By Penelope Green
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — One hot day in early September, Neri Oxman, a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, was on her way to lunch when it hit her. “‘Form follows pheromones!’” she remembered exclaiming. “I was thinking, as I was devouring my meatball sandwich, about how we could use robotic arms to spit out pheromones guiding bees to template honeycombs in the absence of queens. The robots, you see, could master the hive.”
“We are sending bees to outer space,” she added, “we’ve got a little cell on Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin mission.” (Mr. Bezos has his eye on a lunar landing.) Bees, I learned later, use pheromones to communicate, a complex endocrine language through which the queen, for example, tells her subjects to step up their work on the honeycomb. Hence Dr. Oxman’s aperçu.
Bees in outer space are just one of the many aspirations and provocations of Dr. Oxman, a 42-year-old Israeli-born architect, computational designer and artist who is the recipient of this year’s Cooper Hewitt Design award for interaction design. Though as Jenny Lam, a noted tech designer and one of the award’s jurors, said, Dr. Oxman could just as easily have been nominated for fashion or architecture or product design. (The award ceremony and gala will be held on Oct. 18 in New York City.)