Science and the rest of life

2015-10-15 20.11.50Last week was the annual ArchWay With Words literary festival in North London. Just in its third year, it’s quite popular already, and booklovers from all over the city have attended author talks. The programming is varied, and there are talks about all kinds of books and on all kinds of topics. Like last year, the festival featured several science-related talks. That’s great, because the audience of a literary festival won’t be exactly the same as the audience of all the usual science talks in London. New people are coming to science talks, and some science fans might attend their first literary festival. It’s an opportunity for science and scientists to mingle directly with a new audience, and it’s an accessible way for many other people to talk and think about science.

One of this year’s science-themed events at the festival was Simon Singh, who earlier that very same week spoke out against various art and science collaborations, which would have all had the same effect as his own talk at the literary festival in getting new people to get in touch with science.

I have to say that I haven’t been able to hear Singh’s talk first-hand: Although his talk at the 2:AM Altmetrics conference in Amsterdam was recorded, the recording is not available online. I had to get the message second-hand, from the Times Higher Education piece and from other attendees, but from all accounts it sounds like he wants science outreach to mainly be cheap and direct educational content, like YouTube videos.

I love YouTube, and I agree that it’s a great way to provide science content, but the audience is “people who watch science videos on YouTube”. These people already have a basic interest in science, and are curious for more. They’re awesome, but they’re not the only audience out there.

Not everyone is interested enough in science to look up science videos. Some people don’t ever think about science at all. Should they learn about science? They probably won’t enroll in a science degree, but should they not at least be aware that there are scientists out there who are more than the mystical and nameless “scientists” who newspapers report on daily as “being one step closer to a cure” or having “discovered interesting new evidence”?

If people who don’t engage with science daily don’t know any scientists and have never seen any, science turns into this weird distant thing that isn’t important to their lives. But it is! That is why scientists and science communicators need to show their face at literary events, and why they should collaborate with fashion designers, choreographersphotographers and other artists. It doesn’t reach everyone, and people who attend literature and arts events are by no means a cross-section of the whole population, but they are AN audience (just like “science video watchers on YouTube” are an audience). Other audiences have other channels to connect with science, and not all audiences are future scientists. Science affects everyone in some way or another.

Art projects might not always be neatly packaged and easily measurable science communication, and yes, it might be expensive, but a ballet about Einstein would not cost more than any other ballet and a portrait series about mathematicians is no different from a portrait series about any other group of people. Despite a recent rough patch in the global economy, art continues to be made and funded.

We can’t control what art artists make on their own accord. Sometimes it’s science-themed, sometimes it’s not. What we CAN do is try to make sure that the people who enjoy the art have access to information about the science or scientists that inspired it, or commission a specific science-themed work from an artist. Those things can cost money. It might be a lot, or it might be little, but all of it goes towards humanizing science and making it a valid part of our broader culture.


(Image: I got to hold a fossil at one of the book talks at ArchWay With Words this week. Here it is in my hand, before I passed it on to others in the audience: humanities students, retired people, avid readers and various others just checking out this local book event.)


Finding DNA sculptures in London

On Sunday, a group of friends and I set out to find the DNA sculptures that are scattered around London this summer.

The weather wasn’t the best, and we started the journey in heavy rain, but it got a little bit better later. We didn’t make it to all 21 schedules, but we saw 19 of them and you can see them all in this video.

2015-07-26 17.01.10My favourite sculpture was Bios, by Nick Gentry. (Watch us search for and find it.) From a distance, this sculture in the Barbican cinema looks like it’s covered in vines, but when you get closer you see that all the “stems” and “flowers” are made of ethernet cables, film strips, and other mand-made technological materials. If you only have time to see one of the sculptures, make it that one!

DNA sculptures in London – walking tour

This summer London is host to another series of artist-decorated sculptures. After elephants, buses, and book benches, this time the theme is DNA! Join me and other local science communication folks on a walking tour on July 26.


The sculptures, in support of Cancer Research UK,  will be on display around London until early September.

A group of science communicators will be talking a walk along the sculptures on Sunday July 26. We’re using the #ukscitweetup hashtag on social media to coordinate. There were a few requests for a later date, so if you want to do the same walk on another day, feel free to use the same itinerary as below and organise a walk on another day, using the same hashtag. (Anyone can start a #ukscitweetup meetup!) The weekend of August 15/16 was when the other batch of people was available, so that would be a good time.


The itinerary for July 26
There are a few points where you can join in during the day. If you plan on coming along, please leave me a comment below or use the #ukscitweetup hashtag on Twitter to let us know where to expect you.

We’ll be following the route described below, and you can join at sculptures 1, 6, 16, 17 or 20 at the marked times.The map with all sculptures is on the CRUK website.

If you just want to come to the pub, meet us at sculpture 20. Exact pub is yet to be determined, but it will be near Kings Cross & St Pancras station.

If we’re running late for a meeting point, someone will tweet using the #ukscitweetup hashtag, so keep an eye on that if you’re trying to find us halfway.

Walking times are based on Google Maps, with some added time for pictures, searching, buying drinks and food, etc.

