The collaboration is getting to the point that we have some tangible results. My teammate, Jenn, and I are going to make a video that utilizes our pointillism perspective for instruction. Jenn sent me an outline of how our video should flow. It is amazing that she and I are so like-minded in our perspectives. We come from different disciplines. However, our take on art principles and science overlap and are in lock and step. That has contributed to making this SciArt experience a joy.
Today I had another experience of affirmation. I was lecturing about fluids and pressure to the students. I paused and asked a question that required that they understood something I talked about in a previous lecture some time ago. One of my students to my surprise answered the question before I even finished stating it. She then expelled, “I get it!” I am finally connecting the dots!” She was referencing my analogy about Physics and Pointillism. I was so excited because this makes the second time one of my students referenced my analogy of understanding concepts presented in class and making connections to them across several chapters from a pointillism perspective.
That being said, our outline for our video is taking shape. It will be good to have a product that I can see, even in its raw form. I imagine it becomes real at that point. I wanted to get something positive out of this experience. As mentioned before, I think my partner and I are on to something special and unique. More to come soon. Hopefully, we will change some perspectives on instruction. As always, I ask, what do you see?
This week I was inspired by a Twitter thread and a bus interaction to visualize the powerful algorithms that lie at the root of most fiberwork through sound. While commuting home, I noticed the knitter next to me forming a beautiful purple-blue tube out of alternating stockinette and garter spirals. She gave me the pattern: cast on 63 stitches, then knit 8, purl 8, knit 8, purl 8, bind off eventually, and you are left with a beautiful cowl. It’s not very complicated. But vertically, it looks intimidating to the casual knitter - with each row, the 63-stitch pattern shifts over by one, giving a spiraling effect. In combinatorial mathematics, this is known as a circular shift.
I used Python, a code language in which I still identify as a beginner, to create my matrix and apply a circular shift to each row (I started out with 20 rows - I wasn’t sure how long I wanted my mathematical cowl to be). Knowing that I would eventually turn the pattern into sound, I used frequency values as the numbers in the array (“stitches”), with A440 representing knit stitches and B representing purl stitches, and alternated stitches with zero values to allow the sound representation to achieve a texture of repeating notes (otherwise, it would have sounded as a single tone).
The basic circular shift matrix looked like this - it’s turned on its side, here, for reasons explained below:
Once I created the basic algorithm for shifting each row of the pattern, I needed to turn it on its side. There are many ways to turn numbers into a sound pattern, but my favorite for tabular data has recently been Melosynth, a python module available through Github. Melosynth performs one basic function: given a two-column .csv with time stamps (in seconds) and corresponding frequency values (in Hz), it outputs a simple sine wave. So, I needed to turn rows in my array into individual columns, convert them into audio, and layer them together in post-processing.
First, though, I had to perform a crucial transformation to the data to meet an artistic goal. One way of coding a knitting pattern from its source algorithm would be to construct the basic function and allow the computer to generate the final product. But this method removes the human creator, and eventual listeners, from the act of creating. The craft of hand-knitting represents so much more than the item generated. It evokes time, labor, and love (and for some of us, blood, sweat, tears, and tiny cat hairs). I wanted to bring listeners into this experience. So, I took a generative approach to the data - “knitting” the first row, stitch by stitch, alone, then adding the second row on top, and moving row by row to immerse listeners in the act of knitting a circular shift pattern, like so (visualize this as circular, and iterative, with the first row not repeating but acting as a base for the next):
To do this, I added null values to the beginning of each matrix row (n+1)*63 (the number of stitches in each row). Then I rotated the matrix, took each column and gave it time increments, and exported them to wav using Melosynth, after which I compiled the rows using Audacity. Have a listen!
So, this might seem off topic, but I ask you to bear with me. So, this past weekend, I attended the National Society of Black Physicists Conference. (Yes, there is enough of us to have a conference) This conference was a convening of professional, graduate students, and undergraduate students in physics. There were about 210 or so of us in attendance. That sounds like a good number. However, one must remember African-American Physicist on makeup roughly 1.3% of all the Physicists in the country. Hence, one realizes that number is very small. Most physicists engage in physics from a research perspective. Students are reared to become researchers. Few if any are guided towards the high school classroom. Don’t quote me on this, but I think I heard someone cite that only 30% of the physics teachers in the country actually have degrees in physics. Now consider how many of them might be are teachers of color. As one could imagine, that number is small.
