Peter Walter (UCSF/HHMI): Squeezing Time for Art

Uploaded by ibiomagazine on 26.04.2012

My name is David Pincus, and I'm a graduate student at UCSF.
And, I get the privilege today to interview my PhD advisor, Peter Walter.
on his scientific and extra-scientific hobbies and creative endeavors.
So, hi, Peter.
Hi, David. I think you should be in the lab.
But, I'm glad you find other uses of your time.
I'm working on the next paper. It'll be out soon.
So, I want to start basically by introducing what you do,
which is mostly science, but a little bit on the side getting to do creative projects
with your hands, doing wood working and metal working.
Doing sculpture and functional stuff around the house.
How did you get your start doing wood and metalworking?
Well, I basically started when I was growing up.
I always loved to do little projects, and I did a lot of little handiwork
with my Dad. We had a little room in our apartment in Berlin
that was really, really the tiniest room in the apartment,
maybe 6 feet by 8 feet or something.
And we used it to do all sorts of projects.
It was a room that was ok to make a mess and to leave projects half finished to stand around.
And, I just loved creating things with my hands.
Well, how did you get your start doing science?
That actually started with my Dad as well. He had a little chemist's shop in Berlin,
and they were selling all sorts of herbs and chemicals and soaps and stuff.
And, I got fascinated by the chemistry of mixing things together,
making them explode... take an oxidant and a reductant, you can create amazing things.
So, it was the pyrotechnical aspects of chemistry that really got me excited as a young boy.
Have you ever had an idea... has your mind ever wandered
to science when you're actually crafting something?
Of course! The two things are not separate.
And often, building things are repetitive tasks.
You sit there for hours, sanding something, and that time is not wasted.
Your neurons are firing left and right, and you put other things together.
It's a very relaxing exercise.
So, I think having a passion that you can pursue outside of the lab
is really important for keeping yourself focused on science.
Oh, absolutely. When we were living in New York, I did a lot of photography,
simply because of the surroundings. There are beautiful things
you can photograph in New York.
But, when I worked in the lab myself, I had a lot of manual satisfaction...
doing experiments. I really loved the detective work of designing experiments
and tickling out the last little secret out of Mother Nature.
And now that the lab has grown, and I'm basically not at the bench anymore,
I sit all day in the computer and talk to people.
So, I think I have fulfilled that need and find balance
between the intellectual exercise and doing something with your hands.
Both sides benefit from having creative outlets.
So, you have a wonderful shop here in your house. How did that get started?
What was your first piece of equipment that you had here?
And how has it taken shape and evolved over the years?
Well, let me step back one step further.
When I came to the States, I spent 6 years in Manhattan.
We were basically living in a little box.
So, this kind of art form of doing woodworking was completely out of the question.
Because you just didn't have the space where you could make.
Woodworking is a dirty exercise.
So, then when we moved to San Francisco, I had three requirements for a house.
We wanted a fireplace, we wanted a garden,
and I wanted a garage.
And the garage basically turned into a woodshop. We evicted the car,
and the car is sitting in the driveway
and we built a little woodshop and bought a lot of used equipment
and eventually bought a bit more fancy complete set of doing things.
So, I never took any formal training in cabinet making.
It's all trial and error. Lots of error.
I want to ask you about some of the particular specific pieces
that you have around the house.
Can you talk about the stained glass piece up on the stairs?
That was a wonderful little project that I did together with Patricia, my wife.
When we moved into the house, we built this wall, in which the glass window is now,
and it looked very ugly just having a wall there,
so we decided to penetrate it to bring light into both spaces.
So, it was our first and only stained glass piece
we ever made, and we had quite fun exploring it, and it turned out fantastically.
What about the tree in the bathroom?
The tree in the bathroom. Well, we experimented a lot with lighting
in the upper floor, so we put the sky light in, and if you have such a nice skylight,
plants are happy there.
So, it's a little bit... the bathroom is designed a little bit with Japanese architecture in mind
where you find a combination of natural elements and geometric elements.
So, can you tell us about this endeavor you have right behind you here,
where it looks like you somehow busted through the wall to create a little habitat.
I grew up in Germany, and all the houses are stone, so living in a wooden house
gives you a lot more opportunity. So, basically what we did...
