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Materials of a New Era

Aug 09, 2019

In 2000, the Chemist Paul J. Crutzen and the biologist Eugene Stoermer diagnosed a new geological era: the Anthropocene. According to them, humans not only had technologies that were equal to or even exceeded the effects of nature; they also inscribed themselves irreversibly into nature. Crutzen and Stoermer describe an intertwining between nature and man, natural and man-made realm with complex interdependencies between both. But what does this intertwining exactly look like, and what does it mean for the work of the Cluster of Excellence “Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous materials systems (livMatS)”?

International guests of various disciplines from bioethics to literary studies as well as researchers of the cluster tackled those questions in the two-day workshop “livMatS as part of and Reaction to the Anthropocene”. “The goal was to start a conversation about that topic among the scientists of the four research areas”, says Dr. Philipp Höfele, who organized the workshop together with his colleagues of Research Area D. “In addition we tried to show that livMatS itself with the development of lifelike materials systems is a reaction to the Anthropocene.”

Breaking New Ground

In the Research Area D scientists from sustainability research, psychology and philosophy are going to examine the materials systems that will be developed in livMatS. On the one hand, the researchers will seek to evaluate the sustainability of substances used in the laboratories as well as the materials systems. On the other hand, one main focus is their acceptance, especially since those systems will adapt to their environment in an autonomous fashion.

livMatS thereby breaks new ground: “So far, acceptance research works with demonstrators to find out how people accept them.” Because the materials systems of livMatS don´t exist as a product we will establish new methods to find out”, explains Prof. Dr. Andrea Kiesel in her talk “Predicting psychological acceptance for not (yet) existing living materials systems” on the second day of the workshop.

Höfele and his colleagues from the field of philosophy are focusing on the ontological aspect: How can materials systems and their functions be described in a suitable way? This is especially challenging considering that the adaptive, dynamic behavior of the materials systems are the main focus rather than static features. As a result, it is necessary to talk about the basic concepts which play a role in the development of the systems. In doing so, all research area members will have consistent terms to talk about their work – even across disciplinary boundaries.

Different Concepts

The workshop made clear that different concepts are used in the disciplines. Prof. Dr. Andreas Walther, chemist and coordinator of the Research Area B, explained in his lecture “What is life in the materials system world?” that it starts with the term “life” itself: “In the field of biology you define the word for the most part with the ability to self-replicate. But you need to be aware that even self-replication depends on complex self-regulating biochemical reaction networks. If we succeed in building similar reaction networks with self-regulating properties into materials systems, and those would be capable of processing signals for customized responses, we would get closer to a lifelike behavior.”

Höfele found the workshop to be an important step regarding the exchange among the researchers, especially due to their different notions. “The collaboration in the cluster helps me to deepen my knowledge about the individual research in the areas. Moreover the workshop also helped to find new junctions among the disciplines and it has shown new possibilities for cooperation.”

Ultimately, Höfele and his colleagues are seeking to contribute to the macrosocial ethical discussion on new technologies in the Anthropocene: “We in the Research Area D consider it our duty to initiate the discussion on ethics and sustainability both within and beyond livMatS.” Meanwhile the debate on the Anthropocene and new technologies is happening across a broad social basis from the US to Japan, as was higlighted by the international guests of the workshop. “Within the scope of this debate livMatS can surely make a significant contribution.”