Friday, July 10, 2015

Artistic Interpretations of Science

by Edward Hessler

Dance, music and photography are often used to provide different representations of science and environmental science.  The intent and hope is that they may help non-scientists refine their understanding of the underlying science.  Three examples follow.

Site Specific Performances

1.This year marked the final performance--the 19th--of Solstice River, at the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis honoring the Mississippi River on the longest day of the year.  It was conceived by Marylee Hardenbergh, an artist-in-residence at the Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE) who is quick to note that many others--choreographers, a ceremonialist, musicians and a radio station--were involved in the creation and performance.

The announcement of Solstice River XIX, included A Water Wheel of Time on the front of the post card, pie-shaped images of the previous 18 years. These small slices show how that site was used--the river, piers, weirs, buildings, the bridge and boats.  This year also marked the third biennial of Global Water Dances. This involves over 70 cities on six continents, which on a single day use dance to inspire international collaboration for sustainable water solutions through the language and logic of dance.  This idea was originally conceived by a meeting of Laban Movement Analysts who attended a conference on Dance and the Environment in July 2008 at Schumacher College, England.

The spirit and the intent of these Laban Movement Analysts is captured in this statement: "Participation in planning local events or Global Water Dances is open to anyone who loves to move."  Some of us prefer to do this privately, though and to watch those who can move, move.

Why did this good thing, Solstice XIX, come to an end? A long article in Redcurrent tells why and is a wonderful story about Marylee Hardenbergh, career as well as her thoughts about how one thing often leads to another.

Hardenbergh has always been open to the possibilities of nearly any site.  One of them marked the opening of a sewage treatment plant and included a truck driver with his truck as well as other plant personnel.

So Marylee, what can be said to you for 19 moving (forgive me but they were on two levels) Solstice River celebrations and experiences?  Thank you is perfect.

2.  In March 2015, a dance about climate change was performed at the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, the American Museum of Natural History.  The choreography was by Karole Armitage, the performance was narrated by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and shaped by the exhibits and conversations with museum curator Rob DeSalle. Several well known musicians were involved in developing a score and performing it.

The dance's title, On the Nature of Things, was intentional. The dance is a descendant of a two-thousand-year-old poem of the same name by Lucretius (De Rerum Natura).  The poem is about a material world and cosmos and human agency.  There is nothing divine about it all, from creation to its end. It prefigures, in some ways, modern science.

Deborah Coen, a Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University wrote a review for Public Books.  She calls our attention to Ehrlich's deep interest in what he refers to as the "culture gap," a division between two kinds of knowledge, societal and personal.  To stitch this gap closer together he suggests that different ways of disseminating what scientists know about ecology and human behavior should be used.

Professor Coen notes some of the dangers in this approach to closing "the culture gap," including an important basic claim by Ehrlich as well as a stereotype of scientists which the staging of the performance inadvertently reinforces.  However, she writes that the dance "shows how science and dance can partner to deepen our visceral understanding of human impacts on the earth."  Her review is thoughtful, and an invaluable guide to what are sometimes referred to as different ways of knowing.


1. Scientific papers make considerable use of visual displays, graphs and tables, which can be daunting, if not at all understandable, by many non-experts.  These summaries of the data often require expertise, familiarity with the field and its conventions and the time required to study them.

Daniel Crawford was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota when he had an internship with Professor Scott St. George that led Crawford to writing a score for cello that might help others make sense of the story of climate change held in data representations. A Song of Our Warming Planet translates year-by-year surface temperature data collected from 1880 to 2012 into musical notes.  Low notes represent warm years and high notes represent cool years.

2. Two years after the debut of A Song of Our Warming Planet, Daniel Crawford and Scott St. George joined forces again to create a new composition, Planetary Bands, Warming World.  It was written for a string quartet consisting of cello, viola, and two violins. The cello notes represent the equatorial band, viola notes, the mid-latitudes and violins, the high latitudes and the arctic.

Environmental Photography

Cause & Effect is the current exhibit at the Verve Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Most of the images are on how human activities are altering the environment. The exhibit dates are from July 3, 2015 to September 5, 2015.

Interestingly, theguardian (England) took note of this event and published a small gallery of the photographs. I shouldn't be surprised since this paper includes a gallery (environment + gallery) section.

Back to Schooling

Long ago (it now seems long ago) the idea of alternative assessments for showing evidence of science learning held sway (well, some).  In Minnesota they were used in the Minnesota Graduation Standards known as the Profile of Learning, a program with a short shelf-life.

Among the national leaders were the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe who wrote a useful book which is described on the website of Wiggins's consulting firm Authentic Design. It is about designing lessons for understanding based on the idea that "performance is the key to understanding."  These kinds of lessons demand that we start backwards from what would be evidence of understanding, revealing performance tasks, criteria to distinguish work and likely student misunderstandings, including checking for them before the lesson is designed.

I'm reminded of such tasks when I think about dance, music and photography.  When I attend an artist's openings, I always hope that there will be an artist's statement. I want them to help me enter the work but also to help me think about it more deeply. I would like to know how the artist was thinking about the art in the kinds of ways that Wiggins and McTighe describe in their very useful book.

And when I read Deborah Coen's review of the March 2015 dance performance at the American Museum of Natural History, knowing "stuff" such as context, history, concepts in science and dance, staging etc., adds to the mystery, pleasure and delight of learning about this world.

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