Sunday, 30 October 2011

Celebrate Science '11 (and Art and Science)

This is wonderful. It's simply one of those places everyone wants to be: the children, the parents, grandparents or friends, the students... On two of the days of the festival I turned up latish in the afternoon expecting to find people contented but flagging. Instead the atmosphere was still electric, the enthusiasm boiling over, and no outward sign that anyone had had anything like enough of this!

Thank you to everyone who had anything to do with Celebrate Science. It is absolutely the Durham way to do this - setting the most moving, the most searching, the most imaginative, possibly the most spiritual activity a human being can enjoy - that is doing science, on Palace Green, one of the most inspirational places of learning on Planet Earth.

Discovery seemed to be the theme right to, and beyond, the last moment. Even as part of the cleaing up process the remains of a dewar of liquid nitrogen tipped over the floor became an experiment in cloud dynamics for some 8 and 9 year olds who were kicking about the floor (see the photo above - the best happened before I could get the iPhone out: a veritable spiral galaxy on the floor). Proctor and Gamble scientists were helping visitors smash (chemically) oil drops to smithereens with surfactants, the Institute of Physics had completely lost it and were making music with teapots as far as I could make out ... and I actually had a rather serious conversation with the psychologists about their spinning black and white wheel that makes you see colours (it's all about temporal and spatial retinal colour calibration gone wrong I think ...).

And Art and Science ... perhaps I'll save my twopennyworth for later; suffice to say that some of us were unhelpfully talking about it when we should really ahve been carting tables away...

Who's for keeping the blog going all the way to Celebrate Science '12?

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A House Divided

(Lynne Hardy)

As discussed by Tom and Linda elsewhere on this blog, writing, like science, is about observation. And so is art. Yet so often, these are treated as completely separate disciplines with little or nothing in common. Kate Hudson discussed in her recent post the struggle to reconcile art and science; it’s one I know well, because I’ve had to work through it.

I trained as a scientist because I was fascinated by how the world around me worked. I wanted to understand how our fleshy little sacks stumble about and create, in the words of Howard Carter, such “wonderful things”. I was drawn to the study of how life functioned at the tiniest of scales, first through biochemistry, then molecular and cell biology.

I think it would have been a more difficult decision to go into science if I hadn’t failed my Art O-level. Let’s just say that I suffered two years of creative differences with my art teacher, which left me with the impression that art was intractable and out of bounds for anyone with an interest in science. Science satisfied my curiosity and had measurable, quantifiable things in it; it had nothing to do with someone’s personal beliefs, be they right or wrong. Of course, now I’m older and wiser, I know that’s a very na├»ve view but to someone deciding on their future career path, it was fairly fundamental.

Children, as Emma-Kate discusses in her first post, see no specialisation or separation between creativity, science and art; that separation comes later, both for us as individuals and in the history of our subjects. In fact, once upon a time, back when the word scientist didn’t exist, the people who studied the world around them were called natural philosophers or natural historians, both of which sound so much softer and all-encompassing. And they studied the world through observation, thinking, writing and art, all as one big, accommodating discipline. It was only as we grew to know more collectively than one person could ever hope to learn for themselves that they began to fragment and drift apart.

During the last of my post-doctoral positions, I decided I didn’t particularly love science anymore, which came as something of a shock. Somehow I’d gone from someone who had believed science to be wonderfully creative (after all, how do you get from a handful of apparently random measurements to a theory that explains them?) to someone who viewed it as restrictive and stifling. I’d always written and worked with textiles, but the longer I spent as a post-doc, the less engaged I became with what felt like, at the time, these much more creative activities.

And so I took the drastic decision to drop science and retrain as an embroiderer, with a view to teaching it. I took my City & Guilds qualifications, but struggled constantly with the feeling that somehow I didn’t belong, that I was pretending to be something I wasn’t. Because I couldn’t get enough teaching hours to get my PGCE as a community craft lecturer due to funding cuts, I was pushed into teaching A-level Biology as well and I frequently felt like I was at war with myself. I was having a terrible time trying to be both a scientist and an artist, such utterly alien fields, until something slowly and painfully dawned on me: the underlying processes for both science and art are essentially the same.

Look at it this way: scientific research is like solving a mystery. First you identify your problem, then you start asking questions. Once you know what questions to ask, you set about finding answers through experimentation and observation. If that doesn’t work, you go back to the drawing board and design new experiments until you can answer them.

