Buckyballs and Screaming Cells 

The amazing miniature world of UCLA chemist Jim Gimzewski

Thursday, Apr 3 2003
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Just before noon on a crisp spring day, Jim Gimzewski is looking a little rusty around the edges. Walking across the UCLA campus, he stops to cadge a cigarette from a couple of students deep in conversation. It's one thing to light up in the land of never-never, it's quite another to bum fags from strangers, and the students eye him suspiciously. Tall and reedy, dressed in black from head to toe, hair graying and spiky, Gimzewski might easily be mistaken for a refugee from an aging British rock band. Nick Lowe comes to mind. Perhaps it's that obvious sense of the foreign — the lilting charm of his Scottish brogue — or maybe just the unrepentant nature of the gesture; this is clearly not an L.A. moment. One of the students pulls a pack from his pocket. Puffing contentedly, Gimzewski muses on the chemical pleasures of life. "I do yoga, and I figure that entitles me to drink. I run, that means I can smoke. I do everything," he says, with an unsullied joie de vivre that seems to have disappeared from the American psychological spectrum. Then, after a beat, he adds slyly, "In moderation."

Few people are more acquainted with the pleasures of chemistry than James Gimzewski — it's pronounced Jim-zes-ski, though back home in Scotland his mates just called him "Get-me-whiskey." However you parse the Polish, he's a world expert on the physics and chemistry of single molecules. At IBM's legendary research laboratory in Zurich, Gimzewski headed a team that fabricated a molecular propeller, a molecule shaped like the blades of a helicopter that spins on an atomic surface like a minuscule wheel. That made the cover of Science magazine. His IBM team also fashioned the world's smallest abacus out of "buckyballs," soccer ball-shaped molecules of carbon that are currently the focus of so much scientific interest. A few years ago, UCLA made him an offer he couldn't refuse, including a brand-new lab, and in 2001 he moved out here to set up shop.

At the moment, however, it is not molecules that are exercising Gimzewski's attention, but cells. He has zoomed out, as it were, and in doing so has hit upon something that may usher in a powerful new field of medical diagnostics. Gimzewski has discovered that living cells generate high-pitched sounds, a cytological song whose harmonies potentially encode a hidden language of health and disease. If we can decipher this microscopic symphony, we may be able to hear the difference between sick and healthy cells.

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Re-energized by the nicotine and almost thrumming with excitement, Gimzewski recounts the unorthodox circumstances behind his amazing discovery. Bizarrely, the trigger was 9/11. On the day when the Twin Towers fell, he had been awaiting a package from a medical researcher in Sardinia named Carlo Ventura. The two scientists had met earlier that year at a conference in Rome where Ventura had acquainted Gimzewski with his research into childhood heart abnormalities. Ventura was working with the stem-cell precursors to heart cells known as myocardiocytes, and he was trying to determine what genetic aberrations were responsible for various pulmonary disorders. Interactive installation based on the way a scientist manipulates a molecule and projected on a monumental scale — a collaboration between Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna, director of UCLA’s Design Media Arts department, scheduled to open at LACMA this fall.

Gimzewski had never given much thought to cells, but with his training in physics he knew that any vibrating object must be emitting sound. Since heart cells beat, he figured that they must be making some kind of noise. He wondered if we listened to that sound, could we discern a difference between healthy heart cells and diseased ones. Ventura believed it was worth a try, and agreed to send a sample of his myocardial stem cells. But while his package was in transit, two jumbo jets fatefully plowed into the World Trade Center, imprinting onto the nation's consciousness an indelible image and propelling the Customs Department to declare a state of lockdown. Stem cells from Sardinia. "The customs officials took one look at that," Gimzewski says, and they hit the roof: 'Fucking hell, it's biological warfare!'" The package was confiscated, and by the time he received it, a few weeks later, all the cells had died.

Back in Gimzewski's office, he shows me a video of heart stem cells, a petri-dish culture apparently pulsing with life. Though there is no body here, no actual organ, rhythmic waves course through the cell community. It's an eerie sight, as if the culture were straining toward organismic identity. This phenomenon has inspired Right-to-Lifers to declare that an 18-day-old fetus has a heart and is, hence, a fully charged human: I beat, therefore I am. To me, the image calls to mind the chimerical hybrid world of David Cronenberg: if this is still life, it is not as we know it.

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