• Science and the masses

    Where is the party?

    These days, festivals are overrun with researchers. What is a hardcore beta scientist doing at Lowlands, and why is there a professor of migratory birds at Into the Great Wide Open?
    in short

    Professor of quantum physics Caspar van der Wal was at Lowlands in 2012 to try and convince the ‘half drunk’ audience of the merits of quantum mechanics.

    It made him feel good. Science is a million euro business, according to Van der Wal, and people have a right to know what their tax money is being spent on.

    Van der Wal was dispatched by ScienceLinx, which facilitates outreach for the Groningen beta sciences faculty. Over the years, this club has also sent scientists to festivals such as Into the Great Wide Open, Down the Rabbit Hole and Welcome to the Village.

    ‘A festival like that is a reality check, in a good way’, says Bart van de Laar at ScienceLinx. ‘They suddenly find out that people are interested.’

    Social psychologist Aafke van Mourik Broekman uses festivals as a giant laboratory, for instance by using Noorderzon to research how an audience reacts to a theatre performance.

    Professor of migratory birds Theunis Piersma uses festivals for his own mission to save the endangered godwit.

    ‘By uniting art and science, you can talk to people in a completely different way and really make them feel that what’s happening to the migratory birds is disastrous’, according to Piersma.

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    There he was, just a few dozen metres away from the Foo Fighters who were performing on the big stage. He felt the bass line deep in his bones. The bass line was also felt by the setup that professor of quantum physics Caspar van der Wal was using to demonstrate quantum conductivity to the Lowlands visitors; it was vibrating constantly. This posed a danger to the little gold thread in the setup, which was only one atom wide.

    Luckily, the setup could withstand the Foo Fighters’ musical violence, and Van der Wal could withstand the ‘half drunk festival goers’ at Lowlands. It all turned out better than expected, he says. Sure, the audience was ‘varied’: ‘Drunk, sharp, woolly, and critical, but also remarkably enthusiastic and interested. My colleagues and I would get started around noon, and we were busy until eight at night’, he says. ‘I could do about six talks for a group of people in an hour.’

    Good feeling

    He estimates that they taught approximately 500 people about the secrets of quantum conductivity. He told them how phones could work even faster if we used ‘his’ technique, because regular conductors have been used to their fullest potential. He shows them what happens when an electric charge is transmitted through a gold thread that is a mere atom wide. And how – when you make it even thinner – weird ‘steps’ begin to form in that wire. These are physical constants, independent of material or the strength of the current. ‘We made real contact with these people. They asked all kinds of questions and they left feeling good. The scientific lectures at Lowlands University also proved really popular.’

    It is a good feeling to leave the ivory tower of the university behind for a bit to tell people about your work. ‘It’s great to be able to show that quantum mechanics actually influence the world around us. It’s great to be able to stimulate people.’

    But Van der Wal has more reasons to go down to Biddingshuizen, were he to be invited again. The type of science he practices is a million euro business. The people have a right to know what happens to their tax money. By showing how his quantum mechanics and nanotechnology are changing the world around us, he is showing that they are relevant. ‘For example, if you want an even faster phone, you need quantum mechanics. I want to give people some idea of how it works, so they can form an opinion based on something other than just gut feeling.’

    Reality check

    That is exactly what it is about, confirms Bart van der Laar at ScienceLinx, the group that facilitates the beta sciences faculty’s outreach programme. They are the ones who sent Van der Wal to Lowlands. Up until a few years ago, the group mainly focused on information sessions at schools, but it has now grown into a sizeable group of enthusiasts who are constantly coming up with new ways to reach a larger audience. And so they send hardcore beta scientists to Lowlands, Into the Great Wide Open, Down the Rabbit Hole, and Welcome to the Village. ‘And then there are the more cultural events like Noorderzon and the Night of Art & Science’, says Van de Laar.

    People are not only interested in pithy one-liners

    Science, it turns out, is much appreciated: much more than a lot of researchers realise. ‘A festival such as Lowlands provides them with a reality check, but in a good way’, he says. ‘They suddenly find out that people really are interested. We often think that people are only interested in pithy one-liners, but that’s just not true.’

    Steven Hoekstra experienced this as well when he performed at the Night of Art & Science last year. The man who had been trying to bring molecules to a standstill using a particle decelerator suddenly found himself in a room with choreographer Guy Weizman of Club Guy & Roni and the technical artists from WERC, having a brainstorming session. Together, they created a performance in which Hoekstra’s scientific argument was backed up by dancing and video projections.

    A good turn out for ScienceLinX at Noorderzon

    ‘It worked really well together’, says Hoekstra. ‘People from the scientific world and the audience at large both reacted positively.’ Obviously, there were things that were scientifically nonsensical – to Guy, bringing the molecule to a standstill represented slowing down in life – but it was that kind of associative thinking that stimulated Hoekstra. ‘It makes you look at the world differently for a bit.’

