Mad science with a mission: how David Edwards is hanging invention

Photo Courtesy of David Edwards

By Sarah Wells
BU News Service

Sitting comfortably in one of Café ArtScience’s curved leather booths, David Edwards emanates a sense of controlled chaos, from his tangle of curly hair and frosted stubble to the way he searches the air with closed eyes and outstretched hands for just the right words to capture his ideas.

All around him, the innovative restaurant and exhibition space in Cambridge’s Kendall Square hums with creative energy and playful oddities that mimic its owner.

At the bar, a couple is being introduced to Edwards’ creation, “Le Whaf” – a beautiful glass carafe that billows a cloud of vaporized cocktails into nearby glasses. In the attached exhibition space, called the Le Laboratorie, a series of figure studies are projected on the wall, moving in slow-motion through different postures in an exhibit exploring body and time called “The Long Now.” An installation of Edwards’ called “Atom Screen” streams thousands of tiny sand-like particles between two large plates of glass, constantly building and destroying their self-made dunes.

For Edwards, Café ArtScience is not simply a hobby but a realization of a lifelong philosophy. Growing up, he didn’t fit into the rigid structure at his public school.

“I couldn’t get excited about what I was supposed to learn, and it felt like my ideas didn’t matter,” he said. While he pursued applied math and earned a PhD in chemical engineering, Edwards cultivated a parallel passion for creative writing and theater.

“I had an intuitive idea that art was relevant to [my] science,” he said. For him, art offered a lens to “look beyond [his] own passion, see what others see, [and] take big risks as a creator and entrepreneur.”

Arriving at Harvard in the early 2000s to pursue post-doctoral research, Edwards was disappointed to discover that then-President Larry Summers’ campus wide “complexity” meetings – allegedly designed to bring different schools and disciplines together – actually failed to do so.

“I noticed that none [of the meetings] had music professors, or dancers, or writers — there was not that much diversity after all,” he said.

To satisfy his interdisciplinary cravings, Edwards started holding his own meetings with like-minded faculty who explored their fields through this art and science connection.

“It became a kind of therapy group,” he said.

From these discussions, Edwards wrote a book entitled “Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation” that describes interdisciplinary exploration as a “catalyst” to innovatively explore ideas in industry, research and culture.

To make these ideas a reality, Edwards knew his community needed a creative space.

“We needed a place where we could all thrive and create with the public, no barriers,” he said. “This led me to open Le Lab, and eventually [the] Café.”

Since then, Edwards has been inventing prolifically. His first major invention, inhalable insulin, employed aerosol design research to understand how particles would travel around the lungs. The invention sold for $114 million dollars two years after its creation.

Previous development of these aerosols had used small, dense particles but Edwards’ research found that a higher percentage of the drug could be inhaled when using large yet porous particles.

“It was the biggest breakthrough made in the field,” said Bob Langer, Edwards’ post-doctoral advisor and Professor of Engineering at MIT.

While inhalable insulin itself never hit the market due to insufficient demand, Edwards has expanded his initial research in the field to slightly quirkier designs, such as inhalable chocolate, coffee and vitamins.

Edwards has also developed methods for packaging and digitizing scents. Edwards’ olfactory products explore research that suggests olfaction may play a role in metabolic regulation.

“[These products] can help disentangle your body’s natural signals in a contemporary world,” Edwards said. He hopes that his products will help people take more control over their sensory space and improve their well-being in the process by taking control over the scents that pervade it.

Neri Oxman, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, is among Edwards’ many collaborators and shares his creative ideology.

“The action of inventing is not sustainable upon first reading, it is like giving birth — you spend tons of energy during a very short time and then you make space for this creation to grow,” she said. “To make space for making space — that is David’s genius.”

Edwards contends that the disposable and mindless creation of new technology has pushed the notion of creating things that last to the wayside. With Oxman and others he hopes to shift the focus to creating slowly and with cultural sustainability.

“We live in a massively new world,” Edwards said. “And it’s massively short-term.”

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