So many times, you have heard me speak of “perspectives” in art and science. I remember when I was a grad student, a woman asked me about a treble clef pin I was wearing on my jacket. She asked, “Are you a musician?” I responded, “Not by trade. I am becoming a physicist.” She looked amazed. She responded by saying, “A physicist? Well good for you!” However, I could not help but feel like the tone of her voice was patronizing. I wanted to respond to her, “Gee, thanks. Could I have a cook now?” That experience was forever burned in my memory. As I got older and more into my profession, I could not help but think, should that woman’s response had been that much of a surprise? I mean, after all, what are the chanced she would have met a black physics teacher much less an up and coming black physics professor. I imagine she meant well. However, her perspective made it clear that meeting such an individual was rare, to say the least.
Today, I have committed my career to making math intensive curriculum more accessible to underrepresented populations. I find at the root of that effort is changing people’s perspective. I try to change people’s perspective of what physics and what it means to be a physicist. I try to change people’s perspective what math is, and try to stop people from being afraid of it. I guess you could say I am trying to help people see the face and the vase. I am trying to change perspectives.
I think the STEAM initiative is the way to go to achieve this perspective change. Music, art, and science all have their roots embedded in math, trigonometry, and math. The work continues to change perspectives. And so the work of SciArt continues…………………
Through my work as a data tinkerer, I’ve learned to interpret data as beautiful, or imperfect, or disturbing, applying aesthetic criteria we use in evaluating art to numbers and patterns.
When I expect to see an interpretable visual pattern and instead receives a jumbled mess of pixels or words, my ability to evaluate the meaning of the visual pattern is interrupted. One possible response: “the machine made a mistake.” Another response: “did the computer just create art for me?”
With the Internet of Things seeping into our public and private lives, the unexpected banality of machine failure serves as a jarring critique of technological elitism while mocking the idea that Wifi-enabled toasters represent an improvement over their predecessors (then again, there are real consequences to this hyper-connectivity). In a way, the transformation of a sleek, phone-synced gadget into an inert brick creates a kind of public art:
With the rise of glitch art and symbiotic artistic relationships between people and machines, space has been created to allow for visual or audio expression that is ruled by algorithms as much as by aesthetics. I have been fascinated by the colorful block-art of my hapless printer, who apparently designed an audio
And equally captivated by the results of my computer-assisted travails exporting historic imagery from a wide array of formats and bit depths using different geospatial GUIs:
Top left: Output resulting from accidentally exporting an 8-bit image to 24-bit image. Top right: Output resulting from a GUI sewing a default spatial projection into an image without a coordinate reference system, visualized through another program. Bottom: Attempt by a computer program to stretch a single unprojected 1:24,000 panchromatic image across the entire visual extent of a UTM zone.
This week but I invite you to, in an act of mindfulness, experience the failure of technology in your life as an act of hilarity, or artistic transformation, or spiritual mystery, or contemplation.
So, to practice what I preach I utilized my “perspectives” philosophy with parents and students at the McKissack Middles School STEAM science night. The school had a whole series of activities and demonstrations to kick off their new Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) initiative in their school. The event was to inform parents and get them on board with the new initiative. I had the honor of being asked to kick off the night with an opening presentation to parents, students, and faculty.
The interesting thing about STEAM is not everybody gets it. I am not sure who is more resistant. I’ve met scientists that feel STEAM is not very substantive and do not have a clue of what activity they could come up with that utilized STEAM in a serious and provocative way. I have met those from the humanities that feel scientists look down on their discipline and hence have a resentment and/or fear of many things science related. I have also met those who simply don’t have a full grasp of the arts nor the sciences. They might have a desire to understand, but may have been so far removed from such dealings, they are reluctant or apprehensive in embracing the concepts.
As mentioned in my previous posts, I find educators to be perception changers. Every time a person learns something new about the world they live in; it modifies their perception in some way. It might reinforce their views or cause them to modify their beliefs in some way. That said, my goal was to change some perceptions that evening. Maybe the change would be about science, about the arts, or maybe even a change in someone’s perception about themselves.
