Giorgio Ascoli Interview

What inspires/motivates you?
It’s an eternal drive towards curiosity and wonder, specifically studying the brain. Since I was little, the most philosophical, elemental questions such as “what is matter and life and the mind and consciousness, and where does it come from?” It soon became clear that the fields of physics and neuroscience were drawing me. Nothing is produced without other human beings, and interaction with humans is a source of inspiration and motivation to me. The direction may be eternal, but the motivation comes from my fellow humans.

How does data affect aesthetics in your work, and vice versa?
I’ve always found the inner structures of the brain absolutely magnificent. I don’t know if I’d call them beautiful in the sense that a renaissance painting is beautiful, but they are commanding and awe inspiring on a personal level. They are certainly something that I cannot take my eyes off, they are literally attractive. In a way that’s great, science is an observation and here we are talking about the structure of a nerve, which is something that can be stared at as opposed to immaterial forces that can only be visualized. The data itself is beautiful, and that is one aspect.

Another is that my own concept of scientific understanding has included a level of creation, a part that puts elements together as opposed to analysis, which takes them apart. In this way, creating and synthesizing knowledge goes hand in hand with the traditional scientific reduction approach. I’ve always had a component of my research that creates a representative sample, something that represents a neuron without being modeled or observed in any actual neuron. In this way we capture the whole neuron, because we have a conceptual understanding of the neuron as opposed to just a model of a physical sample.

As we observed models of human neurons I became bewildered at the sheer physical imposition of these models, how incredible they were, even massive. These are structures that can span the whole structure of the human brain from the “trunk” to the “branches”, while the thickness of the “branches” is incredibly thin. To put it in perspective, if you look at a very large oak tree as the axon, while the trunk would be thinner than a toothpick. These structures are so massive, but when you look at how thin and numerous they are, there are more than ten billion of them in any one human brain. So I started taking a very small region of a mouse brain, in the hippocampus, and put one dot on a page for each neuron. I ended up with a page of tiny dots that looked gray, a huge mass of dots. And a human brain would be like an encyclopedia full of pages like that.

I was having trouble getting the images in my brain out, because I am not an artist and I was trying to get a model that represented the powerful picture in my mind. And then I heard of SOFALab, and how I could collaborate with artists, and I thought “this is it”. And at first, frankly, it was horrendous. The languages were not meshing and the product wasn’t what I had envisioned. But I was blessed to be working with the right people, and we refined our product more and more. And it still isn’t complete yet, but even now I am seeing something that I couldn’t even have imagined at first.

I think that’s how art and science can help each other, they are both dealing with powerful material and viewing it from different angles. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these sculptures must be worth a billion. I am so excited to show my colleagues the sculptures, because I know they can see the concepts behind it, and the beauty of the medium of art is that you don’t have to have a degree to understand it.

What “aha” moments have occurred in the process?
There was one clear “aha” moment that was a technical breakthrough. The solution had been staring at us so long that it had become invisible. After I had created the first couple of models and had begun working with the SOFALab, it became clear that the models I had created had to be scaled back to create axons, and to create dozens of them so that the viewer could see the space between them and envision how many there were. Twisty ties, coat hangers, and electrical wires weren’t working quite right, and I became convinced that the models needed to be soldered to capture the bifurcations of the neurons. We tried for about a year, and it was brutal, ugly, slow and not working.

The “aha” moment came when I realized that when you sculpt, you’re not putting small things together; you’re cutting away from an original block. So we took a thick wire, and cut it open to see hundreds of little copper wires. And we spread them out and manipulated them into dendrites, and it came together. Once we realized this, it became clear that it was working a hundred times better. In terms of realization and crossing a technological hurdle, before that day the project was doomed for failure, and after that it was coming together.

Another moment came when Alice came up with the idea to add colored beads to add nuance to the models, they were a very conducive idea because we have the butons in the axons that resemble the beads, and so from a scientific standpoint I was very satisfied with the addition of the beads. Even recently, we have the technology to color individual neurons in animal brains, and by adding beads to the metal threads, it’s a shocking resemblance to what one can observe under a modern microscope.

What has been most unfamiliar to you in this research process? What has made you take a second look at the process and/or product?
Everything was unfamiliar, this project was so different. But definitely the interaction with the artists, with Helen and Alice as my partners in crime, was unfamiliar. From the get-go they were thinking about the final product, whereas I was trying to make the trees before I got the forest. I think those two approaches met in the middle and we got our final product. As we were laying the groundwork, I would hear ideas and approaches that sounded absurd, and as things matured it became clear that bringing those issues up early was beneficial to the process and helped us out a lot.