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Nucleic Acids

Massive Attack’s space-age anniversary and an out-of-this-world vista

by Lisa M. Jarvis
May 18, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 21

 

A ‘Mezzanine’ for the millennia

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Credit: Courtesy of Massive Attack
Staying power: Once captured in DNA, Massive Attack’s album data will last for hundreds or even thousands of years.

According to etiquette, the modern gift for a 20th anniversary is made from platinum. Legendary trip-hop group Massive Attack might suggest a more avant-garde presentation: DNA. The musicians are marking two decades since the debut of their most celebrated album, “Mezzanine,” by storing the audio in DNA molecules.

Storing the album’s data in DNA is no small feat; Massive Attack enlisted ETH Zurich professor Robert Grass and colleagues to translate the digital code to a biological one. Because storing a CD-quality version of Mezzanine would cost nearly $500,000, Grass and his colleagues compressed the file size to 15 megabytes—a quality that would sound good on your laptop speakers but diminish on a hi-fi system. “The idea here is really to have the essence of the music captured,” to store it in perpetuity, Grass tells Newscripts.

Even with a compressed file, encoding the album data will require 920,000 short DNA strands, which will be encapsulated in 5,000 nanometer-sized glass beads for storage. That process takes several months to complete at a cost of about $1,000 per MB, but once the first copy is made, “you can make millions and trillions more” using inexpensive DNA-copying technology, Grass says.

The ability to cheaply replicate DNA means the album can live on in other ways. Massive Attack’s founding member Robert Del Naja is an artist, and Grass is exploring how to incorporate a powder containing the album’s DNA into Del Naja’s paint. Although Grass is creating the paint at Del Naja’s request, he’s excited about the intriguing questions the project raises about the distribution of information. “This enables new ways of thinking about information as a chemical.”

Meanwhile, Newscripts has to wonder if the plan will solve a long-standing art-world mystery. Rumors have swirled that the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy is actually Del Naja, raising the question: Will the DNA fingerprint of “Mezzanine” one day find its way into a Banksy installation?

 

Through the eyes of an astronaut

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Credit: Lisa Jarvis/C&EN
Ready for takeoff: Newscripts and a junior reporter try on immersive space-projection helmets.

Speaking of life’s great mysteries, Newscripts popped into Chicago’s Adler Planetarium for a special interactive exhibit that promised to give participants a taste of what it’s like to be in outer space.

Billed as the “Immersive Space Projection Helmet,” the temporary exhibit featured headgear with a curved, internal video screen designed to mimic an astronaut’s view during a space walk. The exhibit was sponsored by National Geographic as a promotion for “One Strange Rock,” a new, 10-part television series about life on earth, as told by astronauts.

Because dreaming of space travel is something that starts in childhood, Newscripts brought a kindergartner along for the interactive experience.

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The six-year-old reporter was downright giddy when it was her turn to try on the helmet, and afterward, she offered her critique. First, she submits that the experience would have been much more realistic if viewers were in a room without gravity. Fair point. Second, the heavy helmet was “a little hurty,” a description the adult viewer can corroborate. In summary, “It was fun, but I wish I didn’t miss gym class.”

The adult participant was also a little let down. Only some of the images from the four-minute video were legitimate views from space; the rest were outtakes from the Nat Geo show—gorgeous shots of earthly delights, to be sure, but not looking out of the eyes of an astronaut.

The immersive space-helmet experience might have disappointed, but a preview of the Nat Geo series did not. The first episode neatly walks the viewer through the interconnectivity of all life on Earth by tracing the path of oxygen from a salt plain in Africa, to the Amazon rain forest, to deep within the ocean, to a falling glacier in Norway’s Svalbard—all told from the perspective of an astronaut watching it unfold from space. One strange rock, indeed.

Lisa Jarvis wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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