The True Story of the Hurricane Katrina Lightning-Laser Memorial and the Peg-Leg Biologist

The True Story of the Hurricane Katrina Lightning-Laser Memorial and the Peg-Leg Biologist

Joe Davis is telling me about his design for a 110-foot lightning-laser tower that will literally seize a hurricane’s force, bottle it up and hurl it angrily back into the sky. It’s intended as a memorial for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Davis—whose official role at MIT is research affiliate associate in the biology department—plans to name the tower “Call Me Ishmael.” I ask him why, but before I finish the question, he smashes his steel peg leg down onto the table.

Good answer.

When Davis’ proposed 33.5-metre memorial lightning tower is finished, it will be only the most recent instance of his lifelong unusual art-science repertoire. As a younger lad, he caught single-cell organisms using full-sized fishing tackle, built an ornithopter powered by real electrically stimulated frog legs, and in the 1980s became the first man to transmit the sound of a contracting vagina into space.

Davis put together the vagina compilation to protest Carl Sagan and Frank Drake’s curious (and arguably sexist) omission of female genitalia from the images included in the famous Arecibo message, a signal beamed toward the Great Cluster in 1974, and the Pioneer and Voyager plaques:

In response, Davis recorded the vaginal contractions of the Boston Ballet (don’t ask how), translated them into the 46 phonemes of English speech and beamed the sounds toward Tau Ceti, Epsilon Eridani, and two other nearby star systems using commandeered radar equipment at MIT.

“People censored all the messages transmitted to extraterrestrials; scientists removed external female genitalia from the messages we sent into space,” Davis told me. “We had textbook female anatomy systematically removed from the record, from [Voyager and Pioneer’s]plaques—it was insane. It was so ‘man and Barbie doll.’ So I put together a project to transmit these vaginal contractions to nearby sun-like stars.”

Called the Poetica Vaginal, the message was broadcast for more than 20 minutes before the US Air Force noticed and shut it down. That’s a full 17 minutes longer than Sagan managed at Arecibo with his more sanctioned stick-figure representation of humanity.

After that, there was the bet about a flying frog with his Mensa-level MIT drinking buddies at the Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge. One night, as beer mingled with the brains of astrophysicists, chemists and other MIT geniuses, Davis boasted he could build a biomechanical ornithopter powered by frog legs and fly it across the Charles River. He did it. As you can see in the shot, the electrically stimulated green legs, seated like a miniature pilot, are unmistakable. Next to the ornithopter, grinning slightly like a man who knows he’s won, is Joe Davis.

There’s also the 25-micron fishhook he created to catch one-celled organisms with full-size deep sea fishing gear. In a taped video segment of an interview on ABC’s Nightline in 2001, Davis outfitted a deep-sea fishing rod with the ultra diminutive hook, connected it to a custom amplifier that made a paramecium feel like a marlin and had an ABC correspondent go fishing. The reporter soon got one on the line, and the servos in the amplifier gave him the tug of his life. I had to remind myself that a single-celled organism was making the guy sweat, and not a 200kg fish. The paramecium actually won the battle–Davis had to turn off the machine.

Some of this stuff sounds admittedly absurd. What’s the point of a frog-powered ornithopter? Why are human vaginal contractions speeding though space toward the unassuming denizens of Epsilon Eridani? Crazy as the projects are, the nature of these experiments goes a long way toward explaining Davis himself. He isn’t necessarily a straight-up scientist, but he isn’t totally an artist, either. As the Washington Post‘s Pamela Ferdinand once wrote, “Davis eschews the art-versus-science argument, insisting that he speaks both languages and could not possibly tear the two disciplines apart in his own mind.”

This characteristic goes to the heart of “Call Me Ishmael,” the memorial tower, the real reason I visited Davis’ Cambridge home over 4th of July weekend. As a former resident of the Mississippi coast, Davis was appalled by the reaction (or, rather, lack of reaction) to Hurricane Katrina. Like Captain Ahab, he also had a long-standing grudge with nature: He lost his father and a friend in devastating hurricanes. And in 2005, disaster struck again. “Katrina destroyed the legacy of my family, all the photos of my grandmothers and the furniture, and wiped away everything to the foundation.”

(His “peg leg” was not necessarily the result of an act of God. According to some, Davis lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in Mississippi, but he himself won’t talk about it, unless you count where he’s said the artificial limb was good for picking up dance partners at local bars.)

To bring more attention to the atrocious conditions that still exist in Mississippi, even today, Davis decided to put his experience as an artist/inventor to work. His intended memorial would combine art, science and spectacle to draw attention to the region, and no one—not even nature itself—could ignore it.

But what is the memorial tower’s connection to biology, Davis’ official field? “There is a tenuous bridge,” Davis admits.

“For a while I’ve been really into magnetic bacteria, and found in one species, [Magnetotactic] , all the components necessary to build a resonant circuit. It has a coil, semiconductor and capacitors. Those three things are needed to build a crystal radio. The inductor has a frequency and the capacitor has another frequency, and there are resonant harmonics between the two that radioheads call ‘the tank.’ It’s the standard wave that lets you amplify part of the AM radio spectrum and tune-in your radio.” Davis has several custom-built crystal radios spread throughout his Cambridge apartment. They’re powered by pin-stuffed voodoo dolls.

