Wim Hordijk, computational biologist and photographer, has released his latest collection VienNature: a Vienna Nature Exhibition. The aim of the exhibition is “to show that beautiful and interesting nature can often be found close to home, even in and around large cities.” Wim believes that a deeper, personal connection with the natural world can be stimulated not only by an artistic appreciation of what we see and feel, but also by what we know.
Tell me a bit about your background and your connection with Klosterneuburg.
Wim: I am a computational biologist working on the evolution, chemistry, and origin of life. Being a computational biologist meant that I had the freedom to work anywhere I want! I could travel around the world to collaborate and work with different biologists on interdisciplinary, short-term projects. For instance, from the Netherlands, I travelled to New Mexico, USA, to work at the Santa Fe Institute and University of New Mexico, where I got my PhD. Then I came to work at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Vienna and joined the KLI as a senior fellow from 2016-2018.
What was your project at the KLI?
During my research fellowship at the KLI I mostly worked on modeling how simple chemistry could have led to self-reproducing chemical reaction networks as a necessary step towards life. I also collaborated with another KLI fellow (Lee Altenberg) to study how developmental processes can influence biological evolution.
When did you start hiking and doing photography?
The Netherlands is a very artificial country, most densely populated. The nature you see there is nearly all cultivated. So Santa Fe was utterly new to me! It is an incredibly beautiful place. The high desert, the Colorado Plateau, and then the Rocky Mountains. Contrary to popular opinion, there's a lot of life in the desert! Five years ago, when I was in Switzerland, I picked up a camera and started to record my hikes.
And what did you see? Or rather, how did your science influence the way you saw?
In my scientific career, I have studied how life could emerge from simple chemistry, how it evolves and diversifies, and how natural patterns are used for information processing or decision making. In nature, I saw general patterns at all levels. I could see, with my own eyes, the diversity and the manifestation of evolution and development all around me. When I go hiking, I see my own understanding of life reflected in nature and it gave me the inspiration to go back to the “dry lab” to do scientific work.
While computer science gave me the computational freedom to move about and work on biology, it is also just a tool, not biology. I didn’t need to know all the biological details as my work is done at an abstract level. Hiking made up for the lack of field work. I was able to experience nature in a personal and intimate way by going on hiking trips and portraying the beauty of nature with my photography.
What is VienNature about?
VienNature is a pandemic project. Prior to the pandemic, I used to lead hikes around Klosterneuburg and Vienna for KLI fellows, but during the lockdown, I started to go on these hikes alone. The online exhibition focuses on the greater Vienna area, including Klosterneuburg. This project tells us that even within and around a large city – from Vienna to Klosterneuburg to Kritzendorf, you can always find beautiful nature around you as long as you look.
Many of these images are connected to stories that unveil the science within. Why are sunsets red? Why is the metaphor of “landscape” used when we talk about evolutionary pathways? You can click through the slideshow and, in some cases, read more about the science behind it!
Any advice for those looking to start a hobby in nature photography?
Another upside of the pandemic was that I had the time to learn more about the theoretical aspects of photography, which improved and expanded my photographic skills and technique. There is a scientific aspect to the process of photography that interests me from a theoretical point of view. However, while learning about the theory is useful, it is not strictly necessary. Begin with a smartphone and just start taking pictures. Take your kids with you and have them snap a few, too. It will serve them well in life. Tell them the science stories behind what they see. It will help us understand our own lives better, too.
Thank you, Wim, for sharing your photos, your stories, and your science!
The ultimate aim of Wim’s work is to combine beauty with knowledge to encourage and achieve global change towards a more sustainable future. As he put it “unless we, as a society, develop a stronger connection with and better understanding of nature, humanity will most likely not care enough to make the necessary changes.” Check out VienNature here.
interview conducted by Lynn Chiu