And how is that different to creating a piece of art? It isn’t. Each new project is also a mystery, posing a unique set of questions of its own. So you start to experiment with sketches, word lists, pencils, chalks, paints, ink, fabrics, whatever, to see if you can answer those questions. And if those experiments don’t work, you go back to the bench and carry out new research until you can answer them. Just like science.

By stepping back and realising this, I regained not only my passion for science but a greater understanding of how I work and how these two great fields don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Creativity should not be defined by the discipline you are working in; it should be free to cross boundaries and break down stereotypes for the enrichment of all.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Celebrate Science: Day 3

We have had a fantastic final day of Celebrate Science 2011! Once again there were members of the public with their faces pressed up against the glass doors pleading to be let in to the marquee before 10am, and there was a steady stream of new people joining us for the event throughout the day, right up until 4pm (and beyond!). All of the exhibitors and visitors have had a fabulous time exchanging ideas and sharing experiences; there was lots of laughter, and we will all sleep well tonight!

Celebrate Science 2011 has been a huge success! Once again we had over 1,000 new people visit us in the marquee today, and have had a grand total of more than 3,500 visitors over the course of the event. We simply wouldn’t be able to run this event without the generosity, enthusiasm and commitment of the many volunteers from Durham University who either ran exhibits or acted as stewards for the event (or both!). In addition to the many volunteers from various departments across Durham University, we also had a variety of other people involved in Celebrate Science, who I refer to as “external exhibitors” for want of a better phrase, who were similarly committed to sharing their ideas and enthusiasm, and who I want to take the opportunity to publicly thank for enriching the event.

First mention must go to Proctor and Gamble, who provided some financial support for the event as well as a team of volunteers who amazed us all with magic materials and revealed the mystery of what happens inside dishwashers.

Second mention goes to the pathology team from University Hospital North Durham, who came to us with the idea of running a Virtual Autopsy, and in addition to making that Keynote a great success also ran an exhibit allowing visitors to become “Disease Detectives”.

Continuing the detective theme, the team from STEAM (Science and Technology Education Around Museums) invited visitors to solve the mystery of the missing mummy, and follow the journey of an artefact from initial discovery to eventual display.

Finally, today, for one day only, we had the pleasure of welcoming Cancer Research UK to the Celebrate Science marquee. Their team of volunteers from the Newcastle Cancer Centre introduced visitors to a day in the life of a cancer researcher, and provided the opportunity to extract the DNA from strawberries. Did you know that strawberries have more DNA per cell than humans?

We also had two major installations within the marquee, challenging each other for popularity, and both winning a special place in the memories of visitors to the marquee. Pro Energy, the installation provided and run by Greenfield Community and Arts Centre, is an interactive installation using light, sound, music and movement to explore healthy lifestyle choices. Pro Energy was created by young people from Newton Aycliffe with artists Falling Cat and health professionals, and certainly had our younger visitors expending their energy!

Meanwhile, in the Planetarium provided and run by the Life Science Centre, visitors were introduced to the characters of the constellations in the night sky and found out where to look if they want the chance to see a supernova. Sadly, it is cloudy in Durham tonight, so there is no opportunity for more stargazing. I am instead enjoying a nice sit down and a cup of tea, and thinking about plans for Celebrate Science 2012! See you there!

Paula Martin is Science Outreach Co-ordinator for Durham University.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Celebrate Science: Day 2

I arrived at the Celebrate Science marquee bright and early for the start of Day 2, giving myself time to soak up the atmosphere of excitement and nervous anticipation amongst the exhibitors before we opened the doors again to the public at 10am. We had had a great start to the event on Day 1, and were hoping that we would enjoy more of the same boundless curiosity, inspiring imagination and thought-provoking discussions today. We were not disappointed!

By 10am the public were knocking on the door, eager to come inside, explore new ideas and share their experiences. Following on from the great crowd of visitors we had on Day 1, we had more than 1,000 visitors again on Day 2, and a very busy lunchtime with more than 300 people visiting between noon and 1pm.

In addition to all the activities taking place in the marquee, we are running a series of Keynote events over the 3 days, all of which are supported by exhibits within the marquee. On Day 1 we hosted a virtual autopsy, conducted by pathologist Dr. Mitul Sharma from University Hospital North Durham, which was very popular with the local school students who attended; they kept Dr. Sharma very busy with probing questions!

