Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mixing Art and Science in Boston: Thoughts on The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2013 Conference

By Teresa Branch-Smith

Held in Boston, the 2013 AAAS conference brought together some of the brightest minds in research, engineering and science communication. The elusive, but deep seeded relationship between art and science was a major theme as outlined by the AAAS motto: the beauty and benefits of science. Since I began looking at swarming organisms a year ago, sessions on the beautiful patterns in mathematics and nature were among my favourites at this year's conference.

One of my all-time favourite methods of combining arts and science is in videogames. While my research has been primarily in science content present in popular entertainment games, there was an entire session about the future of educational games. Dr. Gordon-Messer who is in the process of developing an educational adventure game, is basing her model on a mass multiplayer online (MMO) platform to captivate students outside the classroom. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MIT, they launch a trial version in classrooms this September.

The Artful Science session showcased the work of mathematicians, computer scientists, architects, and biologists. The excerpt on biology, hosted by Dr. Flannery, was particularly interesting because I learned botany was historically considered a woman's science since it appeared passive. At the time, everyone including Emily Dickinson collected pressed flowers.

Glass Flowers showcase from the 
Harvard Museum of Natural History.
To compliment the incredible sessions hosted at the conference, Boston has several other science communication attractions in its cultural roster:

Firstly, art in botany can only be seen at the The Harvard Museum of Natural History. In this lovingly hand created collection, the life-sized plants are both sculpture and teaching tool – a marvel in both cases. Their astounding models, made between 1887 and 1936, are intricately crafted and meticulously kept. In my opinion, it is the best representation of the confluence of art and science to capture the theme of the AAAS. 

Pulsating jellyfish from the New England Aquarium.
Secondly, The New England Aquarium is captivating because it offers the opportunity to see stunning creatures like reclusive octopuses or ethereal jellyfish. Also, there are several open tanks that allow the guest to feel more immersed in the experience (for example, touching live sting rays as they jet by). Finally, there is a strong conservation message throughout about sustainable fishing practices that could not come at a more critical time. 

An example of the geometric art found in the Museum of Science, Boston.

Lastly, The Museum of Science, with its renowned lightening show, actually currently houses an art exhibit explaining how there can be great beauty in the natural world as seen in geometric patterns.

 In conclusion, the AAAS set the stage for the discussion of the beauty of science while the city showcased practical examples of science communication though its cultural institutions and academic powerhouses. By melding theory and actual examples thereof, I can without a doubt exclaim: Boston is for the curious! 

This trip would not have been possible without the generous support of Laurentian University and partners of the Graduate Diploma in Science Communication program. 


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Advice from the Director of SNOLAB

 By Ben Williamson
 The interview was hastily scheduled. I was leaving for Boston the next day and the deadline would come before I got back, so it was Monday or never. That Dr. Nigel Smith, Director of SNOLAB, would give the interview on short notice showed pretty clearly that he was serious about getting the public interested in physics.
SNOLAB is an enormous laboratory at the bottom of an active nickel mine. Over two kilometres down. Real deep.
The complex is about a half hour from town. After signing in, the security gate was raised and I drove through. I was sharing the path with mining transport trucks and men in hard hats.
The interview would be in the above ground office building. Going down into the lab would require catching the lift at 6:00, showering, and putting on a clean suit. Dr. Smith came out of a meeting right on time and we sat on some leather couches in the reception area.
I asked about the research at SNOLAB: the search for dark matter, the ultra-sensitive neutrino detectors and the various other projects. Then I asked him about a public talk he had given at Science North last fall. How do you explain particle physics to the public?
"Particle physics is tough stuff. But if you talk about things in the right way, everything is accessible. You're not going to wade into the standard model and start talking about the role that the Higgs has. Taking the historical perspective puts it in context because you bring people along to a point of contemporary knowledge . It's the old standing on the shoulders of giants concept: building on the work people have done before. "
In his public talk, Dr. Smith wound the clock back thousands of years to give a sketch of physics from the ancient Greeks up until the Higgs Boson was confirmed last fall at the Large Hadron Collider. This might seem like a lot of unnecessary history, but the idea makes sense. Scientists in this century made discoveries by first learning what scientists in the last century had figured out. Why shouldn't the public walk the same path to understand current theories?
He also gave some tips on how to present science in a compelling way.
For the people demanding practical results, Dr. Smith notes that, "It's very easy to demonstrate the technology that particle physics develops, how it spins out everywhere. Every non-invasive  test done in a hospital is developed from some fundamental research."
Stories about researchers and methods are compelling too. "There's that human angle, which I think is obviously very strong because people empathise when you talk about the struggles you are going through when you're trying to do an experiment."
These are good strategies, but he wants mainly to inspire people.
" I tend to prefer the look at the science. It inspires me. Trying to understand what's going on around you is one of the fundamental things that make us human. People are generally fascinated by the universe around them.
"As somebody engaged in trying to understand the universe around us,  I think it's my duty to get out there and explain to them what we think is happening."
He adds, "It's just good fun."