#239      25 min 52 sec
Enquiry on exhibit: Enlisting art to help communicate science

Science historian and Science Gallery director Dr Michael John Gorman talks about how we can do better in communicating science to the public. He also describes how the Science Gallery, based at Trinity College Dublin, attracts a diverse audience by bringing together art and science. Presented by Dr Dyani Lewis.

"Many innovations happen when you bring an idea or an approach or a method from one area of knowledge and you actually apply that in a different area. So it’s becoming more and more important to actually find ways to encourage that kind of cross pollination." -- Dr Michael John Gorman




Dr Michael John Gorman
Dr Michael John Gorman

Dr Michael John Gorman is the Founding Director of Science Gallery and Adjunct Professor of Creative Technologies at Trinity College Dublin. He has extensive international experience in public engagement with science and technology, having created and developed public exhibitions and events in the United States, Europe and Ireland. He was a lecturer in Science, Technology and Society at Stanford University and has held fellowships at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. He has published widely on the relationship between science and the arts in journals including Leonardo and Nature and is the author of books including Buckminster Fuller: Designing for Mobility (Skira, 2005).

Credits

Host: Dr Dyani Lewis
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param, Dyani Lewis
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.
 
DYANI LEWIS  
I’m Dyani Lewis, thanks for joining us. Human beings are driven by an innate curiosity that keeps us on an endless path of exploration. We’re surrounded by the hallmarks of our scientific heritage in almost everything we do. The houses we live in, the medicines we consume and the communication devices we use are all the products of our insatiable appetite for knowledge. But discoveries made in the science lab are not always met with applause or even approval in the population at large. With very strong pushback against technologies such as genetically modified food and stem cells, scientists have come to understand that public engagement is no longer an optional extra. So how do scientists go about engaging with a sceptical public? More specifically, can art play a role in science communication? And beyond simply informing the public about the latest scientific discoveries are there other benefits to connecting these two often very separate disciplines? The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin is one venture that brings together art and science with a view to raising interest levels in both. And our against today on Up Close is Dr Michael John Gorman, Founding Director of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Welcome to Up Close Michael John. 

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Thank you Dyani and it’s a pleasure to be here in Melbourne.

DYANI LEWIS
Michael John, the popularity of science has been waning in recent years in many developed nations and these are the very nations that have most benefited from science. Why do you think this is the case?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Well science has become so complex that it’s very difficult for people who don’t have a very specialised training in science to find a way in. I think this has really led to a situation where the public and people from different walks of life find it really difficult to sort of get their heads around what’s going in science and to share the excitement of research. It puts science in a very difficult position because it means that the communication around science is sometimes a series of confusions and misunderstandings. I think there’s also an issue that our scientists, because they’re trained in a very specialised way, don’t necessarily have communication training as part of their careers.

DYANI LEWIS
Most research institutions now go to quite some length to communicate their research to the public. So why is it important for that to happen?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
I think there’s a number of reasons why it’s very important for a scientist to communicate their research with the public. First of all, the public has a stake in the science. A huge amount of science is funded by the taxpayer and the consequences, both positive and potentially negative of science, are something that are of huge consequence to society. And I think that the public want to know about science. I think there’s a myth that the public isn’t interested in finding out about science. But I think that there are some very real barriers for them to engaging within contemporary debates.


