22 June 2011

Molecule haikus

I'm collecting molecule haikus. No reason, other than someone sent me one - about carbon and oxygen - on Twitter. Then someone sent me another. Also about carbon. And another about water. I've posted them below.

"Oh why, Oxygen/did you choose Carbon, of all/Deadly love affair." - @AnneOsterrieder (Plant cell biologist studying the Golgi apparatus.)

"Join me, soft graphite/ Before this world crushes you / Your veins clear like glass" - @martinaustwick (Podcaster, Social Physicist, One-Man-Band, Unicorn Torturer)

"For H2O mix / Two hydrogens and just one / Oxygen. Finish." - @brisandbath_sci (The Bristol & Bath branch of the British Science Association:)


"Humoral response, Molecules collide in blood, Body protected." - @JLVernonPhD (Defender of Science, Molecular Biologist)

Now I want more. So PLEASE SEND MORE (add them in the comments). Thank you, kind people of Twitter.

19 June 2011

M-Shed: how to engage the locals

When I heard that the new £27 million M-Shed - a museum that promises to "tell the story of our city" - was opening in Bristol this weekend, I have to say I felt fairly apathetic about it. Standing right on the dockside, facing the floating harbour, the building itself is colossal, box-like and once housed Bristol's "much-loved" industrial museum. Personally, I never felt much affinity with it. So it was with without any high hopes or expectations that I arrived (with Mr Hayley and a friend in tow) outside the museum doors yesterday afternoon.

Within two minutes of stepping inside the building, I'd been greeted by a smiley lady wearing an M-Shed t-shirt, handed a pencil and a piece of paper and agreed to sketch out a design that I was later to transfer onto one of enormous windows in the stair well. The window was, by this point, already adorned with tens or quite possibly hundreds of visitors' impressions of local landmarks, all carefully inked onto the glass. The impressive view from the balcony at the top of the museum seemed to be a source of much inspiration. Upon staring out of the opposite window, however, I caught sight of the distinctive lettering that spells out 'THE LOUISIANA' and decided to pay homage to the legendary music pub - the venue for early gigs of The Libertines, Muse, Kings of Leon, British Sea Power and Mumford & Sons, to name but a few. Artistically, the result wasn't quite as charming as I'd hoped (pictures of the window itself still to come), but I was gratified by the chance to contribute to this gorgeously skewy piece of public art.

Not to linger on this window drawing, but it was, I think, a stroke of genius by the museum staff. Before I'd even set foot inside an exhibition hall, the drawing had stirred up a strong feeling of connection to my home city. A connection to the building and to the people living in it, with whom I had helped to create this artwork. More than that, though, the invitation to make my mark on the very structure of the building had given me a sense of shared ownership. This, combined with the slightly rebellious pleasure obtained from being allowed to scrawl on a shiny new window in a recently renovated building, left me infinitely more positive and open-minded about the exhibits I had yet to see. And, if I'm not mistaken, the window art was a nod to the street art scene that Bristol is famed for - I appreciated that.

As for the exhibits, well, as someone who has lived in or near Bristol their entire life, it's hard to convey quite how I began to feel as we perused cabinets stuffed with artefacts that related directly to my home environment. The curators had defined Bristol not just by a timeline of historical events, but by its culture, encompassing not only 19th century riots, architecture and inventions, but modern day festivals, clothes designers and film makers. The whole experience was steeped in nostalgia for me. One cabinet contained relics from Ashton Court Festival - until 2007, one of the focal points of city's music calendar - including a torn, paint-daubed festival t-shirt. In another, a stunning, gothic-inspired knitted dress designed by a student at the university where I did my postgraduate degree was displayed alongside more conventional clothing designs from centuries past.

Although many of the artefacts were behind glass, the curators had gone to great lengths to liven up the museum's halls with curious and often playful exhibits. Those that attracted attention included a full-size table and chairs (which visitors could sit at) with place settings and menus representing middle class dinner parties for different eras, a piece of street art covering an entire wall and a computerised exhibit that visitors could use to remix tracks originally recorded by Bristol-based musicians.

At the centre of one hall, we stopped to gaze down through a large opening in the floor. Spread out on the floor below was a map of the whole of Bristol. Now, what's the first thing you do when you see a map of your home town? You start looking for your house, or your school, or your local pub. And that's exactly what about 10-15 people at a time were doing, some of them on their hands and knees.

By the time we reached the bottom floor and I had reluctantly given up hope of finding my house - which was at that time located under a large pram - I was feeling quite emotional. As we emerged from the exit to find the concreted area outside had been turned into a giant chalk board, I resolved to visit again very soon. I could easily have spent several more hours at M-Shed, but in all likelihood, I would have been overcome with nostalgia - and pride in the achievements of my home city. So, I guess, I'm a convert to the new museum. I think that it says much about the culture of Bristol that I had thought would be impossible to convey.

I'd be interested to hear what non-Bristolians think of M-Shed. My impression was that most people visiting on the opening weekend were local people, and for that reason, they were feeling the same closeness to all the objects on display as I was. I could be wrong. But I'm sure that the creative way the exhibits have been designed will also interest outsiders... if not quite so intently.

P.S. I'm not sure exactly what this has to do with science communication (sorry sci commers), but there are certainly some fascinating examples of public engagement here.

1 June 2011

Yes! Look what just arrived!

Gene Code Fridge Magnets from the Open University! Win!
Chromosome-based fridge magnets. Why can't every day be this good?

