Physics and fine arts collaborate on climate change

April 20, 2018

Students, faculty and staff gathered on Monday for a presentation about the interdisciplinary relationship between science and art with regards to climate change. The presentation, which was part of the annual Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts, was followed by a collaborative brainstorm.

Two panelists, Professor Aida Yuen Wong, chair of the Fine Arts Program and a professor of fine arts and East Asian studies, and Steven Tarr ’19, an undergraduate majoring in physics, presented their work on Tuvalu, a small Southern Pacific island. Wong presented first on the island itself and was followed by Tarr, who discussed his work 3D printing an area of Tuvalu’s coastal region to describe the negative consequences of rising sea levels on the island.

Tarr collaborated on the project through the Chakraborty Lab on campus in conjunction with the MakerLab. Vivekanand Pandey Vimal, a neuroscience postdoctoral fellow, moderated the panel.

The main issue that Tarr focused on was the issue of the formation of freshwater lenses. The freshwater lenses model shows how a rise in water with high salinity can affect fresh groundwater. As the salt water levels continue to rise, the salt water will eventually enter into the reserves of groundwater, contaminating the drinking water for people on the island. Tarr 3D printed an area of Tuvalu’s coastal region and created a scale model of freshwater lenses to demonstrate the detrimental effects that rising sea levels will have on the island.

Even though the scale model of the island had some problems with construction and technical issues of salt water leaking into freshwater reserves prematurely, the model was a true representation of the future Tuvalu faces without serious action, said Tarr during this presentation.

This project came to be through an Experiential Learning Practicum in Spring 2017, called “Tuvalu to the World: An Eco-Art Project,” which was connected to an ecology and art course taught by Professor Peter Kalb.

Wong described Tuvalu as a small southern Pacific Island, comprised of nine small islands with a population of around 11,000. “Tuvalu is in a dire economic plight,” explained Wong. “I wanted to create this project as an intersectional project to mainly concentrate our energy and efforts on a holistic approach on how Tuvalu can be inundated even with its issue of rising sea levels.”

With the location and the rising sea levels, Tuvalu is identified as potentially the first country to completely disappear as a result of climate change, according to an estimate from the International Panel on Climate Change set-up by the United Nations.

On the opposition, “scientists that came to Tuvalu would say that the island isn’t really sinking, the sand got moved around by the waves. But the people living on Tuvalu feel the endangerment. Many of the trees on the coasts of the islands have even collapsed because of the salinity of the water that is coming up on shore,” said Wong, noting that this has impacted the drinking water and soil quality on the island.

Beyond Tuvalu specifically, Wong highlighted artists that have used their work to represent issues of climate change. She mainly focused on Vincent Huang. The most notable piece by Huang in regards to the crisis in Tuvalu was called “Dried Little Mermaid in Tuvalu,” according to Wong.

Huang collected dried coconuts on the shores of Tuvalu which had fallen from the rising sea levels and assembled them into a grieving mermaid, symbolizing the failures of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. The piece was then burned as protest of governmental neglect of environmental issues and the prioritization of economic development over climate problems.

The program was dedicated to the late John Lisman, a neuroscience and biology professor at Brandeis, and the late Tim Lauer, a graduate student, both of whom were lovers of science and the arts.

This presentation came as the second part of a prior event that focused on climate science policy. Vimal brought two professors, Professor Paul Miller (NEURO) from the sciences and Sabine von Mering (GECS) from the humanities.

During the talk, Miller and von Mering both agreed that scientists who threw information at climate deniers tended to not be receptive, causing some to become even more skeptical of the true implications, according to Vimal. “As scientists, our thought is that the more information, the more data you give, the more likely you are to believe the story, but this is not true,” Vimal said.

Prior to the panelists’ speeches, Vimal spoke about the goals of exploring the intersection between science and art. He emphasized the goal of learning something new from
the goals of completely different disciplines. “Too often we are siloed and cannot create these epic ideas. The purpose of a university should be to train us to become the next generation of revolutionary idea generators across multiple disciplines,” said Vimal.

After the presentation, all the members of the audience as well as the panelists sat down to discuss each other’s backgrounds and the ways art can be utilized to inform the general public about the growing issues of climate change.

The Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts continues throughout the week until April 22.

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