DYANI LEWIS
The tradition format for informing the public has been to provide them with facts. So what’s known as the Information Deficit Model where knowledge is basically transferred from those who know something, which is the scientist, to those who don’t; being the public. So how has the approach of science communication changed in more recent years?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
You’re right to point to this traditional approach where the idea was that the public was basically ignorant about science and research and if we just fill them up with some facts about science, then that will solve the problem. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like that. In fact, one of the things that we’ve seen in the past years is that the public don’t like being patronised or spoken down to about science. And they also don’t necessarily warm to it when scientists sort of place themselves in a position of absolutely certainty and authority. In the past years, there have been a number of attempts to look at different models of science communication. Models based more around dialogue with the public, around bringing the public in early to debates around the consequences of emerging technologies. You mentioned stem cells or genetically modified food and those were examples where the conversations happen very late in the day and so there was a huge amount of misunderstanding and confusion and various kinds of soap boxes were taken by all sides of the debate which led to more heat than light being generated. So how do you do dialogue around science? Recently there have been a plethora of different models of science communication, everything from more popular publications around science, New Scientists, Scientific American and these kinds of publications. Also different kinds of museum going from the model of the historical science museum to interactive science centres such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Science Works here in Melbourne. Festivals around science have recently exploded in the past, you know, 10 years; festivals everywhere from Italy to the World Science Festival in New York. Of course, because it’s in New York it has to be the World Science Festival rather than the New York Science Festival, a bit like the World Series. But it is an absolutely fantastic event. There are all sorts of different models that are being explored. I think one thing that’s happened in more recent years is there’s been an explosion of hybrid spaces around the world. So spaces where it’s not just about pushing science out, but it’s actually about drawing science into dialogue with other areas of knowledge so with the arts, with design or with other forms of enquiry. 

DYANI LEWIS
You’re the Founding Director of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. So could you tell us about the Science Gallery and the Science Gallery’s approach to this sort of space?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Sure. Well the Science Gallery has been around for five years at Trinity College Dublin which is Ireland’s leading university. It’s a very old university; 500 years old. It’s a space which is all about bringing together science with the arts and with design around key themes that are of interest and relevant. So we’ve had projects such as Infectious which was looking at contagion; everything from epidemics to infectious laughter to financial panic. We’ve had projects about water, the future of water. We’ve had the Love Lab which was a lab in the Gallery where we actually experimented on the visitors in real research experiments around attraction and desire, so no permanent collection; everything’s changing. One of the key things of the Gallery, because it’s connected to the University, is that we draw on the researchers from the University from all sorts of different areas from the sciences but also from engineering, from computer science, from technology. And we draw them into dialogue and collaboration with the local creative community, with artists, with designers, filmmakers, architects. This is how we generate these ever-changing themes. We also make use of the students of the University. So we’re very fortunate that we have students who can actually be in the Gallery and can meet the public. And we really focus on a public of young adults; 15 to 25 year olds would be our core audience. It’s a key audience. It’s an audience that generally stays away from science-related attractions and science museums. It’s a savvy audience but by having the students present in the Gallery and able to speak and converse with the visitors, it becomes a sociable experience and that’s a key part of the Science Gallery experience.

DYANI LEWIS
Because it’s really someone from their own peer group then.

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Absolutely. Yeah and it becomes much more of an open-ended conversation rather than, as you were saying, this deficit model of trying to feed people up with facts. Charles Dickens has that wonderful phrase of, little vials waiting to be filled with knowledge. And that model really just doesn’t work. It’s a turn off.

DYANI LEWIS
But there are still a whole host of other tools available for science communication like blogging and Tweeting and there are still a lot of, I guess, very successful, traditional museums. So how does the Science Gallery fit in with these other formats and how does it compare?
MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Well it’s interesting, I mean, you’d almost think now, why do you need a physical space? Surely everything should be happening on line; surely it should all be happening on Twitter and different social media and on blogs and so on. And it’s strange, but it seems that “meet world” is still important; “meet space”. People still connect with each other in real places. We make huge use of social media tools in Science Gallery. But the mixture of the offline and the online still seems to be really important to people.People need meeting places and we think of the Gallery as a meeting place for ideas. It’s a social space in the way that exhibitions and the themes and the projects that you encounter there, are really – they’re hooks or prompts or stimulus to conversations across boundaries. So having an online exhibition experience would not be the same thing at all. It’s as much about who you might meet when you go to the Science Gallery as what you might see. It’s also really important that it’s on the boundary between the University and the city centre. So on any particular day, there’ll be a range of different kinds of events and meet ups and so on happening in the Gallery. And Science Gallery is just one such example of such a project. There are many other spaces just in the past five or six years that have popped up around the world. There’s a wonderful place called Le Laboratoire which is in Paris which is an art-science lab. In UCLA there’s an art-science centre. It’s quite interesting that these spaces for conversations across boundaries are cropping up. Even CERN in Switzerland now has a big art-science program called Collide which brings artists to work with particle physicists. So it is interesting that even in this age of MOOCs and social media, physical meeting places seem to be really important. 