This evening, Dr. Karen Johnson from Durham University’s School of Engineering and Computer Sciences will be discussing Dirty Stuff: What rocks and soils have done for us! And finally, tomorrow, Dr. Steve Robertson, also from Durham University’s School of Engineering and Computer Sciences, will be discussing Bikes in Bits: Why your bike does what it does. The Keynote events provide an alternative way of exploring subjects with the wider public, expanding on ideas that have been introduced in the marquee, and challenging our Keynote scientists to consider new ways of thinking about and discussing their own passions.

We have all had a very stimulating couple of days; our exhibitors are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of new ideas and looking forward to finding out what tomorrow may bring!

Paula Martin is Science Outreach Co-ordinator for Durham University.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Celebrate Science: Day 1

Linda Gillard’s Celebrate Science Residency is approaching it’s finale at the same time that Durham University scientists are breaking out of the lab and sharing their ideas and their enthusiasm for all things scientific with the general public.

Today was the first day of Celebrate Science: 3 fun-packed and fascinating days of FREE events, activities, workshops, experiments and lectures celebrating science. Children of all ages are invited to join us in a marquee on Palace Green, the heart of Durham’s World Heritage Site.

At one end of the marquee Glassblower Malcolm Richardson wowed the crowds with his amazing craftsmanship and beautiful, delicate glasswork; at the other end PhD student Kirsty McCarrison captivated the crowd with her explanation of how to mummify a banana (or a Barbie doll, depending on your own personal preference).

For me, this is the busiest and most exciting time of year: there is a new cohort of undergraduate students in Durham full of questions and new ideas, and we are taking the plunge and opening ourselves up to explore science with anyone and everyone who wants to join us. It’s exhausting, but exhilarating!

In the midst of all the excitement of the event, I managed to take a well-earned break and catch-up with a group of friends I made through Bookcrossing, the online community of booklovers which first introduced me to Linda Gillard’s work. Although we didn’t have much time to talk about books today, we did cover a wide range of scientific ideas. We discussed everything from kitchen chemistry, natural pigments and dyeing to liquid nitrogen, stargazing and the origins of the Universe.

We had over 200 people visit the marquee in the first hour of Celebrate Science this morning, and saw more than 1,000 visitors over the course of the day. There was an amazing buzz in the air, with families and friends exploring together, making discoveries, and sharing experiences; building happy memories for the future. We all had an amazing time, and can’t wait to do it all again tomorrow!

Paula Martin is Science Outreach Co-ordinator for Durham University.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Working With Words

(by Lynne Hardy)

I was very disappointed to have missed the writing workshops held in the summer as part of Linda Gillard’s Celebrating Science residency, so I was thrilled to bits to see that there was to be a repeat run this semester. The write-ups from Linda on the Celebrating Science blog had me intrigued and I was looking forward to seeing what was on offer.

So, on Monday morning I made my way to the very top of the Calman Learning Centre ready to be inspired. We were a mixed group: professors, lecturers, science communicators and students with a variety of backgrounds and experience (including Emma-Kate, who has also contributed to this blog). The room we were in looked out onto a high blue sky and a magnificent view of the Cathedral and Castle, presiding serenely over the bustling city below.

Our first exercise was to read two scientific newspaper articles and discuss our thoughts on them. One was brief and clinical, concentrating on getting hard data across to the reader without engaging them on a more visceral level; the other read more like a story, beginning with a question that people could identify with, then building on that to deliver an accessible scientific message. They served to highlight key differences in the way that science can be presented to the public and, as I’ve discussed before, how words can be used to turn people on or off regarding it.

The next set of exercises used photographs. For the first one we had to choose a picture that spoke to us and write down the questions it inspired. In the next, we answered a series of questions relating to a different picture, trying to create a character with depth but not useless detail (or, as Linda described it, it’s not as if you need to know what school the character went to, or what they had for breakfast, to get a handle on how they behave). We also used photographs to look at ideas of stereotypes and how to subvert them to make for a more interesting plot.

Now I’ve done quite a lot of writing in various different fields, scientific and fantastical, but as in everything, there is always more to learn and I was particularly interested in the timed writing exercises I’d read about. I knew that many of my comic artist friends did warm-up sketches before they settled down to more “serious” drawing (here's an example of one of Abby Ryder's) and the timed exercises seemed to be the word equivalent of that. Having tweeted some of my writer friends after the workshop, several of them also do warm-ups to get their creative juices flowing; sometimes it is with similar exercises to this, or in Dan Wickline’s case, he likes to do sudoko puzzles to take care of his brain’s logical needs before flexing its creative muscles.

