Richard Taylor’s research uses the world of fractals to cure blindness
interview and photography by Vanessa Salvia
Most physicists do not also study art, but it’s a natural combination for University of Oregon research professor Richard Taylor. Taylor, 54, also has an art theory degree. He’s been at UO since 2000, when he became known for investigating the fractal nature of the “splatter” paintings done by American artist Jackson Pollock. Taylor’s now developing 2-millimeter-sized retinal implant devices engineered using fractal patterns to restore vision for those suffering retina-destroying diseases such as macular degeneration.
How did you make the switch between Jackson Pollock and vision?
I’ve done art and physics separately, but I’m always trying to bring them together. Fractals are prevalent in nature and I thought, surely then artists must be interested in them, too. But if they’re prevalent in nature, scientists should be studying them as well. A lot of people think fractals are computer generated, but they’re prevalent in nature, and they’re
Fractals are patterns that repeat at increasingly smaller scale. How does that work in our body?
In nature, the branching patterns of rivers and trees are fractal. In our bodies, fractal patterning appears in the bronchus in our respiratory tract. All of our nerves are fractals. In your brain, your eye or your hand, the nerves are not straight lines, they’re fractals, with the same branched pattern as trees and river tributaries. The sensors on implant devices we have now are smooth and rectangular, which the body’s neurons interpret as a foreign surface, so they avoid them.
That means the brain doesn’t receive the electrical signals very well.
Right! At the back of the eye are sort of biological solar panels that receive light and send that signal to the back of the brain. Our electronics have the same shape as the nerves they’re meant to be talking to. We patented the very simple idea of being able to build electronics with this same fractal shape as the nerves so they can pass the signal on to the brain
What stage is the research at now?
This has worked in computational analysis and in in vitro studies in petri dishes. Now we’re in the in vivo phase using mice. A mouse eye is so much smaller that, if we can do it in a mouse’s eye, we can do it in a human eye. If we can offer this to humans, we can help someone who is legally blind see at 20/80 vision, which is good enough to interpret human facial expression and read text, or be able to tell that there is a doorway and walk through it. If you can do those things you can fully engage in society.