DYANI LEWIS
And by MOOCs, you’re talking about the massive online open courses that are available to everyone essentially. 

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Yes that’s right, stimulated by models such Udacity coming from Stanford and Coursera which I believe the University of Melbourne is very involved with.

DYANI LEWIS
That’s right.

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
This is something which has exploded in, really, the past year-and-a-half as a new approach to university learning. But funnily enough, I think of the MOOCs as in some ways old wine in new bottles because they tend to kind of wrap up the more traditional parts of the university experience, like lectures and exams and miss out the really interesting bits which are the kind of unexpected serendipitous connection between people which happen in the university. 

DYANI LEWIS
I’m Dyani Lewis and you’re listening to Up Close. In this episode we’re talking about science communication with Science Gallery Director, Dr Michael John Gorman. I was going to ask about science and art being, I guess, more separate today than they have been in the past. What sort of connections have they previously had?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Well when you think about science and art, people always mention Leonardo da Vinci as the sort of classic poster boy for bringing together science and art. The anatomical drawings of Leonardo or his studies of the turbulence in water and so on are amazing examples of bringing an incredible observation sensibility and skill to empirical research. But you could actually take the whole science and art thing back a whole lot further if you want. You could even go back to Pythagoras and the first application of mathematics to music. In some ways, you could make quite a strong case for all of physics coming from art in a way; coming from music. Harmony and all of these concepts which became so important in all aspects of physics really have their origins in that application. So science and art is not new. It’s been going on for a long time. In the 17th century, people like Galileo looked at the moon, and he used his amazing drawing skills which he had from the Academy of Design in Florence to actually do these incredible chiaroscuro drawings of the surface of the moon; the rough surface to show the craters and the mountains for the first time as seen through the telescope. So there are all these episodes of cross over. And then something happens. Then we get this disconnect between science and the arts, increasingly with the 19th century.Before the 19th century, by the way, there was no such thing as a scientist. The word scientists didn’t actually exist. People were natural philosophers. There were these amateurs – people who were practising science there really for passion and interests in it outside of a professional context. But then in the 19th century, science began to be professionalised and became increasingly disconnected from the arts and even increasingly disconnected from other areas of science. The sort of increasing narrowness of science and the need for people to specialise in an ever-tinier area of research has been increasing through the 20th century. Now we’re seeing a moment where partly I think through the new technologies and the new availabilities of knowledge and information, where it’s become more and more valuable for people to be able to take insights from one area and to apply them in another area. Many innovations happen when you bring an idea or an approach or a method from one area of knowledge and you actually apply that in a different area. So it’s becoming more and more important to actually find ways to encourage that kind of cross pollination.

