Design and the Elastic Mind

California Institute of Technology. DNA origami. 2004–05

Paul W. K. Rothemund
California Institute of Technology
DNA origami
2004–05 Natural and synthetic DNA molecules, 100 nanometers diam. Synthetic DNA manufactured by Integrated DNA Technologies, USA (2004–05). Courtesy Paul W. K. Rothemund.
Image by Paul W.K. Rothemund

PAOLA ANTONELLI: These printouts are dramatic enlargements of the work of Paul Rothemund. The originals of these smiley faces, maps, and other images are micro, actually nanoscopically small. In fact, Paul calls the piece DNA origami, because everything you see is made out of folded DNA strands. This is possible because of recent advances in nanotechnology.

I recently spoke with Peter Galison, a professor of history, philosophy and physics at Harvard, who coined the term “nanofacture” to describe making things on this miniscule scale.

PETER GALISON: One of the things that I think is happening now is a really quite dramatic transformation in the way the sciences are organized.

You have engineers, chemists, biologists, and physicists, all working together to study these very tiny objects that is to say, things that are at the nanoscale, which means a billionth of a meter. And making things becomes an end in itself. And that new orientation, that making things is actually part of science, and not just the application of science, is what I call nanofacture.

PAOLA ANTONELLI: Designers have always been making things. They've also been trying to adapt things that might have been either too conceptual, or of a magnitude that was not really at human scale they've been trying to adapt them for human beings. And that's where we see, in a way, design and science coming together.

PETER GALISON: And as soon as it does, then suddenly you begin to think about art works or design works in a different way.

PAOLA ANTONELLI: This is also where the idea of thinkering comes from. Thinkering is the melting together of thinking and tinkering. It’s a beautiful term coined by John Seely-Brown.

It's thinking through action thinking through making. And it's funny because there's almost joy in this particular form of making. I mean, in Paul Rothemund's work, the joy is expressed in a quite literal way with the smilies. But it really shows this attitude that making and producing is in the end, very satisfying.

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