I utilized several pictures of double images. I would simply ask, “what do you see?” Some would see both images, but man could not. If they could not see both images, I would provide them with a bit more information. Many, but not all would eventually see both images. I also pointed out how, once you could see both images, you could not unsee them. I related that to my youth. I told them about when I was younger I thought I was not smart enough to do math. I explained how that was a learned response to math. I had to see they I was intelligent. I had to see that I could do math. Once, I saw it; I could never unsee it. I then went on to explain TEAM and its benefits in education.
After my talk, the principal closed and cited a few points from my talk. I took that as a huge compliment. I am glad I was able to set the occasion. So in closing, I will ask, what do you see?
Kent and I started planning a video synthesis of some of the topics we have discussed to date. We’re looking at the metaphor of pointillism as it relates to our own work in the sciences. With the direction we’re going, I figure it’s a good week to talk about #scicomm. I can think of a couple powerful reasons to champion the benefits of effective scientific communication right off the bat.
How do we broaden the reach of scientific literacy to empower people with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions and learn about local scientific developments? Music, art and storytelling can be powerful communication tools, bringing people into the fold and erasing barriers to scientific literacy. If you’re lucky enough to have a wide platform or some serious #scicomm skills, blogging or writing for national publications is an incredible way to engage a broader audience. Within my current field, I love story maps for their visual impact and narrative style. Regardless of your method, science communication can deepen interest in your field, expose important interdisciplinary connections, and generate conversations that reach way beyond the scientific community.
Let’s not forget the importance of social media! There’s always a lot happening on rocur accounts (rocur stands for rotation curation, and represents a twitter account that tweets from a rotating cast of twitter users) such as @iamscicomm and @geoscitweeps. I’ve learned so much by following experts in other fields, including snake biologists and physicists.
Last month, I looked at some rocks at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes. Rock collections reflect the motivations of the collectors, first and foremost. Qualities within the collected stones speak to the collector’s position on what gives a rock its worth. The rarity of the mineral, complexity of the represented geological process, or preservation of an intricate structure all participate in the appraisal process of the “serious” rock collector.
There also exist collectors who notice rocks for more transparently aesthetic reasons. My first introduction to rock collecting as a child regarded the collection of “friendship rocks” – a smooth (cherty?) rock, I remember an adult explaining, that fit perfectly in your hand between the thumb and index finger. Kid rock collectors tend to remove expectations of deep geological meaning and focus on color and form as junior pebble aesthetes. In Vermont, glittery micas embedded in schists and phyllite catch the eye of wanderers in the Green Mountains; in St. Louis, flecks of quartz embedded in sidewalk concrete perform the same function for city dwellers. People tend to associate beauty with geology according to assumptions made about what is more natural and interesting – a jumble of rocks of disparate origin shoring up a highway overpass doesn’t tend to captivate rock hounds in the same way as a fossiliferous limestone outcrop to which has been ascribed 450 million years of deep history.
In certain ways, these aesthetic priorities reflect our unwillingness to acknowledge our role as humans in shaping geological processes in the present. As the movers and shakers of the Anthropocene, we’ve been messing with the surface of the earth for thousands of years. To find concrete beautiful, even terribly, is to begin to reckon with this legacy.
Or, they just reflect what we like. My rocks at home include pieces of smoothed glass and unremarkable sandstone. I have a piece of wollastonite that started rapidly weathering when I nested it in a houseplant and can’t bear to release it because it represents a memory.
Sifting through the library rock collection, it’s apparent that local rock hounds are captivated by the stories hidden in the earth below. Jumbles of clay concretions, ugly shards of limestone, ammonites, and perfectly polished marble slabs coalesce to form a local narrative. The beauty, monotony, fascination and silliness of rock appreciation persists
I had a profound experience this week. So, as you know I have been speaking about looking at teaching STEM subject matter from a perspective of pointillism. To reiterate and example, think of teaching physics, were each concept is a dot. As in pointillism, a collection of dots form shapes. As one takes in more shapes and image starts to appear. Well, each concept taught is a dot. The question is can the students take in the collection of dots to make connections such that they see at the end of the semester, the picture is in fact, Physics I.
Well in class we were talking about conservation of energy. When we solved the equation for final velocity, I paused and showed them how you could get the same equation from one of the Kinematic Equations. They were so surprised; this was when I thought it would be a great time to introduce the pointillism concept. So I explained to them they need to look at each thing we learn as a dot in a pointillism picture. Each chapter teaches something that builds upon the previous chapter. In other words, you should be trying to see the “big picture.” It is not uncommon for a physics problem in one chapter, utilizing a concept taught in a previous chapter. If one looks at a problem on only considers the points made in the current chapter, it should be no surprise when a student gets stuck. They are trying to explore how the current chapter’s equations (concepts), applies to this problem. All the while, the problem relies on concepts from previous chapters, that must be used before you get to the part where you utilize the current chapter’s concepts.
