Individual Diatoms

Individual Diatoms



Diatoms are microscopic unicellular algae and one of the most abundant groups of phytoplankton. It is estimated that they’re responsible for up to a quarter of the world’s oxygen production and almost half of the ocean’s primary organic production. Besides this biological importance, diatoms are most famous for their magnificent geometric outer skeleton made out of silica, known as a frustule. These outer shells come in a wide variety of shapes, from squares and triangles to stars and more complex geometrical shapes.

These biological shapes are a testimony to nature’s mathematical way of working that becomes more apparent when looking at her simplest creations. In fact a mathematical equation known as the superformula is able to produce many of these shapes found in nature, and when extended into 3D can produce forms that are strikingly similar to diatoms and other simple organisms. Although the relevance of the superformula is disputed with the argument that any sufficiently complicated computational model can produce such simple organic forms, it is still interesting that it is possible for us to formulate models that can mimic nature’s mechanisms. The mathematical model is but an abstraction of the naturally occuring forms, so it can tell us how existing diatoms look like but it can also give us clues to how potentially existing diatoms would look like.

Microscopes give us only a limited understanding as we can only be mere observers that cannot really interact with this world. This world as it appears under our microscopes and under our own perception of time and space is very still and silent. Even using the latest technology in electron microscopes, images take days to produce, rendering the information we receive almost static. In the digital world, we can bring these organisms into life by setting them into motion, manipulating them and changing them. As virtual digital objects we can inject them with data such as sound frequencies and watch them react or use data as virtual forces, such as wind and gravity, that can move, reproduce or “kill” these objects. In a way, we become digital “genetic engineers” – merging the digital and the biological. Using the digital tool we get a deeper experience of the phenomenon that no microscope could ever give us. We are no longer observers, but makers, architects, where we can apply our own rules but also analyse at a greater depth the inner workings of nature, and where we can immerse our selves in this invisible world of organic simplicity taking it away from the scientific context and into a more abstract/metaphysical context. Back in the Victorian era microscopists would painstakingly arrange diatoms on slides into elaborate forms and shapes, creating microscopic works of art. A digital, virtual representation of diatoms in a way is bringing the now defunct “diatom art” into the 21st century.


a-Diatomea is an artificial life system that uses various methods and notions of a-life research. The basic principle of a-Diatomea is that every aspect of it is completely mathematically generated and thus is not created purposefully as an art piece but as a complex system that takes a life of its own. There are various levels of mathematical complexity that run throughout this a-life system. At its most basic it is made up of particles that are placed within 3 dimensions randomly with a confining parameter as to how far they can spread and as to their initial number. The environment these particles exist in has constant natural forces such as wind and gravity that affect the particles. This is where a-life begins at its simplest level, as this system is now essentially an evolutionary algorithm that can run into infinity. As these particles are simple points in space, they have no attributes to differentiate them from one another and therefore react to these forces in exactly the same way. This is where diatoms come in; these artificial organisms based on actual unicellular algae and a mathematical equation known as the superformula that can produce organic forms, are attached onto the particles. The diatoms' size and form is randomised which means that now the natural forces have a different effect on them as now more complex calculations are performed that take volume and shape into consideration. Now the system is more complex but still cannot be considered as a-life but rather a system of dynamic interactions. To breathe life into these diatoms an external life-source needs to be injected in them. Using granular sounds, a type of evolutionary music, the diatoms spring to life continuously changing form. The sounds provide a continuous flow of energy that continuously changes bringing about evolution into the system. Artificial life is thus created by the interaction of the environmental conditions with the organisms' internal conditions, the life-sound that each of them carries.

In theory, this system could be left to evolve on its own leading to unpredictable results. In this short film, we are presented with 5 inititally seperate systems each with a different life-sound and various species of a-diatomea but with the same environmental conditions. A camera that is also influenced by these environmental conditions has been placed within each system to record 36 seconds of their evolution. Overview maps are presented to show the system as a whole while indicating the various interactions and dynamics that occur within each system. As the 36 second cycle progresses the seperate systems can be seen to expand in all directions merging with the other systems creating an even more complex system as 5 different life-sounds come to interact with each other. What we witness is just 36 seconds of evolution within the system and as the complexity of the system increases over time it is only left to the imagination what would happen if the system ran for days or even years. Unfortunately computers are still not powerful enough to process such elaborate calculations, but this gives us a glimpse of what computers will be able to simulate in the future, further blurring the distinction between "real" life and virtual life.

MRK // / 2008 © All Right Reservved