“Now we take these same components, which you can find in your kitchen—like semiconductors and rectifiers out of solutions of baking soda and cream of tarter, or heat-treated steel wool—and what you also have is a really sensitive detector. When we take these components—the capacitor, inductor and semiconductor—and put them together in a different geometry, the tank and standard wave start to break down electrical nitrogen in the air, and you have yourself a T-laser. This was the most efficient thing I could make [for the tower]with no moving parts, just like a crystal radio [and the magnetic bacterium] . That’s the bridge to biology.”

In a gravelly voice, Davis continues drawing personal meaning between the project, his leg and the legendary whale hunter Ahab. “In the second to last chapter of Moby Dick, as the whale jaws close around Ahab, he grabs the jaws and rages against the forces of nature. Then, when those jaws snatch shut and break his leg a second time, they haul him up on deck and he says something like, ‘Don’t look at me like that. You think you’re looking at a one-legged old man, but my soul is a centipede that walks on a hundred legs!’ Besides all the technology and romantic benefits of building something like this, it also rages against the storm,” Davis told me.

As a researcher seeking academic funding for the memorial, Davis does have plans to use it as an aid to scientists as well. (He won a Rockefeller fellowship for the project in June.) The region experiences more lightning strikes per year than anywhere in the US and, Davis says, “It is possible that the tower could be used by NOAA for investigating the electrical dynamics of a storm, because the laser will cut an ionic path through the
storm cell, which will then tend to propagate secondary strikes of enormous power.”

Sadly the laser emission is ultraviolet, and therefore invisible to the naked eye. However, if the laser grew enough in intensity, it could be used to push solar sails beyond the inner solar system. “The sun on its own just isn’t strong enough,” Davis said, proposing that the solar sail concept be renamed “light sails.” Davis doesn’t stop there: “It might even be able to help deflect asteroids. And because it is using coherent radiation, and is more powerful than the solar output at that same frequency, it is also ideal for optical SETI as a beacon.” It could be used for communicating with extraterrestrials. “For that I would have to get FAA permits, of course.”

As concrete a concept as the memorial lightning laser tower is for Davis, it still has to reach certain funding and authorisation objectives before it’s a reality for everyone else. “I’m not going to spring it on Mississippi. I have been in contact with the Mississippi Arts Commission. I’m also trying to organise parallel meetings with the NOAA, which has a big research centre in the region.”

Though there are already working models, including the electrified wooden one in his living room, the final timeline is a bit hazy. “We’ll find a site this summer, and might even build a temporary, working two-mast tower here [in Cambridge] . That could be built for a few thousand dollars, and would be created with actual tower materials. That way we can use it for technical testing, wind tunnel testing, and artificial lightning strikes at MIT.”

For the artificial lightning, MIT has these “huge Van De Graff generators,” which generate electrostatic energy using belts. Davis says this nonchalantly, as a man who has any number of lighting rods and other electricity-friendly devices attached to his apartment. We’ve had a lot of thunderstorms in the New England area lately, believe me, and Davis said there’s been a few strikes–unsurprisingly–that had hit things in his backyard. At that I made an offhand remark, half-joking, about how I was worried about him setting up his prototype outside to test it, but Davis took it in stride. There’s no way he could do something like that, he said, because too many planes on approach to Logan International fly over his apartment.

Once the “Call Me Ishmael” working model is tested at MIT, Davis hopes to negotiate with local commercial fabricators so he can have the model ready for presentations and interviews in Mississippi later this summer. A working 33.5m tower is a ways off, but the science is there, just waiting to be implemented.

I ended my all-too-short evening with Joe Davis watching a DVD called Making Fire, which somehow managed to give me with one further surprise. I thought my day with Joe Davis and his numerous stories had prepared me for anything, that I was now a fully indoctrinated member of the Joe Davis “bioart” fan club, but I was wrong.

Remember those magnetic bacteria? They’re not just the unusual inspiration for Davis’ memorial, but they may turn out to be an excellent source of renewable energy too. When left to do their thing in a confined space, they begin to produce hydrogen–the stuff of fuel cells. Davis even lights some of the gas they produce on fire to prove his point. If you provide these little microbes with sustenance, they’ll provide you with renewable energy. And they come free from local ponds.

Though Davis sees his current mission as a rage against nature, his greatest contribution might be a way to cooperate with it. His self-sustaining tower harnesses science from multiple areas, and its artwork will hopefully touch onlookers who might have otherwise ignored the tragedies of the Mississippi coast. As an appreciator of art and science (especially science), I see a lot of benefit in the tower. In that vein, I hope that Joe Davis, researcher, artist and inventor, does finally build his 33.5m tower on Mississippi’s coast. I hope he finds his white whale and kills it. With an ultraviolet laser. [Davis Tower image: MIT]