When you look at physics like you look at physics as you would look at “A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte", by Seurat, you would see other concepts when you are looking at a given problem. Then, a solution may not seem so elusive.
As I gave this analogy, I demonstrated my point by drawing a bird on the board using pointillism. As I made dots for the upper beak, I said, “these are the dots talking about the position.” Then I made a collection of dots for the lower beak, “These are the dots for kinematics,” and so on, and so on. Eventually, I had an entire picture of a bird. I was going for a dove; they said it was more a duck/penguin. Oh well, they got the point.
To my surprise, a student came for tutoring and referenced my analogy when she was trying to solve the problem. That was very validating that we may be on to something here!
So this is an exciting time in Physics and Astronomy. You may have heard that astronomers observed the collision of two neutron stars earlier this month. This discovery resulted in three Physicists winning the Nobel Prize in Physics. Well, “What is the big deal?” you might be asking. Let me say; it would be a legitimate question. I mean, how many people walking down the street know what a neutron star it? How many know where they come from? They might have heard of it, but not have known what they were about? Now that I think about it, what could this possibly have to do with Science-Art? Well, if we look at me and my partner’s previous blog posts, we talked about pointillism as a perspective of teaching and learning. As mentioned before, a given subject, say a neutron star collision, could be considered a painting done in the style of pointillism. An image created by thousands of little “dots.” These “dots” are sub-categories of the larger topic. They might seem unrelated if I was talking to you about them separately or in some random discussion. However, without seeing these dots, one could not see a “big picture.” One could not see the painting without collectively seeing the “dots.” How could we talk about gravitational waves resulting from the collision of two neutron stars, if we don’t understand what neutron stars are?
All that being said, I now think I know the topic for my portion of the video my partner and I are going to produce. I think I will present the collision of the two neutron stars using the pointillism theoretical framework.
I am not feeling too verbose this week. There is a lot going on at the University and in my classes. Our University Rocket Team’s proposal got accepted by NASA for their University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) rocket competition. I am the faculty advisor of the team, so it has been crazy busy.
That being said, as you may recall I spoke to you about the double images. Can you see the face and the vase? I am reminded of this now. When I was younger, I never thought I would be doing the things I am doing now. I did not believe I was smart enough. I only say the Vase in myself. It was not until I was in college and I had faculty who pulled out of me my true potential that I saw my true potential. However, once I saw it, I could never un-see it. So even when I speak to you about neutron stars and the rocket team, I get excited because I remember a day when I did not feel I could do the things I do now.
What do you see?
Can artistic creativity help us learn science? The foundational science that we learn in school (memorizing facts, solving equations, and writing lab reports) tends to avoid exercising our imagination. In practice, though, creativity is a powerful engine of scientific discovery and achievement. Narratives of discovery from every scientific discipline are rich in “aha!” moments and dramatic breakthroughs (though maybe a little over-sensationalized) stemming from creative and imaginative research.
In college, I took a geomorphology course in which success was particularly dependent upon memorization (not my strong suit). Late at night, as I felt myself drowning in names on erosional features, glacial landforms, and cosmogenic radionuclides, I realized notecards weren’t working for me, and in an act of late-night desperation, dug out my watercolors to help with my study guide. In retrospect, I was trying to inject the creative part of myself into the act of learning to engage in the act of creation to bind myself to the knowledge I was trying to absorb. The result was the four-page study guide below.
I can’t remember my grade on the test, but I do remember how uniquely engaged and meditative I felt during the process of acquiring and transforming the material. I wonder how integrating creativity into (rote and less rote) aspects of science might affect scientific inquiry at higher orders.
Just today I thought I would discuss what I’ve been thinking about regarding our project. As mentioned before, my partner and I were discussing using the perspective of pointillism on certain science subjects. So I thought I would give an example. Let’s say I was going to talk about how start works. It would not be unheard of to talk about stars from the view of the entire picture. Meaning, that you would talk about the star itself. However, I’m going to make this discussion starting from the inside out. In other words, I’m going to talk about the dots.
