after finishing college in 1973. Davis settled in Gulfport, where he took on a series of uninspiring jobs—in heavy construction, and at a concrete plant and aluminum factory—while doing art on the side. 

That included making sculptures out of chrome steel from junked cars, which he put in his yard. Gulfport officials cited Davis for violating local ordinances regarding the disposition of trash and ordered him to take the sculptures down. He was spared from that fate when a new mayor, who held a more charitable view toward Davis’s artwork, took office. 

In the late 1970s, when Davis was in his late 20s, he worked as a mechanic for several years, off and on, at the Bike Barn in Gulfport and later in nearby Biloxi, rebuilding Harley-Davidson bikes from the ground up. It was at this establishment, where he claims to have a “lifetime scholarship,” that he gained much of his technical training. 

He assembled alternators and generators, installed spark plugs, adjusted “lifters” (for manipulating valves), and milled the cylinders in engine blocks, in the process learning to use calipers, drill presses, welders, lathes, and other tools. He familiarized himself with electrical systems, hydraulic systems, and exhaust systems, “all of which get integrated into a marvelous, smoothly operating machine,” Davis says.

LIGHTING THE SKY FOR NASA

Although he enjoyed working on bikes, Davis had bigger things on his mind. In 1977 he heard about NASA’s Getaway Special program, through which qualified individuals could rent cargo space and run experiments on the space shuttle. At first, Davis says, “I sent NASA so many ideas they couldn’t get rid of me by rejecting just one.” 

But he quickly learned that NASA would dismiss an art proposal out of hand unless it had sufficient scientific merit. He tried to think of an idea that would relate the vast scales associated with the shuttle, which orbited the Earth at an altitude of about 200 miles, with a dazzling effect that could be seen from the ground. Upon reading a technical paper about creating a “pillar of light” by discharging an electron gun in a vacuum chamber, he started thinking about doing something similar in space, only on a much grander scale. 

Specifically, he proposed that an electron gun mounted to the shuttle would excite atoms in the upper atmosphere, thereby creating artificial northern lights. Based on his calculations, the display would be a column of greenish-white light, about 15 times the size of a full moon, that would periodically be visible as the shuttle circled the globe. 

The electron gun he later built with scientific colleagues was roughly the size of a beer can, emitting electrons when an internal cathode was heated. “It’s amazing,” Davis commented at the time. “That little thing’s got all the electrons you need to light the Earth on a global scale.” 

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Davis displays the colorful disks he calls polytractors, which he invented to create multisided shapes like hexagons and octagons. 

Sam Ogden

He called the project Ruby Falls, naming it after a roadside attraction in Tennessee he’d visited as a child. Amazingly, NASA went for the idea, and in 1982 Davis became the first person to sign a launch agreement with the agency for putting an art installation on the space shuttle. (The project never flew for want of funds—a $15,500 shortfall to be precise—but that doesn’t diminish his bureaucratic victory, or the excitement that he felt at the time.) 

By now Davis yearned for colleagues to exchange ideas. Through his reading of the popular science literature, he’d heard about a group of people at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) who were into outlandish things like space art. Eager to talk with them, he headed to Cambridge that year, intent on meeting CAVS director Otto Piene. 

When he arrived—from Mississippi by way of New York—Piene’s secretary informed him that her boss would not have any time for him, a point she’d already explained over the phone. Sensing some resistance, she told Davis that if he didn’t leave, she would call the police. 

Unwilling to give up that easily, he started trashing her desk, tossing papers into the air. When she asked him what he was doing, Davis said, “If you’re going to call the cops, they’ll at least have something to arrest me for—or you’re going to give me my three minutes.” She conferred with Piene, who called off the police and agreed to give Davis the three minutes he requested. 

Those three minutes extended into an hour, during which time Davis told him about Ruby Falls, and showed him the launch agreement, the blueprints, and the engineering, while also mentioning some plans he had involving lightning. At the end of that conversation, Piene asked his secretary to fill out the appointment forms to make Davis a CAVS lecturer and research fellow. Later that day, Davis gave a presentation to the other fellows, thus fulfilling his wish for some collegiality with folks whose interests extended beyond two-wheeled vehicles.

FISHING IN THE NORTON RINGS

Davis has been at MIT ever since, spending most of that time as a “research affiliate” in the lab of biologist Alexander Rich. In 2010, he became an “artist-scientist” in the lab of synthetic biologist George Church at Harvard Medical School while maintaining his MIT ties. The projects he’s conceived at either or both campuses represent wild flights of fancy that combine his interests in advanced technology and cutting-edge science with his idiosyncratic aesthetic impulses. 