    He is not labouring under the impression that people who saw his performance truly knew what he is working on. But, he says, they do not need to. ‘The performance enabled me to bring across the fascination and wonder. That’s not just nice, but it’s also important to science as a whole.’

    Giant laboratory

    Not all scientists that play to a packed house are focused on showing people where their tax money us being spent. Aafke van Mourik Broekman uses festivals as giant laboratories. Three years ago, she started a study into the way the audience reacts to a theatre performance. Dance troupe Random Collision had three different performances at Noorderzon, after which Van Mourik Broekman, her supervisor Tom Postmes and sound researcher Tjeerd Andringa studied the relationship between audience and performers.

    The performances were sold out in no time. Van Mourik Broekman repeated the study the following year, and the year after that, she joined travelling dance festival Moving Futures. She says it is an ideal way of connecting festivals and science. The audience at Noorderzon in particular is widely varied – ideal research material for a social psychologist. ‘But it also allows you to get the science to the people, even more than during a lecture.’

    She quickly found out that people really like being guinea pigs, even though one of the three performances – which lacked almost all cohesion – sometimes angered the audience. ‘They would get annoyed. They were like, ‘I paid money for this?’ But once it had been explained to them and they filled out the questionnaires, they left with a good feeling in the end after all.’

    People really seem to enjoy being guinea pigs

    It made Van Mourik Broekman one of the better known scientists at the RUG. At this point, she has given more festival talks than scientific lectures.

    Ideological mission

    Migratory birds professor Theunis Piersma also ‘uses’ festivals, albeit for an ideological mission rather than any scientific goals. He went to Into the Great Wide Open with his ‘prayer for the godwit’. He created the performance Music of Migration, together with multi-instrumentalist Sytze Pruiksma and Frysian fado singer Nynke Laverman. He also recently appeared at King of the Meadows, again with Pruiksma. Piersma took the presentation to the Trek festival in the Lauwersmeer region, addressed an audience at Noorderzon and will visit the Sense of Place Seminar linked to Oerol this week.

    Why? Because he has a story to tell and because he sometimes wants to break free from the confines of scientific work, but also – and mainly – because he wants to get a message across that transcends articles and tables in a scientific magazine. ‘I want to make people feel something. I want to tell them what it means if the godwits go extinct.’

    He even went so far as to perform Music of Migration during a World Wide Fund for Nature conference in Shanghai. ‘We managed to get a Chinese project assistant involved’, he says. ‘We were stuck in that crappy hotel and we wanted to make the visitors experience what it was about.’

    Ivory tower

    It was a great success, says Piersma. ‘I speak to people’s minds and Sytze speaks to their hearts’, says Piersma. ‘By uniting art and science, you can talk to people in a different way, making them feel that what’s happening to the migratory birds is disastrous.’

    I want to tell them what it would mean if the godwits go extinct

    That is why it is such a shame that a similar project that took place just before Oerol garnered such little attention. Piersma organised a two-day seminar where he wanted to bring together all the policy makers, politicians, and lobbying groups that had anything to do with the Wadden area. It was two days of replacing the obligatory lectures with projects involving art, dance, and music. But only a handful of the suits actually registered. Why?

    ‘Maybe they don’t get it’, says Piersma. ‘Or maybe it’s too new. But you know, I’m told time and again to leave my ivory tower. But then when I do, they don’t show up.’

    What helped was the fact that Hoekstra, like many scientists nowadays, uses a lot of the same tools as the guys at WERC: lasers, large datasets, computers. And Hoekstra’s fascination with – invisible – black matter resonated with their fascination for invisible data.

    The end result was a dance performance at the Night of Art & Science last year, visually backed by projections that represented Hoekstra’s particle decelerator. Light beams reflected off the dancers to show what happened inside Hoekstra’s decelerator. ‘We wanted to share how fascinating it was’, says Valk. Huizer nods: ‘We were the bridge between Steven’s difficult subject matter and the audience by connecting it to our empathy.’

    Science versus art

    What do you do when you, as a video artist, are asked to collaborate with a particle physicist? Those are two completely different things, are they not?

    Jelle van Valk and Olav Huizer do not think so. Sure, a scientist requires proof, whereas an artist can make assumptions and take big leaps. But they work from the same premise: asking the big questions and having a deep-seated desire to answer them.

    The two were immediately touched by how fascinated Steven Hoekstra is with his work. ‘That man has been working on bringing particles to a standstill for ten years’, says Huizer. ‘That takes so much commitment. At the same time, someone like Guy from Club Guy & Roni has also been working for years to perfect his dancing, and we’re no different in our work. We’re hunting for something indefinable, something intangible.’

    When Valk and Huizer were asked if they wanted to make a representation of Hoekstra’s research into dark matter, they first paid him an extensive visit. They asked endless questions – and Hoekstra provided them with endless answers, until they understood the essence of what he was trying to bring across. ‘But his tools are limited to text, graphs, and PowerPoints.’