DYANI LEWIS
But in terms of the different approach, I mean, science usually strives to gather very objective data whereas art is often about subjective experience and interpretation. So are these two approaches in conflict when you try to bring them together?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Well it’s interesting that Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media which is a classic book of the late ‘60s; he described art as precise pronounced foreknowledge of the social and psychic consequences of the next technology. So he said that was art is. So for McLuhan, art was almost like a canary in the coal mine of science. It was a way to play out the consequences of new technologies and see how they would impact society and to see their emotional consequences as well as their practical consequences. It’s kind of a weird definition of art. But there are many artists working now and many of the artists and designers that we work with in the Science Gallery who really are in that territory. I’ll give you an example, we did a project in the Science Gallery called “What If…” . It was looking at all these emerging products that might be developed through emerging science and technology. The way the project was developed, there were scientists who collaborated with designers and the designers actually came up with products and services that might exist in different future societies. The exciting thing is the scientists were talking in quite speculative terms about how their research is going to play out. I think scientists are often at their best when they’re talking in speculative terms and talk about what they don’t yet know and what may happen and which, sadly, they don’t do that often enough in public but I wish they did it more.But one example was a project where there was a designer who thought about the idea of somebody living with their pet pig and the pet pig was carrying a replacement set of lungs for the person. The idea was how would you treat this pig who’s carrying your future lungs and with xenotransplantation technologies, the idea of transplanting lungs from a pig to a human is not really that hard conceive. But the designer played it out in terms of all these scenarios. Would the person want to continue smoking? So would they have an anti-passive smoking filter so that the pig wouldn’t inhale their smoke? Because while destroying their current set of lungs, maybe they want to protect their future set of lungs. This was very provocative. But it was also a really interesting way to sort of confront people viscerally with this possible technology. And to think, do we want to live in that world? And a great way to provoke debate around the ethics, around new medical technologies and involving designers and artists in the debate, it brings it to a different place. As you say, it may be occasionally subjective, occasionally emotional but, actually, that brings huge benefit. You could have a very dry textbook about bioethics and you would not be able to stimulate the same kinds of conversations as that single installation about the pig’s lungs did.Designers are great because they can actually confront us with the kinds of experiences that we have as consumers. And people are really affected as consumers by the experiences that they have in supermarkets or in the doctor’s surgery and the types of decisions they have to make. And if you can actually connect people with science on that level and discussions around science, then you’re hitting them in a very different place. 

DYANI LEWIS
It sounds like some of these are very useful thought experiments for all of us to undertake. But you’re target audience is young adults. So I was just wondering, where are the adults in this? Do they just get missed out? Because, I mean, adults are people in society who are often in positions of decision making, things like funding and all of that sort of thing. Why do we not target adults more in the science communication?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
I think that’s a really interesting point and I think generally in the world there has been sort of this weird decision that science is for kids and art is for adults. And why is that? Science museums the world over really target very young kids. Sometimes there is a risk that they infantilise science. Some of them are wonderful but there’s still a risk that actually by presenting science as kind of it’s all fun and it’s all play, once people sort of pass a point in their own development where they’re no longer small children, that might actually turn them off because they may think, okay, that’s something that belongs to childhood.I think that there aren’t enough things that engage with science for adults. Our core target would be young adults in the science gallery but we do get audiences of all ages. We get a lot of adult visitors as well. Basically, the way we work is we’ll find a particular theme. We have a group of creative people which we called our Leonardo Group. That involves scientists, artists, engineers, designers, researchers from the University but also artists and entrepreneurs from the local community. And they feed in big ideas. So they’ll give us an idea for a theme. Then we’ll sort of crowd source all sorts of ideas. We do an open call for ideas around that theme. Then the theme will manifest itself in an exhibition but also in all sorts of events, debates and performances in the gallery. Very often we’ll have debates at different levels, so some of these will be policy debates. So when we did our exhibition on water, we had a major policy debate around the future of water and smart metering of water and so on. So even though our core is 15 to 25 year olds who are adults and we treat them as adults very much, even if you’re 15. We would have other events which would cater more for a kind of decision making, policy making audience.

DYANI LEWIS
It sounds like you give room for debate as much as just being a cheerleader for science.

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Yeah. We don’t see ourselves as a cheerleader. I think there is a lot of science journalism for example which is somewhat uncritical. I think it would be great if we had as many science critics as we have art critics because critical engagement is really important. I think it’s also very important in establishing public trust and authenticity that you’re open to critical debate. So it’s not about us trying to impose our opinions or our beliefs about science on the visitors or on the public. But it’s more that we bring together different people to have the debate, to share ideas. We’ll bring together scientists and artists, we’ll bring together technologists and policy makers and we’ll see what happens when a fashion designer talks to a nanotechnologist.I think it’s also important not be afraid to go into controversial territory and to have the discussion. Also to kind of deal with an issue which is in the media right now. A few weeks ago, the scandal in Ireland about horse meat in hamburgers. It’s a wonderful hook. Let’s get the people doing the testing on the hamburgers into the Science Gallery. Let’s have a debate with the head of Tesco and let’s see what happens.