The most abundant material in the Universe is Hydrogen. It is from this hydrogen that stars are born. Newton’s laws suggest all matter is attracted to one another. So, imagine two hydrogen atoms sticking together. Well, their mass would be greater than a single atom, so the cluster of two collects another nearby hydrogen atom. Now you have three hydrogen atoms which can attract a 4th, and so on and so on. Now you have a collection of hydrogen atoms attracting more hydrogen through gravitation.
As this process continues, the hydrogen gets hot. The gravity pulling all the hydrogen to the center of the mass of gas causes the gas to get hotter. The more hydrogen that is collected, the hotter it gets at the center because of the pressure pushing in by the gas being pull towards its center. At some point, there is so much pressure that the hydrogen fuses with another hydrogen to make helium. This process causes the release of a great deal of energy in the form of heat.
Notice, in this discussion I did not talk about the “Star” so much as I talked about its primary component, hydrogen. Another “dot” I discussed was gravity. The next “dot” was how gravity pulls the hydrogen together, and so on, and so on, and so on. All of these dots build until you get the larger picture, a Star.
This was just a bit of a working example of how a lesson could be put together from the perspective of starting with the details, then linking them together to form the larger picture. Just as in pointillism. A person might no know what these “dots” make up until they take a step back and see the larger picture.
This week, I want to tackle a concept that has felt particularly real since I finished my graduate degree and started working outside of academia. With science occasionally feeling like a mixture between a high-paced race and an exclusive club, I find myself struggling to identify as a scientist. I am experiencing the dreaded impostor syndrome. I would imagine that other scientist-musicians who lead double lives have experienced this at some point, and perhaps even all scientists, but it is most deeply felt by scientists of color, women scientists, and LGBTQ scientists. Part of this might stem from internalizing ideas that the bar to succeed in science is set impossibly high. To break this down, I’ve been cultivating science in my personal life. Identifying bugs. Studying chemical reactions in food. Exploring the geology of pavement and buildings. I learn so much from the questions asked by people in my community (who would never consider themselves scientists) posed about where they live, what they eat, what is living around them. But there are other reasons that many don’t identify as scientists.
The issue of impostor syndrome tends to most strongly affect those that society sees as bad at math, stereotypes that arose from pseudoscientific ideas involving race and gender that, unfortunately, still bubble up today, despite being consistently debunked (I don’t want to give Ch*rles M*rray any more attention than he already has, so no link here). For hundreds of years in the West, science was primarily accessible to white men, and their biases, inherited from and in tandem with systems of colonialism and white supremacy, continue to affect science as it is taught and practiced in the West today. However, Western science was and continues to be firmly challenged and improved by many incredible scientists, particularly scientists of color and women scientists of the moment, who are gaining recognition for their excellence at the same time as the historical scientific and artistic canons are teased apart to reveal glaring omissions and retellings (see: complex fractals having been used in African communities for hundreds of years, despite supposed discovery by Western mathematicians in 1877). Horrible missteps continue to occur (see: Nature editorial from last month that defended a statue honoring a man who tortured women in the name of science). With these predicaments facing Western science today, acknowledging bias within scientific questions and ideas is essential for achieving a more egalitarian scientific community. It can also break down assumptions that distort our study of the world, as shown within this earth-rattling Twitter thread by Katherine Crocker. Most importantly, acknowledging and confronting bias within ourselves can help to broaden our ability to connect with others. In the classroom, this is especially important, where early encouragement can make the difference in whether a young learner feels confident or alienated by math. Once we start to tear down barriers to science, we might truly look forward to a scientific community that has no impostors of the imaginary variety.
So, my partner Jenny and I are starting to come up with some tangible ideas. That is to say; we are beginning to see what we will have produced by the end of this program. So as mentioned before, we are looking to harness two concepts. One concept we are exploring is the principle of double images within a picture to promote the idea of perspectives in science and art.
This is one of the more well-known examples. What do you see? Two faces looking at each other or do you see a vase? Did you see both images right off or did you only see one until I mentioned the other? As mentioned in previous posts, this is an example of how we see the world. Sometimes we see one thing, then we might see things differently even though we are looking at the same object. However, once you see both images, you can’t un-see them. This is a concept we would like to promote in how students see science concepts as well as how they see their own abilities to understand them.
The next concept my partner and I are exploring is the principles of pointillism. Many times, students express frustration when they are taking classes that seemingly have no connection to where they have aspirations to be. They look at their day to day assignments as a series of unconnected dots. They don’t see how day to day concepts taught in class or series of classes they must take contribute to “seeing” a much bigger picture.
Many students only see the seemingly random dots. Not realizing they make up a much larger picture. This picture is the understanding of a general concept. It is the sum of knowledge that makes one an “expert.” Some pictures are simple while some are much more elegant.
My partner and I discussed creating a possible curriculum that could be implemented in a classroom utilizing these theoretical constructs to teach a given subject matter in the sciences. We are going to produce a video teaching from our respective disciplines, but from an overarching perspective of double images, while teaching the “dots” and showing how they contribute to a much larger “picture.”
Scale has been popping up more and more in the discussions between Kent and I, particularly as we discuss the ability to simultaneously comprehend a painting as a collection of brush strokes or points as well as a unified landscape representation. In geology, scale is particularly useful as a concept that helps us frame and contextualize scientific questions. Although a geoscientist might choose a certain scale at which to explore a given problem, it’s likely they will necessarily work at multiple scales during the process of inquiry. For example, if one decides to study trace metal mobility at a basin-wide scale, one may find that the molecular kinematics of trace metals and small-scale soil processes deeply informs the behavior of trace metals at large scales. Sedimentary geologists use sediment flumes the size of a refrigerator to study and teach concepts relevant to massive rivers in the present day as well as strata deposited millions of years ago.
This highlights the importance of scale as not only a scientific tool, but a tool for explaining scientific concepts in the classroom. Teaching students that we use scale to simplify concepts at certain scales, while still acknowledging complexity at finer scales, might help students to connect the dots between fundamental scientific concepts and higher-order ideas.
For example, I can explain the concept of pitch, with an A generally representing 440 Hz, in relatively simple terms. I can then use this understanding as a basis for explaining that many orchestras have been gradually creeping up in pitch over the past hundred years, and that each player humming on the same note in an 80-person orchestra is probably playing 445 a few micro-cents differently. Or, I might choose to explain the effect of temperature and humidity on musical instrument and the phenomenon of brass and wind instruments sinking in pitch as string instruments rise.
In general, the way we comprehend and interpret our world is incredibly dependent on scale. This week, I challenge you (and myself) to think more about how you work with scale in your own life.
So here we are a week after our second Skype session. My teammate Jenny and I had a discussion. As I mentioned in my previous blog, we are looking at STEM subject matter from a perspectives perspective. Let me draw your attention to this picture.
What do you see? If you know this picture, what did you see when you first saw it? Did you see a vase? Did you see two faces? Did you see one or the other, or did you see both immediately? If you only saw one, when did you see the other? Did you see it by chance or did you see it after someone mentioned there was more than one image? Do you see both now?
Here is the powerful thing about this little exercise is once you see both images, you can never un-see them. You will forever be able to see both images. You see, being able to see an image is dependent on the perspective of how you see the picture. Your perspective has forever been changed.
So as educators, are we so much teachers as much as perception changers. Research suggests students who have negative perceptions of themselves academically are more likely to facilitate their own expectation in their work. Can art be used in combination with sciences to change a person’s perspective of their own abilities? Once a person’s perspective has been changed of themselves, they would never be able to un-see their ability and potential to understand higher level concepts.
Another question is how can we use art and a person’s spatial awareness to advance higher level concepts in science. If you look at pointillism, a portrait on a microscopic level might seem like a random collection of dots. But as you step back and look at things from a broader perspective, one see the dots are part of a larger image.
This is not unlike scientific concepts. Why do students start off taking general physics or general biology? They are learning “dots” which are fundamental concepts that must be understood to realize the much larger picture. Physics and chemistry students much take algebra and trig before they take general physics and chemistry classes. Why? Because without those “dots” one would not able to the “physics picture” nor the “chemistry picture.”
If this analogy resonates with you, congratulations, your perspective has been changed, and you now see a new image, and you will never be able to un-see it. I should assert, seeing a new image does not mean you agree with it. You simply can see the perspective. That in itself is powerful.
This week, my teammate gave me deeper appreciation of how spatial awareness might help people see concepts in new ways and overcome barriers to understanding. We touched on a few different concepts, including the concept of imposter syndrome, different teaching styles, and creating exercises that might encourage students to play with concepts to challenge assumptions or reveal their unique grasp of the material.