You can also download the itinerary as PDF


Sculp1START and Meeting point for leg 1:

Join here to see 20 or 21 sculptures, and walk for about 3 to 3.5 hours

11:20 at sculpture 1, located at the South steps of the Royal Albert Hall (SW7 2AP)

Walking route: Sculptures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 (in order)

Duration: about 1 hour


sculp6Meeting point for leg 2:

Join here to see 15 or 16 sculptures, and walk for about 2 to 2.5 hours

12:30 at sculpture 6, located inside Victoria station, near WH Smith (SW1E 5ND)

Walking route: Sculptures 6, 7, 8, 16

Duration: about 40 minutes


sculp16Meeting point for leg 3:

Join here to see 12 or 13 sculptures, and walk for about 1.5 to 2 hours

13:15 at sculpture 16, located inside Waterloo station, near M&S (SE1 8SW)

Walking route: 16, 15, 14, 12, 13, 9, 10

Duration: about 1 hour


Optional detour to Sculpture 11 (by Ai Weiwei) or have a lunch break J

Walking route: 10 (Bond Street station) to 11 (near Goodge Street station) to Oxford Street Station.

Duration: about 30 minutes. This sculpture is near a lot of restaurants, so lots of opportunity to grab a bite to eat here as well.


sculp17Meeting point for leg 4:

Join here to see 5 sculptures and walk for about half an hour. If you were on the previous leg, you get here using the Central Line from Bond Street, or from Oxford Street if you did the detour.

3:30 at sculpture 17, near St Paul’s cathedral (EC4M 8AD)

(Note: there are two sculptures near St Paul’s. This is the one by Andrew Logan, called “Birth of the Universe”, shown to the right.)

Walking route: 17, 18, 19

Duration: about 15 minutes


sculp20Final meeting point for last two sculptures and the pub

Join here to see 2 sculptures and walk for just a few minutes.

Get here from the previous leg by taking a tube from Barbican to Kings Cross.

4:15 at sculpture 20, inside Kings Cross station (near Leon)

Walking route: 20, 21, PUB!



Ways of curating

If you’ve heard me talk about science unconferences, you may have noticed me refer to this quote before:

“At a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break” – Hans-Ulrich Obrist

It comes from a 2008 Edge interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and refers to an event he organised in the nineties, where he brought together artists and scientists for a conference – but eliminated the entire conference programme. The idea was to have a conference that only consisted of the valuable meetings between like-minded people in coffee breaks and social events surrounding the conference. Obrist calls it a “nonconference”, but it’s similar to “unconferences” made popular by the tech community.

Recently, I saw Obrist latest book, Ways of Curating, in a bookstore, and after confirming that this “nonconference” was in there, I picked it up. The book is amazing! Obrist is an entertaining writer, and in a series of short chapters he discusses all kinds of exhibits he has curated, and artists he has met and worked with. He describes how he once created an exhibit in the kitchen of his house, where Fischli and Weiss, of The Way Things Go (Der Lauf Der Dinge) fame, created an installation of giant food items in the cupboard above the sink.

I learned that besides the nonconference Art and Brain, Obrist worked with scientists a few other times. In 1999, he curated  Laboratorium, a project featuring artists and scientists, which took place in various locations in Antwerp. Participants here also included Fischli and Weiss, as well as another of my favourite artists, Bruce Mau. (“Don’t clean your desk”, from Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, is another of my favourite quotes. Fun fact: Both this quote and the Obrist quote above have been on my Facebook profile for years. )

Ways of Curating is a fun read, in which I learned some basic ideas of art curating, and got inspired to think about curating and organising other things.

Tissue Culture

Minor nitpick: it’s cell culture rather than tissue culture, but the joke still stands.
(Found on Twitter through Glendon Mellow )


(Made this ages ago, but never got around to uploading a picture)

The DNA strand is one continuous thing. One end goes into the chromosome. Can you find the other end?

Slice and Dice

Two medical art related things:
I’m in Gerstein Library at the moment, and one of Gunter Von Hagen’s Bodyworlds pieces is on display in the lobby , to advertise that there are many more of them at the Ontario Science Centre. I saw his last exhibit there when Shelley came to visit a few years ago and don’t really feel the need to brave the crowds again, but seeing a sliced up man for free at the library where I was working anyway is pretty cool.

Slicy in the library lobby. He’s officially called “6 Meter Man” but I’ve named him “Slicy” instead. (Photo from UofT )
I still need to watch the episode, but I’m already excited about it. My friend Brett is an illustrator/cartoonist, and he has been selling some stock images lately that have popped up here and there. Most recently, a cartoon he did of a sick guy was used to make a box for a fictional board game shown on my favourite current comedy show, How I Met Your Mother. Yay! In terms of medical art it’s a bit of a stretch, I know, but look how fun this looks:

Diseases! I so want to play this game!


On the off chance that you’re going to be in Prague this weekend, make sure you don’t miss enter3 , the third international festival for arts, sciences, and technologies.
In particular, you’d want to visit the performances and installations at various locations in the city.
My picks:
Proteic portrait by Marta de Menezes.
Marta spelled out her entire name in one letter amino acid codes, and engineered the corresponding peptide.

Pigeon Blog by Beatriz da Costa
PigeonBlog enlists homing pigeons to participate in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative designed to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public.”
Streptomyces by Linda ?iha?ová
Linda subjects photographs of a bioinformatics lab to the same algorithms as the lab’s researchers use on their data.
Dangerous Liaisons
This documentary screens three times at enter3 this weekend. It follows a Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Art and Science Lab as part of an honours biological arts course in Leiden.

I wish I could be in Prague this weekend to see all this!

Art of Science

The First Annual Art of Science Competition at Princeton has put up a gallery of the winners of 2005.

“This spring we asked the Princeton University community to submit imagery produced in the course of research or incorporating tools and concepts from science. (…) We selected 55 of these works to appear in the 2005 Art of Science Exhibition.”


Staying with the topic of Art of Science, Tracy of Artsy Science has had his picture of velcro published in the march 2006 issue of BBC Focus as a giant two-oage spread. Congratulations!