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Science in Museums: Sensory Science, Visualizing Climate Change

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on June 26, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Kacie Rice

Those who have worked in scientific research know that it’s often a world ruled by numbers and formulas. Even studies based on a mineral’s color or an animal’s morphology (that is, its basic shape and look) have to be backed up by numerical data and rigorous statistical calculations. It’s not enough for me to say, “yep, that rock looks mostly purple to me;” in a scientific publication, I would have to present data on optical density and other factors, and additionally show that these calculations are repeatable under laboratory conditions.

Researchers see the world through a different set of eyes than nonscientists. A researcher can study two nearly-identical butterflies and tell you that based on genetic percentages, behavioral studies, and microscopic differences in wing morphology, they are actually two different species. No wonder the general public often finds science dense, boring, and difficult to understand!

This process has the potential to be alienating to many – it implies that our primary modes of everyday data collection (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) can’t be trusted in the scientific world. Scientific research often disagrees with what we can intuit from a first glance. While a good pair of eyes is essential for gathering scientific data, more often than not, the truth lies in numbers, graphs, and charts.

I would argue that this is a major roadblock in creating public understanding of research. Scientists can clamor for attention to their climate change research, but until they present this research in a way that the public will appreciate, they will not gain any support. Presenting a complicated algorithm explaining why methane released from cows will eventually raise the Earth’s temperature by a number of degrees may make perfect sense to an organic chemist or meteorologist (And yes, this research is pretty solid. We know that cow farts really ARE making our summers hotter and our storms crazier.) But the average person might look at this kind of study and laugh it off as way too complicated (and frankly just too weird) to be true. This is exactly the opposite of what we want and need – and it’s the kind of thing that is likely contributing to climate change denialism in the US.

This problem not only harms the public’s understanding of science, it also drives scientists absolutely crazy. I promise you that every single March snowstorm drives the science world to let out one collective “ughhhhhhhhh” when someone posts the inevitable “I’m not feeling global warming right now, LOL” Facebook status (sincere sidenote: if you are legitimately interested in understanding why this statement is wrong, please do e-mail me and we’ll talk about it.). So how do we resolve this problem – how do we imagine science in ways that are inherently intuitive to the public? How do we create scientific understanding that resonates with our senses in a visceral way? How do we use the various ways that people already process the world to make science “sticky”?

One person who is attempting to answer this question is Gary Braasch, whose exhibition Climate Change In Our World: Photographs by Gary Braasch is on view at the Museum of Science, Boston, through September. Braasch uses photography to show the devastating effects of climate change around the world. His images of cracked deserts, microscopic oyster larvae, and humans living in changing environments are immediate and arresting. He uses the language of photography, often considered one of the more accessible art forms, to document real scientific change. Importantly, he also visually relates the changing environment to its real impacts on humans, including photographic studies of Alaska’s Iñupiaq tribe and the melting permafrost that is threatening their cultural heritage.

Braasch’s work reminded me of another recent Boston-area exhibit, the MIT Museum’s Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya. Rivers of Ice juxtaposed David Breashears’ huge panoramic photographs of locations in the Himalayan Mountains with photos taken in the same locations a century ago. The comparison shows a shocking amount of glacial recession and creates a demanding visual representation of the real effects of climate change. I found the exhibition to be both informative and starkly emotional – exactly the kind of reaction we want to be inciting to research and data that has devastating implications for our lives on Earth.

These two exhibitions are an example of the kind of accessible representations that could create greater understanding in the general public about scientific issues. I’ve long been an advocate of increasing the relationship between science and art, and I hope that exhibitions like these keep appearing in museums around the country. Ideally, this interdisciplinary collaboration has potential to improve the relationship between scientists and the public, moving their mutual discourse to a happy medium (and maybe making fewer scientists tear out their hair while checking Facebook on a snowy day).

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