A friend of mine, we just took a chainsaw to the wall, we went through,
cut this hole, put a little plant window on the outside,
and then built this little display nook here.
It's just a very warm feature.
One of the nice aspects, at least for me, being in the lab
is getting to see some of the gifts that you craft for our annual holiday party.
How did that tradition start?
I think it's nice to give something personal, rather than store-bought.
That's generally true.
It's a nice personal gesture to think of a present that's befitting the person.
I've done a number of different things.
This thing I'm most proud of is a time machine.
Again, because it relates so nicely to the science we do...
the most precious thing we have is our time.
And this machine makes more of it. You just take this clock and squeeze it. Out drips time.
And then you have a bottle of it to use for whatever gives you rewards and satisfaction.
The fountains in the garden are beautiful.
What was the order that you put them together, and can you describe that process?
I love flowing water. It's wonderful.
And landscape design. I think a wonderful example is the Alhambra Granada in Spain.
So, it's the center of Islamic culture. It's a palace with lots of water features
left and right, trying to build some water features into our garden... it's very relaxing,
sitting next to flowing water.
The ball fountain... I was at a scientific meeting -- a conference in Santa Fe
and Tommy Kirchhausen and I went to a gallery, Stone Forest.
And they have wonderful cast or stone features.
And then we had a big issue, because you suddenly get this crate
with a round stone ball that weighs some 1000 pounds,
and it sits in your garage, in your driveway, and what do you do next?
It's a lot of handling logistics of how to then put it out there in the garden.
So, I built cranes and carts and tracks to move it out there.
So, in part what I love about creating things is to deal with the challenges as they arise.
It's a process. The window fountain, again, it has a little Oriental touch in design.
It was just sketched during another boring seminar and has pretty dramatic features to it.
A little pond underneath with our goldfish.
And it's a third... the third generation of that glass plate fountain.
The first one was experimental... we tried to pump up the water between two glass plates
and it's amazing what 8 feet of pressure does to a glass plate.
So, it basically exploded when we tried to pump the water in there.
The second one was better. It had copper piping on the side
hidden inside the wood, which then blew over in a storm.
And, this is the third version now, and it has a valid stainless steel frame
hidden inside the wood.
So, it looks very delicate, but it's actually quite strong.
I guess, starting with woodwork, and now it seems that you're
trying your hand at metalwork. So, can you describe a little bit about la Monique?
So, la Monique is a sculpture that is eventually going to be a fountain.
Woodworking is a subtractive craft, because you take a piece of wood,
and you cut away from it, and then you glue a few things together,
but there will always be several pieces.
Whereas, metalworking, especially welding... You put things together.
You form permanent bonds that are synthetic.
And I think the two are very... they are fundamentally different,
and you can create things in metal you could never dream of building in wood.
An expanded range of possibilities one has.
The ultimate dream is to combine the two.
So, I want to make kinetic sculptures that look wooden,
but have metal interiors that are working the wooden pieces
in ways that are just not possible with that material alone.
So, how did you get your inspiration for la Monique?
Well, I was sitting there doodling, and my mind was wandering,
and some geometrical shapes that would make some nice sculpture.
I think that really the first sketches then evolved.
Basically, what she is, she's a little square that then expands,
and then you twist the whole thing and turn it over.
And then a couple months later, I read a book,
The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham,
a science fiction novel written in the 1950s
where plant-like creatures start invading the Earth.
And first they're being cultured as sort of these beautifully exotic new plants,
and then when everybody has them in their garden, they turn out carnivorous,
and start attacking and eating people.
It's a wonderful little story, and I thought,
"Well, maybe we can turn it into something like that."
And, I tried to make the sculpture more and more organic looking,
superimposed on the geometrical design.
How does your science and your art... how do these two things inform each other
and influence? Is there an interplay between the two?
Well, I think if you think... what makes you a great scientist is basically
doing something well and being creative with what you're doing...
Going somewhere out of the box, where people haven't been before.
Because, you're basically doing discovery... you have no idea where you're going.
So, in a way, working with material and creating something
is actually quite similar.
I think in both in science and art, we're never going to be
fully rewarded by just doing something technically perfect
if it's just derivative of what other people have done.