For me, imposter syndrome is something I associate with graduate school, perhaps because I still hadn’t fully internalized my identity as a scientist (can other SciArtists relate? I always felt pushed to one side of the fence). When I was younger, I assumed I was naturally bad at math because I didn’t always succeed. I essentially counted math as a loss and focused on success in other academic areas. Later, I took calculus and excelled, which I attributed to having an easy teacher at the time, but in retrospect, attribute to her adaptive and kind teaching approach. Many classmates weren’t so lucky at my school, and were given deeper imposter syndromes by biased teachers that prevented them from thriving in the classes in which they would have otherwise excelled.
Kent and I explored the role of teaching styles in breaking down imposter syndrome by discussing the disadvantages of two poles of teaching within STEM, one that encourages students to figure everything out for themselves (giving the advantage to students with prior STEM background), and the opposite, where students are given all the information by teachers expecting that the students will not be able to reach mastery of concepts without being told the answers. Teaching STEM successfully might mean that students are given the tools to understand while being challenged enough to feel a sense of accomplishment. This kind of teaching doesn’t have to mean that concepts are “dumbed down” concepts may be simplified without necessarily teaching in a patronizing way. One moment of early success in math or science in which the student feels a sense of achievement might be enough to convince a kid that they belong in STEM, that they too can be successful in the world of STEM.
Exercises in exploring different artistic mediums in relation to understanding scientific concepts– even as general or abstract as understanding scale, gravity, or physical space can potentially help empower learners through the act of creating. We discussed a few ideas related to visualizing concepts through sound and 3d. Last week, I stumbled upon this sound map (my words) of places visited, and Kent threw out the idea of making a musical scale relative to visited continents. I haven’t been to very many continents, but I applied it to my own life and made a 27.4 second audio example using a hexatonic scale fitted to the continents. In creating this example, I explored an assumption of my own related to continental land masses. The idea of Europe and Asia being separate continents is not based on any physical definition of a continent, and says more about how our physical understanding of the world is influenced by political factors than about plate tectonics. Given this, I used a hexatonic whole-tone scale organized around A440. Here’s the piece, and the documentation.
So, I had a great good meeting with my teammate. We had an in-depth discussion on how to bridge the gap between Art and Science from a spatial awareness perspective. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about my partner’s discipline, however, where she and I could relate was how structures related on the molecular and atomic level. This mutual understanding led to a gripping discussion on how to use art and spatial awareness to increase an individual’s conceptual understanding of some math related subject matter.
This discussion also touched on language. If an expert in a given subject area were going to talk about something to a novice, the first barrier would be terminologies. Those who are experts in a subject area would be accustomed to certain phrases and terms that a novice would not. Those words would carry with them context. As humans, we are visual creatures which use imagery in our mind to help gain understanding. Some might say, if we can’t see it in our minds, we may not be able to understand it fully.
There is research that suggests students who have a developed sense of spatial awareness perform better in subjects such as organic chemistry and physics. Consideration of this finding inspires me to think of creative ways of using art to explore mathematical and physical concepts of the Universe in which we live.
An analogy we discussed was the principles of how pointillism works. On the microscopic scale, we see a collection of seemingly randomly placed dots. However, when you start to move back and look at these dots collectively, we see they make up a much greater image. The dots collectively make up a “thing.” The concept of pointillism is common in our Universe. From where our solar system is in the Milky Way Galaxy, we see individual stars at night. However, when we look at Galaxies in the distance, they look like a soft solid collection of spirals and elliptical clouds. However, these are collections of a star with no less spacing between them than that in our Galaxy. It is this perspective that fuels our thoughts of starting with the very basic to broaden understanding such that we can see the larger picture in Science-Art.
As a kid, standing in a friend’s house peering at a wall-mounted world map, I remember looking from top to bottom, left to right, and assuming logically, that Antarctica was not just south of me, but down (below me)– and Greenland was similarly up above. Nearby, the Mississippi River flowed from north of my hometown of St. Louis down to the south, emptying in the Gulf and bearing out my understanding of the world. My conflation of direction with relative gravitational position was an assumption that continued until I found myself arguing incorrectly in school that the Nile flowed south, rather than downhill (to the north). I took my existing foundation of knowledge (north is on the map, the map is vertical, therefore north is up) and applied it to achieve a drastically wrong conclusion. In the moment, I remember the self-consciousness of feeling stupid. I didn’t realize that I had successfully revised my scientific understanding of the world in that moment, that in fact I was engaging in a critical part of science. The upending of my internalization of north as “up” was a small but meaningful breakthrough that created the space for me to approach the world differently. Kent and I discussed the role of STEAM in facilitating similar breakthroughs through multisensory visualization, simplification of theoretical scientific concepts, and by overcoming the impression that scientific knowledge and tools are out of reach, accessible only by those who are gifted in numeracy.
