Says the artist to the scientist: May I burn and crush this precious artifact?

Canadian Science Writers' AssociationArtists, scientists and journalists have more in common than you think. A
panel discussion at the recent Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA)
conference covered colour theory, Einstein and alternative uses for
12,000-year-old mastodon tusks…

See more CSWA coverage here.

By Courtney Price and Kristin May

Sitting in the dark meeting room at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference, we exchanged worried glances. Without speaking, we both wondered what the world of art would have in common with the world of science. What shared experiences and common ground would the artists’ panel impart upon the audience of researchers and science journalists? At this venue, one doesn’t expect to hear about colour theory, Bach and a post-surgical poodle with the runs. But we did.

The artists on the panel “Essays in light, the 100-mile pigment project, and other meetings of art & science” were, in fact, describing Eureka moments experienced in their work.

Marie Lannoo, a colour theorist from Saskatoon, used the reflective material found on toothpaste boxes to bend, contort and refract light with theoretical support from the scientists at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron. The result was Aurora Borealis-esque displays of curved light across white gallery walls.

Svetlana Swinimer spoke about how she was inspired by Einstein’s theories and created multimedia installations using sculptures, videos, holograms and photographic prints.

Christopher van Donkelaar was commissioned to use local resources – such as rocks and plants – to create pigments for a mural. The University of Waterloo’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences agreed to part with a chunk of 12,000-year old mastodon tusk to burn and crush to create the artistically sought after “ivory black” pigment. Read Stephen Strauss’s article on van Donkelaar’s 100 Mile Art Project.

We soon learned that the process itself was the uniting factor between the artists and scientists. The individuals, although in disparate disciplines, had many characteristics and methodologies similar to the scientific process. A kernel of curiosity led each individual to explore an idea, formulate a hypothesis, and draw conclusions.

But beyond the artists at the conference, we found a few journalists embracing the idea of “process.”  In the panel “Tools for tomorrow’s science writers”, newly minted graduate Colin Schultz the blogosphere into his writing process by posting all aspects of his journalistic process in his blog CMBR:  transcribed interviews, comments received, draft copies, revisions, and the final copy. In doing so, he generated buzz for his feature and was offered perspectives he said his editor would have been unable to provide.

Miriam Boon’s focus on process used Apture to establish strong references and links in her online journalism without disrupting the flow of the article. The result was a double screen that allowed the reader to read the article but also view definitions, citations, or link to other resources seamlessly.

A creative approach to thought was what linked these disciplines and people, whether it be making pigment with extinct animals, opening access to the writing process, finding new species of insects or tracking biodiversity loss. This common ground can begin to make inroads to develop the interdisciplinary approach and solutions we need to solve some of the world’s collective problems.

Courtney Price and Kristin May are Science and Technology Liaison Officers working in the knowledge translation and brokering field as part of Environment Canada’s S&T Liaison Division. This was Courtney’s first and Kristin’s sixth time attending the Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference.