“We have confused knowing more with knowing better. The exponential growth of scientific knowledge made possible by trading breadth for depth is accompanied by the exponential growth of ignorance of how all scientific findings fit together into one known reality.”—Our War on Ourselves: Rethinking Science, Technology, and Economic Growth (p. 58) by Willem H. Vanderburg
I will never be a brain surgeon, and I will never play the piano like Glenn Gould.
But what keeps me up late at night, and constantly gives me reason to fret, is this: I don’t know what I don’t know. There are universes of things out there — ideas, philosophies, songs, subtleties, facts, emotions — that exist but of which I am totally and thoroughly unaware. This makes me very uncomfortable. I find that the only way to find out the fuller extent of what I don’t know is for someone to tell me, teach me or show me, and then open my eyes to this bit of information, knowledge, or life experience that I, sadly, never before considered.
Afterward, I find something odd happens. I find what I have just learned is suddenly everywhere: on billboards or in the newspaper or SMACK: Right in front of me, and I can’t help but shake my head and speculate how and why I never saw or knew this particular thing before. And I begin to wonder if I could be any different, smarter, or more interesting had I discovered it when everyone else in the world found out about this particular obvious thing. I have been thinking a lot about these first discoveries and also those chance encounters: those elusive happenstances that often lead to defining moments in our lives.
I once read that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I fundamentally disagree with this idea. I think that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of hope. We might keep making mistakes but the struggle gives us a sense of empathy and connectivity that we would not experience otherwise. I believe this empathy improves our ability to see the unseen and better know the unknown.
Lives are shaped by chance encounters and by discovering things that we don’t know that we don’t know. The arc of a life is a circuitous one. … In the grand scheme of things, everything we do is an experiment, the outcome of which is unknown.
You never know when a typical life will be anything but, and you won’t know if you are rewriting history, or rewriting the future, until the writing is complete.
“In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion.”—Chris Hedges
(quoted by Ryan Holiday in Trust Me, I’m Lying - Confessions of a Media Manipulator p. 67)
“The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove.” – Nadine Wiper-Bergeron at TEDxUOttawa quoting theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson
A little less than a year ago, I stepped into the Pilot Lab at University of Ottawa and was immediately mesmerized by Andie Haltrich’s installation “The Space-Time Fabric”:(1)
In that unusual exhibition setting, the connection and interdependence of each alloy pipe and pressure gauge was laid bare in front of my eyes. I couldn’t help but to appreciate the fact that in order to conduct any cutting-edge scientific experiment, everything had to click, all the way down to each nut and bolt!
The one-night event Catalyst: The Art and Science Experiment, which explored the dialogue between art and science, was a student collaborative effort between the Department of Visual Arts and the faculty of Biological and Chemical Engineering. It sought to create a more unified, multidisciplinary campus.
Fast-forward to the beautiful autumn morning at TEDxUOttawa a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting among a forward-thinking crowd.
Coffee in hand, half of my body wished that I was still in bed but when Assistant Professor Nadine Wiper-Bergeron from the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine spoke, I was captivated.
In her talk, she recounts how she, as an artsy, goth high schooler, got turned on by stem cell research and convincingly argues that the path of scientific discovery is not that much different than any artistic creative process. She urges scientists to learn from the arts and humanities as to make science more accessible through community outreach.
Finally, she conjures up the idea of “science vernissage” where the public can see, feel, interact with and celebrate what a dynamic creative force that science truly is. By the end of the talk, my mind was beaming with excitement and resonance and I thought it would be a tough act to follow.
Then came the Editor of Art & Science Journal, Lee Jones, bringing the union of art and science to come full circle. The student-run blog and biannual publication showcase artworks that are inspired by science, nature and technology.
Focusing on “the wonder that occurs when fields collide”, Lee passionately illustrates that art has a physical presence where our knowledge can be expanded upon and where concepts become reality.
Through artistic exaggeration, art often confronts us in a way that raw data and factual graphs may seem too sterile and neutral. With science-themed artworks serving as the catalyst for eureka moments, Lee hopes to instill a sense of awe, to make us contemplate and rethink our world.
Having slept on all those thought-provoking inspirations, I headed out to the second edition of the Ottawa-Gatineau Mini Maker Faire for some hands-on biohacking with Assistant Professor Andrew Pelling, who also presented at TEDxUOttawa the day before. He was accompanied by two of his students.
Andrew’s research focuses on reengineering and repurposing cells and organs through genetic and physical manipulations. In an extreme example, his team managed to grow mouse muscle cells inside a decellularized apple scaffold!
The big question Andrew ponders is how structural elements affect the biology of living cells. Of course the science is mind-blowing enough, but what stuck me was the venue.
The Mini Maker Faire took place at the Shopify Lounge which is used to be the Capital Music Hall in the heart of the Byward Market. Unlike conventional science conference, it was free and open to the general public.
Why does it matter? As Andrew points out in his TEDx talk, citizens are embracing the DIY, open science movement and he would like to participate as much as possible through this type of social engagement.
At the event, the Pelling Lab displayed several homemade equipment relevant to DIY biology, such as a cell culture incubator made from garbage, along with instructions and parts lists.
Like Nadine’s remark on art opening shows, it was wonderful to meet and speak to the students who did most of the hard work behind the scene.
By pure coincidence, I recently came across a book by David Edwards titled Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation where art and science no longer exist in a dichotomy but fuse as one.
With the motto “two speakers, two topics, one conversation”, an upcoming Double Major event featuring a dialogue on synthetic DNA and hip hop’s roots at Carleton University Art Gallery is just one of the latest examples of how local artists and scientists are eager to join force to create and innovate.
What do I make of all these? It is highly unlikely that my boss is going to let me put together a mixed media art piece in my fume hood anytime soon. However, looking at the crystals that I just grew in the lab via a technique I learned way back in first-year chemistry, I rediscover that the beauty in science often lies beyond the facts and figures but is usually found at the interface between substances.
“In science, being stuck can be a sign that you are about to make a great leap forward. The things that don’t make sense are, in some ways, the only things that matter.”—13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks
F1000 Research’s “publish first, peer review later” model with its recognition of the referees’ contributions is one of the latest efforts in improving transparency and eliminating delays in science publishing.
“The big threat of photoshopification is not that we will believe documents and photos that are fake. It’s that we’ll find it easier to disbelieve documents and photos that are real. When it’s convenient.”— Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine, p. 127
“In this world of abundance, knowledge is not a library but a playlist tuned to our present interests. It is not eternally truthful content but subject matter good enough for our current task. It is not a realm but a path that gets us where we’re going.”—
Ch 9 Building the New Infrastructure of Knowledge (p. 176)
“Welcome to the life of knowledge once it has been taken down from its shelf. It is misquoted, degraded, enhanced, incorporated, passed around through a thousand degrees of misunderstanding, and assimilated to the point of invisibility. It was ever so. Now we can see it happening. When the process of knowing occurs online, in our midst, with a comment section and abundant links to other opinions, it’s no longer possible to separate knowledge-at-work from knowledge-as-it-is-understood.”—
In an article titled “Librarians’ Experiences of Introducing the Internet in the Public Library: A Study in Southern California” ca. 2005 by Ulla Arvidsson, I ran into the phrase “practice the Internet” when the author talks about the ongoing training for librarians. It’s amazing how our information landscape is changing in just a few short years!