June 23, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Written by Angie Lo (July 2023)

“And finally, we have blue light—for hydrogen atoms, blue light means high energy release,” says Emma, the dancer at the front of the room. When everyone flips a switch on their headphones, they glow a bright neon blue, and fast-paced, vigorous music blasts out of them. Emma starts dancing to the beat, energetic as the atom she’s just described. Fingers a fluttering blur, she weaves her hands swiftly and gracefully around each other. The children in the room are already joining in, and soon the adults are dancing along with them.

This event, called Atom>Light>Dance, is a silent disco where people learn about atomic spectra—the different colours of light an atom emits—through music and movement. It’s part of the Great Exhibition Road Festival, an annual London celebration known for its events that combine science and art in new, unique ways. “We pair together [science] researchers with artists and professional workshop facilitators, who bring a a fresh perspective to the scientific research,” says Festival content lead Mimmi Mårtensson. “The artists and scientists meet and spend a lot of time talking about the research… it’s a collaborative effort from day one.” 

Combining science with art is a common way to “free” science from the sterotype that it’s only for technically-minded intellectuals, and allow it to be understood and experienced by more people. The idea is that art does the freeing-up: it adds colour and dazzle; it taps into people’s imaginations and their propensity to be creative, allowing them to learn science in an enjoyable way. But science can also free up art. In a world where art is often associated with high-end cultural institutions, and considered as requiring lots of natural talent, art also has a perception of loftiness which it needs liberating from. 

At the Festival, this kind of liberation shines through. One Festival event, Uni-verses, is an astronomy-themed poetry workshop run by a team of poets and space scientists. Jack Cooper, a science poet and one of the event’s organisers, talked about using science as a way to engage people with poetry.  “A lot of the adults who were attending the festival already had an interest in science.” said Cooper. “So our poetry writing prompts were grounded in space science, and designed to draw from conversations they’d just had with the scientists at our workshop.”

“I had a lot of adults say, ‘This is the first poem I’ve written,’…I had people in their 40s who were actually a little emotional that they had written something, because I think poetry for adults suffers a kind of reputation that science does, as being inaccessible. But I don’t think either of them actually are.”

Atom>Light>Dance also had its share of people embracing their engagment with art. At the event venue, there’s a board filled with Post-Its, where participants are encouraged to write  their thoughts. “Usually [I] think I’m a rubbish dancer,” one Post-It reads, “but today I had wings.” 

Alongside the much-lauded act of freeing science from lofty perceptions, art can free up science in another way: it can present concepts from science and nature in unfamiliar ways, broadening and expanding the way people view them. This expansion was something Festival organiser and musician Tim Yates saw unfold during his event.

Yates runs Mozzie Music, a music-drama game where participants take on the role of male mosquitoes courting female mosquitoes, whom they identify by sound. Participants try to detect the pitch of females’ wings, which beat at a distinct frequency, hidden within a swarm of male buzzes. It’s a lot trickier than it sounds, and playing the role of a lovestruck mosquito makes for a fun challenge. But by artistically framing the way people learn about them, it can also help visitors see mosquitoes differently.

“[A lot of people] aren’t big fans of mosquitoes,” says Yates. “Some people actually came into the room saying, “Well, what are mosquitoes for?” But mosquitoes aren’t all nasty—they play important roles as pollinators, for instance. And Yates believes Mozzie Music can help shift the all-nasty perception. By drawing on art—specifically on drama and the idea of embodying a role—the event allows people to get a mosquito’s point of view. “By the end, many people were kind of feeling sympathetic towards the poor mosquitoes who have to go through this incredibly challenging process [of looking for a mate],” says Yates. And generating sympathy with these insects, believes Yates, is a good step towards thinking about mosquitoes less narrowly. 

Geraldine Cox, science artist and organiser of Atom>Light>Dance, also hopes her work can expand perspectives on science. “[I want people to know] the multiplicity of ways to consider things,” she says. 

And at her event, people do. After the disco, people are invited to write an answer to the question prompt, “How does it feel to be a dancing atom?” The responses can be surprisingly thoughtful. “Love is atom, as atom is love,” reads one. “[The hydrogen atom] knows how to party!” reads another. “Infinitely small,” reads a third, “but POWERFUL.” 

Like Mozzie Music, Atom>Light>Dance draws on drama and embodiment. By imagining themselves as atoms, participants connect the atom’s characteristics to strongly-felt human experiences like love and celebration—allowing people to realise and appreciate the immense might and dynamism involved in an atom’s processes. 

And it’s not just art and science that liberate each other. Organisers also harness the unique atmosphere of a festival to open up these fields to visitors. “[At a festival], there’s a tremendous sense of experimentation…preparedness to have a go and have fun,” says Cox. Visitors’ desire to work with the unfamiliar allows Cox to more readily lead them towards learning new things and seeing them differently.

Meanwhile for Cooper, the joy a festival brings is really important for opening up poetry to others. “A lot of the time, people think [us poets are] miserable, and that we always write from sadness and grief,” he says. But that’s not true, he continues, and happiness is a valuable component of writing poetry: “It puts you into this expansive frame of mind…You create these connections [within your writing] that you might not have otherwise, because when you’re happy you’re more naturally inclined to be curious and grab at things.” And it’s this joy that also encourages and emboldens Festival visitors as they dip into poetry for the first time.

“It’s the heart of our approach to see the joy, have a great time,” says Cox. “And maybe just slightly transform the way you see the world—the everyday world—and see the beauty of it.”