While mulling over these concepts, I decided to try an experiment in understanding particle physics through artistic creation. As a geochemist and a musician, my tepid relationship with physics has always made me feel a little guilty. It’s the same guiltiness that I feel at never having learned how to change the oil in my car, fueled by the nagging memory of a casual comment from a friend to the effect that geochemists generally tend to overlook the importance of physics in relation to their work. The elegance and simplicity of certain high-level concepts in physics is frankly terrifying to me, perhaps because they pose a threat to certain long-held assumptions I am loathe to give up. This kind of stubbornness is drawn from the kind of objectivity that Western science has generally striven for, that encourages a conquering, imperialistic attitude to achieving understanding. In my experience as a student and a teacher, this approach discourages failure, creativity, and reassessment. It takes patience and acute humility to break down these barriers to understanding, especially when confronted with the discomfort of learning something totally unfamiliar. Within this context, and inspired by beautiful Feynman-inspired sculptures by Edward Tufte, I sat down to doodle some Feynman diagrams, using this tutorial as an exercise.
Given a few rules, the process of creating potential interactions between subatomic particles and photons quickly laid bare my preconceptions and exposed a state of cognitive dissonance regarding basic rules of charge balance and conservation of energy. The wiggly lines were very fun to draw. I found myself getting frustrated, then drawing some more, then pausing to imagine and experiment, then googling another concept and repeating the cycle. This iterative process enabled me to learn visually and kinetically, and to gradually establish a framework for understanding theoretical concepts by experimenting with their pictorial expressions. Going forward, I’d like to explore how similarly austere concepts can be destigmatized through visualization.
Hi. So, I must say I am happy to be a part of the SciArt program. I must admit I had not had time to reach out to my teammate since our first meeting. It has been a crazy beginning of the semester. However, I have put some thought into projects that I would like to bounce off of her for consideration.
I think there is a great deal of apprehension for being full participants in math and the sciences in our youth, especially students of color. My experience has been the math aspect of certain subjects tends to scare people off. That said, I like to use art as a way of showing a person’s aversion to math may simply be a matter of perception. Art can be a powerful tool in demonstrating how perspective can influence one’s perception of a given subject and how perception can influence performance.
There is research that suggests a spatial awareness is a significant factor in understanding math intensive subject matter.
I would like to explore how people can improve their perception of 3D space and how it relates to understanding certain concepts in Math and Physics.
After a great first meeting, I've been flooded with ideas regarding science accessibility, techno-musical experimentation, and everything in between.
Lately, I've been particularly focused on storytelling as a way of linking science and artistic expression. As a scientist studying effects of the Anthropocene, my efforts to understand the natural world are inextricably linked with learning about how humans have impacted it. Recent work in the emerging field of critical physical geography - a field that examines the social and biogeophysical in tandem - has highlighted important work at the intersections of industrialization, environmental racism, and urban pollution (paper downloadable here with login).
Using this theoretical framework as a starting point, I hope to employ science and art in conjunction as storytelling tools to explore the dynamics of local demographic and ecologic change.
To examine another form of communication, I’ve also been thinking about the role of data visualization in promoting data accessibility, and the power of unconventional visualization to enable us to understand dynamics of change affecting 3, 4, 5, or more variables simultaneously. A cool talk at FOSS4G to this effect caught my attention, and though it was focused on visual non-photorealistic renderings (using Pittore and painting effects - paper here), audio visualization holds equal promise. Variations in tone, timbre, volume, and rhythm might be used to “see” change within complex datasets to enable greater - or maybe just different - comprehension than we are able to attain by looking at a series of 2D graphs holding the same information. I hope in the future I’m able to experiment with such complexity using audiovisualization techniques. For now, I’ve been using sound to display crystallographic data using simple sine tones*.
*This mineralogical singing has come out creepy so far. As a dedicated Bridge resident, however, I persevere.