In 1986, for example, Davis used MIT’s Millstone Hill Radar to broadcast the vaginal contractions of Boston Ballet dancers into deep space—specifically targeting Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, and two other sunlike stars. Radio transmissions continued for 20 minutes until the U.S. Air Force, the radar facility’s primary user, shut them down. 

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joe-davis-5

Davis confronts his stone and steel self-portrait on MIT’s campus. Among the sculpture’s parts are nose cones taken from heat-seeking missiles and a spine made from a propane manifold.

Sam Ogden

That same year, Davis and a Harvard collaborator synthesized a DNA molecule, encoding a sketch of the naked female form, that was later transferred to the DNA of live bacteria. This tied into Davis’s broader vision for storing information about humanity, and life on Earth, in bacterial spores that might someday be distributed throughout the cosmos. 

That’s partly why he was motivated to secure a second launch agreement with NASA in the late 1990s to go “fishing” from the space shuttle for “unidentified biology” in the so-called “Norton Rings”—a presumed stream of urine and feces dumped from spacecraft and now orbiting Earth. (It’s named after sewage worker Ed Norton from The Honeymooners.) Davis’s interest was not scatological but rather an investigation into the hardiness of life in deep-space environments. (A funding shortfall, once again, kept the fishing trip grounded.) 

In a 2009 foray into extraterrestrial communications, Davis commandeered the world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to transmit the genetic code of Earth’s most abundant protein, which is essential to photosynthesis, to three nearby stars. 

The message basically said, “Here’s a list of amino acids that can tell you a lot about life on our planet.” It ties in with the more general idea he hopes to convey through his various efforts. Simply put, he’s attempting to lay bare the essence of what it means to be human and explain what our world is really like. “The celebratory messages that we concoct are mostly lies,” he says. “They’re about what we want to be, not what we are.”

Davis is trying to redress that shortcoming with his version of artistic straight talk. And he’s struck a chord. His accomplishments have earned him the acclaim of numerous art critics, artists, and scientists. Art historian James Elkins has called Davis “the most interesting living artist.” 

Harvard biologist Jay Lee considers Davis “much more insightful and wise than many scientists. I see Joe as a scientist ahead of his time, unconstrained by the traditional baggage of science, rather than as an artist who merely enlightens or entertains.”

Davis has lectured all over the world, taught at MIT and the Rhode Island School of Design, and held visiting appointments at the University of Washington, the University of Toronto, the Athens School of Fine Arts in Greece, and Bauhaus University in Germany. 

He’s been featured on Nightline and The Colbert Report and written up in international science journals. He won the gold prize (“golden nica”) in the 2012 Ars Electronica international cyberarts competition for his work on “bacterial radio,” and he was a 2012 finalist for a World Technology Award in the Arts. 

He’s also the subject of a full-length film, Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis, which was named best feature documentary at the 2012 San Francisco Independent Film Festival. One San Francisco viewer called the movie “a fantastic story about a fantastical character who is so real and totally surreal all at once. It’s a glimpse into a madness of brilliance—or is it a brilliance of madness. Either way … I am in awe.” 

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST

None of this recognition has afforded Davis anything resembling a comfortable life in the usual sense. Despite his affiliation with two of the world’s premier research centers, where he has access to fantastic
technological resources and is surrounded by immense wealth, Davis, himself, is destitute. 

Unlike his scientific peers, he doesn’t receive a salary from MIT and Harvard, and he is forced to cover much of the material costs for his sometimes-grandiose projects. On a more mundane level, he struggles to pay the rent or buy gas and food, barely scraping by with some grant money, fees for lectures and teaching, and occasional art sales (tough given the conceptual nature of his work), along with a weekly dishwashing stint at his favorite Cambridge pub, the Plough and Stars (where he’s also called upon to recite his poetry). 

He’s been evicted from several apartments, forcing him, at times, to sleep in his car, truck, or on other people’s couches. Last year he came close to giving up his apartment and moving in with relatives in Mississippi (who weren’t apprised of his fallback plans). On different occasions, he’s lost his personal lab and studio space at MIT—all without appreciably deterring him from his agenda. “Yes, I live close to the edge,” Davis admits, “and maybe that’s the only way because what I do is on the edge.”

