SciBarCamp – Part 4

This is the fourth post in my series about SciBarCamp on March 14–16, 2008 in Toronto. Note that I’m writing about my experience; there were many concurrent sessions so others had a different experience.

Sunday, March 16 continued…

For the next session, Eva Amsen talked about how she summarized the responses people had written on the poster “Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Science.” Then Diane Nalini de Kerckhove (physicist), Larry Moran (biochemist), and (I think) Ana Klasnja (Ontario Science Center) came to the front to present and comment upon the summary points. Some of the points:

  • Science is one of the ways of knowing
  • Science doesn’t have all the answers; it has uncertainty
  • Scientists see confrontation as normal, not impolite
  • Science is a process
  • Science is a human activity

There was quite a lot of discussion. One that stands out in my mind was when Karl Schroeder (science fiction writer) pointed out that scientists are trying to get at the truth, as a goal, whereas writers (like himself) can go off on paths with no particular goal, or with other goals (like to entertain).

Gravel trail
Gravel trail

The next session was about “Art versus Science” and involved at least five people who spoke at the front of the room. The first speaker, whose name I didn’t catch, gave an overview of the history of thought on the “divide” between Art and Science. He pointed out that both the sciences and the arts have gotten increasingly specialized. So where are there opportunities for bridges? Artists and scientists both play and tinker, both with ideas and technologies…

The next speaker in the session was Dave Kemp, who started his career in engineering and is now in the arts. He noted that both artists and scientists look at the world and make “things” but there are separate languages. For example, the word “beauty” has a different meaning in the arts and the sciences. In fact, he said that in art criticism, if one describes a work as “beautiful” then their criticism is often discounted as not serious. (This reminded me of the days when I used to judge 4-H cattle: We were told not to use words like “good” or “better” but rather to use descriptive phrases like “trim brisket” and “well-muscled loin.” After a while, I never even bothered to look at the cattle – I just wrote down a bunch of those stock phrases.)

Black steer
Black steer

Then we watched a clip from an upcoming film named “The Matter of Everything.” Enrico Lappano and Olga Antzoulatos, two of the key people behind it, were there and talked about the need for artists to help convey and communicate science to all. (I agree!)

Someone in the audience noted a wondeful book of poetry by the late astronomer Rebecca Elson, titled A Responsibility to Awe: Poems.

There was a wide-ranging discussion. For example, it was noted that both art and in science, there is both curiosity-driven and money-driven work. Someone suggested that there may be more of a need for generalists now (people who are fluent across many fields of the arts and sciences).

Next up was Jim Ruxton, whose background is in electrical engineering, radio astronomy and satellite communications, but who now works in dance, theatre and film. He told us how Subtle Technologies got started 11 years ago, as a group of artists who began making installations in Toronto. They love to do work that interconnects with the sciences. He noted that mixing art and science is tricky: who should fund it? Art councils or science-granting agencies?

Dragonflies at sunset
Dragonflies at sunset

At 2:00 pm, there was an hour-long session about Second Life. I gave an overview of science-related stuff in SL. Melanie Swan talked about using SL for data vizualization and Michel Gallant talked about the work he did with Pleiades to control a radio telescope from inside SL then see the data visualized as a graph in SL.

Then I caught the end of a discussion on how the mass media reports science and how to communicate science. The key take-away was that science reporters are often too busy to go into a story in any depth so when they call you (as a scientist) to explain your work, be ready with a few key sentences (and be prepared for them to choose the least-important one!).

After that, there was a discussion to address the question “Why are there so few women in physics and mathematics?” led by Robin Blume-Kohout. I got the feeling that it’s not well-understood. Yet other disciplines have shifted their demographics over the years… what do they know that the physicists and mathematicians don’t? There were some scary stories about blatant sexism in un-named universities. Depressing.

Asian signage
Asian signage

The last session begain with Rick Sacks explaining how he created his new recording Ten Planets, as a prologue to a discussion titled “What is Mathematics?” led by Lee Smolin. It was a roller coaster of ideas and questions – most of them unanswered. What Rick did was find new patterns and beauty inspired by the physical world, yet what he did was clearly not mathematics. Is mathematics invented or discovered? Do numbers exist? Math isn’t completely socially constructed: the value of pi (3.14159…) is not negotiable. It seems that no matter how you try to define mathematics, it slips through your fingers. Mathematics is not a language; try translating Hamlet into mathematics!

That was the last session of the day. Before I left, Chris Luckhardt showed me the functionality of his iPod Touch, which is really an awesome device. If I was a mobile worker (and I’m not), I can totally see why I’d want something like it: he uses many of the same software/Web tools as I do: Google reader, Gmail, etc.

Forest of black trees
Forest of black trees

That was the end of SciBarCamp. What an incredible range of people and ideas!

Photo Credits: CN Tower by alexindigo on Flickr,  High Trail by Lance and Erin on Flickr, Black Angus by Just chaos, Dragonfly synchronized perching by tanakawho on Flickr, Mongkik – Numbers by VirtualErn on Flickr, At Land’s End by *clairity*. All are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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