All posts by Peter Musk

13 Ways to Start a Fire

Humans have been using fire to change landscapes, cook food and keep the dark away for years, but for a portion of time, natural sources like lightning and volcanoes were the only source. When stone tool-making taught us about friction, and twine-making gave a way to harness this effect, humans began to make fire, as well as manage it. There are at least a half-dozen variations on rubbing sticks together to make a fire, and our upcoming workshops at The Planting will provide an opportunity for participants to have a go at any, or all of them. Be prepared for a test of patience, a feat of physical endurance and a growing understanding that before a triumphant howl of delight, when smoke turns to flame, that all wood is not the same!

13 ways to start a fire

Physics declares that all forms of energy are interchangeable, and kinetic energy is not the only form available – sunlight can be coaxed into conflagration with a lens made from glass, water or even ice, and curved mirrors work too. You can channel your inner McGyver and try polishing the bottom of an aluminium beverage can to make a focussing mirror, but be warned that a steady hand is required (which may determine the sort of beverage container you choose to empty!).

Chemical energy can start fires, as well as fuel them, and a few favourite combinations will be on hand to try too. And, for the determined survivalists, the opportunity to try capturing sparks struck from steel (we will even supply the rocks to make your own flints). But,  be warned, 30 minutes of hard striking is not unusual for this method to produce a result! A few of Bear Grylls’ better kept secrets may be revealed, along with the truth about modern ‘flint’ lighters.

Of course, to keep the fire growing once it has started, you will need a welcoming nest of nice dry tinder, and probably the most crucial part of the workshop will be to learn how to make charcloth. This stuff is easily made from rags, and has a low ignition point as well as a slow rate of burn, which makes it the perfect beginning for your own bespoke bonfire.

You may be frustrated, skin a knuckle or two, and work up a sweat, but you are in for a smoking good time.


Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 5

HOW? TEST, EXPLORE and EXPERIMENT

Q.
Peter, for some of us (actually, me in particular) we wouldn’t know where to start in order to grow a chair from mushrooms.

Can you tell me, how did you approach the idea of growing a mushroom into chair? And, in your test phase, what has worked and what hasn’t worked?

 

A.
Wood fungi are easy to grow – they only need a bit of glucose (I used brewing sugar with added malt) and watery mashed potatoes (for the starch, and trace elements). I tried potato starch, but found that dried, instant mash worked best. It was easy to slice out a part of the fungus and get it growing on an agar plate with these nutrients, and recently I have found that it grows readily in a liquid medium (without the agar) too. However, the most important (and frustrating) thing, is to do this without growing all the other fungi whose spores float around in the air all the time. Contamination has been my biggest challenge!

I have tried a variety of methods to reduce contamination – swabbing everything with bleach or alcohol (methylated spirits works fine and doesn’t ruin your clothes), sterilizing growing media and bottles in a pressure cooker, and working in a clean, closed environment (actually an inverted plastic storage box with a door cut into it that I wipe down with alcohol). So far, it works some of the time, but fungi just want to grow, and contamination is still a problem. This is the reason for the mysterious serial killer style plastic sheeted clean room that I am growing the prototype chair in – it was easy to start clean, and easy to keep out unwanted visitors. Inside the room I built a large incubator: a 1.2m cube made from styrofoam sheets with a thermostat controlled heater to keep things under their preferred conditions.

Once I had some starter cultures established, I transferred them to sterilized wood shavings, and after a few weeks, I was rewarded with lots of growing mycelium (it looks like cotton wool coating everything). Suitably encouraged, I made a chair mould, sterilized several litres of wood shavings, and inoculated the lot with my mycelium cultures. I’m now at the stage of waiting with fingers crossed for growth to become visible. Soon you’ll be able to follow the exciting (but slow) experiment via the live web cam (some would ask “why?”… we say, “why not!”). But, if you thought watching grass grow was slow, we’ll bet this is even slower!

 


Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 4

CHOOSING THE RIGHT FUNGI

Q.
We’ve talked about biofabrication, asked the question Why?, and delved into the beautiful design of the chair, but what’s missing is the key ingredient – the fungi!

Peter, I imagine the type of fungi is vital in the success of this chair. Can you tell me what fungi you’ve chosen, why you choose it, where it comes from and, is it safe?