Einstein's Gardener

As readers of this blog will know, I'm a sucker for anything combining science and the arts, and especially the musical arts. So when I was asked to manage the Solar Stage in Einstein's Garden at the amazing Green Man Festival, I jumped at the chance. My task, basically: to populate a festival programme with nerds. And mostly singing ones.

Well, initially, I admit, my minor successes at... erm... nerd-herding (oh, happy rhyming accident!) at Geek Pop might have made me a bit complacent - "Nerds you say? Ha! I know all of the nerds, all of them I tell you!" The ensuing panic hit just prior to my wedding at the start of this month, when I realised I was about to leave the office for nearly a month - strictly no internet permitted - without having herded all the relevant nerds into my neatly ordered and beautifully colour-coded Excel spreadsheet.

Luckily, other Einstein's Gardeners were on hand to man the spreadsheets while I drank gin cocktails in Sardinia and, following a Bank Holiday Skype-athon and some serious jigsaw puzzling of the schedule, it appears we've pretty much cracked it. And now I think about it... it looks freaking awesome!

Helen and Olly: Answer Me This
Not only have we succeeded in dragging half the nerd population of London to Wales for a (probably wet) weekend, we've managed to persuade a Sony Award-winning podcast team (Answer Me This*) and some hotly-tipped young bands (Marthas and Arthurs, With Love From Humans!) to perform on a barely waterproof stage powered by a distinctly dubious source (the Sun**). That, plus the fact that I've managed to team up Jonny Berliner, Helen Arney and Rishi Nag in the ultimate musical geek-off... all on miniature guitars... And I'm practically salivating. By jove, we've created the hippest nerdfest the world has ever seen!

Anyway, that's my publicity drive over with and now I want to explain why this is important. Because you might not think that I'd consider a muddy field in Wales the pinnacle of my science communication career to date, but let me tell you why I think it *is* - with reference to a conversation I had last week that I've been thinking about a LOT.

The essence of this conversation, which started over a post-honeymoon cup of tea with Julianna from StoryCog (and I'm sure she won't mind me repeating it here), was that in trying to bridge the gap between art and science, science communication (or the science communicator) often seems to creates more barriers than bridges. And I think Einstein's Garden does a good job of avoiding that particular pitfall.

Sometimes, you see, it just seems like we're going about this interdisciplinary stuff all the wrong way. So often, the focus for science communication is on getting scientists to create art from their research, or on providing a kind of scientific consultancy service to artists. As if scientific accuracy lends some kind of greater legitimacy to a piece of art. But does it?

I get where science communication is coming from. Evidence-based is best, right? Right... If you're a scientist. Because if you're a scientist, you deal in Theories and Experiments and Facts, so it seems logical that art about science should be based - like journal papers - on Theories and Experiments and Facts. But artists don't work like that. I mean, I'm probably not the best person to ask what artists base their work on but I'm also a writer and I've written some short stories in my time, and if you asked me what they were based on I'd say sudden wafts of familiar smells; words that fit a rhythm rather than a formula; feelings of nostalgia or déjà vu or sleep deprivation; that sort of thing. It's more about taking the germ of an idea and running with it.

So in my mind, there are two problems with the scientific approach to making art. One is that it ignores all those talented artists who are happily and legitimately making art about science in their usual lovely, haphazard, non-evidence based way. And the other is that if we reduce science-inspired art to handing scientists a paintbrush or a microphone, it's as if we're saying artists aren't capable of understanding science in the "correct" way, or of representing it accurately or fairly. But that's just the point! Who said art is supposed to be an accurate representation? Isn't one of the reasons we make art to provide completely new perspectives? What a bore if it was just frighteningly realistic still lifes and landscapes...

So without getting too deep (yes, sorry about that - I'll stop soon), it's for these reasons that I think it's more interesting to mix up the artists and scientists in one big arty, sciencey jumble and let them get on with it. Who knows? They might learn something from each other.

The non-existent pie chart
Now, the neat thing about Einstein's Garden is that it's grown from grassroots and it's (mostly) funded by people paying to see arts performances, so in general there's no one making a pie chart of the proportion of scientists vs non-scientists performing on my stage. Which in this instance, I think, is good. Don't get me wrong, I've programmed a lot of scientists. But only coincidentally, if you see what I mean. I won't discriminate against a band due to a lack of PhDs - I'm only concerned that they have something to say about the environment, or genetics or robots. Because science is our theme; finding out about it is part of a wider cultural interest, not just an educational aim. And because Einstein's Garden is part of a larger music festival and we're competing for the attentions of those who may have absolutely no prior interest in the subject, the motivation is to programme high quality performances - whether those be music, comedy, theatre, storytelling, poetry or a craft workshop - rather than science projects with some "art" tagged on.

So do science-themed Q&A sessions and some funny songs about particles performed in a field constitute science communication? It depends what you call science communication. If you think science communication always has to involve actual scientists or science communicators or has to teach someone how the Large Hadron Collider works, then probably not. But if you want people to consider science a part of culture in the same way they would politics or music or cookery, then perhaps this is the sort of science communication that is really worth doing.

P.S. Am I being purposefully provocative? Yes. Someone should probably argue with me.
P.P.S. Am I biased? Definitely. I love this project.
P.P.P.S. Here's a MixCloud list of musicians playing Einstein's Garden this year. Have a listen. It's good.

*Although I gather certain members of the Answer Me This team will agree to pretty much anything for half a kilo of Flying Saucers...
**The Sun, as in the celestial object, not The Sun as in the newspaper - that really would be a dubious source.