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I like running and science and I have no idea what I'm doing with my life. So I'm writing a blog or something.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Art, Science, and the fusion thereof

My mom and I went to a talk sponsored by the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion program as part of their "the Consilience of art and science speaker series."  The talk was entitled "Pages from the Book of the Unknown Explorer" by a self-described "process-based visual artist," Judit Hersko.  It was more a story and slideshow than a talk, really.  The overall story was one of using art and the humanities to investigate antarctic ecology.  I don't think I can remotely do the presentation justice by trying to summarize it here, so I'm not going to try.  After this story, Judit went on to talk about her efforts in bringing science, in the form of art projects, to students who were otherwise difficult or just plain didn't want to learn about science.

The audience was clearly moved and enamored of her presentation and ideas.  And to some degree I agree with all of the feedback from the audience.  By using a multi-disciplinary approach to education, I think kids, as well as adults, can get a lot more out of the subjects they're learning.  The real world doesn't separate subjects in neat little boxes; everything is connected.

An example of art/science fusion in the oak grove in the UCD arboretum- I made the bird!

Ok, so now I'm going to ramble tangentally on and on about art, science, and ocean acidification, so continue after the jump and read at your own risk.

My reaction to a lot of art and a lot of science is so what?  Art, especially when I don't find it aesthetically pleasing, for obvious reasons sometimes lacks a point.  A lot of science does matter: finding a cure for cancer or creating alternative fuels for cars; in these cases the science has clear goals.  But sometimes I wonder about all of the research academics spend their lives on.  Scientists write papers filled with jargon that are only accessible to those in their chosen field.  And then what?

So I think using art to discover science is a great idea.  I mean, how better to fully understand the anatomy of an insect than to have to create its shape yourself out of clay or some other medium?  It also makes the science more accessible to the general public.  Anyway, before I digress too much, let me go back to Judit's presentation.  In the presentation she addressed the problem of ocean acidification and these beautiful little creatures that will essentially dissolve out of existence with the increased acidity of the oceans.

Now I've done research for a couple of classes in college on this problem and the human race is pretty much at fault.  The pH levels of the ocean fluctuate naturally, but since the dawn of the industrial revolution (i.e. the start massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into our atmosphere because of us), the rate of change in acidity has been significantly larger than at any other point in geologic time.  I won't go to much into the science behind ocean acidification, but the basic idea is that the ocean absorbs a significant amount of the earth's CO2 emissions (awfully nice if it, really), and as we emit more and more CO2, it changes the ocean chemistry.  Many marine organisms depend on calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to survive (think almost anything with a shell plus coral reefs) and the increasing acidity thanks to increased CO2 causes CaCO3 to dissolve.  And if you're thinking, so what? so the coral reefs die a little more and some little critters dissolve, then think about this:

  • 70% of all humans live within 50 miles of the coast.  Coral reefs create a buffer zone between the deep ocean and us; so all those tsunamis and hurricanes you read about in the news? Their effects would be astronomically worse without reefs.
  • All those little organisms that need CaCO3 to survive? They make up the base of our food web, so when they disappear, so do the small fish that eat them and the larger fish that eat them and so on until there is nothing left living in the ocean aside from algae and those crazy bacteria that live in hydrothermal vents.  And if you're thinking, eh, I don't even like seafood, who cares if there are no more fish?  Well, first find someone to slap you and then stop being so self-centered.  Fish and seafood are the main protein source for millions, if not billions of people.
To summarize: humans need to do something about their rampant CO2 emissions because we are literally killing the ocean.

Back to the presentation tonight:  I got the impression that this ocean acidification issue was used as inspiration for an art project and the layperson, from just this talk, really doesn't understand the weight of the issue at hand.  It's great that art is being used to expose people the the issue of ocean acidification, but I don't think the artist went far enough.  It was as if she said look, here are these cool artsy photos of pteropods, creatures that might dissolve in the ocean as it becomes more acidic and hey, heres an instillation I did of CaCO3 sculptures dissolving.  And it comes back to the so what?  Anyone who heard the talk but didn't have the previous scientific knowledge that I did probably doesn't understand why the oceans are getting more acidic and the huge ramifications of this acidity.

Art/science fusion is a great idea, but I think it's a problem when it becomes to artsy.  As you may have guessed, I'm not a big "art" person.  That's not to say I dislike art.  I dabble in photography and ceramics and have been known to mosaic, draw, paint, and make jewelry.  I'm often just underwhelmed and overly critical about most art I see in galleries.  Good art is great, but when people get too creative or experimental, they lose me.  I also have a tendency to dislike art after reading artist's statements, even if I really enjoy the piece.  Artists (and I realize I'm making sweeping generalizations here) have a tendency to go on about deeper meaning and how the art represents the dichotomy of the deconstruction of a seagull's desire in the American dream.  Basically when I read an artist's statement I read "I'm full of bullshit."  And when every piece is "untitled" or "untitled #6," give me a break! You're job is to be creative and if you can write about how you feel about this work, then you can damn well give it a title.  I'm being a bit harsh on artists, I know, but I guess that's why I'm a scientist.  But I digress yet again from a point I'm not sure I have, or even will, make in this post.

If art can get kids interested in science, that's great, but if it just gets kids into using science to create art, I see a problem forming.  Science is the reason we are able to live the way we do: with cars, computers, medicine, even cooking is a form of chemistry if you think about it.  And science really doesn't need art to be interesting.  But I guess that's why I tend to like realist art about nature: it's essentially a diagram or scientific illustration.  Nature really is the greatest artist.

 Here's a blog I like about how science is cool: It's Okay to be Smart.

Somewhat related to all this (but not really, I was just reminded of this link someone posted on facebook, and since I'm just rambling anyway...) is this: Math doesn't suck, you do.  

I'm going to stop here because it's getting late and I probably stopped making sense a while back.

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