An entertaining lesson in how to teach science - The Buffalo News

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An entertaining lesson in how to teach science

When a long-haired astrophysicist stepped to the microphone and cued up an expletive-riddled music video by the Insane Clown Posse on Wednesday night in the Ninth Ward at Babeville, a dimly lit basement bar on Delaware Avenue, it was clear that this was not going be your typical science lecture.

A diverse crowd of artists, academics and curious citizens had gathered to watch the opening event in the fifth season of the Science and Art Cabaret, a joint project of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and the University at Buffalo that brings academics and artists together for an evening of science-tinged entertainment. Or entertainment-tinged education – however you want to look at it.

The video featured the Insane Clown Posse, a sort of performance art act masquerading as a hip-hop duo, performing their hilarious song “Miracles,” in which they wonder in colorful terms how magnets work.

Across two hours that could hardly have been more entertaining or slyly educational, and which blew the freshman science lecture you slept through into the ionosphere, the crowd would find out.

Along the way, the crowd heard plenty of insights into issues vaguely relating to a scientific phenomenon at work in magnets, human memory and nearly all forms of digital technology. These included a talk on the challenges of photographing New York City with ancient equipment by local photographer Douglas Levere, a hilarious scientific explanation of a rocky romantic relationship by UB physics department chair Hong Luo, and a moving reflection on the Irish Potato Famine by SUNY Buffalo State professor and James Joyce expert Laurence Shine.

If you could weave the separate threads of “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” the PBS science show “Nova,” NPR and the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery into one piece of versatile fabric, it might look something like this event, which italicizes some important words in the common language of art and science.

The cabaret is the brainchild of University at Buffalo professor William Kinney – an astrophysicist with a penchant for tongue-in-cheek hip-hop – who based the event on a similar science gathering held monthly in New York City. In 2009, he pitched his idea for a science-art mash-up to the National Science Foundation, whose grant reviewers promptly laughed at his proposal and denied it.

But he did it anyway, and with support from Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, created a programming format that has drawn a steady stream of diverse crowds to the Ninth Ward since the first event.

The topics have ranged from Einstein’s theory of relativity and the nature of nanotechnology to visual illusions and space exploration. The cabaret has featured artists whose work involves DNA or cosmology, a musician who cuts up and pastes together vinyl records to create new work, and others who have given demonstrations involving dry ice and magic tricks.

And somehow, said Hallwalls curator John Massier, no matter how different the projects may seem at the outset, they always coalesce to make surprising sense.

“The idea here is really that science and art are creative activities along very much the same lines, these sort of human acts of creation that really involve a lot of the same processes. And that’s something that really isn’t often recognized,” said Kinney, whose infectious enthusiasm about science and the event in general calls to mind Dave Allen’s character on “Freaks and Geeks.” “The idea from the outset was to really involve artists and writers and musicians and creative people in an integral way. So it’s not just science lectures but it’s actually idea lectures that surround a theme.”

The title and topic of the latest cabaret was “Hysteresis,” which at first glance I took to have something to do with mental illness. (I am still working, as it turns out, to have my high school science grades expunged from the official record.) But in a series of increasingly fascinating and often hilarious presentations, I learned that hysteresis, was a founding principle of digital technology that is in evidence nearly everywhere we turn.

Without getting into details, the concept is deeply tied into the way digital technology holds on to information, which Kinney gracefully explained. But it also applies to how behavior affects relationships, as Hong showed in one of the more hilarious Power Point presentations I’ve seen. (“You can’t imagine how much fun it is to say something that you live with in a completely different language,” Hong said. “It’s actually very invigorating.”)

It’s linked to the way urban landscapes shift over time, as Levere’s presentation revealed and the way a terrible turn in human events can leave deep and indelible scars on an entire culture, as Shine’s poetic lecture on the Great Irish Famine’s effect on Joyce, Beckett and others so beautifully demonstrated.

For most of us who live and work outside academia, it’s easy to forget how many mind-blowing ideas are swirling around on the dozens of college campuses across Western New York. And for academics, whose work too rarely intersects with the similarly vast and variegated culture of the city, it’s easy to get a kind of tunnel vision about what’s happening beyond campus.

The Science and Art Cabaret is one fascinating attempt to bring those two worlds – already similar in so many ways – even closer together.


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