The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with its distinctive exterior and helical main gallery, has long been regarded as anything but a traditional art space. This legacy continued when its subterranean performance venue, the Peter B. Lewis Theater, hosted an artistic inquiry into biology featuring Harold Varmus, a 1989 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, accompanied by a jazz quintet led by Dr Varmus’ son, musician Jacob Varmus. The program, entitled Genes and Jazz, was performed on November 16 and 17 as part of the ‘Works & Process’ series, where artists and thinkers engage in on-stage collaborations and expose the creative process to the general public.

For the performance, the centre stage was filled with beautiful biological images, which were projected onto a screen. To the left, Dr Varmus sat on a bar stool reading from a script, and to the right, Jacob led his excellent jazz quintet in lovely original compositions based on the images. This structure provided a powerful solution to a problem scientists often face when explaining their work to non-scientists – how to convey, compellingly, the grandeur and mystery of nature that compels us to dedicate our lives to its understanding. Rather than using detailed explanations of the molecular underpinnings of life, Varmus read elegant summaries of the main scientific concepts to the audience, allowing them to contemplate the exquisitely selected images of cells, molecules or organisms, to immerse themselves in the emotional flow of the accompanying music and, thus, to feel the wonder and artistry of nature from within.

Dr Varmus divided his talk into three sections: cells, evolution and cancer. Throughout his monologue, he made analogies to concepts that were more familiar to the audience, such as music and painting. For example, in the first section on the cell, Dr Varmus argued that, just as an orchestra can produce distinct music with the same set of instruments, the different constant components of the cell, from membranes to ribosomes, can assemble to create an incredible variety of specializations and shapes within the body, as demonstrated by the exquisite on-screen images. Then, in a looped movie, he showed cells, with tubulin and DNA, fluorescently labeled green and blue, engaging in a pulsating, languorous dance of division, seemingly responding to the beat of the jazz music. The final movie showed the larger implications of cell division, as a single cell of an egg fertilized by sperm underwent a furious series of divisions and movements, finally growing into a twitching frog embryo. Hoping that these movies led the audience to the question of ‘How can such amazing things happen?’ he shifted to more molecular explanations. Dr Varmus used stunning computer animations created by Drew Barry of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne, Australia to illustrate transcription and translation, describing that the shift of DNA to RNA to proteins is ‘like a change of key.’ In these movies, DNA polymerase looped replicating helices of DNA through itself at breakneck pace, RNA polymerase led to the dockings of adorable packages of tRNAs loaded with amino acids, and the ribosome produced a red string of hemoglobin, as the music soared and leapt. Anyone unmoved at this point had a heart of stone.

A looped movie showed cells, with tubulin and DNA, fluorescently labeled green and blue, engaging in a pulsating, languorous dance of division, seemingly responding to the beat of the jazz music

In the evolution section, Dr Varmus again began with a collection of images showing the variety of specialization, this time of organisms rather than cells. Volvox, algae, beetles and pineapple all cascaded across the screen in their idiosyncratic beauty, sometimes in photographs, sometimes in drawings. How could such a variety have arisen from one ancestral, initial life form over 3 billion years ago, he asked before describing the principles of mutation, selection and propagation. He equated the slow evolutionary shift of organisms to the development of portraiture in art, from the somber two dimensions of Egyptian grave paintings to the expressive and shadowy renderings of Impressionist artists. This seemed a less insightful analogy than many of his others, but the pictures that we observed as a result were very pleasant.

The final section on cancer proved the most disappointing to me, perhaps because I was hoping for more unique insights given Dr Varmus’ long and trail-blazing association with the topic. Also, in this section, because the beautiful pictures were of a process with such devastatingly destructive effects, the aesthetic and the emotional and intellectual responses to the imagery were in opposition and thus did not create a sum greater than the parts.

But, as a whole, the performance was thought provoking, entertaining and inspiring. Although some of the art and science analogies seemed a bit inexact to a professional scientist, they did, given the enthusiastic responses heard in the reception following the performance, thoroughly engage the lay audience. The evening left the viewers filled with joy at all of the amazing things that evolution and DNA have brought to life, not least of these, the impetus for this event itself. Whereas species propagation for many organisms consists simply of cell division, in humans it involves the deep love of a parent for his child. And out of that arose this evening, in which a father and son, each of whom have taken very different career paths, found a way to join their talents and demonstrate the links between their views of the world.