or any line you can draw with your hand, there is an equation.” While this might sound like the words of a mathematician or a scientist, they actually come from an artist – a composer. Dr. JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, a professor of electronic music at UCSB, strives to integrate the arts with science through her work as the director of the AlloSphere Research Facility at the California Nanosystems Institute.

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The AlloSphere, a three-story spherical space in which scientific data sets are visually and aurally simulated, uses new forms of media to provide researchers with a completely immersive and interactive experience with their data. For Dr. Kuchera-Morin, the AlloSphere is a tangible representation of the immediate impact art has on society; it is an instrument of musical ensemble that, with cutting-edge technology, aids in important scientific discoveries (see sidebar).

Art Aiding Science

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In an interview with Dr. Kuchera-Morin, she explained the new possibilities the AlloSphere presents through its integration of science and art. Typically, the process of scientific observation begins with the fabrication of an experiment. Computer scientists then take the compiled data and input it into a super computer to generate some sort of simulation. The missing step here, told Kuchera-Morin, is the visualization. When scientists can see a visual representation of their data, what results is the possibility of further fabrication and opportunity for scientific discoveries previously unattainable.

This process of infusing visualizations into scientific observations is so powerful in the AlloSphere because it puts the media artist into the forefront of the data, said Kuchera-Morin. The artist has no ties to the data; so partnering them with scientists and engineers creates content-driven technology, allowing for deeper observation of the power of hard art and science together as one.

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Work in the Allosphere

Today, Dr. Kuchera-Morin and her team of researchers at the AlloSphere are working relentlessly to continue the development of the AlloSphere and the studies it produces. Kuchera-Morin also works closely with the members of the Media Arts and Technology graduate program, whom she believes are the “artists of the 22nd century.” Their work in the AlloSphere involves taking large data sets and deciding how to visually represent them. Kuchera-Morin describes it as a complex game of connect-the-dots, in which her team lines together different data points, according to their intensities, to form shapes in space. Once the data takes shape, the team can then map textures, creating a beautifully realistic visualization of the data set.
The feeling one gets from witnessing one of the AlloSphere projects is completely unforgettable. It’s immediately easy to see the significance of being able to travel through an actual human brain, or see how different organs react to the introduction of various medicines. Moreover, the art produced in the AlloSphere is equally mesmerizing. The energy flows of a hydrogen bond or the effects of “stream particles” on an electron present a new form of art that leaves its viewers gazing in wonder

Kuchera-Morin explained that while the artistic contribution to the AlloSphere Research Facility is an undeniable breakthrough in scientific research efforts, it wasn’t easy to achieve. The highly interdisciplinary nature of the AlloSphere posed some difficulties for Kuchera-Morin and her colleagues, but building a common language to work with has made it much easier to act as a team, said Kuchera-Morin. Additionally, the interactive perspective the AlloSphere offers allows the team to better understand different fields and cohesively work together.

Another obstacle the facility hopes to overcome is the issue of funding; because the AlloSphere is so expensive to operate ($600-$3,000 per hour just to have it running), there is a need to have the public more informed and involved in its development. Kuchera-Morin noted that when the AlloSphere becomes more available to the general public, donors and industry partners will emerge, ensuring the future of the AlloSphere.

Progressing Towards the Allosphere

The AlloSphere developed through the efforts of various initiatives, largely due to Dr. Kuchera-Morin’s dedicated involvement. Her work at UCSB has helped advance the university’s accomplishments in both electronic music and science.

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glossary Allosphere
After receiving her Ph.D. in 1984 from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, Dr. Kuchera-Morin came to UCSB to create a computational music facility. As a composer, the transition from music to science was very natural for her. “The computer is just another instrument,” said Kuchera-Morin. The difference, she explained, is that “you can do things with a computer that you typically can’t do with other instruments,” like changing its parameters to allow for new possible observations

With this mindset, and the goal of advancing the field of computational music, Kuchera-Morin founded the UCSB Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE) in 1986. The foundation for this center, explained Kuchera-Morin, is the notion that music is mathematics; the practice of processing waveforms allows both artists and researchers to create new forms of science and art.

Delving deeper into the field of science, Kuchera-Morin began the Digital Media Innovation Program, a state research program geared toward defining the field of computational music for California. Research efforts led to the first digital audio computer station, in which researchers could input mathematical equations into an audio domain; this development was followed by the introduction of large-scale visualizations, a leading area of research for the program. By forging relationships with other industries, the DMI program was the start of what Kuchera-Morin likes to call “content-driven technology.”

What emerged next was the need for a physical infrastructure to put forth the scientific research acquired from the DMI program. Kuchera-Morin hoped to create an information technology center, separate from DMI, on the UCSB campus. Additionally, she recognized the need for an educational program to accompany the research. Fueled by the need to develop a new programming language that could be used in various fields, Kuchera-Morin worked with colleagues from multiple fields to define the new multimedia researcher, someone who could create such a language.

The birth of the AlloSphere came when, in the early 2000’s, California Gov. Gray Davis introduced a contest in science and innovations to propose a $300 million institute for science research. With their forward-looking idea to combine nanosystems and material research, Kuchera-Morin and a colleague proposed to the governor the California Nanosystems Institute, which currently houses the AlloSphere Research Facility.

The Allosphere's Impact

The work being done at the AlloSphere is a groundbreaking display of the marriage between science and art. For Dr. Kuchera-Morin, one of the most rewarding aspects of her involvement with the AlloSphere is knowing that her expertise as an artist leaves an immediate impact on society, something that most people don’t believe artists can do. Since they are not tied to one specific field, explained Kuchera-Morin, artists offer a different intuition that helps with new scientific developments. In fact, Kuchera-Morin compared her work as an artist with that of a quantum physicist; both look to find meaning out of very complex and abstract equations. The act of sonifying those equations, she explained, is a very elegant and beautiful process.

After traveling through the virtual world inside the AlloSphere, Dr. Kuchera-Morin hopes that visitors walk away with a better understanding of the importance of the arts in the field of science. She believes that art has become rather debilitated in the U.S. – it’s merely seen as a form of entertainment nowadays. Through the AlloSphere, however, art proves to be a high form of mathematics, which allows scientists to see their data sets in the most realistic way possible.

“Data needs to be understood by the senses,” said Kuchera-Morin. This marriage of science and art, which has been so successful in the AlloSphere Research Facility, is the beginning of the rise of the “research artist.”

Although the AlloSphere is not open to the general public, the facility hosts several open houses throughout the year to educate the public on the cutting-edge developments of the AlloSphere.

Photography by Kevin Steele Photography and Paul Wellman

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