 

A.
I needed a fungus that would thrive on wood shavings, since filling The Edge with manure would probably have ended things rather quickly! I also wanted to grow something robust and strong. I remembered seeing brightly coloured bracket fungi growing on dead logs while walking the dog through the forests on the Sunshine Coast. It became apparent how tough this fungi was when I tried to prise some off to take home and place artistically in the garden (as you do).

A quick search of my backyard turned up a few likely prospects, and I knocked them off their logs, took them into The Edge and started growing them on agar plates. Agar is a jelly like stuff made from seaweed, which keeps things moist and can be mixed with whatever food source you require. They took off! Fungi just want to grow, it seems.

Once I had them growing, I scoured Fungimap to find out what they were, and sent my preliminary ideas to a kind expert at the Queensland Herbarium. He confirmed that I had cultures of Pycnoporus coccineus which is a beautiful orange bracket fungi, and Laetiporus portentosus which is a very robust and tough white one – so tough, that Aboriginal people used this fungi as tinder to start fires that could be carried and moved, and would smoulder all day. I felt I was onto a winner!

The third one turned out to be Schizophyllum, it grew the fastest, but unfortunately not a fungi that we’d like to keep around at The Edge. Schizophylum is being used by some European designers for their biofabrication experiments, but they have managed to get hold of a sterile form, with no potential health problems.

The Pycnoporus is used in industry (they extract enzymes from it to make beer), and shows even some promise in detoxifying contaminated soils – it eats PCBs apparently. This is the one I am concentrating on now, mainly because I like the colour.

 

Image Credit: Arthur Chapman “Pycnoporus coccineus (Orange Bracket)


Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 3

CHOOSING THE CHAIR DESIGN

Q.
Coming from a design background, we often throw around the phrase ‘form follows function’.
Peter, how did you come up with this design? Is it functional and what makes it superior to other designs?

 

A.
Form does follow function in effective design, but when you move from concept to concrete, then you also have to think of practical problems related to materials – strength, flexibility and cost all have an impact on the final product.

McLay designWhen I was thinking about how to use a fungal mycelium (which is the name for the body of the fungus, rather than the mushrooms which are really like flowers, since they are fungal reproductive organs), a few preliminary experiments gave me a feel for the properties of the material. It’s light, soft and fairly strong, but more fragile than wood or steel. A key advantage of using this grown material is that it will expand to fill the available food source; it is more mouldable than joinable.

The next factor in choosing a design was that we wanted to reference something Australian, since the mushroom came from my Australian back yard. A bit of Googling later, and I chanced upon the Kone chair design of Roger McLay; a significant Sydney designer of the late 20th Century. McLay produced a beautiful, simple and innovative design in response to the materials constraints immediately after the Second World War. He moulded plywood left over from building Mosquito bombers – which were the last wooden framed aircraft in wide use – into a simple, strong and comfortable shape. His ideas exemplified the growing modernist movement, and can still be seen in the bucket chairs on many verandahs today.

I felt that this design was able to show the potential for fungal biofabrication; it is much easier to grow the chair in a mould than steam, bend and glue the plywood. It also reflects the recycling ethos that inspired McLay, only I use wood shavings instead of surplus plywood. It is reputedly very comfortable (good for doing knitting apparently), and lastly, I really love the shape!

 

Image Credit: http://from.ph/200802

 

If you missed the first part of this series, read Part One and Part Two here:
Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 1

Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 2


Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 2

THE BIG QUESTION: WHY!?

Q.
Peter, some people (well, actually most people!) may be wondering… why grow a chair made of fungus? Can you tell us a little bit about the back story, and is this something The Edge has tried before?

 

A.
Well at least that is easier to answer than why a duck!

There are a couple of reasons for growing a chair. Firstly, making something functional using fungal mycelium and wood shavings epitomises the sustainability benefits of this technology. Nothing toxic, no expensive equipment or exotic ingredients required; and the end product is inherently biodegradable, so no waste problems. Plus, a chair is something everyone recognises, most everyone owns, and is widely used.

Other groups have made more exotic devices like a biodegradable drone, or simpler things, like bricks, or decorative objects like lampshades. But, making a mundane, useful object in an entirely new way hopefully illustrates the usefulness of biofabrication. It also demonstrates how these techniques can be applied now, in everyday life – growing a chair demonstrates the strength and flexibility of the material.

And, the final reason for choosing to grow a chair is that it has not been done at The Edge before. We like to push the boundaries and this is one way of doing just that.