Yet he refuses to let small details like money hold him back. “If I waited for the money to come in, I’d never get anything done,” Davis says. So he doesn’t wait and doesn’t stop but, instead, keeps forging ahead, pursuing his dreams and, in the process, redefining what it means to be an artist. “The system wasn’t designed to support someone like me,” he says. “I exist in spite of it. That I can pull this off, that I can find a way to keep following through on my ideas, that’s got to be considered kind of hopeful, don’t you think?” 

Meanwhile, the ideas keep pouring in. “I have a great to-do list that grows every day,” he adds, exuberantly. “I think I know how to make photographs with pond water!” 

See a sampling of Davis's many projects on the following page and in the gallery below.

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microvenus-1

The Pioneer plaque that was sent into space in the 1970s.

NASA
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microvenus-2

Davis and his colleague, Dana Boyd, synthesized DNA molecules to render an anatomical detail that was not included on the Pioneer plaque.

Joe Davis

Microvenus

Davis created this piece in response to the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes, dispatched to explore the solar system in 1972 and 1973, respectively. Each probe carried a plaque containing information about our civilization, including nude images of male and female humans in which the female genitalia were absent. That’s what ticked Davis off. 

“It’s almost as if they sent a picture of man and Barbie Doll into deep space,” he says. 

In Microvenus, the first artwork made using recombinant DNA technology, Davis tried to set the record straight. In 1986, he and Harvard biologist Dana Boyd synthesized a DNA molecule that contained instructions—in the form of a code composed of the four bases that make up DNA—for creating a figure that looks like a capital Y superimposed over the letter I. 

This graphic icon, according to Davis, “is identical with an ancient Germanic rune … used to represent life and the female Earth” and “can also be taken as a representation of the female human genitalia,” the part that the Pioneer plaques curiously left off. Nearly two years later, he and Boyd successfully inserted this piece of synthetic DNA into the genes of a live strain of E. coli bacteria, which soon reproduced into billions of copies, making Davis and Boyd, arguably, the most prolific artists on the planet.

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hurling-hurricanes

Bolts of lighting spark from a 1/10th-scale model of Call Me Ishmael.

Joe Davis

Hurling at Hurricanes

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, wiping out homes and livelihoods in the part of Mississippi where Davis grew up, he vowed to build a 106-foot-tall sculpture to commemorate hurricane victims and inspire survivors. 

The monument he conceived represented an act of defiance—a way of standing up to the wrath of nature, and lightning in particular, flinging it back toward its source. Dominating Davis’s design are three vertical aluminum masts, which act not only as lightning rods but also as electrodes that discharge energy into the long, narrow cavity bounded by them. 

Inside this cavity, nitrogen molecules from the air will be electrically excited and induced to beam light toward the heavens primarily at a single ultraviolet wavelength (337.1 nanometers). “The hurricane is like Moby Dick, and this sculpture is like Ahab grabbing onto the storm and hurling energy back into the sky,” explains Davis, who dubbed the project Call Me Ishmael. But will it work? 

Davis got some corroboration in December 2008 when he tested a small-scale version of the device, producing evidence of ultraviolet laser emissions while using the Boston Museum of Science’s multimillion-volt Van de Graaff generator as the power source. The next step will be to see if it works when the power source is an actual lightning bolt, delivering 100 million volts and up.

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spinning-gold

Silkworm cocoons, in the process of making silk. Will gold be next?

istock

Spinning Gold

When Davis arrived at Harvard Medical School in 2010, he became intrigued by a then-current investigation into the material properties of natural silk. That effort was abandoned when the researchers found their attentions diverted elsewhere. Davis took over the project, spinning it in a new direction. In particular, he wanted to induce the silkworms to make gold. 

“It’s about the romance of making dreams come true,” he explains. “It’s magical; it’s alchemy; it’s the Rumpelstiltskin story without taking the firstborn.” 

His collaborators at the Transgenic Silkworm Research Unit in Tsukuba, Japan, have taken a gene used by sea sponges to form glass skeletons from silica, and introduced it into a silkworm strain. Davis believes that if you feed the genetically modified silkworms metals such as gold, they will incorporate it into the structure. 

He plans to test that concept as soon as transgenic silkworm eggs can be shipped from his Japanese colleagues. In the meantime, he’s preparing an incubator for the eggs and price-shopping for mulberry leaves, the caterpillar’s preferred food. Davis is hoping to reach a kind of quid pro quo: If he keeps the silkworms happily fed, with a diet rich in minerals, maybe they’ll spin him some gold.

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supercode

Davis displays a small model of his Riddle of Life, synthesized DNA in which he encoded the message: "I am the riddle of life; know me and you will know yourself."

