gaga for science

Soundjenluc It's been a busy spring. Among other highlights, the Spousal Unit and I made a whirlwind trip to New York City in March, so he could be on some obscure cable talk show or something. But we had the added treat of getting to see an excerpt from the modern opera, Hypermusic Prologue, featuring a libretto penned by none other than Harvard physicist Lisa Randall. She collaborated with Spanish composer Hèctor Parra, and artist Matthew Ritchie, on a reimagined segment of the full opera, tailored specifically to the museum's unique rotunda. Physics-inspired operas are rare enough; taking over part of the Guggenheim for the evening is even rarer. Afterward, the Spousal Unit was pondering his ideal collaborator should he undertake a similar project. He decided he'd like to do more of a "rock opera," collaborating with Lady Gaga.

So I'm just putting that thought out there into the ether, on the off-chance Lady Gaga is intrigued by the notion of a rock opera on entropy, the big bang, the arrow of time, and the multiverse, and decides to give the Spousal Unit a call. I'm sure MoMA would be interested if the Guggenheim passed on the opportunity. I mean, the outfits alone would qualify as works of art, and Gaga is as much performance artist as musician. Everything she does is calculated to make an impression — right down to her aversion to wearing pants of any kind. "When I'm writing music, I'm thinking about the clothes I want to wear
on stage. It's all about everything altogether — performance art, pop
performance art, fashion," Gaga once told MTV News. "For me, it's everything
coming together and being a real story that will bring back the
super-fan. I want to bring that back."

Oh, yes, I am a Gaga fan, and I know Jen-Luc Piquant totally hangs around backstage at Gaga's YouTube channel in hopes of catching a brief glimpse of her idol — or at least the pixelated version thereof. But it wasn't always the case. Gaga has had a meteoric rise, and I confess that I'd really only caught snippets of "Let's Dance" and "Poker Face" as they were racing up the dance charts, augmented by her increasingly frequent appearances in celebrity gossip columns. These days, Gaga is everywhere, and "Poker Face" is one of the most parodied tunes on YouTube, but it was the release of her video of "Bad Romance" that turned me into a fan (along with millions of others). Not only is it a killer song you can't help but dance to, but the performance is fierce, intense, sexy, visually innovative, and just a wee bit sneakily subversive. Check it out:

See? She's a free bitch, baby. And she's only 24, and getting better and better musically (unlike certain other pop icons who shall not be named, Gaga can actually sing and play the piano very well). (BTW, check out this awesome rendition of "Bad Romance" by male a capella group On the Rocks, complete with nods to "Thriller.") But there's another reason I love me some Gaga. Science could use an image makeover from a true master of performance like Lady Gaga, who literally invented her persona from scratch and then demanded the world pay attention to her. I think the Spousal Unit is onto something. Bring back the super-fans of science! And use the tools of mass media and marketing — music, fashion, performance art, and story-telling — to do it. Especially fashion, because science and technology are definitely influencing fashion these days, in ways that should fit neatly into Her Ladyship's artistic vision via the Haus of Gaga. She already made a splash this past February by debuting her version of a shape-shifting "living dress" inspired by the designs of fashion icon Hussein Chalayan, a self-described techno-geek who tries to bring together technology, science culture, and fashion in some really intriguing ways. 

Chalayan's work was all the rage in Paris during the fall of 2006, when he debuted his "One Hundred Eleven" collection, with nods to 111 years of fashion in just five dresses that used technology to morph from, say, an 1895 look to something more common in 1900, and finally into a Roaring 20s flapper sheath. The Hour-Glass Dress morphs from a style reminiscent of Dior in the 1950s to a 1960s metallic sheath, and the grand finale during the 2006 Paris show featured a dress that disappeared entirely into a wide-brimmed hat, leaving the model pretty much naked on the runway (see video below). Chalayan has remained at the top of the field ever since with increasingly outre designs; his style is perfect for Lady Gaga — and for the Spousal Unit's rock opera concept — because it's the haute couture version of wearable electronics, designed in collaboration with a company called 2D3D.

2D3D director Rob Edkins described some of the underlying technology for Technology Review back in 2006:

the dresses were driven electronically by controlled, geared motors. We
made, for want of a better term, little bum pads for the models. So on
their buttocks were some hard containers, and within these containers
we had all the battery packs, controlling chips–the microcontrollers
and microswitches–and little geared motors. The motors we used were
tiny, about a third of the size of a pencil and nine millimeters in
diameter. Each of the motors had a little pulley, and the pulley was
then attached to this monofilament wire which was fed through hollow
tubes sewn into the corset of the dress.