If you missed the first part of this series, read it here:
Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 1


Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 1

It may sound like an odd combination, living organisms, a secret room and a chair, but we promise you there’s an interesting explanation. Cue The Edge’s Science Catalyst, Dr Peter Musk. We spent some time in the lab with Peter this month exploring fungi, algae and kombucha. But, what’s so special about these living organisms and the materials they produce? Plenty! Because, we’re growing a chair!

In a series of conversations with the doctor, we will unravel the details behind this mysterious chair, from the use of sustainable new materials, to the design, what’s gone wrong, what’s worked, how we can try this at home, and the big question… why?

First up on this journey, we chat with Peter about a new movement in sustainable design, biofabrication: The design of sustainable new materials and fabrication of functional objects using living organisms.

Q.

Peter, I feel there is a new craze on the horizon. What can you tell me about Biodesign and Biofabrication and is it something anyone can do?

A.

Firstly, this is not a mirage – unlike many innovations in technology, this horizon does not recede as you approach it, in fact, it’s rushing to meet you in your everyday life!

To me, Biodesign and Biofabrication are linked, but different concepts. Biodesign looks to the natural world for design solutions to human problems. For example, imitating the grooved structure of sharkskin in the design of ships, to reduce drag and make the ships more efficient, this is also called bio-mimicry. Bio-mimicry uses biological materials to solve problems, like adding slimy plant gums to fluids, which in turn reduces friction by up to two thirds when they are pumped through pipes.

Biofabrication (or Biofacture) has been around for a while in the advanced medical field, where 3-D printing using various cells, has been used to make replacement body parts – and now, you can even get a Masters in Biofabrication at QUT. But, it is only recently that the field has exploded to cover a wider range of systems. New ideas are emerging where we can find applications for the particular properties of grown materials to make useful things. Useful things like growing coloured algae to dye clothes, growing packaging materials from fungi and straw, or experimenting with ways to use the cellulose produced by kombucha bacteria to make clothing. (Excuse me for shamelessly promoting The Edge in that last link).

I think this is more than a craze though, because these techniques are often more sustainable than traditional manufacturing. In many cases, the raw materials used are organic wastes, or can be grown themselves. Additionally, the finished products are inherently biodegradable, since they are part of the natural environment. Having a replacement for styrofoam packaging that you can compost in your garden, grown from agricultural waste, ticks a lot of green boxes, and will not be affected when the price of oil goes up again.

In my opinion, the most exciting aspect of this whole movement is that these new materials don’t require a million dollar factory to produce them. Anyone can grow fungi at home (check those leftovers in the back of your fridge, if you don’t believe me!), and algae or kombucha are only a bit fussier. This puts the cutting edge of materials research and design into the hands of any citizen who wants to play with it. And to me, it seems that the more people who explore this territory and imagine things they could do with this stuff, the more elegant solutions that will emerge. We can all be part of the solution, with just a little research and a willingness to experiment. If you’re interested to know more about this process, and want to be kept in the loop of any potential talks or workshops, email me here at The Edge, and we’ll keep you posted.


Trust me, I’m a hacker.

Trust me, I’m a hacker.

The first thought I had when asked about setting up a lab to hack life as we know it was: (as you would expect) cool! How much fun would that be! Soon followed by a second thought: I wonder if The Edge has enough insurance to cover me if something goes horribly wrong, and causes the replacement of the planet’s biota with bespoke bugs that glow in three different colours.

Googling soon found a code of biohacker ethics that prescribes respect for the living environment, only using biotechnology for peaceful purposes and remembering that you don’t know everything (though this last one was only adopted in Europe, and not America). No evidence of a list of prescribed penalties, but becoming the likely first victim of your own creation is probably sanction enough. Strangely, I couldn’t find a binding code for the military industrial complex, just lots of earnest discussion and references to a ‘disposition matrix’ of stealth drones, weaponised toxins and other black ops to deal with their problems.

