It's hip to be E=mc²: Can the worlds of art and fashion help to make the lab cool?
Samuel Muston meets the publishers, artists and companies putting the 'fun' into fundamental science.
Chris Hatherill is sitting in the office he shares with graphic designers, textile artists and painters in east London. Slight, speaking in a quiet Canadian accent and with thin-rimmed steel glasses he looks like the fashion, music and tech journalist for Dazed & Confused and Vice that he is.
Or, rather, the fashion, music and tech journalist he used to be. Only the conical flasks, filling in for vases, on the curled desk in front of him and the illustration of a Russian space rocket on the wall behind, are clues that his preoccupation is no longer Raf Simons' winter collection or new bands from New York.
Hatherill, through his website Super/Collider, is one of an increasing number of creatives using their contacts and skills in the arts, to find new ways of talking about their first and greatest love: science.
"Both Rod Stanley and I were working at Dazed and Confused (Rod now edits it) and we'd go to fashion shoots and we'd be talking about science stuff and you'd get everyone from the models to photographers chipping in, showing their interest," says Hatherill who now devotes 99 per cent of his time to running the not-for-profit site. "So we thought: 'Why not merge the two worlds and try to talk about science in a different way, a way everyone would find interesting?' "
This refocusing of the lens through which we see science is not confined to this slightly hipsterish part of the online world either, just last month Google made headlines with a €1m charitable donation to the Science Gallery in Dublin, a "science centre" which attracts 120,000 visitors a year and owes as much to the Tate as it does to any museum.
"It is the antithesis of the dusty museum," says Peter Barron, former Newsnight editor and now Google's head of communications, "their ethos is about fusing science and culture and making it exciting and inspiring."
That same fusion is the key to art-science agency the Arts Catalyst's work, too. The Arts Council-funded oranisation focuses on starting an "off-kilter dialogue" about science through art exhibitions. Its work ranges from the zany, films for primates, to the more grounded, a visual arts exhibition commemorating Yuri Gagarin's trip into space. Although scholarly, neither could be described as dry.
Where, then, does all this new found interest in melding the hitherto separate worlds of art and science come from? Ask anyone in this milieu, and at some point one name crops up: Dr Brian Cox. In 2007 the onetime keyboardist in D:ream and now professor of particle physics at Manchester University bobbed onto our TV screen. With his tendency to deploy jazz hands to describe entropy, flat Lancastrian bluntness – "Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a twat" – and good looks, his shows draw large audiences. Cox has been widely credited with teasing us from our collective belief that science is a touch dry for those with an MSc.
Cox was, in some sense then, in the vanguard. Cutting a path for the current, quite different, stock of attention-grabbers. Rather than media-savvy scientists, their background is often in the arts. Rob La Frenais, curator at Arts Catalyst and founder of Performance magazine, says this is a great advantage: "Contemporary art is an opinion multiplier. It is a way of getting to people you may not normally reach with traditional presentations of science. It's about the indirect route and avoiding being didactic. You can use the absurd or the amusing or the beautiful to start a conversation about science and scientific ideas."
Take a moment to visit the Super/Collider site and you'll see that humour and beauty are much in evidence. It is one of the most artfully-produced science sites around. Visual candy, it has the aesthetic of a fashion magazine rather than an academic journal. There's the design-conscious blue font, strident black and white or colour saturated photos, and acres of white space. It's all very well done; quite arch, too (the site features a "sample of the week": last week Gallium salt).
As Hatherill says, although they are happy to pique anyone's interest in science, it does seem attractive to a certain type of person: "We're not funded so we don't have a core audience – but we would like to reach people who might have thought science was kind of cool but drifted away from it, people like us in many ways."
For those that have drifted a long way from the bunsen and microscope, there are now events to investigate in real life – the science "late". These events, often but not exclusively in a bar at night, could scarcely be less like a sixth-form lecture. Super/Collider ran a class in December called "Make your own terranium", where attendees created a mini ecosystem of plants in scientific-grade glass spheres to take home. They also run Science Fairs, hosted at London's The Book Club (actually, a bar), which "brings together scientist, stylists, artists and astronomer" for a chance to chat science.
As Hatherill says: "It's like science class – except with a bar." It certainly broadens the appeal, as Doug Daniels of the Hampstead Science Society, found out when he led 150 people on to the roof of the Queen of Hoxton pub in Shoreditch for a bit of stargazing. "You are never sure how these events will play out, what with the weather and other considerations. But it was great we had more than 100 people, essentially revellers, come and have a look at the phases of Venus's rings. These events are a good way to get people involved who wouldn't normally necessarily take an interest."
More established institutions are also keen to take science out of the lab, as well. The Arts Catalyst hosts slightly more esoteric events, including its brilliant "Labyrinth of Living Exhibits" at the Royal College of Surgeons museum. Google also recently ran a day-long "boffins hug luvvies" event at its hi-tech London office to try cement the interplay between influential people in both groups.
Meanwhile, back in his office in Dalston, Hatherill is thinking on a smaller scale. He has no plans to ape his former employer, Vice, and try to become a centre of pop culture, albeit science pop culture. "I think we just want to continue what we've been doing. I've got some sound records from the Titan Space probe which we intend to use somewhere, I like that sort of slightly odd type of thing. And our events are going to continue. I don't see it becoming an empire. That's not what we are about. In fact, at the moment we are thinking about producing a printed guide," says Hatherill, "it is going to be about the science of baking".
Not quite the empire-building stuff then, but doubtless worth a read.
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