DYANI LEWIS
But in terms of being able to have an informative debate, there is a need to impart some level of information. I often find that in science communication, we shy away from providing people with too much information and this is in stark contrast to somewhere like an art gallery which often, you know, can lay the information on thick and just kind of assume that people will take it or leave it as they see fit. So how do you decide on what level of information you give to people?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Yeah, well, I suppose we don’t tend to have very large amounts of didactic wall text when people come into the Gallery. The book on the wall kind of concept isn’t something that we really subscribe to. As I said before, we see the exhibits more as triggers and hooks to conversations. We believe in the concept of depth on demand. Some people want to have a superficial experience and that’s okay. Maybe next time after their superficial experience, they’ll come and have a deeper experience. But some people will actually be interested in taking the conversation a little further. We feel that in a good exhibition, you typically have some installations that really serve to just capture people’s curiosity. You used the word curiosity in the introduction. It’s a fabulous word. It’s something that we forget about too much; the importance of curiosity. Curiosity is ultimately at the essence of science. It’s really what science is all about. So if we can curiosity, that’s already hugely valuable. 

DYANI LEWIS
Michael John, one of the things that scientists often lament is that the public don’t necessarily understand the scientific process. So generating a falsifiable hypothesis and then designing experiments to test that. So how important do you think it is that the public understands this as a process and how it works, and do you go about communicating that?

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
Yeah I think you’re absolutely right that many people have this image of science partly brought about by the way they’ve encountered science in school, where science is a set of truths. It’s a set of results. The answers are in the back of the book. Even the way encounter the idea of an experiment is that if you do the experiment right, you will get a specific answer which is already known which is absolutely the opposite of what an experiment should be. The idea of the scientific process is something that’s really not clear at all to people, the idea that science is in investigation of things where we don’t already know the answers. One of the ways that we have found of engaging with the scientific process in the Science Gallery, it’s called Lab in the Gallery. It’s a pretty simple idea. You just take a working research lab and you ship the whole thing into the Science Gallery for a month. The researchers then do experiments on the visitors; human subject experiments. So the visitors actually become part of the experiments, they become experimental subjects and their data is then actually used in real published research papers.We’ve done the Happiness Lab, so we did experiments on happiness with the neuroscience and psychology. We did the Love Lab where we did attraction and desire. We did a project called Pay Attention, looking at the science of attention and how you pay attention to two conversations at once. 

DYANI LEWIS
So it sounds like neuroscience and psychology are very amenable to this approach. But there must be areas that you can’t quite so easily bring a lab into the Gallery. 

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
You’re right. The neuroscience and psychology are especially amenable. Also genetics. We did the largest experiment ever undertaking on the presence of a particular gene in the Irish population which is called the Mal gene which was discovered in Trinity College Dublin which indicates propensity to Malaria. But obviously there are some areas of science which are less suitable. Particle physics; difficult. You can’t really take the large Hadron Collider into the Science Gallery. But the exciting thing is that these are actually – they’re not sort of “makey-uppy” science. These are real research experiments. So then the public get to actually see the publications that come out of these experiments and they get to talk to scientists about exactly what you were saying; about the process. What makes an experiment valid? And all of the different aspects of the different scientific methods used in different sciences. 

DYANI LEWIS
Michael John, thank you for being our guest today on up close and talking with us about science engagement and the Science Gallery.

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN
It’s been a pleasure, thank you.

DYANI LEWIS
Dr Michael John Gorman is the Founding Director of Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on the 15 March 2013. Producers for this episode were Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel and myself, Dyani Lewis. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is rerated by Erick van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I’m Dyani Lewis, until next time, good bye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  We’re also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2013, the University of Melbourne.


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