In reality, the truly nasty beasts are only available to the governments that seem most concerned about citizens playing around in their petri dishes, trying to create bugs that remove plastic waste from the oceans, or startle their friends with luminescent lifeforms. And we all know how bound by ethics and safety such organisations are, as the anthrax scare of 2001 demonstrated. The closest anyone has yet come to making the fear campaigns come true by manufacturing superbugs was in 2002 when researchers (funded by DARPA) synthesised the polio virus, and in 2005 when Science (not exactly renowned as the champion of DIYbio) reported that the Spanish flu virus from 1918 (already responsible for the deaths of over 20 million people) had been recreated in a lab.IMAG0351

On the other hand, the organisms available to biohackers are crippled bacteria, incapable of surviving without special nutrients rarely found in nature. Even the basic requirement to keep cultures isolated from contamination naturally works against them escaping to the environment. The genetic building blocks provided by BioBricks could recombine in unfortunate ways, but they could also be used to create suicide mechanisms triggered when a construct’s population reached a critical size. And nature already does a pretty good job of creating drug-resistant superbugs, among other nasties (as the expert opinion opposite shows — click the picture to make it easier to read).

 

It seems to me that the real ethical choice is between secret and government, or open-access and public. Or between Craig Venter and the Microbesoft approach of attempting to patent life, and Biobricks open-source, peer-mediated hacking community. I know which one I would rather trust.


Dreaming of electric sheep

It is no surprise that in our tech-saturated age, the Cyborg has become a potent theme of terror as well as a hope for transcendence. While Terminators, Cylons and Daleks provide the thrills, bionic ears, eyes and mind-operated artificial limbs hint at a coming future of extraordinary medical miracles.

Some go further — from the restorative to the enhancing. Implant a chip under your skin, and wave to open doors or pay bills. Insert a magnet into your finger-tips, and explore a new sense. UK cybernetic researcher Dr Kevin Warwick was the first person to use an implanted microelectronic array to communicate directly with another human nervous system (after convincing his wife to join him in this experiment). He was subsequently awarded several DSc’s, the Mountbatten Medal and got into the Guinness Book of Records.

A variety of animals have had the treatment, too, though they were probably not volunteers. CyberCockroaches are available (still in Beta, though), and beetle bots might provide DARPA with the ultimate spy-drone. Rumours persist that the US military is developing controllable attack dolphins sharks. Animal rights activists have raised protests, but the idea of a cockroach that you can control from your smartphone is stupidly appealing.

Humans who have made the leap from fiction to flesh, like Neil Harbisson (below),Neil_Harbisson_cyborgist (1) who has an implanted antenna that allows him to hear colours (even some that other humans can’t see) are enthusiastic about their new abilities. The Cyborg Foundation exists to promote their cause, and useful additions like eyes in the back of your head, and bat-like sonar sensors that allow you to feel how fast a speeding projectile is headed in your direction. Seems like they might be expecting some antipathy.

And there is the argument that most of are cybernetically enhanced already, though the device is often in your hand, rather than your skull. Mobile devices plug us into the information net, extend our senses and our memories. Software is more accessible than wetware, and less conspicuous.

I am not too worried as long as things remain voluntary (unlike the Daleks). Fixing a misplaced eye or two, or reviving hearing after too many loud good times seems a good idea, and a mechanical heart seems preferable to recycled pig bits. I might leave communication with my partner to more filtered channels, though.


Deus ex

 

Ghosts are in the news. In fact ghost stories are such good news that the tabloids average one a week: from being to blame for the poor performance of English cricketers, to brutally attacking intrepid journalists. Colin Wilson, vice-president of the Ghost Club Society, knows ghosts are real Capture no2because he has spoken to one. Almost half of US citizens agree, apparently. You can get an app for your phone that uses secretly inbuilt capacities to inform you when ectoplasmic organisms are around, and also lets them leave a message. And now the pesky spooks are even interrupting important rituals of caffeine worship.

Science takes a different view. The NSF blames belief in ghosts for poor decision-making, monetary loss and  the decline of the Protestant work ethic. Dr Richard Wiseman has devoted a lifetime to researching beliefs in the paranormal, and concludes that  ghostly visitations are more likely to be due to draughts, chills, sub-sonic vibrations or being half-asleep. Other researchers have found that electric or magnetic fields can affect particular parts of the brain, leading to sensations of otherworldly presences. It could be that people want to believe in ghosts as part of clinging to the hope that they too will continue after death (an even more popular idea than the existence of ghosts).

So can ghosts be real? There is no doubt that my experiences with ghosts have been all in the brain. Ghosts of friends long lost and relatives past live on in my (rapidly) fragmenting memory, and most likely the only hope for my ghost is to live on in the brains of others, too.