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. 


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