The challenge of the timed writing exercise is to write for, say, ten minutes without stopping or correcting spelling and punctuation or worrying about quality, starting from a trigger word. Linda had supplied a very long and varied set of words to choose from and so we began. My first word was “silence”, which I then proceeded to destroy by tippy-tappying away at my keyboard. Interestingly, the non-stop part of the exercise didn’t phase me and the words tumbled out in a stream of consciousness that was very liberating. What was difficult was not going back to correct myself; I’m a fast typist, but not a very accurate one, so the piece was littered with inversions, trip-ups and gobbledygook caused by my racing fingers.

This first attempt was followed by a discussion on how people had found the exercise. It’s always fascinating to hear how people work, why they write and the difficulties they have with it. Some had relished the experience, others were not so sure; the lack of structure and an end product was sufficiently different to the scientific writing they were used to, that it had taken them out of their comfort zone completely. After this analysis, we had another go. And another. This last attempt was slightly different; a word wasn’t the inspiration this time, but a piece of music. I can’t remember the name of it, or who wrote it, but it was a very sad and haunting cello and piano duet that led to quite a melancholy response.

And then, suddenly, we were out of time. The morning had flown by and had, by turns, been instructive, illuminating and demanding, but very rewarding. Linda was an open and engaging teacher, more than willing to share her own experiences, ideas and advice with all present. My only complaint would be that it just wasn’t long enough, and it’s not often you hear that about CPD!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Good or Misunderstood?: The Wicked Witches of Art and Science

by Kate Hudson

As someone who works in public engagement across research subjects, the boundaries and gateways between disciplines fascinate me, and it was the simple and complex connections between art and science that interested me in the Celebrate Science Author in Residence project. Now called upon to articulate this interest, I have turned the subject over in my mind for several weeks, not quite understanding exactly what I find so challenging about art and science. Of the two areas of expertise, I sit firmly in the arts camp. I studied art and literature, worked for a while in design and continue to write and produce work in my own time, for the pure thrill of feeling creative. Yet I am somewhat turned on by science. There, I said it.

Creativity grounds me; it allows me to make sense on my own world, ensures I don't fall down too often by my own doing. Yet science awakens me; it allows me to understand far more about life than just my own perspectives, and for that I am ridiculously grateful.

So you would think then, that I would be able to wax lyrical about the intertwining worlds of art and science, yet somehow the subject was escaping me, as if there were two characters on a stage, poking and provoking one another, deftly skirting around the truth of their relationship.

It was the world of arts that broke through and inspired me on this occasion, a lyric from a musical in fact. In Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, we see two unlikely friends grow to become the characters we already know as the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North, famous from L. Frank Baum’s stories of Oz. The characters struggle through personality clashes and opposing viewpoints, not least their responses to the Wizard's corrupt government, and ultimately, the story sees one of them suffer a very public fall from grace. The lyric that struck me was one made famous by Idina Menzel, who originally played Elphaba, the misunderstood girl who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Devastated to find out that the Wizard is not the man she thought he was, Elphaba vows to fight back and break free of the rules in her world, concluding that it’s “time to try defying gravity”.

I thought how wonderfully empowering this lyric was, and then considered almost instantly, how ridiculous too. Like many metaphors in art, we are encouraged to think that casting off reality is pivotal, as living within boundaries is disabling. External influences in art have, across centuries, created the idea of reaching a state beyond reality: enlightenment. And herein lays the problem. Art seems historically set up to clash with science. Rather than be seen as parallel forces with which we push boundaries, explore the world and test our understanding of it, art has been a vehicle with which to overthrow science. Art has almost arrogantly assumed a power beyond science, considering scientists to be missing the wood for the trees. It is the subject of ‘Yes, but…”, often valuing the point but rubbishing the practice.

Science has had its victories, of course, but now embittered, seems to fight back against anything and everything that is anti-science, with all the grace of a scorned lover. At a performance of Uncaged Monkeys recently, I watched some of our leading scientific minds incite a crowd to whoop and cheer at the public flogging of non-scientific theories, reaching frenzy in the dismantling of faith and religion. I felt horribly uncomfortable, as though the universe was a prize, which you could only ‘have’ if you understood the science behind it. The message was that science is strong, science is true… doubters not welcome.

I am of course, pointing at the far ends of the spectrum. I gratefully see more and more science-art collaborations and regularly meet with minds that understand and appreciate the inspiration in both fields, seeking to make the world a better place to be with the practice of either, or both.

I do hope this continues. It would be terrible to see either science or art crushed to death by a falling house from Kansas.

Kate Hudson is Project Manager for Beacon NE, the North East Beacon for Public Engagement.