Energy From The Sun

“Sonic Bloom” a new Interactive artwork showcases solar, sound and education at the foot of the Space Needle

In the playful context of Seattle Center’s festival groundsSonic Bloom is a new energy-neutral permanent interactive art installation at the foot of Seattle’s Space Needle and a defining entry sculpture to the Pacific Science Center. The signature sculpture is designed to demonstrate the science of solar energy in an accessible way as well as becoming a new icon for Seattle Center.

“Sonic Bloom” is a solar-powered work of art created by Dan Corson for the Pacific Science Center on behalf of Seattle City Light’s Green Up program, which supports the development of new renewable energy sources.

The project is composed of 5 super-sized flowers (up to 40’ tall and 20’ across) sporting frosted acrylic petals that glow like glass when backlit.  Mounted on the top of each painted flower head are 46 locally made photo voltaic cells. These solar cells collect the energy from the sun and are fed back into the electrical grid and completely offset the energy-efficient LED lighting and speaker electrical consumption for the project.

“There’s a myth that solar power won’t work in Seattle” said artist Dan Corson. “But even with our often cloudy weather, solar works well here”. The challenge was going beyond simple rooftop installations and engaging people with solar

After dark, the sculptures make a dramatic illuminated presence, revealing the domed undersides of the flowers as dynamic illuminated surfaces awash in moving color and concentric echo-inspired patterns. The backlit painted fiberglass diffuses the energy-efficient LED lights and creates an interesting patterned surface in the daytime.

The title Sonic Bloom refers not only to our defining location “on the Puget Sound” but also to the artwork itself that sings as the public approaches each flower.  Every flower has its own distinctive series of harmonic notes simulating a singing chorus. A hidden sensor located in each flower identifies movement and triggers the sound.  So if there are 5 people engaging the flowers together, it is possible to compose and conduct music together or by walking through, randomly set off a harmonic sequence.

The colorful striped stalks of the flowers not only accentuate the curved stems, but are also actual “barcodes” that can be deciphered by inquisitive sleuths motivated to decode the super-sized puzzle.

Seattle, with its mild maritime climate, hosts some of the most enthusiastic gardeners in the country. The artist is not only a self-described “plant geek” and has created an award-winning garden featured in a number of magazines, but has also created the garden concept for the planting beds below the sculptures as well.  The Sonic Bloom garden is designed for a year-round viewing highlighting certain flowers and color combinations that echo the sculptures every season.

Interpretive signage at the exhibition and inside Pacific Science Center explains how solar energy works and shows in real-time how it is powering the flowers.

New metaphors for sustainability: coral reef

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

Caspar Henderson, writer and journalist, suggests coral reef, its efficiency, vulnerability and beauty, as a metaphor for sustainability. Caspar’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A Bestiary for the Anthropocene will be published by Granta in 2012.

As many people know, healthy tropical coral reef are among the the richest, most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet, rivaled perhaps only by rainforests. It’s less widely appreciated, however, that this astonishing exuberance thrives in water that is very low in nutrients. The secret of the reef is that nutrients and materials are reused and recycled with great efficiency and rapidity in an almost closed loop.

Driving the cycle is sunlight, which is of course abundant in the tropics. Corals polyps, which are tiny animals, are able to build their layering and branching and skeletons (and thus over time the entire reef on which so much else depends) thanks to a partnership with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which harness energy from the sun and ‘feed’ their coral hosts in return for lodging.  Whether or not you believe in the claims made for next generation nuclear power (and, like Amory Lovins and others, I have doubts), an economy that is able to run on energy directly harvested from the sun, store it where necessary and turn almost 100% of its wastes into assets looks like a good way to go.

Another familiar fact about coral reefs is that they are among the ecosystems in the world most vulnerable to human meddling. Our assaults come in various forms including direct ones such as destructive fishing practices and nutrient overload from sewage and agricultural runoff, and indirect ones such as rising global temperatures and ocean acidification caused by a rate of change in greenhouse gas concentrations not seen in millions of years.

Coral reefs can, we now know, thrive within certain boundaries, and be remarkably resilient to some shocks so long as the boundaries are not crossed. Once they are, however, the whole system can very quickly tip over into a degraded state. The reef becomes choked with slime and the food web disintegrates into a rotting boneyard that supports a dwindling band of scavengers. Previous perturbations to the Earth system comparable to current human activity have resulted in mass extinction events from which it has taken reefs millions of years to recover. We’re not talking about a metaphor here so much as a 400lb gorilla already standing on our toes.

The good news, in a far as there is any, is that we have a pretty good feel for what must be done if the threats to reefs are to be sharply reduced. Some of the most important measures such as stabilization and then reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations may look unachievable in the near term, but while we continue to struggle with those there are many other things that will also be necessary and on which progress can (and is) being made now. One such is the creation, with local community involvement, of networks of Marine Protected Areas.

A final, and for me the most important point about coral reefs is that they are places of stupendous beauty and wonder. Chances are these are not qualities that spring to mind when you think of sustainability. A more likely association might be something like ‘sensible shoes.‘

But sustainability does not have to be boring. It can and must be highly dynamic, just as a coral reef is: an arena for competition and struggle, yes, but an arena with  limits and where new kinds of flourishing and cooperation are forever unfolding. Cruelty, suffering and death are not eliminated, but the scope for doing your own thing or doing something new – whether it be to bake cakes with five year olds, develop greener energy technology, or dance flamenco while dressed as a flamboyant cuttlefish – is greatly increased.

photo:  Gray Hardel/Corbis


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The editors are Robert Butler and Wallace Heim. The associate editor is Kellie Gutman. The editorial adviser is Patricia Morison.

Robert Butler’s most recent publication is The Alchemist Exposed (Oberon 2006). From 1995-2000 he was drama critic of the Independent on Sunday. See

Wallace Heim has written on social practice art and the work of PLATFORM, Basia Irland and Shelley Sacks. Her doctorate in philosophy investigated nature and performance. Her previous career was as a set designer for theatre and television/film.

Kellie Gutman worked with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for twenty years, producing video programmes and slide presentations for both the Aga Khan Foundation and the Award for Architecture.

Patricia Morison is an executive officer of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, a group of grant-making trusts of which the Ashden Trust is one.

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