Apr 062015
 

SciArt Center Featured Member of the Month

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David Harris
Science Communicator, Theoretical Physicist, Digital Artist in UCSC OpenLab and DANM MFA program
Interview with Emma SnodgrasseYour portfolio evidences some seriously impressive polymathy! Can you describe briefly what being a ‘science communicator’ means for you?D: The idea of a science communicator has evolved significantly for me over the past 20 years. In the beginning it was akin to science popularizer or translator, but then as I became a journalist, I started asking slightly harder questions of science the institution. Over time and particularly as I have explored my artistic practice, I have come to much better understand the interaction of science in society and feel that there is room for much better dialogue between science and other parts of society (insofar as you can make distinctions between disciplines).

I believe that science has made quite remarkable contributions to society but that it still needs to be questioned in terms of the claims it makes, especially regarding ontology and epistemology. These are not incompatible but merely different aspects of a healthy interaction of science with other fields. To me, a science communicator ought to be exploring that interaction including the facilitation of communication between science and other fields, especially recognizing that both sides in the communication act need comparable stakes in the dialogue.

Too much communication is guilty of subscribing to the ‘deficit model’ in which people believe that others will become sympathetic to their cause if only they knew more about it. This has been shown time and again over the past decades to be a false belief. This false belief is true of most scientists, most artists, and most people in general. Instead of facts as the atomic elements of conversation, I think we need to think in terms of stories and questions as the foundations of what we do. What questions are we asking of nature and culture and how can the process of answering those questions help us to better understanding?


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Still from “Three Body Problem” that references Op Art of the ’60s in a representation of three planets in orbit around each other in a donut-shaped universe. Image courtesy of the artist.

PictureA visitor sets off a sequence of light and sound upon interacting with “Neutrino Flux”. Image courtesy of the artist.

E: Your works combine theory, concept, and function in a uniquely straightforward way, resulting in varied entry points for your aesthetic. What do you see as being the role of aesthetics in your work?D: Aesthetics is a tricky term for those of us who originally trained as theoretical physicists! We had our learning infused with the concept of beauty applied to equations, models, and proofs. But we never really tackled anything beyond beauty. Aesthetics is a concept I’ve become increasingly interested in over time, though. A colleague and I have been talking about running a seminar on physics and aesthetics that explores these concepts in various frames.In terms of my own work, I am far more interested in the concept of the sublime, especially Kant’s mathematical sublime. Science tells us an awful lot about the universe that we can only understand through models and analogies. But over time, scientists manage to internalize a personal set of models and analogies that works for them and they start to believe they see truth. I am somewhat leery of that process and try to stay aware of the fact that so much of science is beyond our direct human experience that we have at best an approximate truth at any particular moment. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue scientific means to better the approximation, however! It does mean that there are other truths we have access to as humans.

So, for example, in my piece Neutrino Flux, visitors experience very different things depending on their incoming level of understanding about the science that the piece references (an experiment formed from a cubic kilometer of ice a mile under the surface in Antarctica). Visitors who don’t know much about the science will experience their body moving in space, making occasional interactions with other objects, and causing effects in that space. Their experience might be of beauty and intrigue as they discover the light and sound interactions they cause but perhaps they’ll also feel the displacement from everyday life to that of the clean, clinical nature of scientific exploration in the context of an under-ice experiment. Scientists might notice the buried references to the Antarctic experiment in the geometry, layout, dynamics, and sound of the installation. And from that knowledge deduce that they have taken on the role of the neutrino, an ephemeral, hard to perceive fundamental particle as they pass through the installation reflecting on the various infinitudes and infinitesimals reflected by the piece. One thing I don’t want to do is be too didactic in my presentation of science.


PictureCharlie’s Bear. The proximity sensing (RFID) guts of a teddy bear are inserted, ready to interact via sound with a child’s other toys. Image courtesy of the artist.

E: Digital art is a medium that seems particularly useful for the convergence of art and science. What has the role of technology been in shaping sciart for you?   
D: I am surprisingly uninterested in technology but fascinated by science. So for me, technology is merely a tool I use in the exploration of the questions that drive me. A lot of what passes for sciart (a term I find problematic at best and could write a lot more about) is about technology rather than science and I just don’t find it that interesting. I am interested in work that is credible to both scientists and artists and I just say thanks to the technologists who allow many of my pieces to exist.Now it is true that new technology allows us to think new things and some of those things are things I want to think. But, for me, technology is generally a path to getting there rather than a driver of questions. I tend to adopt technology rapidly and then try not to let the focus be drawn too much by it in my work. I’ve had people suggest to me often that I should expose the electronics embedded in much of my work as they find it aesthetically interesting, but to me it just detracts from the questions the work is really about. I think that is probably something I learned from journalism—don’t let the words get in the way of the concepts and message.

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