"Some of the corsets
were very complicated. They had 30 or 40 of these little tubes running
everywhere, carrying these little cables, each doing its little job,
lifting things up or releasing little linked metallic plates. There was
a huge amount of stuff going on beneath the clothes."


My personal favorite of Chalayan's creations — particularly when it comes to what we'd need for a cosmology-inspired rock opera — is his "Big Bang" dress, which debuted during the 2008 Paris Fashion Week. Its another mechanical dress, except this one projects moving spots of light to symbolize the birth of the universe. A glimpse of the underlying machinery is below, and you can watch a video of the dress in action over at Adam Wright's website (he collaborated with Chalayan on the dress). [Click "Fashion" on the right side, then click on "Hussein Chalayan: Big Bang."] 


He's also done a series of LED dresses, in which light-emitting diodes are incorporated into the fabric. Pop singer Katy Perry recently wowed the crowds when she showed up at the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a stunning LED gown. Really, that's almost as impressive as Meejin Yoon's "Defensible Dress," which has sensors woven into the fabric that can detect a person who is getting too close, thereby triggering "quills" to pop out and keep the intruder at a safe distance. (Yoon got the idea while working in Neil Gershenfeld's "Fab Lab" at MIT, and says she was inspired by the porcupine and the blowfish.)

Oh, but Chalayan didn't stop with morphing outfits and LED dresses; he also put together an architecturally inspired collection in 2009 featuring chairs and tables that transformed into wearable (at least in theory) garments. When was the last time you saw a tiered wooden skirt that doubled as a table? Chair covers that can turn into dresses? These are all elements that would be perfect for staging the Spousal Unit's hypothetical rock opera. Heck, if Chalayan prefers to focus on Galaxy/LED dresses for the performance, perhaps Neri Oxman can step in to help. Oxman is getting her PhD in design computation at MIT, and per io9, she specializes in "reactive architecture: surfaces, furnishings, and structures that change their own properties according to different stimuli. Her resin floors grow thicker where they need to support more weight; her composite walls rearrange their windows and stress lines based on local weather conditions. One of her best-known works, a chaise lounge called Beast, can adjust its shape, flexibility and softness to fit each person who sits in it."

Oxman incorporates so-called smart materials into her pieces. So does designer Marielle Leenders, who weaves wires containing shape memory alloys (like alloys of nickel and titanium) into her clothing to create, say, fabrics that contract under heat. So if you walk outside in a long-sleeved shirt, and it's warmer that perhaps you might expect, there's no need to roll up your own sleeves: the garment will respond to the increase in temperature and roll up itself. No kidding. No need for all those intricate cables, wires, motors and microcontrollers featured in Chalayan's designs! ( has a problem with this concept. What's their problem? "You're an incredible lazy ass, that's the problem! What, you can't roll up your own sleeves?") It's still pretty ingenious on Leenders' part, and certainly preferable to Spray-On Fabric, or "Fabrican," which (according to the good folks at "uses a pressurized formula that, when sprayed from an aerosol can, creates fibers that adhere to any surface and bind to create a piece of non-woven fabric. It can be sprayed onto a … model, for example, to instantly create an entire dress or outfit right onto her body."

Then there's the tantalizing prospect of incorporating glitter-sized solar cells into fabrics to create clothing that produces electricity — just the thing for charging your iPhone when you're on the go. That way you can be sure to get those all-important text messages sent by your sensor-lined underwear, alerting you to any unfortunate "accidents" you may experience. Per Discovery News:

"A firm in Australia called Simavita has invented a pair of electronic underpants for people who have incontinence that works to monitor and relay information about "accidents." Alerts are sent via text message over the institution's paging system. The underpants have a disposable element similar to a regular incontinence pad and include a detachable transmitter that relays readings from the pad's sensor strip over a wireless network to a central computer."

