Thursday, May 29, 2008

the art of science

Surfing the web is an exercise in making connections. We are immersed in what seems like a vast sea of chaotic noise, yet find ourselves congregating around those intersections of dialog from which form a synthesis of great ideas. Two days ago, I clicked on a New York Times article, New Curriculum to Unite Art and Science, which had climbed in popularity so much that it appeared on NYT's top ten list of most-read articles. Obviously, the concept appeals to many. Author Natalie Angier writes about the battle between the sciences and the humanities:
It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist. His critique set off a frenzy of hand-wringing that continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.

Binghamton University in New York has developed the New Humanities Initiative to counteract the split, not only to bridge understanding between two warring factions, but to encourage cross-curricular learning: we each have something to learn from the other.

As a huge fan of cross-curricular teaching, I believe using language arts to help students relate to science brings a bounty of understanding to both subjects. So, I was very excited to find this blog post from Munna on the run about an artist from London who has always loved the idea of physics more than the practice of it. Munna wrote poems about physics, but failed--miserably--at exams, while a student. It wasn't until later that the author was able to bridge the literary with the physical. Staying grounded in the poetics, Munna uses the 26 letters of the alphabet as symbolic placeholders for intensive physics training. Here's an example: (click on the image to see it larger)
You can view the entire alphabet here. This is how the project came about:
Many years later, in 2005, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at creating some kind of art. And all I could think of was Physics. Because 2005 happened to be the World Year of Physics. A celebration of 100 years of the theory of relativity.
I had this wild idea of creating typography from physics diagrams. After months of research and going through hundreds of those, I finally got hold of 26 diagrams that looked liked the letters of the alphabet. This poster literally transported me into a parallel universe.

Lesson Plan
Let's say you've got a class of roughly 26 students. Have each student take one of Munna's letters to create a cross-curricular project. First, research the concept the letter represents. Synthesize those ideas onto Google documents or presentation slides. If you have students working in pairs on a couple of letters, they can share those documents and you can monitor their progress. Finally, they can demonstrate what they've learned by presenting
the concepts behind the art to their classmates.

Scientific illiteracy takes a bow and exits the stage. All I can say is, it's in the air, this idea of connecting in order to bridge knowledge.

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