Sam Ogden

Sending the Human Story into Space

At the heart of Davis’s mission is a big dream: He wants to develop mobile biological archives that can reveal virtually everything there is to know about humans, safeguarding the information in durable containers that could outlive humankind. He realized that self-reproducing bacterial spores—which can withstand vacuum conditions and extremes of temperature and radiation—might provide the perfect vessels. 

Propelled by attached solar sails or just floating free, these information-laden spores could conceivably travel beyond the solar system, offering a new form of interstellar communication. “Hundreds of billions of copies of a message can be cheaply and conveniently produced for hundreds of billions of target stars,” Davis says.

That’s a long-term proposition, and maybe just a pipe dream, since he has no plans for releasing recombinant organisms into the terrestrial environment or outer space. For now he’s focused on devising increasingly sophisticated ways of encoding information in biologically secure carriers—a 25-year-long venture that has become his life’s work.

In 1993 and 1994, while working with colleagues at the Free University of Berlin and at MIT, Davis synthesized DNA containing the message, “I am the riddle of life; know me and you will know yourself,” which was originally penned in 1958 by the Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist Max Delbrück. 

The next breakthrough came around 2000, when Davis created one of the largest DNA molecules (“Milky Way DNA”) ever synthesized up to that time. He also invented a new technique for this effort called “supercode,” which was designed to handle larger, more complex data sets, enabling him to compose his DNA poems and histories on the computer first.

One challenge Davis faced was that DNA sequences stored in microbes for artistic purposes, but serving no biological function, would quickly be destroyed by the host. Davis got around the problem by putting messages into so-called “conserved genes” necessary to an organism’s survival, thereby ensuring their preservation. 

He has even come up with a way to insert messages as a sort of binary code. That’s possible, says Harvard biologist and Davis collaborator Dana Boyd, thanks to codons—essential parts of genes consisting of three DNA segments called nucleotides, which initiate synthesis of proteins in the cell. Some codons overlap in function, providing redundancy to protect the organism. 

This makes it possible to use codons to write messages, while still keeping the microbe viable and intact. To inscribe a message, Davis has come up with a simple binary code—not unlike the binary code powering computers—by letting one codon represent 0 and the other represent 1, picking and choosing between them at will. 

“The gene still maintains its function, but it also has a poem in it,” Boyd explains. “We’re inserting information through a loophole in nature.” Employing this method, Boyd wrote a Wallace Stevens stanza into a gene, while Davis did the same with a Goethe poem. 

Davis found that he could write longer passages by finding hidden space within genes to put a message and finding hidden space within that message, and so on. In his first application of “DNA manifolds,” Davis took a passage from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, most of whose work is lost, and implanted it in a fruit fly gene (though not into the fly itself), using eight different layers to enter the text in full. 

With this multilayer approach, “you can insert several messages simultaneously, while preserving nature’s original message,” he says. “It’s like being able to paint on so many levels. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done!”

While this effort is highly technical, Davis says his motives are strictly poetic. “There are no genes for hope, love, and other things that make us human. I want to write these things back into the biological world for the same reason we’ve built monuments in the past. The goal is to preserve the essence of humanity and explain who we are—not only our greatest achievements but also our greatest failures. No matter what cultural revolutions befall us, no matter what jihad is waged, they won’t be able to destroy this knowledge.”

Eavesdropping on Microbes

In the late 1990s, a medical student who’d just done fieldwork in the Ecuadorian Amazon met with Davis at MIT. She’d heard from a shaman that a plant sang differently, depending on whether it took root in a valley or on a mountain. 

She asked Davis if he knew how to distinguish between those sounds. That’s not the sort of question you hear every day, and it inspired him to invent the “audio microscope,” a device for eavesdropping on protozoa and other minute creatures.

Davis modeled his concept after Alexander Graham Bell’s photophone. The basic approach is to shine lasers onto a mirror-like slide containing microorganisms that vibrate in a liquid solution. The light is reflected off the slide to a microscope, which magnifies the image and sends it to a detector, where the pattern of light received is converted first to an electrical signal and then into sounds derived from the vibrations. 

Davis first tested his device on brine shrimp and “got a signal that blew my mind.” It works with microorganisms too. Using his microscope, he can tell the differences among paramecia, nematodes, and rotifers strictly by the sound they make—a feat he demonstrated on national TV. “Someday I’d like to stage an opera or symphony incorporating these sounds,” Davis says. He also wants to listen to plants, and his first candidate could be a potted mulberry tree at Harvard.

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