At least those mechanical dresses would have a built-in power source… so long as it was a sunny day. Ah, but what about more traditional means of ornamenting clothing? Beading and other kinds of adornment aren't just for clothing anymore; now you can place these things right onto the skin. Tattoos are old hat by now, although Gaga sports one quoting Rilke. It's even money that Gaga has already experimented with the new fashion trend of "vajazzling": "bedazzling" a certain sensitive area on women immortalized on Grey's Anatomy as the "va-jay-jay." Or maybe that's just a bit too tame for Her Ladyship. In which case, may I suggest the "dermatological embellishments" of Lauren Kalman, featured by Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera? Kalman is a metalsmith and mixed media artist who uses gold acupuncture wires to pierce the skin with mini-baubles in patterns that mimic certain skin diseases: a "rash of glistening blood-red stones set in gold," for instance to mimic an open sore. But since Gaga specializes in the gorgeously grotesque, she might like this, from an earlier series called "Hard Wear," in which golden crusts call to mind a heavily blistered mouth:

So that's a brief survey of cutting-edge, technology (and biology) inspired fashion to tempt Lady Gaga into considering a science-themed rock opera. For my part, I'm more on the grungy end of things; I'd probably want to work with the wild geeks of ArcAttack and their singing Tesla coils. They program the coils to perform electronic covers of tunes like the theme from Dr. Who (I'm still waiting for what I'm sure will be a killer version of the theme from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Just watching the streaks of electricity emanating from the coils in time to the music is awe-inspiring enough, but these guys also devised a Faraday suit for their performances, enabling one of them (the one wearing the suit) to actually play with the arcs of electricity and not get electrocuted.

That suit that looks so much like a beekeeper's getup in the video below is actually what's known as a Faraday cage, an enclosure specifically designed to exclude electromagnetic fields. The 19th century British scientist Michael Faraday built the first one in 1836 to demonstrate his assertion that the charge on a charged conductor travels along the exterior surface and doesn't influence anything enclosed within it. It's essentially an application of "Gauss's Law": since like charges repel each other (opposites attract), electrical charge will "migrate" to the surface of a conducting form, such as a sphere. 

Faraday's 19th century version was an entire room coated with metal foil; he built it himself. Then he blasted the walls with high-voltage discharges from an electrostatic generator, and used an instrument called an electroscope to prove that no charge was present inside the actual room. As long as there are no gaps in the conductive "path," the electrical current from the lightning will never have much of an impact. The same thing is true of cars. If you happen to be sitting in a car when lightning strikes it, you'll probably be okay, as long as you don't stick your hand out the window to check and see if it's "still raining." The current will simply travel along the metallic exterior of the vehicle.

Be honest, now: wouldn't it be awesome to have a glitzed-up version of those singing Tesla coils on-stage with dancers and backup singers in spiffy tech-outfits, performing catchy dance tunes about time's arrow, entropy, and the birth of the universe? And for the finale, why not bring in the crack Caltech team — working with Mindshare LA, an "idea factory that brings together scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and others to engage in creative brainstorming" — that helped OK Go design their warehouse-scale, two-story Rube Goldberg device for the video version of "This Too Shall Pass"? It starts with a toy car pushing against a column of dominoes, and ends with the band being splattered by paint guns. All those cheering folks at the video's end helped design and build the contraption, using "ideas and materials anyone can come up with at home."

[The band] wanted the machine strung together from the kind of everyday stuff you might find at a yard sale and to run on mostly mechanical energy. No computers, fancy electronics, or high-tech gimmickry. The machine had to interact with the four musicians and even perform part of their song—an honor that ultimately went to a pulley-controlled whirling guitar whose neck plinks out part of the tune on water glasses. It had to function flawlessly during a lengthy camera take, like an Olympic figure skater performing a perfect program. It went without saying that the finished product had to be an eye-catching crowd-pleaser.

The whole thing was shot in an abandoned warehouse in our neighborhood, Echo Park. Even with so many creative brilliant minds at work, the team needed over 70 takes, done over two solid days and nights of filming. The elaborate device worked perfectly on only three of those takes, one of which became the final video. To date, it's had over 12.4 million views (a dozen of which are mine — I can't stop watching it in wonderment).

And there you have: a movable feast of science-inspired elements to provide fodder for the Spousal Unit's Gaga-esque rock opera about cosmology. For those who remain unconvinced, earlier this year, Improbable Research featured a couple of interesting equations: one a GA GA equation in a CHinese paper on PCR algorithms for parallel computing, and the other a (made-up) formula re-interpreting the lyrics, such as they are, in "Bad Romance." It goes like this: (RAH(<2> (AH)<3> + [ROMA (1+MA)] + (GA)<2> + (OOH)(LA)<2>. I'm telling you, it's a sign….

2 thoughts on “gaga for science”

  1. I’ve never been in a car hit by lightning, but I have been in a truck less than 20 yards from a telephone pole that was hit by lightning. When that happened, the engine died for a split second, only to re-crank itself quickly via momentum.
    Oh, and speaking of Lady Gaga remakes, this is pretty humorous proof that some soldiers in Afghanistan have way too much time on their hands.

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